Thursday, October 4, 2018


Michael - Thursday

Reading Tim’s blog and the comments yesterday made me think about setting and character backgrounds. We set the Detective Kubu books in Botswana rather than South Africa because the premise of the first book was the discovery of a hyena eating a human body in the Kalahari. The ranger and scientist who discover the body deduce that it’s been dumped there. That could happen in South Africa, but it would be harder. The wildlife areas are controlled and usually have boundary fences; smuggling a body into the area wouldn’t be easy and there would be a record of the vehicle that entered the area. So we looked a bit further afield and Botswana seemed the natural choice, mainly because we both know it well from visiting many times and, in my case, through my work for De Beers. Then the diamond theme appealed to us and one thing led to another.

Probably a more challenging decision was to make our detective, Kubu, a Motswana. We were new to writing fiction, and didn’t really know what we could do and where we would fail. (As the saying goes: if you think you can do something, or if you think you can’t, you’re probably right.) More recently the issue of ‘cultural appropriation’ has arisen. While I’m sensitive to the issues, it strikes me as a form of censorship. Writers write, and readers decide what they do or don’t want to read.

Anyway, there was no choice. As far as I know, there are no white detectives in Botswana. Actually, Kubu was never meant to be the protagonist in any case, but that’s another story. Once he was, we needed to understand him and his background, and fortunately we knew and came to know a variety of people in Botswana so that we could make that authentic. Sometimes we found that we’d hit it right by sheer chance. We made him an opera lover – a strange decision in retrospect – but then found that there were indeed opera performances in Gaborone, and that the school we’d chosen for Kubu was active in choral music of various kinds.

Apart from having a wonderful backdrop of wildlife areas, interesting people, and intriguing history to play with, we discovered as we wrote the series that place also offered us a variety of plots that were quite different from those that South Africa would have thrown up. So, the second book followed the aftermath of the civil war in Zimbabwe, the third the plight of the Bushman peoples of the Kalahari, the fourth the power of the witch doctors, the fifth the developing influence of the Chinese in the region, and the sixth the issue of biopiracy in small countries. In Tim’s case, his books are steeped in the cultures and the issues of Thailand. Hopefully ours have that about Botswana.

When we came to write our standalone, Dead of Night, we chose places where we’d lived and worked for most of our lives – South Africa and Minnesota. We wanted our protagonist, Crys, to be an outsider, seeing South Africa through different eyes and learning about it at the same time. So she was from Minnesota. Most of the book, however, is set in the South African bush. Strangely, it took a long time for us to ‘find’ Crys. It wasn’t what she did, it was who she was. It was Stan who had what I thought was the brilliant idea of making her of Vietnamese decent, thus making her an outsider not only in South Africa but also, in a way, in Minnesota too. Having her parents reject her also added to the feelings of isolation that drove her to her sport and her love of wild creatures. The backstory, of course, is the rhino poaching scourge in South Africa. (It’s particularly intense here because there aren’t many rhinos left elsewhere anyway.) So once again, the settings drove the plot and, to some extent, the main character.

At one stage Crys (aka Crystal Nguyen) needed to go to Vietnam to follow leads and obtain background.  We’ve visited Vietnam, but we certainly don’t know it well. But Crys hadn’t been there since she was a small child, so she was almost in the same position that we were. Nevertheless, I don’t think we’d have been comfortable setting the majority of the book there. I’ve read too many books set in South Africa which have unfortunate flaws that grate with locals. In one (very good) book, springbok gambol in the Kruger National Park. No, impala occur there, springbok are highveld animals. Does it matter? Well, most readers won’t know, but if you do it takes you out of the story. That said, one must remember Tim’s point:  All settings are imaginary. Ultimately, all settings exist only in the writer's mind.

Most of my blogmates also set their books in places, cultures (and even times) different from where they live. Any thoughts?


  1. Fantasists and science fictionists have it both easier and harder: they get to make it all up INCLUDING the setting... unless they're using a near-future setting, and then they have to make BELIEVABLE changes to current setting. Of course, historicalists have it harder and easier, because they CAN'T visit their settings, but then, neither can their readers. :-)

  2. I just write what I sense the place is saying to me, and then try to describe what it looked like as it staggered or swept or bled across the page.

  3. Most of my settings are a blend of real and imaginary, so I can say truthfully that where it was I've set the book did honestly look like that when I visited it in my head.

    OK, that came out a little more weird than it was supposed to...

    But this business of appropriation bothers me. If we are not allowed to write from the perspective of others, fiction will become very dull reading indeed.