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Writing A Fictionalised Biography

Guest blog by author, Yvonne Milroy

Aunty Lil died of a broken heart. It’s fair to say that being jilted at the altar by a debonair fiancé and then inadvertently marrying a bigamist would be enough to finish anyone off. And, finished off she was at the relatively young age of 33 years in 1941.

I grew up with the legend of Aunty Lil. She was my Grandma’s older sister, and I was so smitten with her photos that I never tired of hearing her tale of woe and heartbreak. Born in 1908 in Oruru in the Far North, Aunty Lil was the sixth of nine children from a good Methodist farming family. It seemed completely extraordinary to me that someone so beautiful could have such bad luck with scoundrelly men and then die as a result.

I had not set out to write a book about Aunty Lil. Initially, I started writing about my Great Aunt Nita who stalked her recalcitrant husband and his secretary/girlfriend around the Pacific on steamships in the early 1900s but at some point, Aunty Lil’s story seemed like the one I needed to tell first.

How to fill in the gaps

What I didn’t know was how to write about Aunty Lil’s life given there were large chunks that were undocumented. A friend, author Sarah Johnson, suggested I write it as a fictionalised biography, which gave me license to devise the missing material. This was my lightbulb moment. Told chronologically, each chapter is written in the first person by people who interacted with her. This genre along with the decision to use the first-person approach has allowed me to flex my creative writing skills and experiment with speech and tone. For example, my Great Great Grandma certainly did not speak in the same way as the bigamist. All locations and dates remain true, but a few names and occupations have been changed. Each narrator employed in this method has passed away.

So, how do you write a fictionalised biography? In truth, I can’t officially answer the question as I am at the first draft stage, not the publishing stage, but here’s what I’ve done to date.

Photos

There are about 20 photos of Aunty Lil in existence. I have scrutinised them closely, paying attention to the background, clothing, posture, props, vehicles and buildings. I emailed photos to the descendants of those featured and asked them for snippets about their parents/grandparents lives and then used this information to build a sense of time and place.

Memoirs

Thankfully, I come from a family who are very keen on genealogy, and one branch of the family tree can be traced back to 1600s Halsham, East Riding of Yorkshire, UK. A few members of the family had written memoirs during their lifetimes, and these provided an exemplary starting point. Each memoir gave me a different perspective of Aunty Lil, but there were many consistencies – how beautiful she was, that she was an absolute delight to be around, that she had come to an untimely end. My cousin Johnny Garton had also compiled a comprehensive family history, so that helped me figure out locations and timings of family events that Aunty Lil would have attended.

Interviews

I have been conducting interviews with family members for years, even those who never met her, but knew of her. Almost everyone said ‘Oh, I don’t know anything’, but then went on to give me one small morsel of information that has added to the overall picture. There are some things that have been impossible to verify, but the core story has not changed, particularly what happened to her and her characteristics.

PapersPast https://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/

PapersPast is, quite frankly, EPIC. It’s been created by the National Library of New Zealand and is a treasure trove of digitised information compiled from newspapers, magazines, journals, letters, diaries and Parliamentary papers. We are incredibly blessed to have this free resource at our fingertips. However, it is completely addictive, and a quick five-minute search will turn into five hours of fascinating distraction. Writing a fictionalised biography has meant that I could work actual quirky facts into Aunty Lil’s story. Who could pass up the mention of buying used false teeth in the 1920s? That had to go in. Via PapersPast, I learnt that she wore a cherry satin dress to the Rendells staff dance in 1931, and a cornflower blue gown to a ball the following month. In every scene except one, I have included details of the actual forecast, all obtained from PapersPast.

Archives NZ https://archives.govt.nz/

Again, how lucky are we, Aotearoa? I took a day off work and went to Mangere. The trick with Archives NZ is to be absolutely prepared to the hilt. On arrival, I provided ID and was promptly issued with a Reader Card (the Archives NZ version of a library card). Now that I have a Reader number, I’ll be able to order archives online prior to my next visit. I already knew the reference numbers of the items I wanted to view, so entered them into the system, and they were delivered to me within 5 minutes (usually the wait is approximately an hour but I struck it lucky on a quiet day). There is the option of photocopying but took photos on my phone. The rules in the reading room are strict, and so they should be. No pens, food, drinks, flash photography or bags (they provide lockers at the reception at no charge).

What I never expected to find was a photograph of the bigamist in a Police Gazette, and to discover he was a career criminal. Had I not made the visit, this information would have passed me by. It became crucial in understanding his motivations and being able to get into his head while writing chapter 14.

Museums

Over the past few years, I’ve visited a few museums. Notable ones include Te Ahu in Kaitaia, Waikato and Te Awamutu Museums, and The Northland Room at Whangarei Library (you have to wear white archival gloves which is pretty cool). Even the Pirongia Historic Visitor Centre has some interesting displays. The purpose of completing museum visits has been to gather broader information about townships, businesses and life in the 1920s and 30s.

The High Court

It was an absolute long shot, but I took a gamble and wrote to the High Court to see if I could get access to the file regarding the bigamy charge. The documents are not due for release until 2039, one hundred years from the date of the hearing. I explained my relationship to Aunty Lil and gave them every detail I could about her, the bigamist, the ‘marriage’. You could have knocked me over with a feather when I received a letter from the High Court saying that I had been granted access under supervision. This meant that I had to read the proceedings in front of a Court Registrar, was not allowed to take any photos, but was able to take notes on my laptop.

I viewed the file twice, and the second time noticed that Aunty Lil’s signature on her affidavit had been smudged by tears. To be holding the same piece of paper that she had wept over was too much, and I spent the next week weeping too. The Judge has given me some parameters, and there are a few facts I can’t mention in the book. The most astounding discovery was to find out how and where the bigamist became unstuck. It was not what I had expected.

Writing the book

My preference is for chronological stories. As a planner I prepared a spreadsheet: each year of her life was represented by a row, and columns recorded family events and notable current events. I then decided who would narrate the stages of her life. Rather than tackle each of the 33 years, I have focussed on pivotal moments that drive the story forward in an enthralling way.
The greatest challenge has been drawing a line in the sand. I have a bad habit of falling down research rabbit holes (I’m looking at you, PapersPast), but have realised that it’s time to put fingertips to keyboard or the book will never be completed. My deadline for the first draft is 31 October, and then I’m taking a month off thinking about Aunty Lil to write a historical fiction novel during NaNoWriMo.

Aunty Lil and I highly recommend using a fictionalised biography as a method of storytelling particularly if there is information missing, or you enjoy writing fiction.

Yvonne Milroy
Follow Yvonne on Facebook for updates on the book!

Holly Dunn

Holly is a Nelsonian, studied in Wellington, and lived in the UK for about three years before returning to Nelson in 2017. She has worked as a bookseller both in New Zealand, and in the UK.

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