The Sequel that Kinda Sorta Isn’t, by guest blogger Bob Tarte

Hello, campers —

Before I introduce today’s installment in our guest blog series by hardworking authors about the ins and outs of moving smoothly from one book to the next, let me ask you: is this not one of the best, most mood-evocative book covers you have ever seen?

It is, for those of you reading this in some strange universe in which the Internet does not come with pictures, the cover art for the always-hilarious Bob Tarte‘s latest foray into memoir, Kitty Cornered. I’m going to have a lot to say in praise of Bob — for my money, one of the consistently funniest memoirists working in American English, and certainly one of the best documenters of the wackiness of life — but first, let’s talk about why this is such a tremendously good book cover.

Actually, scratch that, so to speak: before we slide into first, allow me to pause a moment to let you in on how I know for a fact that this is an unusually eye-catching book cover: my 13-year-old neighbor was absolutely riveted by it when he visited the other day. Not only did he instantly pounce upon the book and begin leafing through it — the moment he walked into my library, he made what can only be called a beeline for it.

Actually ran to get his I’m sorry to report grubby paws upon that book. As if it were — sorry, but it must be said — catnip.

Now that’s a cover that does its job, and then some. Kudos to the marketing and art departments at Algonquin Press for a magnificent achievement in a notoriously difficult medium.

Fair warning: if read this book in a public place, be prepared for total strangers to come running up to you and ask what on earth you’re reading. I’ve seen it with my own eyes. If I were planning into, say, a crowded writers’ conference anytime soon and wanted to make some friends fast, I would nonchalantly tote this book under my arm. (Again, well done, Algonquin.)

Why am I so impressed by this cover? Well, you try to come up with a photo that makes that winsome kitty appear intent upon beating Godzilla in a race to stomp on Tokyo. It provides a great twist on the expected. But that’s not the only reason I like it: it’s rare that a cover captures the spirit of the book within this well. That mad-eyed cat, combined with the offbeat lettering, tell the reader pretty plainly that this is going to be — and having read the book, I’m not too afraid of going out on an interpretive limb here — an uproarious memoir about living with a small battalion of marauding cats.

Which, as luck would have it, is precisely what the book is about. Check out the publisher’s blurb:

Bob Tarte had his first encounter with a cat when he was two and a half years old. He should have learned his lesson then, from Fluffy. But as he says,
I listened to my heart instead, and that always leads to trouble.” In this tell-all of how the Tarte household grew from one recalcitrant cat to six — including a hard-to-manage stray named Frannie–Tarte confesses to allowing these interlopers to shape his and his wife’s life, from their dining habits to their sleeping arrangements to the placement and furriness of their furniture.

But more than that, Bob begins seeing Frannie and the other cats as unlikely instructors in the art of achieving contentment, even in the face of illness and injury. Bewitched by the unknowable nature of domesticated cats, he realizes that sometimes wildness and mystery are exactly what he needs.

With the winning humor and uncanny ability to capture the soul of the animal world that made Enslaved by Ducks a success, Tarte shows us that life with animals gives us a way out of our narrow human perspective to glimpse something larger, more enduring, and more grounded in the simplicities of love–and catnip.

Just between us, Bob has a pretty great eye for image composition himself. I would highly encourage those of you interested in marvelous critter pics to check out his Facebook page and/or follow me on Twitter @BobTarte; he posts new bird and beast photos there with charming regularity.

Of course, authors seldom have any direct say over their cover art — you knew that, right? — but they do often provide their author photos. Bob always has superlative ones. Check out his latest:

Bob with Maynard and Frannie

Doesn’t leave you in much doubt about the subject matter of his memoir, does it? Nor does it leave his platform in question: the guy obviously knows cats.

Again, that’s good promotional strategy: what’s more boring than the standard-issue, flatteringly-lit jacket photo? I say hear, hear for author photos that actually make the author look like he might have some real-world experience with his subject matter. And isn’t it a perennial source of astonishment how few author photos actually do?

But all of that is secondary to the purpose of this series: to blandish hardworking, successful authors into sharing their thoughts on something we literary types virtually never talk about amongst ourselves, the difficult task of switching gears — and sometimes authorial voices — between books. That’s a rather strange topic to avoid, from my perspective, because if one is going to be a working author, one presumably will need to tinker with one’s original voice to fit the next story.

Oh. you thought the Voice Fairy stole with little cat feet into writing studios across this fine land of ours, whacking established authors on their august noggins, and twittering, “There, my dear — write away!”

Obviously, that’s not happening — but let’s face it, writers new to writing humor often believe something almost as implausible. They (and, if the author does her job right, her readership) often labor under the mistaken impression that a funny voice pops out of a gifted storyteller as spontaneously as breathing. Or — sacre bleu! — that all a person that’s good at telling amusing anecdotes has to do is provide a transcript of what she might sound like in a bar, and poof! Hilarity ensues.

Cue the Humor Fairy. You’ll find her in the dressing room she shares with the Pathos Pixie, the Dialogue Dervish, and the Opening Grabber Genie.

Mind if I inject a little reality into that fantasy? Yes, a great humorous memoir voice will come across on the page as effortless, but a truly fine, memorable, and in Bob’s case simultaneously side-splitting and deeply honest voice doesn’t happen all by itself. It takes work. And throughout this series, I’m going to be asking authors to be generous and brave enough to talk about that often-difficult process.

I’m particularly delighted to be able to bring you Bob’s thoughts on the process. Not only is he a well-recognized master of spinning a yarn, but he also had to mine his creativity to fine-tune his already quite successful voice to a new breed of story.

And no, I’m not going to cut out the cat puns anytime soon, but thanks for asking.

As tempted as I am to let the cat out of the bag (don’t say I didn’t warn you), far be it from me to stand between a gifted storyteller and his audience. I suspect, though, that what follows will be even more instructive — and even more fun — if I give you a swift guided tour of Bob’s earlier work, on the off chance that some of you have not yet had the opportunity to become familiar with Bob’s work (or perchance missed his earlier guest blogs on developing a unique authorial voice for memoir and dealing with reader expectations).

In that spirit, here’s the publisher’s blurb for his breakthrough memoir, Enslaved By Ducks: How One Man Went from Head of the Household to Bottom of the Pecking Order:

enslavedbyducksjacketWhen Bob Tarte left the city of Grand Rapids, Michigan for the country, he was thinking peace and quiet. He’d write his music reviews in the solitude of his rural home on the outskirts of everything.

Then he married Linda. She wanted a rabbit. How much trouble, he thought, could a bunny be?

Well, after the bunny chewed his way through the electrical wires and then hid inside the wall, Bob realized that he had been outwitted. But that was just the beginning. There were parrots, more rabbits, then ducks and African geese. The orphaned turkeys stranded on a nearby road. The abandoned starlings. The sad duck for sale for 25 cents.

Bob suddenly found himself constructing pens, cages, barriers, buying feed, clearing duck waste, spoonfeeding at mealtime. One day he realized that he no longer had a life of quiet serenity, but that he’d become a servant to a relentlessly demanding family: Stanley Sue, a gender-switching African grey parrot; Hector, a cantankerous shoulder-sitting Muscovy duck; Howard, an amorous ring-neck dove; and a motley crew of others. Somehow, against every instinct in him, Bob had unwittingly become their slave.

He read all the classic animal books — The Parrot Who Owns Me, The Dog who Rescues Cats, Arnie the Darling Starling, That Quail Robert, The Cat Who Came for Christmas — about the joys of animals, the touching moments. But none revealed what it was really like to live with an unruly menagerie.

Bob Tarte’s witty account reveals the truth of animal ownership: who really owns who, the complicated logistics of accommodating many species under one roof, the intricate routines that evolve, and ultimately, the distinct and insistent personalities of every animal in the house – and on its perimeter. Writing as someone who’s been ambushed by the way in which animals — even cranky ones — can wend their way into one’s heart, Bob Tarte is James Herriot by way of Bill Bryson.

And here’s the blurb for his second memoir, Fowl Weather:
How Thirty-Nine Animals and a Sock Monkey Took Over My Life

fowlweatherjacketBob Tarte’s second book, Fowl Weather, returns us to the Michigan house where pandemonium is the governing principle, and where 39 animals rule the roost. But as things seem to spiral out of control, as his parents age and his mother’s grasp on reality loosens as she battles Alzheimer’s disease, Bob unexpectedly finds support from the gaggle of animals around him. They provide, in their irrational fashion, models for how to live.

It is their alien presences, their sense of humor, and their unpredictable behaviors that both drive Bob crazy and paradoxically return him to sanity. Whether it’s the knot-tying African grey parrot, the overweight cat who’s trained Bob to hold her water bowl just above the floor, or the duck who bests Bob in a shoving match, this is the menagerie, along with his endlessly optimistic wife Linda, that teaches him about the chaos that’s a necessary part of life.

No less demanding than the animals are the people who torment Bob and Linda. There’s the master gardener who steps on plants, the pet sitter applicant who never met an animal he didn’t want to butcher, and a woman Bob hasn’t seen since elementary school who suddenly butts into his life.

With the same biting humor and ability to capture the soul of the animal world that made Enslaved by Ducks such a rousing success, Bob Tarte shows us that life with animals gives us a way out of our small human perspectives to glimpse something larger, more enduring, and more wholly grounded in the simplicities of love — even across species lines.

With both of those intriguing premises firmly in mind, let’s see what words of wisdom on strategizing voice are wiggling on the end of the string that’s…I mean, let’s get on with stalking…wait — fireman, what’s that up in that nearby tree?

Oh, I give up. Please join me in welcoming back Bob Tarte!

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I had big, fat, goose-size hopes for Enslaved by Ducks back in 2003. In my fantasies, the book would become such a huge honking success that I could spend the rest of my days humming cheerily as I effortlessly churned out sequels.

Unfortunately, I had overestimated the clout of readers who kept ducks as pets. The total population of duck owners in the US probably couldn’t fill a single theater in a shopping mall multiplex. In fact, they probably couldn’t fill a jumbo popcorn tub. So their enthusiasm only got me so far. Enslaved by Ducks sold steadily, but slowly. I wanted to do better.

For my second book, I decided that I would break out of the traditional pet book mold and vault into the ample lap of the general public. I didn’t take the ducks, geese, parrots, rabbits, cats, and other critters out of Fowl Weather. Instead I wrote about how they affected my life during a stressful period of time in which I lost my dad, my mom was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, and ghost cats haunted our basement. The result was a book that some folks thought was the funniest thing that they had ever read and others decided was mega-depressing.

NPR’s Nancy Pearl occupied the former camp, and thanks to her enthusiastic January 22, 2008 “Under the Radar” review on Morning Edition, Fowl Weather was briefly the sixty-third best selling book on all of Amazon. But after that it sunk like a rock tied to an anvil, never making it out of hardcover — even as Enslaved by Ducks gradually waddled into its thirteenth paperback printing in 2012.

So what went wrong with my sequel? Lots of things. Pushing the animals even slightly into the background wasn’t the smartest approach, since critters were what my readers wanted. And the subject matter was dark compared to Enslaved by Ducks. Because there were so many narrative threads and no single string strong enough to hang a catchy subtitle on, Fowl Weather also proved to be tricky to market. Death and Alzheimer’s weren’t suitable subjects for a humorous back cover blurb. And the non-waterfowl-owning segment of the population that had enjoyed Enslaved by Ducks presumably spotted the duckling on the cover of Fowl Weather and decided that it was a rerun.

In other words, Fowl Weather was simultaneously too different and too similar to my first book. It took me years to figure out how to follow it up, even though the solution lay right under my nose. It was as close as the nearest litter box.

It took me twice as long to write Kitty Cornered as it had to write either of my first two books. It didn’t start out as a cat book. I kept trying to find new ways to write about our birds and other pets. While the cats kept clawing their way into the narrative, I never even considered making them the subjects of a book, because I couldn’t shake loose of the image of myself as the duck guy. I couldn’t shake loose of any good ideas, either. In an attempt to add some verve to a sagging repertoire of avian anecdotes, I concocted an increasingly unlikely series of devices, culminating in — I’m embarrassed to admit — a goose egg crystal ball that revealed incidents from my pre-pet past. This didn’t work out any better than it sounds here.

Fortunately a skittish white-and-black stray cat showed up to rescue me from author’s oblivion. As soon as I decided to write about this complicated little being that we named Frannie, I felt as if a huge goose-size burden had been lifted from my shoulders. I incorporated the strongest aspects of my first two books into Kitty Cornered, keeping the sunny-to-partly-cloudy tone of Enslaved by Ducks and the overlapping narratives of Fowl Weather, all the time returning the focus to Frannie as I wrote about all six cats.

My re-invention as a cat guy seems to have worked. Kitty Cornered was on the independent bookstore indie bestseller list during its first two weeks on the shelves, and when it was just short of a month old, it went into a second printing. Naturally, I’m hoping that it continues to gain momentum. It sure would be great to be able to knock out a couple of sequels, you know?

Bob Tarte and his wife Linda live on the edge of a shoe-sucking swamp near the West Michigan village of Lowell. When not fending off mosquitoes during temperate months and chipping ice out of plastic wading pools in the depths of winter, Bob writes books about his pets.

Emmy Award-winning actress Patricia Heaton has taken on an option on the dramatic rights to Enslaved by Ducks. Fowl Weather was selected as an “Under The Radar” book for 2008 by Nancy Pearl on NPR’s Morning Edition.

Bob wrote the Technobeat world music review column for The Beat magazine from 1989 to 2009. He has also written for The New York Times, The Boston Globe, and The Miami New Times newspapers.

Bob also hosts a podcast for PetLifeRadio.com called What Were You Thinking? that’s supposedly about “exotic pets” as a general topic, but the show just as often turns into a chronicle of life with his own troublesome critters.

Bob and Linda currently serve the whims of parrots, ducks, geese, parakeets, a rabbit, doves, cats, and hens. They also raise and release orphan songbirds (including woodpeckers) for the Wildlife Rehab Center, Ltd. in Grand Rapids and have the scars to prove it.

Writing a single mystery is difficult; writing a series can be murder by guest bloggers Stan Trollip and Michael Sears, better known to mystery aficionados as Michael Stanley



Ah, the first long weekend of the warm months, a time perfect for relaxing with family, dawdling on a beach, and/or driving that 50+ miles that news organizations always seem so excited to report U.S. residents are planning on embarking upon this weekend every year. Or so I’m told. I wouldn’t know about it, really: writers tend to spend long weekends working on their books. If their kith and kin are out relaxing, beach-combing, or getting stuck in traffic, how would we know? We’re where we always are whenever we can grab a spare minute: wrestling with story, plot, and characterization.

God bless us all, every one.

In that spirit of laudable endeavor, I’ve planned a two-sided treat of all of you stalwart souls plugging away at your computers this weekend, rather than roasting something hefty on a gas-powered grill. Beginning today, I shall be posting a series of guest blogs by hardworking authors about the ins and outs of constructing a series — or making that always surprisingly tough transition from a first book to a second.

Emphasis on hardworking: in pulling together this series, I made a point of asking authors that had paid their dues, and then some. These are the folks that did everything right for years on end. In these days of ostensible overnight successes and surprise bestsellers by authors who have privately been working feverishly for ten or twenty years on craft, I think it’s vital for aspiring writers to understand that publishing is one of the few artistic endeavors where slow and steady not only wins the race in the long run, but tends to produce better books.

Case in point: today’s guest bloggers, the prolific writing team of Stanley Trollip and Michael Sears, better known to awards committees around the nation as mystery novelist Michael Stanley, author of the acclaimed Detective Kubu series. Those of you who have been hanging around the Author! Author! community for a while may remember his earlier excellent guest posts on book tours, the publication process, and writing with a partner.

This pair is among the most dedicated mystery-writing teams on the planet — and lest you think that’s an exaggeration, let me hasten to add that they live in two different hemispheres, presenting collaboration challenges of which stateside co-authors can only have shuddering nightmares. Yet when I contacted Stan to beg implore ask him to contribute a post to this series on series-writing — and reached him the day before he and his collaborator were slated to complete their fourth novel — he not only instantly said yes, but asked how best to focus the post to assist those of you in the Author! Author! community currently writing series.

That’s what I like to see in an author: generosity, professionalism, and a strong understanding that being an author means being part of a writing community. One never stops paying dues to that community, admittedly, but the rewards are pretty delightful.

Something else I like to see in authors that this team has in spades, doubled and redoubled: a talent for keeping the reader constantly guessing. I’m not the only one to recognize this rare gift, either: their most recent release, Death of the Mantis (also available as an audio book at Audiobookstand), has been racking up accolades like Lincoln logs since its release last year. An entirely representative sample:

Shortlisted for Edgar — Best paperback original
Shortlisted for A Minnesota Book Award — Genre Fiction
Shortlisted for a Barry — Best paperback original
The Strand Magazine 12 best mysteries of 2011.
Library Journal top 10 mysteries for 2011

“Impossible to put down, this immensely readable third entry from (Michael Stanley) delivers the goods. Kubu’s painstaking detecting skills make him a sort of Hercule Poirot of the desert.”

Starred Review, Library Journal

“…a must-read for anyone who enjoys clever plotting, terrific writing, and a fascinating glimpse of today’s Africa.”

Charles Todd, New York Times bestselling mystery author

“…the best book yet in one of the best series going… I loved this book.”

Timothy Hallinan, author of The Queen of Patpong and A Nail Through the Heart

“…the best book I’ve read in a very long time…DEATH OF THE MANTIS is a fantastic read. Brilliant!”

Louise Penny, multiple award-winning author of the Inspector Gamache mysteries

Is this where I get to say I told you so? Seriously, in my humble, notoriously-critical-of-English-prose opinion, this is their best book so far. Take a gander at the publisher’s blurb:

Surrounded by a group of Bushmen, a ranger at a game reserve in the Kalahari is discovered at the bottom of a ravine. At first it is assumed that he fell, but it turns out that he was attacked. Although they claim to have chanced upon the injured man, the Bushmen are arrested.

Khumanego, Kubu’s Bushman school friend and now an advocate for the Bushman people, approaches Kubu and asks him to intervene. Khumanego claims the men are innocent and that their arrest is due to racist antagonism from the local police. Kubu investigates the case, resulting in the release of the suspects. But then another man is found murdered in a similar fashion — this time a visitor from neighboring Namibia. The body is discovered by another touring Namibian — an odd coincidence in Kubu’s view — motivating him to follow the clues to Namibia.

Then a third man is murdered and Kubu realizes that the key to the mystery must lie in the depths of the Kalahari itself. And there it is unraveled in a most unpleasant way…

One of the things I like best about Stan and Michael’s work — and in case I haven’t yet made it clear, there are many, many things I like about it — is the impeccable level of detail. These are the kings of show, don’t tell, and that, my friends, takes serious research in a series like this.

I felt some of you twitching at the mention of the r-word, but honestly, you would not believe how often our old pal, Millicent the agency screener, sees stories with mystery storylines (and, let’s face it, many, if not most, fiction storylines contain mysteries of one sort or another) that practically shout, “Hey, Millie, this manuscript needs a fact-checker!” Although experts abound in fiction, it’s actually rare that a protagonist wielding major credentials comes across as genuinely credible.

So says the lady with the Ph.D. Half the doctorate-sporting characters floating around the fictional ether make me cringe with embarrassment and make me want to mail my diploma back to the university. (Then I remember how very becoming my royal purple doctoral Renaissance cap is, and I resist. I worked hard to look that good.)

Speaking of looking good, I am also not the only professional reader that has noticed Stan and Michael’s incredibly nuanced attention to detail. Take a gander at some reviews by those who know stories about Africa far better than I do:

“The information on the Bushmen…is fascinating. Stanley does an exceedingly good job of presenting their plight and culture in an interesting and sympathetic manner. He also conveys the other characters, both black and white, in rich, multi-layered dimensions… a very readable novel that offers fascinating reflections on life in modern Botswana.”

The Canberra Times, November 5, 2011

“…DEATH OF THE MANTIS is a wonderful piece of work, a novel that is quietly perfect in every way…one of those rare books that transcends its rich genre. While there is a mystery at its core, it is also a study of the human condition, of the best and worst of people who do what they do for the best and worst of reasons. And Kubu is one of the best friends you will make between the pages of a book.”

Bookreporter, October 27, 2011

Yes, those are the kinds of plaudits of which every writer dreams, but let me tell you, it did not come without a tremendous amount of persistent, hard work. These are authors that built their writer’s tool kits, just as you are doing now, and my, has it paid off.

Bear that in mind, please, whenever you find your faith in your writing teetering a bit. It can be done. But you’re going to have to pay your dues — and it’s going to be a lot of hard work.

Join me, please, in welcoming a team of authors that help show all of us why this endeavor is so worthwhile. Take it away, Stan and Michael!

When we started writing our first book in 2003, we had no idea that it was going to turn into a series. We actually had no idea that we would even finish the book. This was our first venture into writing fiction, so we were complete novices.

Our initial idea had formed about 15 years earlier when we and four friends were on a flying safari in Botswana. (Stanley is a private pilot) One evening we saw a pack of hyenas attack and kill a wildebeest. By morning there was nothing left except the horns and hooves. Yes, hyenas eat the bones as well as the flesh.

That evening, over a glass or two of wine, we had the idea that should we ever want to get rid of a body, we would leave it out for hyenas. No body, no case!

When we eventually decided to write a novel with that as the premise, our opening scene had a professor (of Ecology) and a game ranger stumbling upon a hyena just before it finished devouring the remains of a human being. The perfect murder was no longer perfect.

You may wonder why there was a professor with the game ranger. Well, we’d been told that we should write what we knew. We were both professors, so we planned to have our professor be our protagonist. However, even in third world countries like Botswana, where our mysteries are set, the police need to be involved. So we sent a Botswana Police detective, David “Kubu” Bengu, from the country’s capital, Gaborone, to the remote tourist camp where the remains of the body lay waiting. By the time Kubu arrived at the camp, he had taken over as the main character.

This was our first lesson — authors aren’t always in charge of the novels they write. Sometimes, the characters take over.

Researching the Okavango Delta in a local dugout, called a mokoro

It took us three years to finish our manuscript. We quite liked it, so decided to try to have it published. After considerable research, it became obvious that we needed an agent to represent us. After some of the usual disappointments, we eventually found an excellent agent in New York. To our complete surprise, she sold the book, titled A CARRION DEATH, to HarperCollins. To our greater surprise, she actually sold a two-book contract.

Yikes! That meant we had to write a second book with the same protagonist, Detective Kubu.

By the way, Kubu means hippopotamus in his native language, Setswana, the common language of Botswana. Hippos are large, normally placid, and the most dangerous mammals in Africa.
So Kubu is a large man. He enjoys eating a great deal and loves good wine, when he can afford it. Surprisingly, he is also happily married. Like hippos, he is slow to anger, but when crossed is very dangerous.

Little did we realize what additional difficulties would surface as we started on the second book. Some became apparent as soon as we started plotting, others sneaked up on us at unexpected times during the writing. Here are some issues we discovered during the course of writing our second book, titled THE SECOND DEATH OF GOODLUCK TINUBU in North America, and A DEADLY TRADE elsewhere.

First, the characters from the first book who carried over to the second would have to be adequately introduced for readers who hadn’t read A CARRION DEATH. But not overly so, otherwise readers who had started with A CARRION DEATH may be bored with the repetition.

This wasn’t easy. For example, in A CARRION DEATH, Kubu recalls a time when he went into the desert with a Bushman friend of his, Khumanego. It was Khumanego who taught Kubu to see what was behind the obvious — that what appeared to be a boring patch of sand was actually a world teeming with interesting flora and fauna.

It was this experience that caused Kubu to want to become a detective. In the second book, we obviously needed to provide new readers with the same background, but it had to be done carefully so as not to put previous Kubu readers off. This is obviously true of all characters.

Establishing a sense of place

Second, even though the action in THE SECOND DEATH OF GOODLUCK TINUBU takes place only a few years after that in A CARRION DEATH, the characters needed to evolve. People who read a series in order want to see characters, particularly the protagonist, grow. They want to see the impact of important events on character and outlook. One thing we did in the second book was to put Kubu’s wife in danger, which allowed us to show a different side of Kubu’s normally placid character.

Third, and perhaps the most difficult, we had to remember all the habits, looks, interactions, etc., of the characters in the first book, so we didn’t contradict ourselves in the second. One of the unexpected revelations from our initial book tour was how well many readers knew A CARRION DEATH. We often felt that they knew more than we did — and they certainly remembered more of the detail than we did. So we realized that any slips would be caught immediately by our eagle-eyed readers.

We couldn’t afford to have Kubu look or behave fundamentally differently in the second book — the habits he had shown in the first book needed to carry over. Similarly he couldn’t interact differently with the people in his life — boss, wife, parents, and colleagues — except because of the ways he had matured. For example, because of the passage of time and because of his successes as a detective, the previously prickly relationship with his boss, Director Mabaku, has mellowed a little. Mabaku continues to be testy, but slivers of softness begin to show.

So, as we wrote THE SECOND DEATH OF GOODLUCK TINUBU, we found ourselves going back to A CARRION DEATH time and time again to ensure that we were getting things right.

A supporting character in Chobe National Park

Then we started the third book, DEATH OF THE MANTIS, and most of the issues discussed above grew in importance. How could we make Kubu, for example, interesting to those people who had already read two books about him? Obviously, he continues to have success as a detective, but we did two things differently.

First, he is now a father — unexpectedly, I might say. This provided us the chance to bring out a previously untapped aspect of his character, namely how to deal with pressures at home, as well as pressures at work. It also allowed us to explore some quirks in his character. Specifically, parts of his traditional upbringing clash with his self-image of being a liberated New Age man.

Second, through his own fault, blinded by assumptions, Kubu finds himself in a situation that nearly ends his life. How does he handle himself as he realizes he has been a fool and, as a consequence, is likely to die?

We also realized that it would have been a very good idea to build a biography of the main characters as we wrote. That would have made it easy to find out such things as how much does he weigh, how old is he, what schools did he go to, what did his parents do before retirement, when did he get married, and so on and so on? It would also help us to keep track of when things happened in our characters’ lives, particularly Kubu’s. When did the various cases take place? What was he doing in his private life at the time? How long has he been married? Has he aged chronologically in our books as time has passed?

As we write, we have to know or have access to this sort of information, otherwise we make mistakes. And one thing I can promise is that there will be numerous readers who will catch the errors.

Actually, in order to make our writing easier, we are seriously considering trying to find someone who would prepare a biography for us, perhaps as part of a university project or paper. We think it would be an interesting project.

On the fly in pursuit of new material at Tsodilo Hills

We have just finished writing the fourth Kubu mystery, tentatively called POTIONS OF DEATH. Again the same issues arise. How does one write a book that will be the fourth in a series for some and the first for others? I think we now have shifted the balance a little towards first-time readers — the book has to be compelling on its own.

We hope, of course, that new readers will like it enough that they will go back and read the earlier books. Readers of our earlier books, fortunately for us, really like Kubu and his family, and look forward to new ones. So far, we have had no pushback that later books are repetitious.

How did we maintain interest for series’ readers in POTIONS OF DEATH? Among other things, we introduced the first female detective into the Botswana Criminal Investigation Department — a woman who is driven to bring to justice witch doctors who sell potions made from body parts of people they have killed. Her obsession is fueled by the fact that one of her childhood friends was murdered for just such a reason.

In real life, this is something that happens in parts of Africa, and prosecutions are few and far between because the clients are usually influential politicians or businessmen and because of the very real fear amongst the police that any witch doctor under suspicion would cast a spell on them.

In some ways, we have concerns about how the whole notion of witch doctors will be received by Western readers. We hope the story is not pooh-poohed. The reality is, of course, that witch doctors are real. And many, if not most, people in Africa believe in them, to the extent that there are instances of people dying purely because they believed a spell had been put on them.

Bushman painting at Tsodilo

The final issue that we keep in mind is not to be formulaic. We think interest in a series will wane if readers feel that our new books are basically the same as earlier ones. Our way around this is to change the backstory for each book. A CARRION DEATH is a mystery built on the back-story of blood diamonds. The background of THE SECOND DEATH OF GOODLUCK TINUBU is the nasty civil war in Rhodesia in the 1970s and the impact it had on neighboring countries. DEATH OF THE MANTIS puts Kubu in the middle of the fight for survival of the traditional Bushman peoples of Botswana, and POTIONS OF DEATH is about witch doctors who kill people.

These different back-stories allow us to move the location of the mysteries to different parts of Botswana, as well as providing totally different motivations and environments for the characters and stories.

We are about to start the fifth Detective Kubu mystery. This time, Kubu will be involved in the unpleasant results of a cultural clash between the local Batswana people and Chinese laborers who have been brought in to build paved roads. This is another issue of contemporary significance. Throughout Africa, the Chinese are bartering construction projects for access to Africa’s resource riches — oil, iron, coal, gold, diamonds, platinum, etc. Almost everywhere you travel in Africa today, you will see Chinese people. Our observation is that they do not integrate well or easily with local communities — a perfect back-story for murder and mayhem.

Tim and Vaughn Pearson with Nosipho Qolo showing off Kubu t-shirts

Our last comment about writing a series concerns the protagonist. He or she has to be able to keep readers’ attention over many books. If, after your first book, your main character hasn’t garnered your readers’ affection, or at least attention, you may find a series difficult to sustain.
Think about Agatha Christie’s Hercules Poirot, Lee Child’s Jack Reacher, Ian Rankin’s Inspector Rebus, Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch, etc. It is almost always the case that it is these characters that make people continue reading the series, not the plots or stories, although these may also be appealing.

We lucked into Kubu — our readers have a real passion for him and can’t wait to find out about his next exploits, about his family life, and whether any of his diets will ever be successful. Please visit our website at http://www.detectivekubu.com to find out more about Kubu and his colleagues. You can also sign up for a newsletter we send out a few times a year.

By the way, if you are going to write a series, a website is an excellent way to keep faithful readers up to date with what is happening to their favorite character. Browse through our site to see how we provide additional information about ourselves, about upcoming books and events, as well as photos and stories related to our books.

We wish you good luck (which is usually needed) and good writing.

Michael Stanley smiling with catMichael Stanley is the writing team of Stanley Trollip and Michael Sears

Both are retired professors who have worked in academia and business. They were both born in South Africa. Michael is a mathematician, specializing in geological remote sensing. He lives in Johannesburg, South Africa, and is a tournament bridge player. Stanley is an educational psychologist, specializing in the application of computers to teaching and learning, and a pilot. He splits his time between Knysna, South Africa, and Minneapolis in the United States. He is an avid golfer.

Their first novel, A CARRION DEATH, featuring Detective David “Kubu” Bengu, was published in 2008 and received critical acclaim. The Los Angeles Times listed it as one of its top ten crime novels of 2008. It is a nominee for the Minnesota Book Award, Strand Magazine’s Critics Award for Best First Novel, and Mystery Readers International Macavity Award for Best First Novel.

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