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Writing and Publishing Biographical Fiction

Updated on October 2, 2014

My Novel About the Russian Explorer

I wrote this novel about the Russian explorer Nikolai Miklouho Maclay a few years back and it was published in paperback. Now I've uploaded it to Amazon and am currently selling electronic copies.

Amazon is a great marketplace for writers now that we have Kindle. It costs nothing to upload and market a book and this is a huge development for authors who have had problems getting their manuscripts read.

Now there's no middleman between you and your great book, but be warned, you need to take responsibility for the promotion and marketing yourself.

Here's a link to my website about Maclay

Papuan Tribesmen
Papuan Tribesmen

Why Write a Biographical Novel?

There are many wonderful characters in fiction but I believe there are even more in history. When I first learned about Maclay I was studying anthropology and his story intrigued me. But to write it up as a biography and a factual account of his achievements seemed rather dry. Besides, there had been others (notably Elizabeth Webster's The Moon Man) which were pretty thorough biographical works.

Biographers can really only go as far as research can take them - novelists on the other hand can build on the facts and extend the story into imaginative realms that rely as much on their own perceptions as those of the character. Where a biographer can tell us 'this is how we think it happened' a novelist can say 'but what if it really happened like this?'

Maclay and Ahmad
Maclay and Ahmad

About the Character

My character, Nikoloai Miklouho Maclay, was a real person who left Russia in 1872 to set off on an exploratory expedition of New Guinea. Few people had visited New Guinea at the time so he was determined to be the first scientific traveller in those parts.

He managed to get the Grand Duchess Elena Pavlovna to take an interest in his project, and was eventually given a free ride to New Guinea by the Russian Navy.

The trials and triumphs of his time in New Guinea inspired me to write about him, re-imagining his journey and his subsequent stay in New Guiinea and in the Dutch East Indies. I believe Maclay is one of the great romantic heroes of the time, but his story is rarely told outside Russia and Papua.

Maclay postage stamp
Maclay postage stamp

A Russian Called Maclay?

Well yes. Nikolai Miklouho Maclay had Scottish ancestors. Sometime during the sixteenth century there was a great migration of Scottish tradesmen to St Petersburgh, where they helped build the great city on land 'that was once the province of wolves and bears'. So when Maclay decided to travel the world he Anglicized his name.

Maclay set off for New Guinea at the tender age of 24. He was not a wealthy man and his widowed mother was hard-pressed to support him through his adventures. He did receive occasional help from sponsors, but most of his life he was forced to depend on the kindness of others for the basic necessities.

On Biographical Writing

"To be the biographer of a place or person can insert a murky distance between them and oneself, especially after publication. What has been a private, even obsessive project, turns overnight into an implied claim to special knowledge or scholarship when really all one had on one's mind was love and curiosity."

James Hamilton-Paterson, Seven-Tenths: The Sea And Its Thresholds

Enthralling Tale of an Intrepid Explorer

Maclay: A Novel
Maclay: A Novel

Available in paperback or on Kindle.


Look Inside This Book ...

A good way to introduce your book to readers

Amazon supplies 'a look inside this book' option that usually allows you to read the first chapter of a book

This is a great idea because you can then make a judgement as to whether or not the book is to your reading taste, if it's fiction, or if the author can supply the information you want if you're planning to buy non-fiction.

I've created a website for my book and added the prologue for readers to sample. The prologue serves as an introduction to the story and is in this case a scene from later in the book where the two main characters, Maclay and his Swedish offsider Olsen, are about to walk head on into the camp of their enemies.

Yali Tribesman - Local Yali Tribesman Baliem Valley - Papua

Image attribution [CC-BY-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

A Biography of Place?

When looking for a biographical writing subject it's not always necessary to confine yourself to people. How about a biography of place? James Hamilton-Patterson's Seven Tenths (quoted above) is a biography of the sea. The author has combined research with personal anecdote based on his experience of living on or close to the sea.

Spirit of Place

The place you decide to write about should be a place you have a close connection to, either through personal experience or through research. You can write about ancient Rome without having been there, but be prepared to do a lot of reading.

I grew up on the shores of the Great Barrier Reef in Queensland and I plan to write a 'biography' of the reef which will include stories of the characters who made their mark on that part of the world.

Developing stories in this way will allow me to add a personal perspective and to build a more imaginative narrative into an otherwise factual account of place.

One Day I Will Write About This Place

This is How - Augusten Burroughs' New Bestseller

Augusten Burroughs has switched from writing memoir to writing self-help advice!

Comments Are Welcome

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    • KayRennie profile image

      Kay Rennie 5 years ago from Melbourne

      @paperfacets: Thanks so much for the comment. Haeckel inspired Miklouho Maclay to choose the Pacific as his field of research. There began a great adventure which I've tried to recapture in my novel.

    • paperfacets profile image

      Sherry Venegas 5 years ago from La Verne, CA

      Yes, Miklouho was a student assistant that travel to the Canary Islands with Haeckel. They disagreed on sponges and natural selection and Haeckel was rather harsh in a writing about sponges and Miklouho's own writings. I think they both spent their whole lives traveling in the pursuit of research.