Thursday, November 25, 2010

Getting it Right

Kubu's house?
Stan and I have just returned from a short visit to Gaborone in Botswana. We were researching our fourth book. Much of our time was spent talking to interesting people about issues that range from police procedures to Bushman land rights in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve and murders for witchcraft. This is the really important stuff: developing a balanced understanding of the issues facing the country, what people there think about them, and how they impact the culture. It’s essential for us to put the time and work into that because although Botswana shares much with South Africa, it is a very different culture and society and we feel that it’s critical to reflect that appropriately in our novels. We never write about any place or town where we haven’t been and spent some time. We try to learn about the place, how it originated, what sort of people live there and so on. We also feel it’s important to get the small things right – street names, political parties, the names of the road-side stalls. Sometimes we get embarrassingly finicky about detail. On this visit, we made a special trip to the airport to check out the current colors and models of rental cars...

So the question is: why? Wouldn’t it be just as good to make all this up? Wouldn’t it possibly even be better, allowing us more freedom? Why spend all this time on detail when we could be getting on with writing the story?

I’m sure you are now expecting a carefully reasoned defense of the importance of doing all this work. I’m sorry to disappoint you, but I’m not really all that sure why we do it.  We just feel much more comfortable reflecting things as they are – at a physical, cultural and political level – rather than as we’d like them to be for the convenience of the story.

A favorite restaurant in Kasane
The state that the reader enters when reading an absorbing tale has been described as “the willing suspension of disbelief” and also as the “fictional dream”. I really like the latter phrase. It conjures up an image of the reader drifting into a different reality which flows smoothly and believably.  For me, nothing interrupts the dream as completely as some fact that I know is wrong. Flying from Johannesburg to Cape Town in half an hour? It can’t be done – it’s a thousand miles. Thompson’s gazelles in the Chobe Game Reserve? They only occur much further north. Two minutes on the internet is all it takes to get that sort of stuff right. Of course these things matter to me, but 99% of readers not only wouldn’t know they are wrong but wouldn’t care if they did. In reality, a novel is about the story and the characters.

Goodluck Tinubu's school in Mochudi
Photo: Peter Muender

Sibusiso's office is somewhere here
 Of course, Stan and I have backgrounds in academia. Research for both of us is a matter of getting things right and hopefully deducing insights from that. And there is also the fun of coincidence. Often we write first and then check out the location or situation on our next trip. In our fourth book we need a school of the right level from which you’d walk past open bush, past some shops, to not very affluent homes. We spent a day looking at appropriate schools and found one that fitted our image almost perfectly. Now we can use its name and have a street for the character's home. Maybe it makes no difference to almost every reader, but we feel that we can weave the fictional dream more tightly because we have a real location firmly in our minds. The density of that weave is important. Of course the characters and events are completely fictitious, it is only the backdrop that is real.

Somewhere in Kachikau
Maybe it’s because we’re South Africans writing about Botswana. The people who live there know more about the country than we do, and our books are read there. We feel getting it wrong would be an insult to those readers and an embarrassment to us.

THE gas station in Hukuntsi
And there are issues of detail that can have a big impact on the plot. The Central Kalahari Game Reserve is not fenced. If it were, the scenario that kicks off A Carrion Death wouldn’t work. There is only one gas station in Hukuntsi. That matters in Death of the Mantis. And be careful about those autopsies; the official ones are all done in Gaborone no matter where the death occurs. This is a big, hot country. Enough said.

Then again maybe the real reason is that we learn so much, and enjoy it so much, every time we go to Botswana that checking detail is just an excuse.

I’d be very interested to hear from other authors with murders elsewhere...

Michael - Thursday


  1. Kubu wishes all of his US readers and followers a happy Thanksgiving. If he were to cook a Thanksgiving dinner in Gaborone, he would have to use Guinea fowl. No turkeys there!

  2. Going to Botswana to check on a detail is certainly a good excuse to get it right! As a reader halfway around the world though, I appreciate that it's right and expect it to be. I've never been to many countries so when I read books that are set there I expect them to be true and accurate and give me a 'view' into that country and culture and what it is like. We appreciate the fact checking!

  3. Michael, I am not a writer but I am a keen follower of history.

    The American cable network, Showtime, had a series that ran for a few seasons entitled "The Tudors." I didn't watch any of it; we don't get the network. The advertising, however, made it impossible to avoid what the writers and directors did not know about Henry VIII. The billboard version of Henry was a slender man, seemingly of no more than average height. He had dark hair and eyes. Made me crazy. How can a program offer itself as historical when it got the most basic details wrong about the main character?

    There are many portraits of Henry painted over the course of his life. Henry had red hair, a trait he passed on to his daughter, Elizabeth. Every portrait shows him as blue-eyed. As a young man he was described as being tall even by the standards of today. He was an athlete, an expert tennis player.
    Their version was carrying dramatic license to a ridiculous degree.

    They also got his relationships with the Boleyn sisters wrong. Mary Boleyn was Henry's mistress until she became pregnant (as is believed) when she was married off to a man in Henry's circle of friends. Anne held out for marriage because she didn't want to follow her sister's path - Anne wanted to be queen. The series put Anne first, followed by Mary. I think Mary would have been running very fast in any direction that took her away from Henry.

    The Tudors and the Stuarts are my people. I don't appreciate it when people can't be bothered to check out even the big details. It isn't like there is a dearth of blond/red-haired, tall men in Hollywood and London.


  4. I used a lot of "we"s in this post, so I'm glad Stan only has a guinea fowl to fry!

    Amy, I agree with you. If I read a book set in a country I don't know, I do expect the details to be right. But, of course, most of the time I can't tell. So the details need to be at least convincing. I think the easiest way to convincing is to get it right!

    Beth, your point is well taken. And a lot more people know about the Tudors than about Botswana. Nothing turns me off a story more quickly than the sort of stuff you described!

    Stan pointed out (verbal communication)that perhaps the detail is more important because there are two of us. When we check things out together, we have the same image in our heads. That helps when we both write about the same location.

  5. So far, I've set most of my books in the UK, and in places with which I'm mostly familiar. The only time I ventured out of my comfort zone was to a fundamentalist LDS cult in the backwoods of Utah. Thankfully, it's so far out of everyone else's comfort zone I felt able to make it up with impunity!

    That said, when it comes to location, I think feel for a place, which you two palpably have, is essential. I do plan on setting a future Nigel Barnes book in Australia and I will definitely go there to research. A few weeks, Sydney, Melbourne and the Gold Coast, take in some cricket, wine, seafood. It's a dirty life...

  6. Maybe Nigel and Kubu should meet at the Yarra and share cricketing stories.