What makes a fact about an author's life "significant," where would I find such a fact, and how would I know if it was true?
My question is for a book report and the teacher wants everything written about to be truthful, but I don't know what a "significant" fact is.
This is a good question, and goes to the very heart of research no matter what field it is in. The language arts, history, science...the question of what makes a fact "significant" and how to know if that fact is true or not is essential for anyone studying no matter what the subject is.
The first part of the question is "what makes a fact significant." "Significant" is another way of saying "important," or "worthy of noticing." What is important in a given subject depends on what you are looking for. In your question you state that you are writing about a particular author and are trying to find facts about that author's life that are "significant." The key part here is that you are writing about an author. What kinds of things might have happened in a particular author's life that made them choose to become a writer in the first place, or influenced the types of stories that they would later create? Those are the types of events in a writer's life that would be "significant" as opposed to just being true.
For example, at a young age Stephen King found an old trunk in a relative's attic that contained tons of old EC horror comics and science fiction digests that had belonged to his father. He read them voraciously, and this "discovery" of a trunk helped lead him down the path of becoming a writer of supernatural and horror fiction. Thus, this fact would be labeled as "significant." The fact that Stephen King lived in a trailer when he was first married would not. It has nothing to do with his writing or why he writes in the horror field (though an interesting side note would be that this face might be significant to someone researching, say, the effects of poverty on writing style.)
The second part of your question is about how to know if a particular fact is true. This is a little harder. How do we know anything is true? The answer to this is: watch your sources. If you are getting your information from a reliable source than it is probably true. What makes a source reliable? That's the million dollar question.
Would your neighbor be a good source of information about you? How accurate would his description of you be? On the other hand, how much closer to a true description would your mother be able to give? My point is, the closer the source is to the question asked the more likely the information is going to be valid. Using our Stephen King example, his website could probably be counted on to provide accurate information.
Other trusted sources are newspapers, encyclopedias, and scholarly essays. Though not always accurate, these sources are often our best bets for checking the facts on things. There is also the good old fashioned "trip down to the library."
What to avoid? Maybe places like websites that look like they are not well constructed, or people whose writing is full of opinions and praise (or criticism.) These sources may be biased and may not be presenting both sides of the facts. Think of it as comparing the National Enquirer to the New York Times. They are both in print and at the store, but only one is actually trustworthy.
I work as a Tenancy Support Worker with vulnerable adults. A lot of the clients that I work with have had similar experiences as the author in question. I would imagine that a person who has experienced tragedy and trauma is left to deal with all kinds of emotional and mental scars. The process of healing emotional pain can unfortunately lead to substance misuse as with the case of the author. Drug or alcohol, or both of the substances combined, can block out the pain. The relief is only temporary. When the drug wears out the problem is still there. The author's past life experience is so deeply ingrained which, for this reason, may contribute towards creative writing. The author's process through personal life experience has made that person into the person she is today. I read poems that have been published within the organisation I work for.
As for the "how do I know if it was true?", personally, I would refer to secondary source data. Perhaps one or two good quality news papers and cross compare the reports. Crack the library system and it may provide you with rich info'. You may consider refering to The Writer's and Artist Year Book. We have one updated each year in our libraries in the U.K.