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Turning Family History into Stories

by Sheila Johnson

My historical romance, Waireka – Maori for sweet waters began as a fictionalised account of a real family story.  

A distant relative of my Father’s wrote an account of his first ancestors arrival in New Zealand from Scotland. The story my relative shared was captivating as it explored the difficult conditions of my relatives as early nineteenth century pioneers arriving in a very different country to the Britain they were used to. Then New Zealand was a country covered in thick bush with many flightless birds and few animals and of course the native Maori people. I realised just how brave and tenacious my relatives and the early settlers had to be to survive in such conditions. Not only did my relatives manage to survive but they obtained good farming land in the Wairarapa, an area north east of Wellington and set up a dairy farm. They went on to develop a successful dairy herd and become some of the first farmers to transport butter across the two islands of New Zealand. I felt this interesting story needed to be shared and having a love of history, although I’d never attempted historical fiction before, I decided that this historical account would make a really good story 

I called my book Waireka, because there is a river than runs through the farm, making the pastures sweet. I then set myself the task of researching the conditions the emigrants might have experienced on the long sea voyages of that time and then what they might expect to find on landing in the new country. In the original account, my young relative travelled from Scotland as a nursemaid to a Presbyterian minister and his family and met her husband to be on the shipthey married and went to Australia for the gold rush, only re-locating  to New Zealand when they found the Australian climate unsuitable. I have omitted the Australian part of the story, having very little knowledge of this vast continent. I also changed the simple account of the couple meeting, marrying and eventually running a dairy farm. I realised that I needed to introduce some elements of conflict and tension into my story, the essentials of a good plot. 

In my story, Eliza sets off to New Zealand as a nursemaid to a local minister’s family and meets her man, Alister during the voyage. They then marry but events beyond their control mean that an element of conflict is created in their relationship.  

Alister is skilled as a carpenter and builder, a useful skill to have in a newly developing country and he begins by using this very practical talent while he saves money and looks out for an opportunity to acquire some good farming land. This search is made more difficult for him in my account of events, as I use this circumstance and others to introduce genuine historical events into my story. Eventually, the couple find their farming land in the Wairarapa area of New Zealand. I have retained the same area as in the historical account, as I discovered in my research that this is some of the best grazing land on the north island of New Zealand. I have however, fictionalised the place names, the farm name and of course, the names of my characters.  

The Reverend Yate introduced into my story as another Presbyterian minister is also based on a real character, although his relationship to Alister and Eliza differs from that of just being the good family friend he is in the original account. In Waireka, the relationship between Robert Yate, Eliza and Alister is much more complicated and helps to add tension and conflict to the plot.  

I enjoyed researching the early dairying industry, having very little experience of dairy farming, even though I am a farmer’s daughter. However, the day to day events and problems which Eliza and Alister experience in setting up the dairy farm are based on my research as well as real historical events. 

Waireka was published in 2018, with a small American publisher called Ambassador International.  It is my first full-length novel and was much more challenging to write than my first novella, Alpha Male, self-published in 2016a chick-lit romance based around an Alpha Course.  

With Waireka, I was fictionalising family history. This is challenging in that you want to be able to create a good story without offending any of the descendants of the original settlers while also making sure that historical details and research are correct. However, I loved the challenge and have enjoyed the new experience of taking this book to various venues to present talks, not only about my book,  but comparing the history of New Zealand with the present-day country. I continue to look for new opportunities to speak and share this book with others.  

I began my writing journey with poetry and in many ways, it is still my first love. Then, after a few writing courses and discovering article writing, I studied journalism and qualified as a journalist in 2002. Like poems, articles are short pithy works which I found I really enjoyed writing. After a short spell working as a freelance journalist with my local media company, Gloucestershire Media, I went on to write a number of other articles for both local and national publications. I still write articles and have written hundreds to date.  

However, with freelance article writing declining as more and more newspapers and magazines fold, I turned my attention to writing novels and this is when I went on to write Alpha Male and then Waireka, using my maiden name of Donald as opposed to Johnson in order to distinguish my novel writing from my article writing.  

I continue to write poetry and articles and contemplate writing another book. 

You can find Sheila’s books here:

Alpha Male  


And her blog and website which can be found at 

I was fictionalising family history. This is challenging in that you want to be able to create a good story without offending any of the descendants of the original settlers while also making sure that historical details and research are correct.