Saturday, February 01, 2020

Going back to the beginning

Michael Sears

This weekend, I'm delighted to welcome guest author Michael Stanley, who is actually two fabulous writers in one. To make matters even more amazing, they manage this collaboration while living on two different continents. Here, they talk about why, after writing six books in the Detective Kubu series, they went back to the beginning. Take it away, you two!

Stanley Trollip

In most cases, the writer of a series has from the very beginning a good grasp of the protagonist’s character, personality, and skill set. And has a general idea of how he or she will develop over time.

In our case, things happened very differently.

First, our motivation to write a mystery was largely to see whether we could do it. The catalyst was a trip to Botswana’s wonderful Chobe National Park to watch birds and animals. During the visit, we watched a pack of hyenas attack, kill, and devour a wildebeest. In a matter of hours, there was nothing left because hyenas eat both flesh and bones. 

That gave us the idea for a new way to get away with murder – leave the corpse for the hyenas to dispose of. No body, no case. We decided to take the idea and try to write a complete novel. For ourselves. Certainly, there was no thought of a series, so we put only a little effort into planning our protagonist.

We’d been advised by experienced writers to write what we knew. Because both of us were professors, it made sense to have our protagonist be a professor—in his case, a professor of ecology at the University of Botswana.

So, in chapter one of our mystery, titled A Carrion Death, our ecologist and a game ranger stumble upon a human body being eaten by a hyena. It was immediately obvious to our smart professor that the absence of clothes and teeth suggested that this was no accident. It was murder. So, he had to call the police in to investigate.

We decided to have some fun with this policeman. We made him a very large man, so large, in fact, that his nickname was Kubu, which is the local word for hippopotamus. He packed ample food before he jumped into his Land Rover, as well as cassette tapes of his favorite operas. Then he set off for the Kalahari to inspect the half-eaten corpse.

It was a long way to drive, and Kubu mused about how his bushman school friend had shown him things in the desert that other people overlooked, and how that had sparked his interest in being a detective. By the time he’d arrived at the scene of the crime, Kubu had made it clear to us that he had to be the main character. That came as a complete surprise. We thought we were in charge of the story.

So Kubu was even less planned than our ecologist.

We wrote away, and three years later we had a manuscript. We’d accomplished what we’d set out to do. We twisted the arms of some of the friends who’d been with us in Chobe and asked them to read our magnus opus. They obliged and liked it. So we decided to see if we could get it published.

Forty rejections later, we landed an agent in New York, who, in a matter of weeks, landed a conditional offer from HarperCollins. The condition was that we write a series.

And so from wondering whether we could write a mystery for ourselves with an academic as a protagonist, we ended up with a contract for a series with a protagonist we hadn’t planned.

We were delighted that Kubu won readers’ loyalty, but how well did we actually know him? He was smart and good at solving problems. Unlike many detectives in police procedurals, he was happily married and sober almost all of the time. Of course, during the series his character developed, and his relationships with his wife, parents, and colleagues deepened. There were clues about his childhood in the books—things that had come up as we wrote. We knew he had loving, traditional, but Christian parents and knew of his Bushman friend. We knew he loved to do puzzles with his father. We knew where he’d met his wife. But there was nothing that explained how he’d gone from school to being the star detective in the Botswana Criminal Investigation Department. 

Since the seventies, diamonds have been Botswana’s most important export and allowed the newly independent country to flourish. The richest diamond mine in the world is there, owned by a joint venture between the government and the giant De Beers. The fact that the country was almost totally reliant on diamonds for its success made us wonder about the impact of a massive heist. Could it shake the country’s financial foundation?

We decided to explore both the issue of Kubu’s early role in the CID and a robbery at the height of the diamond boom by writing a prequel to the series—a Kubu mystery that starts the day he joins the CID as a new detective straight out of university. 

Kubu’s first case is a minor matter, yet it’s a challenging puzzle, and he loves it. However, he has to struggle to find a place for himself in the CID. Sometimes his new boss, Assistant Superintendent Mabaku, seems disappointed in him. Then a massive diamond robbery takes place and suddenly everything changes. Everyone is thrown into the case, even the raw detective in his first week on the job.

As we wrote the prequel, we were delighted to watch Kubu develop, having insights, but also making the mistakes that only experience can avoid. He earns respect, but also opprobrium. And as Mabaku comes to appreciate his talents, Kubu becomes more and more central to the case. Eventually, they deduce who the mastermind behind the robbery actually is, but they have no strong evidence. Now they have to find some way to catch him, and Kubu and Mabaku both find their careers on the line—in Kubu’s case, before his career has even begun. 

By the end of the book, Kubu has learned a lot about being in the CID and how to interact with his colleagues and his superiors. He has also fallen in love with a wonderful women and sees some hope that his feelings are reciprocated. 

Writing Facets of Death was a very enjoyable journey of exploration for us. We learnt a lot about how Kubu became the CID’s best detective and about who he is as a person. We know him better now. 

Michael Sears and Stanley Trollip write under the name Michael Stanley. Their award-winning mystery series, featuring Detective Kubu, is set in Botswana, a fascinating country with magnificent conservation areas and varied peoples. The latest book in the series is a prequel, titled Facets of Death. Their latest thriller Shoot the Bastards introduces Minnesotan environmental journalist Crystal Nguyen. Set mainly in South Africa, it has as backstory the vicious trade in rhino horn.
Michael has lived in South Africa, Kenya, Australia and the US. He now lives in Knysna on the Cape south coast of South Africa. Stanley splits his time between Minneapolis, Cape Town, and Denmark. To learn more about them, check out their website.


Frankie Y. Bailey said...

I'm fascinated by this behind the scenes look at your series. I want to begin with the prequel.

Thank you for joining us here on Type M.

Stan Trollip said...

Thanks so much for having us! At this time of year, South Africa is more appealing than the frigid north!

Donis Casey said...

This a wildly good series!