Capturing the Tide: Three Tips from Writing Real Women
This post first appeared on Kate Messner's Teachers Write. Be sure to sign up for weekly posts throughout the summer!
Feeling daunted at the thought of distilling someone’s entire life into a picture book biography in a way that feels responsible, meaningful, and entertaining? Jess Keating here — and I’ve been there!
Here are a few tips I’ve learned from writing real women.
- Ask yourself: Am I the one to tell this story?
Unfortunately, there’s no easy quiz you can take online to help you here. But you want to read widely and reflect deeply. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve started to scribble notes about someone’s life in the margins of my notebook, only to realize with utter certainty: this is not my story to tell. Be mindful. Be aware. Is your voice the best one to share this story? If yes, keep going!
- You can’t capture the tide.
It’s too deep. Too vast. Too strong. The same goes for trying to capture every remarkable, poignant, and meaningful moment in someone’s life. Once you accept that you can’t do the impossible, your options open up. Limits serve creativity. Do you want to present a ‘slice of life’ of your subject? A chronological narrative? Something else entirely? What’s best for your subject?
- Find the beating heart and watch the magic happen.
To date, I’ve written three picture book biographies, each about women in science who did their work in the ocean. For each, I make myself answer one central question before I submit anything to an editor: How did their passions and challenges mirror the broader picture of their life’s work?
Eugenie Clark was a female shark scientist working in a time when women were largely unheard of in marine biology. Both she and her sharks were underestimated, judged, and misrepresented. There were several beating hearts to Eugenie’s rich life, but narratively, the parallel between Eugenie and her sharks was my North Star throughout.
Marie Tharp was an oceanographic cartographer who mapped the ocean floor, thereby revealing the truth behind plate tectonics. Time and time again, she was told her work was “girl talk”. (Literally.) But her brilliant mind was as solid as the ocean ridges she mapped. She didn’t just map history — she made history.
Jeanne Villepreux-Power was seamstress-turned- scientist who built the world’s first aquarium, in turn discovering the truth behind one of the ocean’s biggest mysteries: argonauts make their shells! The gorgeous parallel behind both Jeanne and her argonauts using what they have to create space to thrive was strongest narrative thread I could have asked for!
So how do you find this narrative heart? Make two columns for your subject. Put the specifics of their life in one. Then, let your mind and heart wander into a wider space. What metaphors do you see? What themes? What constants? What mirrors? They are there! Your job as a writer is to find these threads in the tapestry and create a cohesive narrative for the world to see them too. Remember: you can’t capture the tide, but you can capture one beating heart!
I wish you luck, brave writers! You got this.
Want to grow your creativity and make your best work yet? I’ve got a special gift just for you. Visit www.jesskeatingbooks.com/10secrets for a free copy of my guide, ACTIVATE: Ten Secrets to Being Wildly Creative, and give your creative career a jumpstart. I can’t wait to see how you change the world!
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