Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Setting Books in Africa

Where you set your book has a direct impact on the story. It gives the atmosphere and can affect the plot and even the way the characters behave. I’ve set most of my stories in Africa where I live but a few partially in Europe. Only one of my novellas was set fully out of Africa. One day, I would like to write a story set in the US, purely for the challenge of it and to reach more readers. Most e-book readers are US based and I don’t think the majority of Americans are interested in other cultures. Times are changing though so I hope my books set in Africa will reach more people.

Why would I want to set my books in Africa then if it doesn’t always guarantee lots of sales? One of the reasons is a bit of fear. I’m afraid of getting the foreign cultures wrong. The other is patriotism and a sense of wanting to share with the world my identity and my corner of the world. I’m also very lazy with research and would rather concentrate on the story then get bogged down with setting details. Not a good reason. Exactly why I want to kick my butt and set a story in the US.

Here are some things I’ve learned about setting a book in Africa:
  1. Try to bring in some special landmarks or characteristics of the place, especially ones that are universally known. For example, in "Dragonfly Moments," I put Tessa’s art gallery smack bang in the middle of Nelson Mandela Square. Immediately, the US readers would identify with “Mandela.”
  2. Still do some research to check your settings unless it’s your home town although even then you may need to double-check information. For example, I did have to research about Johannesburg Central and Soweto for "Dragonfly Moments" because Tessa goes with Ryan to see a pavement painting in Johannesburg Central and then meets orphaned baby, Lilly, at a home in Soweto. Although I’ve visited Johannesburg before, I haven’t actually visited those parts of it.
  3. If possible, still get a Beta reader to check your settings if you don’t feel confident. My follow-on book after "Dragonfly Moments," which is coming out in September, is partly set in Zambia. I haven’t lived there for nearly ten years now so I sent the story to a friend in Zambia to check. She’s not a writer but at least she can check I didn’t make a total mess-up with the settings.
  4. Bring in some cultural bits but don’t bombard the reader with strange words like bakkie or vetkoek or rusk. I know I’ve been guilty of that in the past. You could do it subtly. Maybe bring the word into your dialogue, like say “I want to eat a rusk. I so love those chunky South African biscuits you dip in coffee.”
  5. Don’t write a travelogue. Bring your settings into the story. Use your five senses from the point of view of the main character – what they saw, heard and smelt in their moments in the country. Too long descriptions may get the reader bored.

I want to take pride in my heritage. Yes, South Africa has many negatives. It hasn’t always been the easiest country to live in and has a painful past. But essentially, I am an African. I may be white, but I was born and bred here. I can’t help but bring it out into my books.

Do you like setting your books in your familiar setting or do you prefer to enter an exotic location far away as an escape?

What tips can you offer about setting a book in Africa?


  1. Great tips - thank you Kathy!
    My books are also set in places I've visited or lived in myself.
    The same with emotions in my stories-all that I have experienced myself.
    It seems scary and daunting wanting to try out new countries etc. since you have not been there yourself. It's always the case of hoping you will be able to do the country, culture etc. justice through having only done research and relying on beta-readers.
    Although it seems challenging and daunting, its a road I definitely want to venture with my writing soon.

  2. Very good tips, Kathy!

    I've written stories in places I have never visited (Las Vegas, Prague, Marseille) and what really helped me was visuals - images, candid pics of tourists, even travel documentaries on Youtube. Nothing compares to 'seeing' the setting, even across a screen, and then just having to put your descriptive talents to work :)