Writing about People in Nonfiction

Intriguing people are at the heart of most stories and you need to know them intimately, whether you’re writing a community history, a travel piece, a memoir or a biography.

Hemingway advised writers to compile comprehensive information about their lead character’s personality and life. Only the tip of an iceberg of details will show in the final piece, he advised, but all of it informs your storytelling.

Compile Everything Known into a Chronological List

There are multiple benefits to such a list. It underscores gaps where more research is needed; and periods of intense accomplishments or duress (great story dynamics!) It may point to anomalies in this person’s life and goals; and traits or activities that are at odds may emerge (more story fodder!) It provides an overview perspective that helps with planning narrative structure; and the list becomes a handy reference tool during writing.

With the list done, write a thumbnail sketch of up to six pages, capturing the essentials in story form. You’re talking to yourself here, to get a composite picture–so nothing fancy is required. (For more on this see Elizabeth George’s excellent book Write Away, http://www.elizabethgeorgeonline.com/books/write_away.htm.)

A chronological list can be as simple or as complex as the project requires. Some like to include source footnotes for future reference:

Chronological List of Moses Ireland’s Life

– Born Sebec, Maine, in Piscataquis County, 1830 to Abraham (or Abram) Ireland, born April 11, 1797 and died May 13, 1884 (English); and Esther Cross, born March 29, 1806 and died April 4, 1872 (Canadian.) His grandparents may have been Sarah Cross, who died January 15, 1811 and Moses Cross. All but the latter are buried in Sebec Corner Cemetery, Sebec, Maine. Abram was a farmer (1850 census). At home that year: Moses (19yrs), Edwin (16 yrs), Abram Jr (13 yrs), Axel B (6 yrs). Other siblings may have been: Achsah S., born May 2 or 3, 1826, Sarah C. born 14, 1828, Moses C., born Oct. 19, 1830, Edwin S., born Oct. 6, 1834, Axel B., born Dec 15, 1843 (see Sebec Historical Society.)
– Moses left school at 14 and got a job in a logging camp.
– Later he went to the Calif gold rush, where he made a “competency” and returned home for three years before returning to Calif (see 1887 article). He’s said to have gone to Hangtown (Placerville), Calif in 1851 and in the same year to Beal’s Bar, and then switched to logging.
– He came to Canada for the Cariboo Gold Rush between 1860 to 1862. The 1901 census says 1860; a 1913 bio says 1861, as does his death certificate. An 1887 article says autumn of 1862; a 1926 article says 1861. [Three for 1861]
– He was in the Cariboo in the left of 1862 and left late that fall with five companions. They happened upon a large party lost in a snow blizzard. Ireland was the hero of their rescue. (See 1887 article.)
– He made $2,000 at Williams Creek,) and was on his way back to Calif when he met Sewell (Sue) P. Moody (an acquaintance from Maine) in New Westminster and went into business with Moody shipping cattle etc from Oregon to the Cariboo. Ireland invested $2000 and Moody $600. They made a $9,000 return.
– In 1862 Moody, Ireland and Van Bramer bought one of the first big mills in BC. Ireland and Moody took over a mill and 480 acres for $6,900 in 1863 (see Drushka), increased its capacity and began cutting in 1865. The mill was a struggling operation. [etc…]


Hi Jeanette,

I found your last blog about using chronological lists quite useful. I’m presently writing an article for History Magazine about my great-grandfather who started the Vancouver Art Gallery.

Check out my recent blog about the orcas trapped in Von Donop lagoon on our Museum website: http://cortesmuseum.com/blog/

It’s been generating a fair amount of interest with marine scientists on this coast. Some dramatic photos by Doreen Guthrie’s mother also helped.

Thanks for all the great info I get from The Scribes newsletters,

Lynne Jordan, President, Cortes Island Museum

* * * *

Hi Jeanette,

A HUGE thank you to you for, not only including my orca blog on your Scribes blogs, but also for including the e-mail I sent you with it thanking you for all the info on your Scribes blogs & particularly mentioning my connection to the VAG.

One of your Scribes subscribers who has also taken some of your courses, Pam Gaudio Finlayson of Victoria, got in touch with me through the Museum after reading it on your site. We are now new-found cousins & planning to meet this weekend in Victoria! Her Great-grandmother Ethel Stone is my Great-grandfather Henry A. Stone’s sister! I’ve been connected to a whole other branch of my family about which I had no information.

We are going to share all the info & photos we each have on our Stone relatives. Below is the message she sent to the Museum for me to contact her.

Ain’t the internet grand for connecting people!

So, a thousand thank yous,

Lynne Jordan


Hi Jeanette,

I have been following your blog for about a year and find the articles both interesting and informative. I also appreciate the regular email updates because they remind me to see what else has been happening on the blog.

I am interested in the creative writing workshop coming up in Campbell River. Since I live in Nanaimo, Campbell River is a bit of a trek so I was wondering if you know of any same or similar upcoming workshops located a little more mid-island. I’m still considering the one in Campbell River, too.

I am both new to the island and new to the writing field. In addition to writing workshops, I have an old family story that I’d like to fictionalize and I’m looking to bounce ideas and questions off other writers. A couple of my questions revolve around the need to change the names of the actual people involved and use of a writing pseudonym.

Any direction you can provide will be greatly appreciated!