SETTING – ON GETTING IT RIGHT (Michael Sears-1/2 of Michael Stanley)

Details really matter in a story because a well-written story draws the reader into the author’s universe.  J.K. Rowling created a world so she was free to allow her imagination to roam.  But once the first book was published, she was locked into those details because her readers didn’t forget a single one.

Playing around with historical characters for no good reason, makes me very annoyed.  I did not watch any of the Showtime series on the Tudors but the picture of Henry VIII as a thin, dark-haired man made me crazy.  There were so many portraits done of Henry in his lifetime that it is impossible not to know that he had red hair and blue eyes.  He was also tall even by the standards of our day.  They got it wrong for no reason.

Michael Sears, one of the authors of the Kubu series set in Botswana, explains why researching the setting is necessary when using a true place.  He explains in an interesting and informative post that appeared on his blog, Murder Is Everywhere, on November 25, 2010


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.

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