Finding memoir inspiration in heritage and history

During the middle of winter, 1786, a 26-year-old Londoner named William Eggleton used the cover of thick fog to break into a man’s house in Southwark and stole three woollen coats and a black silk cloak. His crime earned him a berth on what became known as The First Fleet, and a free eight-month trip to a foreign land called Australia.

Shortly after arriving, he met Mary Dickensen, a fellow convict who had shown a penchant in London for other people’s waistcoats – eleven of them.

The couple became one of the first to marry in the new colony, and immediately began a family.

Seven generations later, a girl was born in a small New South Wales country town. Ninety years after her birth, she contacted me to write her life story.

Michael Taylor with Dr Laurie Cowled at the launch of her memoirs at Queensland University of Technology.

While proud of her heritage, Laurie understood the ramifications of white settlement upon Australia’s indigenous population. As a result, she has spent many years providing university scholarships for rural and indigenous females. When I met her, almost 150 young women had benefited from tertiary studies due to her generosity.

Incredible stories like this inspire me to record people’s lives.

But it is also the tales of a Hong Kong-based barrister who prosecutes Chinese Triad members, a self-made billionaire who left school at 13, a former Avon lady, or a third-generation tourism entrepreneur which provide the variety and fascination that comes from being a biographer.

Because it is true – everyone has a story.

I fell into this line of work from a lifetime love of writing, but to love something and be able to make a living from it can be a difficult road to travel. I studied freelance writing and churned out restaurant reviews, one-act plays, radio serials and newspaper articles because I just had to write. My turning point was to write a memoir which received favourable comments from both people who read it, so I was inspired to write my dad’s biography. He seemed to enjoy it. Based on that success, I placed a small advertisement in a local magazine professing to be a life story writer. Amazingly, someone offered to pay me to write an account of their 75 years.

I have now written more than 600,000 words of biography. I don’t need to advertise anymore, and my clients are booked 12 months ahead. That is not because I am a fabulous writer. It is because what we do as biographers is akin to the storytellers of old. We preserve history, and we are few in number. We have the ability to create magnificent tales from facts, photographs, and fading memories. And what a joy that is.

Michael Taylor

Number 41 founder

Life Stories Australia member