Well, in a word, I say: no. You can -- and probably should -- start a biography with a dramatic episode from the middle of your subject's life. You can foreshadow the death. But I believe the appeal of biography rests in large part on the strict narrative structure it imposes on the writer. We all undertake quests in our lives. Though the impacts of our actions may resonate through epilogues, the drama of any one person's actions must end with his or her death.
I hadn't really thought this through when I started writing The Cowboy Girl. I took on the project in large part because Caroline Lockhart's life struck me as a story that fit the narrative structure I was looking for. Then I ran into a complication: in narrative structure, the story needs to end with resolution -- but a biography requires it end with her death.
What attracted me to Lockhart was the way she always wanted to be a cowboy. From childhood fibs about being born on a Kansas ranch, to her move to Buffalo Bill's hometown in Wyoming, to her bestselling Western novels, she (like many to follow) was in love with a semi-mythical Old West.
But Lockhart took the quest to extremes: She bought and ran a newspaper so as to preserve (and even fabricate) her town's Old West character, and when the political struggles surrounding that battle wore her down, she quit so as to homestead a ranch. She wanted an incredibly remote place where she could create and control her very own Old West that could not fall victim to Progress.
So how did I solve my own complication? (Warning: the following structural discussion may put some non-writers to sleep.) I had a scene that depicted Lockhart's resolution of her quest. I put it at the end of the final chapter. The first half of the epilogue then discussed her death. Then here's where a faithfulness to timelines actually came to my rescue: One of my best sources for Lockhart's later years was an oral history from a man who had worked for her. But an oral history is, after all, an event of its own. He was talking to the historians in 1990. With some research I was able to build that into a scene to go at the end of the epilogue, concluding with his view of how she had achieved her goals.
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