Thursday, June 2, 2016

The accidental protagonist and other serendipities

This book-writing business has been a lark from beginning to end.  It happened by mistake and remains serendipitous.

If Michael and I hadn’t seen, in Botswana’s Chobe National Park, a pack of hyenas hunt, kill, and consume a wildebeest in four hours—all of the wildebeest, flesh and bones—we probably would never have thought about writing a mystery. 

Licking the plate after all was gone!
Nothing left for her
Then, it took us more than fifteen years to start writing A CARRION DEATH (which is regarded as borderline impatient in our academic circles), but at least we knew how it was going to start, which saved a few years.  However, we had no idea how it was going to proceed, so we took another three years to finish it, probably throwing away as many words as we kept, because we had no clue what we were doing.  Neither of us had written fiction before—at least not since we were very young.

We were told to write what we knew.  Sounded good, so it was a professor who stumbled across a hyena that had not quite finished dining on a human body.  The professor was smart, in a cool field (ecology), and stood out in comparison to his companion, a game ranger.  He figured out what was going on very quickly, and we were delighted we’d created such a good protagonist.  However, we realised that he couldn’t do everything himself, that we would have to bring a detective from Gaborone to the middle of the Kalahari to do the official  investigation – after all it was a murder.

The only detective who was free that day was Assistant Superintendent David Bengu, sporting what some thought was a rude nickname—Kubu, or hippopotamus in the Setswana language.  And yes, he was big and ponderous.   And dangerous.

Photo: Aron Frankental
So this secondary character jumped into his Land Rover, with sandwiches, something to drink, and various tapes he could sing along with.  Opera tapes.  And the Land Rover was his only stage—and then only when alone—because he was the only person on the planet who thought he had a decent voice.
Kubu faced dangerous animals on the road through the Kalahari.
And as he drove along the sands of the Kalahari, singing lustily, he taught us a lesson we’d never forget.

We thought, as the authors of the book, that we’d be in charge, in control of what happened, and of who did what to whom.

Not so, it turned out.

By the time Kubu had arrived at the camp near where the body had been found, he’d taken over as our main character.  We can just see him, as he was driving, saying to himself: “A professor as protagonist?  Eish!!  No way.  It’s going to me.”

And so it came to pass.  We capitulated immediately, relegating the professor to the background, and Kubu became our accidental protagonist.  To be fair, as Michael always says, we did give him a consolation prize, marrying him off to Kubu’s sister-in-law in a later book.

While writing A CARRION DEATH, we realised we knew nothing about the police or their procedures, at least from the inside, and even less about the Botswana police.  So we started emailing and phoning the Director of the Botswana Criminal Investigation Department (CID) – Director Mulale.  He ignored us.  And continued to ignore us as we continued trying to contact him.  Even his assistant director ignored us.  We felt most put out.  

Eventually we went to Gaborone, Botswana’s capital, to research locations for the book.  When we arrived there one Friday evening, we continued to hound the Director – somehow we’d managed to get hold of his mobile phone.  Eventually, in sheer exasperation, he capitulated, saying “ You’ve worn me out!”  We agreed to meet at noon on the Saturday at our hotel.

Gaborone market outside our hotel
Director Mulale arrived, as tall as Stanley, in jeans, cowboy boots, and a Stetson, and then more than made up for his reticence.  He spent the next six hours driving us all over the area, showing us where various crimes had taken place, where the best drugs were sold, where the police were trained, and where the bad guys were imprisoned. 

Police Training College
Three things stand out about that afternoon.  

First, Director Mulale's friendliness and willingness to share what he knew despite our earlier obnoxious persistence.  

Second, as we drove around, Director Mulale’s mobile kept ringing about a gang of armed South African bank robbers who were in the town of Lobatse, south of Gaborone.  Mulale kept telling his assistant the he was busy with some writers from South Africa and that he, the assistant, should take care of the bad guys.  

And third, during the afternoon, Director Mulale told us that if we wanted to write about something really important, we should write about muti murders – and he told us about the true story of Segametsi Mogamotsi, a young girl who had been abducted, murdered, and various body parts taken for muti or magic potions.  It was on this story that we eventually based DEADLY HARVEST.  He was clearly frustrated by the inability and unwillingness of the police to bring closure to muti-murder cases.

Just released UK edition by Orenda Books
Finally, even though we’d written A CARRION DEATH as a lark—to see whether we could actually write a mystery—we liked it enough to try and get it published.  I was in the States at the time and started sending out query letters to various agents.  Lots of query letters.  Some agents said no; some didn't reply; a few asked us to send more, then said no.  We despaired as all our efforts appeared to be of no avail.

Then, to our great excitement, an agent said she would like to represent us and sent us her contract.  We were very puzzled by it —we didn’t understand it.  There were sections that contradicted each other, sentences that made no sense.  We offered to rewrite the contract, an offer that wasn't well received.  

However, as new authors, we were also VERY keen to get published and were about to sign despite having no idea what the contract meant, when I had dinner with some neighbours.  I told them the saga of the contract, and serendipity intervened once again.  One of the guests said they knew an author I should contact.  To cut a long story short, we soon signed with the writer's agent, who, within a few weeks phoned us to tell us she had a contract with HarperCollins.


“I assume you’re writing a series,” our agent asked.  “Of course,” we replied, never having had the slightest intention of writing a second Kubu book.

“Please email me the synopsis, asap.  Harper's only interested in a series,” she said.  “Of course,” we replied, not having such a thing.

So we scrambled mightily and came up with a synopsis that appeared to satisfy our soon-to-be editor.

Then we signed A TWO-BOOK contract.  Gadzooks!  AND, they were going to give us money up front!  Real money! 

And since then we’ve been part of a mysterious world, filled with contradictions, sometimes frustrations, as well as a great deal of enjoyment. 

And perhaps the most serendipitous outcome of watching those hyenas is that we now hang out with the nicest and most supporting people you will ever meet.  Thank you!


  1. A wonderful journey, Stan. It seems that part of writing fiction is often much like living life: you wander about, bouncing off various items, letting your mind filter the good from the bad. Of course, the other part of writing fiction is translating that into words that leap from the page into others' brains, like the spread of virus from a violent sneeze...

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  3. Hip, Hippo Hooray! Love the story, and the new covers even more! Onward and upward with Kubu.

  4. I just love it that Kubu, appeared in your joint unconscious and, singing opera, drove straight into the story and, fully formed, took over. He is irresistible! Viva Kubu!