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Historical bio fiction What is it and why write it?

So, it’s official. I’m addicted. To historical bio fiction. Having just published my beautiful novel Black Randall, I’m already researching new ground and new people to write about. There is my grandmother for instance. She was orphaned when she was five years old. Her mother died, unwed, of syphilis. There has to be a story there.

But first things first.

What is the definition of historical bio-fiction?

It’s the fictionalised story of a real person.

But why fictionalise it, you may well ask?

Because despite the many facts we find in our research, they can’t always tell us the motives, the passions, the fears that drove our hero/heroine. We have to fill these in with educated guesses and a vivid imagination.

In a letter to John ‘Black’ Randall, my First Fleet Ancestor, I confide that After seven years of research, knowing - or thinking that I know - every battle you fought, the women you married, where you lived, how tall you were, what crimes you committed, what crimes you were accused of, I have enough material to draw a stick figure.

Why write historical bio fiction?

The other aspect of historical bio fiction that I find particularly compelling is that it usually focuses on hidden history and is written to throw light on a forgotten person, or people.

For example, very few Australians realise that there were 11 African convicts who arrived on the First Fleet. (There was a twelfth African but he was a cook, not a convict, and drowned in Sydney Harbour, which I find most suspicious and dreadfully unlucky)

Most believe that the first settlement consisted of stuffy white naval officers and the equally white, but scrawny and depraved convicts.

Who would have known that there were not only Africans but Americans and Jews, and sailors from Madagascar, Germany, Norway, France, Sweden, Portugal and Holland.

So for me, it was a story that needed to be told. A myth that needed to be debunked.

I remember very vividly the moment that I decided I needed to write John ‘Black’ Randall’s story.

I had been collecting the facts of his life for years, and they were making my head sore. They needed to get out into some tangible and organised form.

And I wanted them for my family as a resource for those to come. I’ve got to say being related to an African was a bit of a family joke at the time- I’m a redhead- not too much family likeness left.

I wanted to legitimise him for my family.

So I got a big red notebook to develop a timeline of his life with all the known and supposed facts.

I got as far as birth. As I was writing down the date, I had an image of a black woman, lying in a shack and giving birth to a son, a son, who from that moment belonged to someone else.

I imagined a mother, whose every fibre of being was wrapped around her need to protect her infant. And she couldn’t. He could be taken from her at will. He could be belittled, shamed, worked to death, whipped, and sold. And she could do nothing about it.

I think I sat staring at the blank pages of my big red book and cried, overcome with a sense of powerlessness.

That was the moment I knew that the facts of John’s life were not enough for me. I wanted desperately to get below the facts and immerse myself in his world.

I’d love to know what your interest is in historical bio-fiction and whose story you are wanting to bring to life.

Please feel free to write to me and of course, I’d love you to read my novel, Black Randall, if you haven’t already.

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