Know It Before You Write It

Today my husband and I said Good-by to Rene and Faustine Mbongo, our dear friends from Senegal, West Africa. 

Today I got a message from a reader who said she just finished The Call of Zulina, book 1 of my Grace inAfrica trilogy.  “You write about as though you really know Africa,” she said. 

Yes, I have been to Africa several times.  I walked the dusty paths of the dry savanna.  I ran my hands over the rough bark of a “planted upside down” giant baobab tree and drank juice from their dry fruit.  I walked through the slave holding fortress on GoreeIsland, and cried at my cruel white-man heritage. 

But I also had Rene and Faustine (whom I met in Africa, by the way).  With insight and emotion, they told me of their country.  They were always available to me on line, answering my questions and correcting my cultural mistakes.  They challenged my preset ideas and opinions with pointed questions of their own.

The easiest setting for a novel is right where you live or have lived.  A place you know so well that you automatically write accurately, and can decorate your writing with little things outsiders are unlikely to not know.  (San Francisco for me.  And Santa Barbara, too.)  Trouble is, the story you may want to tell—or be compelled to tell—might not fit into such a place.  (Slave trade in the 1700s, in the case of my Grace series.) So, whatever the setting, the trick for writers is to get to know it well.  I maintain that the best way to do this is to go and see: touch it, smell it, record the details (Which flowers make the best tea? What does a blowing Harmattan wind feel like?)  

And be sure to make friends with locals willing to help keep you on the right track.  Thank you, Rene and Faustine, for being these people for me.  Thank you for becoming such dear friends.  Thank you for becoming family.

“You made me feel like I was there,” the reader wrote to me.

Thank you, reader.  You were.

Write on!

“These books are not lumps of lifeless paper, but minds alive on the shelves.”

Gilbert Highest


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