Part 2: Identify Your Resources and Research Questions

Once you have a concept or main idea in mind for your biographical essay, you will want to consider whether you have the knowledge or resources needed to help you develop an interesting and focused piece.

Part 2 in this series will help you figure out what you do know about your subject, what you need to know before you start planning and writing, and even what information or resources you need but hadn’t thought about.  Following the steps and using the graphic organizers below will support this resource assessment and help you focus your research efforts.

Step 1: Collect Your Resources

Fill the following chart out quickly to capture what resources you have at hand, bullet-point a quick list of what you know already, and list what you need to know.

generate questions to focus your research

Step 2: Generate Questions to Focus Your Research Questions

Next, generate a list of questions you want to answer before you organize and write your biographical essay. Create a “T”- chart like the one below with two sections: one for your questions and one for another family member’s questions. I recommend asking a family member of a different generation to help you generate questions. It will broaden your perspective on what is interesting or what would make your readers curious. Engaging your potential readers’ questions in advance of your writing will help you write effectively for your “imagined audience.”

It may be tempting to skip this step, but don’t. First, you may have insights as you hear yourself talk about your subject. These insights may help you narrow your focus and find a clearer direction. Second, talking with others will help you uncover those essential nuggets that will satisfy, even intrigue, your future readers. If you repeat the questioning process with one or two more people, at least one more provocative question or useful insight will emerge from the process.

For example, below is a list of specific questions I have about my grandfather’s Percheron horse breeding. I highlighted the questions requiring additional research. Doing this helped me determine my most pressing research questions. The questions on the right are my mother’s questions about her father’s life during the same time.

Identifying the knowledge and resources needed to write your family biographical essay

Step 3: Dig into Digital Archives, Newspaper Databases, and Google Books (Again!)

Generating these questions caused me to search in digitized archives such as Ohio Memory, the Library of Congress’s Chronicling America, and the subscription database  Even though I have researched my grandfather repeatedly in online digital resources, Google, libraries, museums, state libraries, historical societies, and colleges are digitizing more content daily. So it pays to revisit past searches periodically to discover new content.

For example, I recently came across an article my grandfather wrote in 1917, “Percheron Breeding in Delaware County,” which gave me a sense of his enthusiasm and involvement with Percheron Breeding as well as his “voice” during this time. This is especially important to me because my grandfather had Parkinson’s by the time I was old enough to talk with him, so I never gained an ear for his phrasing or appreciation for his sense of humor. I want to use some of his expressions and humorous phrasing in my biographical essay so my reader can “hear” his personality. This article and others he wrote will allow me to weave his voice throughout the essay.

Google Books is another good source of books, periodicals, organizational meeting notes, and annual books.  As I wrote this post, I searched my grandfather’s name and Percheron breeding yet again, to see if I could find anything new on Google Books. I came across another article he wrote, published in the December 1917 Breeder’s Gazette titled “Organized Effort Brings Success in Percheron Horse Breeding.” Again, my family had been unaware of this in-depth article.

These previously undiscovered articles revealed my grandfather’s voice and activities in the narrowed time frame I hope to capture in my biographical essay.

We will discuss research further in subsequent posts, but I encourage researching throughout your writing process to help you narrow your focus, find examples, build your story world, and even find a “voice” for your subject.

The next post in this series, Part 3: Organize Your Writing Plan, presents two approaches for organizing your biographical essay. You may end up using both!

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Cynthia is a twenty-year plus teaching veteran with expertise in teaching writing, literature, and research to students of all ages. In addition to her passion for teaching, Dr. Kiefer is an American history buff, artifact aficionado, and historical fiction writer and researcher.