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

by Guest Author, Victoria Tait

SONY DSC
SONY DSC

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 – 

 

 

 

 

 

 

JH

An Interview with "Rubes" Cartoonist, Leigh Rubin by Jackie Houchin

A cartoon is a mini (micro) short story, often told in a single panel. Astonishingly cartoons tell the “beginning, middle and end” of a story in a single line! How does a cartoonist DO that?  

Okay, okay, I know, a “picture is worth a thousand words,” but still, you have to envision the picture, and then create that “line.”
Leigh Rubin – a man I met decades ago when I went to his family’s print shop for some business cards – has created the now nationally syndicated Rubes® cartoons. Most times his cartoons are tongue-in-cheek, plays-on-words, or puns. Sometimes, you have to think about them for a minute to “get it.” But don’t good stories and books do that too?
Hi Leigh, thanks for stopping by Writers in Residence.
Take us back to the beginning of your story. Your first paperback collection was published in 1988, how did your signature cartoon series originate?  What gave you the idea for animal (and vegetable) humor? 
I had been walking through a drug store in 1978 and passed by the greeting card section. There were these very simply drawn cards with very fun and silly puns called

“Animal Farm” by Sandra Boynton. They were terrific and much different than your standard Hallmark card. It was at that moment I thought “Why don’t I start my own greeting card line?” 

I had been working at my folks print shop since high school so I knew how to run a press, do layout and design, etc. Of course I was majoring in advertising arts in college at the time so everything just sort of clicked. I started the card line in 1979. 


Skip ahead a couple of years….I was getting burned out doing both the card line and working at the print shop. 

I happened to be doodling around and made my signature character into a musical note. Then I started writing silly little puns to go along with the notes and Notable Quotes was born.

Jump ahead a couple more years and I was doing a book signing at a bookstore in Lancaster, California, with my first cartoon collection of Notable Quotes. The entertainment editor at the paper had written a little feature about the event. He and I became friends and it wasn’t long after that he asked if I’d like to draw a cartoon for the local paper. I jumped at the chance. 

On November 1,1984 the first Rubes® was published

At first you were self-syndicated. What does that mean? (Leigh is now represented nationally and internationally by Creators Syndicate.)

Self-syndication means that instead of a syndicate, which is a company that markets and hopefully sells your cartoons, that you (the cartoonist) have the pleasure of being rejected first-hand instead of the newspaper or publication telling the sales rep for the syndicate that they are not interested in your cartoon .

It also means that you “get to” make the sales, send out promo material, do the billing, chase down the people who owe you $$ and experience all the pleasure of running your own business.

Readers are always interested in process. Novelists and short story writers use the question, “What if?” to jump start their imagination and get the creative juices flowing. Describe how a cartoon that “delights millions daily” comes into being at your hands. 
My average day starts with a cup or two or three of whatever coffee my wife happens to brew that day. (I’m not all that picky.) It’s all downhill from there. If I didn’t wake up in the night with an amazing flash of humorous inspiration (yes, it still happens now and then) then it’s all just “winging it” with a mixture of doodling and daydreaming with a heapin’ helping of erasing thrown in for good measure. 

Call me old-fashioned but I still actually physically draw with a pencil on paper. There is something very satisfying with holding an original piece of art. Equally satisfying is tearing up the paper you struggled with all day because the gag didn’t turn out as funny as it was originally envisioned. 

The same cannot be said for drawing on a tablet. If you are unsatisfied, hitting “delete” does not give the same “take that you crappy drawing” sense of satisfaction. (Ah, the sweet sound of paper being torn in half!


Eventually, sometimes sooner than later, a workable concept will magically appear on the paper. An average day is one cartoon. A good day, two. An extraordinary day, three – though honestly, after two I call it a day. After all, there’s always tomorrow and the day after that and the day after that, etc.

  
Producing up to seven fresh cartoons weekly could get stressful. Do you ever get “dry?” What do you do to prime the pump?  (This might help “writer’s block” sufferers.)

As I mentioned, priming the pump consists mainly of intense mental calisthenics (aka “daydreaming”). If I don’t pick up the pencil then “ain’t nuthin’ gonna happen” so it’s best to just START. The sooner that happens the sooner an idea will manifest itself.

“Do I ever get dry?” Well, let’s just say that some days are easier than others. But, no. writer’s block is never an option for me.
You are also an entertaining motivational speaker for businesses, colleges, etc. I attended one and came away almost believing I could be a cartoonist! 
Describe what you do your demonstrations.

I like to think of myself as a “sit down comic.” 

Being in front of a live audience and telling jokes or sharing observational humor, going step by step through the creative process, connecting the dots, and of course some live doodling is great fun. It gives me the opportunity to connect with people from all walks of life with whom I would never have the chance to meet otherwise. 


What I hope that people take away from these live events is to find inspiration in their own lives by seeing from a slightly different and perhaps even humorous perspective, what would otherwise be mundane or unremarkable situations. 

I’ll bet you’ll never guess how funny flossing could be until you think about a sheep or a spider doing it!

Do you have any advice for newbie and hopeful cartoonists, writers and artists just starting out, or those struggling to get published?  

Advice you say? Well, yes. I do have some for what it’s worth. 

If someone you know tells or sends you a letter of rejection don’t take it personally. See if you can find out exactly why that person turned you down. Get the specifics if possible. 

One of my earliest letters of rejection came from a syndicate that loved my gags but thought my drawing needed work. I listened to them and really upped my game. That one reject coupled with some valuable constructive criticism made a huge impact on me and on my career.

Thanks, Leigh. And anything else you’d like to say before you leave? 

Say, would this be a suitable place to plug my latest book, which you can actually get for 25% off? It’s called Rubes® Twisted Pop Culture,and contains over 30 years of my very favorite pop culture cartoons-from Mickey Mouse to the Beatles to Godzilla and hundreds more! 

It would make a fabulous Father’s Day, graduation, belated Mother’s Day, birthday or any day gift!   Here’s the link and a preview:  Rubes.CartoonistBook.com

Besides creating comic humor for newspapers, Leigh has produced books of cartoons, magnets, greeting cards, e-cards, tee-shirts and box calendars. Be sure to visit also his web site and peruse his witty collections and books.   http://www.rubescartoons.com/