“Write What You Know” : An Author’s Experience of Living in Africa

by Guest Author, Victoria Tait

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A common piece of advice given to school children and new authors alike is “Write what you know”.  But many established authors dismiss the principle.  Ken Kesey, author of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, told The New York Times, “One of the dumbest things you were ever taught was to write what you know.   Because what you know is usually dull.”

So where does an aspiring writer begin?  Unlike most authors, I had no lifelong desire to write a book and only considered it as a potential career two years ago.  We moved back to the UK from Kenya so my husband could begin training for his next military posting in Sarajevo, in Bosnia and Herzegovina.  I realised that as I didn’t speak Bosnian, and the country had a high unemployment rate, I was unlikely to find a job.

Further, as a family we would be moving around the UK, and potentially the world, for at least the next eight years.  I needed to keep myself busy and engaged, but not with a physical business like the farm shop I had set up in Kenya.  My new venture needed to be portable and flexible to work around the demands of my family.

I first considered writing as a method to convey the incredible experience I’d had living in Kenya, in Eastern Africa.  I’m not sure if moving to Kenya or returning to the UK was more of a culture shock.  In Kenya I’d become used to a way of life lived at a slower pace, with no judgement of what people wore or what car they drove, and far less emphasis on the material side of life.

Giraffe samburuIn Africa, the first priority is to survive and so each day, and certainly every birthday, is celebrated.  After that come friendships and community and, of course, enjoying the glorious sunshine, fantastic scenery and amazing wildlife that Kenya is famous for.

P.D. James wrote in her “10 Tips for writing novels” for the BBC, “You absolutely should write about what you know.  There are all sorts of small things that you store up and use, nothing is lost as a writer.  You have to learn to stand outside yourself.  All experience, whether it is painful or whether is is happy is somehow stored up and sooner or later it’s used.”

My Kenya Kanga Mystery Series is set in Nanyuki, a small market town three hours north of Nairobi, Kenya’s capital.   It is dominated by the often snow-capped Mount Kenya which, at over 17,000 ft, is the second highest mountain in Africa.  This is where I lived for six years, and it’s the perfect setting for a cozy mystery series.

Mkt St SceneIn my books I’ve used actual locations, such as Dormans, a town centre coffee shop and a hub of gossip, and the relaxed garden location of Cape Chestnut restaurant.  Other places, such as the Mount Kenya Resort and Spa, are recognisable as being based on real settings which I’ve altered to suit my stories.

Small towns in cozy mystery series can develop the “Cabot Cove” syndrome; if Cabot Cove existed in real life it would top a number of categories of the FBI’s national crime statistics. 

To avoid this phenomenon, I themed the second and subsequent books around actual events.  These include an important elephant focused wildlife summit, a 4×4 off-road charity event in the Maasai Mara and, in the book I am releasing in May, a marathon in a UNESCO World Heritage wildlife reserve.

Elephant Mother & Child PuddleA sense of place is important to me and my writing.  Has a certain smell or the call of a bird transported you back to a memorable location? I try to convey the smells, sounds and sights of the individual settings and it does help that I’ve visited most of them.  And if I haven’t, as P.D. James said, I can use snippets of other places that I have stored up to successfully create them.

The characters are another aspect of my books which I’ve developed as I’ve expanded my writing craft.  Mama Rose is based on an incredible friend of mine, now in her 80s, who is a community vet, a staunch catholic and a member of various committees.  The help and assistance she has given, and continues to provide, those less fortunate than herself can not be fully conveyed in my books. But is it important to recognise, and remember, that there are still people who put others before themselves and work for what is morally right and just in life.

The other characters have developed from meeting people and observing situations in Kenya: the interaction of customers and stall holders at the local vegetable market, street sellers trying to persuade tourists and visitors to buy their wares, and the ability of a charismatic priest to captivate his audience in a town centre park.

A snippet I have woven into one of my books occurred when I took my young children to mitumba; a large jumble sale of donated thrift clothes, and other items, from first world countries which are shipped to Kenya and sold in makeshift markets.

Mitumba 3Two raggedly dressed, and shoeless, children tentatively approached our car holding out their hands in a begging gesture.  I remembered two squares of jam sandwich which my boys hadn’t eaten.  I handed the pieces to the children expecting them to stuff them into their mouths, but instead they just stood and waited.   Slowly they were joined by a group of similarly attired children, and those who had the sandwiches carefully divided them up until every child had a small morsel to eat. 

This was an incredibly humbling experience.  So perhaps it is not necessarily “write what you know” but “write what you feel”. After all, as writers we strive to elicit an emotional response in our readers’ minds.

Finally, Dan Brown said, “You should write something that you need to go and learn about.”  As writers we do need to expand our knowledge, and understanding, and researching is one of my favourite area in the writing process.  I have learnt so much more about Kenya than I knew, or understood, when I lived there.

RHINO CHARGERhino Charge, my third book, has many Kenyan Indian characters.  It evolves around events at a 4×4 vehicle off-road event which is popular amongst the Kenyan Indian community.  Whilst I had Indian friends, I wasn’t aware of how, or why, their ancestors had settled in Kenya.  Researching this aspect of the Kenyan culture was fascinating.  I learnt that Indians came to Kenya with the British and supported the creation of the East African Protectorate, which became Kenya, as clerks, accountants and police officers.

Two and a half thousand Indian labourers died during the construction of the Mombasa to Uganda railway line, including those killed by the infamous man-eating lions of Tsavo.  The rupee was the first currency used in the colony which was ruled using an extension of Indian law.  On the 22nd July 2017, President Kenyatta officially recognised the Indian community as the 44th tribe of Kenya.  Researching and learning this extended my knowledge and increased the depth of Rhino Charge.

Not all authors are luckily enough to live in extraordinary locations such as Kenya, or Bosnia and Herzegovina, but small towns still have their own customs and query characters. 

I’m currently planning my next series which will be set in areas of the UK I have lived in and visited. The theme is antiques, of which I have no knowledge.  I enjoyed, and was fascinated by, auctions which I attended on my return to the UK, to buy furniture for our house.  And I observed some fantastic people for the basis of my characters.  I’ll research collectibles, antiques and related crimes to build interesting stories with “can’t put down” plots.

Mostar, HerzigovinaWhen I can finally move freely around Sarajevo, and Bosnia and Herzegovina, I will begin researching for a future series.  I’ve already discovered that everyone here has a story to tell from the devastating war and various sieges, including the longest in modern history in Sarajevo.  As I search for potential locations, characters and stories my attention will be more focused as I learn to observe and record even the smallest incidents.  Who knows what snippets will make into future books.

 

Author Links

You can find Victoria at https://www.victoriatait.com/ or on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/VictoriaTait

Blog/News: https://victoriatait.com/news/

GoodReads: https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/20373879.Victoria_Tait

Pinterest: https://www.pinterest.co.uk/vataitauthor/

Purchase Links – Amazon – B&N – Kobo – 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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How I Use Nonfiction and Fiction for Research and Inspiration

By Guest Author,  Sara Rosett

Some writers can sit down at their computer with no idea of what they will write about and launch into the first draft of their book. They find the blank screen and the infinite possibilities exciting and inspiring. I’m not one of those writers. I must have an idea of where the story is going before I begin writing. Otherwise, the blank screen paralyzes me. Before I begin a book, I spend a lot of time researching and thinking about the story. I’ve discovered that both nonfiction and fiction inspire different aspects of the story for me.

Nonfiction

I like to dig into nonfiction as I brainstorm my historical mystery plots. Here are a few of the resources I’ve found most helpful:

Newspaper Archives—My historical series is set in early 1920s England, so the online British Newspaper Archive has been an invaluable resource. I scoured the Positions Available section, what we’d call the Help Wanted section today, which gave me an insight into the jobs were available, the qualifications required, and the salaries that were paid. The British Newspaper Archive has magazines in addition to newspapers, and those are wonderful for getting a feel for what people read in their leisure time. One delightful surprise came as I flipped through an issue of the Sketch. I came across the first publication of Agatha Christie’s short story, The Adventure of the Egyptian Tomb with Poirot and Hastings.

Magazine and newspaper advertisements are also helpful for researching clothing and fashion as well as helping me keep in mind the attitudes of the time. Ads for fur coats and smoking tobacco seem a bit jarring to me as a modern reader, but browsing the ads helps me keep in mind the typical mindset of someone who lived in the early 1920s.

Nonfiction books—Once I have a general idea of the direction of the story, I search out nonfiction books related to the theme of the novel. I’ve read all sorts of books—everything from books on the English country house to code breaking during World War I. I find nonfiction is an excellent source for clues and red herrings. Nonfiction books have even inspired a complete plot. The second book in my historical series is about an author who keeps her gender secret from everyone—including her publisher. A real-life author who did the same thing inspired that story idea.

While researching the Egyptomania that gripped the world after the discovery of King Tut’s tomb, I ran across a story of a British nobleman who had been connected to the excavation and committed suicide. That incident became the jumping off point for the third book in my series, The Egyptian Antiquities Murder.

Memoirs—One of the most valuable resources I’ve found for getting inside the heads of my historical characters are memoirs and biographies. The Bright Young People of the 1920s were a prolific and literary bunch. It’s easy to find information about them, and reading about their midnight scavenger hunts and paper chases across London as well as their extravagant themed parties meant that I had plenty of ideas for a book set in London among the high society set when it came time to write An Old Money Murder in Mayfair. In addition to story ideas, I also cull clues in red herrings from memoirs. I note down the things that people hid from their families or feared would become public knowledge.

Video clips—I didn’t realize how much video is available from the early 1920s. YouTube and stock image sites have quite a bit from that time. I’ve watched videos of people strolling in Trafalgar Square, dancing in nightclubs, as well as an informational video from the 1920s on how the brakes work on an early motorcar, which was critical when plotting how a certain murder was committed.

Vintage clothing auction sites—My readers want to imagine the characters wearing flapper dresses and elegant evening gowns. I need to know about the fabric, cut, and embellishments of the dresses. With multiple images of individual clothing items, auction listings of vintage clothes are a good source of detailed information about the materials and construction of the clothes of the era. Another great source for clothing details and inspiration is the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute with its extensive online collection.

Fiction

I was a fan of Golden Age mysteries, but I’d always read them for pleasure, not research. When I decided to write a historical mystery, I began reading and rereading my old favorites as well as seeking out new authors from the era. I read the books in a different way and found that they gave me a first-hand view of day-to-day life in the time. I used my fiction-reading to glean small details that gave my stories the feel of the time.

Dialogue—Writing dialogue is one of my favorite parts of writing a High Society Lady Detective series. Much of the verbiage is inspired by my reading of Golden age fiction. Terms like old bean, old thing, topping, and that’s not cricket are common in Golden Age mysteries. The posh set was fond of their adjectives and adverbs, so I use those types of words in conversation in my historical books in a way that I wouldn’t do in a contemporary novel. Everything was ghastly, frightful or screamingly. I sprinkle those terms throughout conversation to give it a feel of the 1920s.

Culture—As I read Golden Age fiction, I made mental notes of how the characters’ lifestyles: the size of their houses, whether or not they had telephones, what they ate for meals, as well as what types of cars they drove—even if they had a car. Another thing I noticed was the formality of conversation and address. People rarely used their first names when they spoke to each other unless they were well acquainted. I fold all those details into my stories.

I’ve learned to allow some time to delve into research before I begin a book. I gather these all these details and ideas, then let them brew in my mind for a while. By the time I sit down to actually begin writing, I have a pretty good idea of the direction I want to go and some of the clues and red herrings I’ll use. If I take the time to absorb ideas from both nonfiction and fiction that blank screen isn’t as intimating and my writing goes much faster.

 

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Sara Rosett Author Photo 2016 Headshot 1500 copyUSA Today bestselling author Sara Rosett writes lighthearted mysteries for readers who enjoy atmospheric settings, fun characters, and puzzling whodunits. She loves reading Golden Age mysteries, watching Jane Austen adaptions, and travel. Publishers Weekly called Sara’s books “enchanting,” “well-executed,” and “sparkling.”

She is the author of the High Society Lady Detective historical mystery series as well as three contemporary cozy series: the Murder on Location series, the On the Run series, and the Ellie Avery series. Sara also teaches an online course, How to Outline A Cozy Mystery, and is the author of How to Write a Series. Sara’s latest release is An Old Money Murder in Mayfair. Find out more at SaraRosett.com.

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This article was posted for Sara Rosett by Jackie Houchin (Photojaq)

Clothes Make the Character

By guest author,  Sally Carpenter

If you saw a stranger walking down the street, what can you tell from her clothes? Sherlock Holmes could determine the social standing, wealth, occupation, education and gender of persons by their clothes.

Authors use to spend much time in describing their characters’ garments, sometimes to a fault. Without TV or film, writers felt they needed many words to help readers depict the characters in their minds.

In the story “A Scandal in Bohemia,” Arthur Conan Doyle writes: “His dress was rich with a richness which would, in England, be looked upon as akin to bad taste. Heavy bands of astrakhan were slashed across the sleeves and fronts of his double-breasted coat, while the deep blue cloak which was thrown over his shoulders was lined with flame-colored silk and secured at the neck with a brooch which consisted of a single flaming beryl. Boots which extended halfway up to his calves, and which were trimmed at the tops with rich brown fur, completed the impression of barbaric opulence . . .” Sensory overload!

Nowadays writers limit their characters’ physical description, because readers often skip over lengthy sketches to get to the action, and also to encouraging readers to imagine their own selves in the story.

Nancy Ddrew 2The only physical description we have of Nancy Drew is her “titian hair” and “blue eyes.” However, we hear a lot about her chic wardrobe and apparently endless clothes closet. Beyond her stylish threads, Nancy often dresses in costumes and old garments found in attic trunks. When the books were originally released in the 1930s, low-income readers could imagine  wearing Nancy’s pretty outfits for themselves.

Cozy mysteries continue the trend of “less is more.” Clothes are mentioned briefly, if at all. With the modern heroine’s casual lifestyle, her wardrobe consists of tee-shirts, sweats and jeans. Readers want a quick and easy read without wading through mounds of description.

But when I started writing my Psychedelic Spy retro-cozy series, clothing was crucial.

Flower_Power_Fatality_jpg (1) (1)The books are set in 1967, an era of vibrant and varied clothes. Poodle skirts and bobby socks gave way to miniskirts and pillbox hats. East Indian garments were in style. The “British invasion” of roc

 

k music also brought English designers such as Mary Quant. African Americans adopted styles that expressed their ethnicity. The hippies had their own unique forms of dress.

Clothing of the 1960s differs so much from today’s styles that I had to describe nearly everything that people wore. I tried to keep such explanations to a minimum, yet the clothes were essential to place the reader into the era.

My protagonist, Noelle McNabb, is single and 25 years old. She apparently spends most of her income on clothes. In the first book, “Flower Power Fatality,” Noelle wears 14 different outfits! And her clothes are new, many purchased at the big city mall. She talks about how she loves shopping and checking out the latest fashions.

In finding clothes for Noelle, I’ve used a few costumes that I’ve seen in 1960s TV shows. I also have a great reference book, “Fashionable Clothing from the Sears catalogs: Mid 1960s.” The book has actual photos (and prices) from the era’s Sears mail order catalogs. I’d love to see those clothes come back into style, as they’re more beautiful and feminine than the women’s tee-shirts and leggings sold today.

Clothes also express the generation gap. When Noelle wears a miniskirt to church, her mother complains that the dress is too short. Mom is clad old, fussy dresses with below-the-knee skirts. Mom wears stockings and garter belts; Noelle is in pantyhose and colored tights.

In the 1960s, women wore dresses more frequently than today. I put Noelle in dresses most of the time. Even when she wears pants at her record store job, she’s in nice slacks and pant suits. The only time she’s in dungarees is when lounging around home.

Jeans are reserved for my “bad boy” characters, a group of young males who spend their time racing their choppers, shooting craps and smoking Marlboro cigarettes. In the mid 1960s denim was only slowing becoming acceptable as a fashion choice.

afro in orangeDestiny King is an African American agent who takes Noelle on her spy missions. Destiny sports a trimmed Afro and frequently wears jumpsuits. Her clothes are functional in more ways than one way. For example, she has a pair of earrings that are really plastic explosives.

My hippie couple, Rambler and Moonbaby, are the most fun to cloth. Hippies wore an eclectic style, often put together from castaways and thrift store finds. Styles, patterns and colors did not need to match. One useful reference book is “The Hippie Handbook” by Chelsea Cain, which has a chapter on “How to Dress Like a Hippie” and information on making skirts out of old jeans and how to tie-dye a shirt.

Trevor Spellman is a newspaper reporter on the prowl for a big scoop. He rebels against the small-town norms by wearing his hair long—below his ears—and he never puts on a tie. In the 1960s the collarless shirt became appropriate for formal/dress wear.

The clothing of Mr. Baldwin, the audio-visual technician at the high school, describes him well: white shirts, skinny dark ties, dark pants, plastic-rim glasses and a “dorky haircut.” Did “geek” and “nerd” pop into your head?

What the retired Army colonel wears also paints a picture. He’s in an Army bomber jacket over a khaki shirt. “His voice was as crisp and sharp as the creases pressed into his khaki pants.” Even in retirement he runs his life with military precision.

Clothes can describe a character more efficiently than a long list of traits, helping a reader to visualize a person more so that relying on the reader’s imagination alone.

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NEW Carpenter photoSally Carpenter is native Hoosier living in southern California.  She has a master’s degree in theater, a Master of Divinity and a black belt in tae kwon do.

Her Sandy Fairfax Teen Idol books are: The Baffled Beatlemaniac Caper (2012 Eureka! Award finalist), The Sinister Sitcom Caper, The Cunning Cruise Ship Caper and The Quirky Quiz Show Caper.

Her Psychedelic Spy series has Flower Power Fatality and the upcoming Hippie Haven Homicide (2020).  Sally has stories in three anthologies and a chapter in the group mystery Chasing the Codex.

She’s a member of Sisters in Crime/Los Angeles. Reach her her at Facebook or  http://sandyfairfaxauthor.com or scwriter@earthlink.net.

 

This article was posted for Sally Carpenter by Jackie Houchin