Thursday, 11 December 2008

Digging into the past 1

Research. I am always being asked about it (see Q & A page) and, at the moment, the subject is sitting on my shoulder like Winston Churchill’s Black Dog. The next book in the Fonthill series is set in the late 1880’s in a then untamed part of northern South Africa at the birth of what became Rhodesia and later Zimbabwe. It is an historical event that gives me all I need for the background to a Fonthill novel: exploration into a comparatively unknown part of the Dark Continent, a cruel but multi-faceted native chief, a soaringly ambitious white entrepreneur and climax where white settlers fight brave black warriors. The very name of the territory – Matabeleland – sends a frisson through me. It is very much Fonthill territory.

I always like to visit the country that I write about, even though the people, the politics, the very terrain will have changed considerably since Fonthill set foot there. So this seventh novel in the series – due out early in 2010 – poses a problem. As I write, Zimbabwe is the last place in the world anyone would want to visit. The conditions for research are poor, moving around the country is difficult and it is clear that there is little left there to help me reconstruct the final battles that overthrew King Lobengula and allowed Cecil John Rhodes to establish his new colony. Now cholera has broken out there.

I am surrounded by books about the country, some of them valuably contemporaneous of the 1880’s and giving me the kind of detail that I need and love (“abomidable prices: beer four shillings a bottle, Boer brandy six shillings – worth about sixpence in the Cape”). But I need to get the smell and feel of the terrain if I am to persuade readers to accompany Fonthill, Jenkins and Alice on their epic journeys through Matabeland and Masonaland. How to get that without catching a plane to Harare? I am pondering….

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