Why Research is Important to Your Memoir 12


As anyone who has written a memoir knows, memoirs are much more than memories put to paper. And they are more than journalistically written true stories. Memoirs are comprised of two important elements: scene (narrative) and reflection. Without reflection, you do not have a memoir — you have a vignette or series of vignettes that describes events, but does not imbue the events with meaning and relevance. Meaning and relevance come from reflection.

Thinking deeply about what happened — that is, reflecting — is done on more than one level. The first, and easiest level, is that provided by distance of time and experience; for example, I can tell the story of an event that occurred in my youth while providing reflection that comes naturally from a mature point of view. I can also ask myself questions about what occurred (the whys and wherefores) and write down the answers that occur to me.

A deeper form of reflection, however, is informed by research. And by “research,” I mean any form of inquiry that helps you increase your understanding of what happened. Research may include digging up old photos, reading newspapers and histories of the time you’re writing about, or studying memoirs by authors who have undergone similar challenges. If your memoir is about illness, abuse, or other social and psychological themes, research may mean reading studies or talking to professionals on the subject. It may involve traveling to the places where events occurred. In fact, going back to places in your past can be incredibly powerful, and provide the emotional, sensory, and concrete details necessary to give life to your scenes. Interviewing is another powerful form of research; what do others remember about that time and the people involved?

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And don’t forget the library. In this age of online information availability and satellite maps it’s easy to be lazy, restricting research to what can be found on the Internet. The library offers a rich resource of materials not to be found online, as well as staff to help you find what you’re looking for.

As you research, take copious notes, and allow yourself to digest the facts and history and conversations and opinions. Research, when done in this manner, will organically affect the nature and depth of your reflection. Of course, you will then need to decide how much history and facts you want to (or can) include in your work without interfering with the narrative.

Of course, research is important for fact checking your memories, giving your memoir a high level of credibility. Research is also important to help you understand and interpret the scenes you write while placing your story in the larger context of life. It helps you discover and uncover your universally important message.

Writing Exercise
  1. What is the memoir you are writing (or want to write) about? What are its major themes?
  2. Where and when is your memoir set?
  3. Describe what kind of research you’ve done so far.
  4. What do you see as the greatest challenge to researching your memoir?
  5. What kinds of research could you do to increase your knowledge of setting or theme?

How has research helped to inform your memoir or legacy writing? Please leave a comment.

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12 thoughts on “Why Research is Important to Your Memoir

  • Heather Marsten

    Tell me what He did – is my memoir of healing from incest and other abuse. The themes are – searching for a father who loves me, that healing is possible even after major abuse, and many of the things we do are based on the hurts we’ve received in the past. My first line is, “I hate boys’ games.” My father molested me and initially made it a game of hide the soap. In my search for a father, I got caught up in other “games” played that did not help healing.

    My memoir is in first person, set in the 70’s and 80’s and a little current. Much of my research has to do when certain books were published, TV shows at the time (including day of the week they played), moon phases and holidays. Calendars to show what day of the week a particular day occurred and number of days between certain periods of time, etc.

    The greatest challenge is to keep research and information shared age appropriate – For example, a seven-year old would be more inclined to be disappointed a news bulletin interrupted favorite show than what the bulletin contained. The internet is helpful with details, but reading other memoirs set in the same period helps me to remember the mindset of the times.

    • Amber Lea Starfire Post author

      Heather, you make a good point about the importance of integrating research into your memoir in a consistent manner with the narration. This is where present-to-past reflection can help. Statements that begin with, “Looking back, I realize …” or, “Now I know …,” etc. can help to round out the context of a memoir without breaking trust with your readers. Are you also researching abuse and incest in general?

      Also, another thought I have about this topic is that, like back story, much of the research we do doesn’t actually go into the final work; yet the research we do informs and makes richer our reflection, adding dimension to the final piece.

  • patsy ann taylor

    When writing memoir, I usually do a simple time line that includes major events of the period. I also do the math on ages of the people I’m writing about.
    While your suggestions have been made for journaling and memoir, I think they are perfect for those of us who write fiction as well.

  • Nancy

    While writing family history the internet has become an invaluable source of information. I was able to find my great grandfather’s enlistment records in the Civil War – once I found his unit, I could track the history of the unit and knew which battles he was in and how he ended up in Andersonville Prison (his whole unit was captured by the Confederates after the battle of Atlanta). This is one of many examples where research into history can enhance a family history.

  • sara

    I’ve found that research adds an element of “truth” and credibility to my memoir writing. I never underestimate the power in its unfolding.

  • Barbara Toboni

    Great post, Amber. I’ve had to research music and musicians of a certain time period when writing a story about my mother, a singer. Also in poetry, I have researched names of plants, flowers, rocks, rivers, etc. Libraries are great recourses, but with the internet at my fingertips there’s no excuse not to have the correct facts and details.

  • Mary Gorden

    I was amazed how much research I had to do while writing my memoir. In many cases it helped flesh out fragmented memories.

    And my editors also did research, cleaning up quotes and place names.

    I will go into my next one understanding the need for research and not have to cram it all in at the end