Thanks for the links Non Serviam and Enrigo. I'll be sure to check them out. I hadn't thought of Wikipedia!
The kinds of biographies I'm interested in writing may not require as much research as some. I don't plan on writing about well-known public figures; I've always been someone who sees the beauty in the mundane. Every person you walk past in your day to day life is a book on a shelf. Who knows what dramatic, inspiring story lies between the tattered-looking covers? I'd just like to be able to write well enough that I can tell their story, because I think every life - if it's told well enough - has value, and has something to teach us.
The idea was sparked by a friend of mine. She told me about a recent conversation she had with a young woman that left her really shaken. As a child, the woman had been severely physically and sexually abused by both parents, then sent to a foster home where she (and others) were forced into making violent child porn/snuff movies. The guy running the child porn ring got 3 years, even though this woman got a life sentence. My friend wasn't sure whether or not to believe her but the story was verified.
This is a person you would walk past every day and try to pretend didn't exist. But she is an extremely intelligent, articulate person, and given different life circumstances, could have been your doctor or lawyer. The idea that a story like that would remain hidden seems like an injustice all its own.
I may not necessarily write about this person in particular, but there are so many others that we don't notice who are extraordinary, even though their lives are quiet and without drama. Everyone has gifts: I think I have an unusual ability to see past the circumstances that make up a life - gender, age, sexual orientation, politics, race, socio-economic status, etc. - and see what's left, which is just the person. I really, truly don't give a damn if someone is a celebrity, royalty or a pauper. We all put our pants on one leg at a time.