To date, market dictates being what they are, I’ve not set any of my stories in South Africa. Instead I’ve traveled down Welsh country roads in the Google car, trundled up Romanian mountains courtesy of the Google satellite and spent hours on YouTube and Google Images searching out a sense of place. Honestly, you want to travel? Technology makes it possible so that you need never leave home.
Now, however, in a complete turnaround, I’ve finally decide to create a story set in my home region.
It has, in many ways, proved to be a whole lot of fun – it’s also reminded me how well I know parts of my own country. And, it’s highlighted how dangerous the writer’s life can be – all in the name of research.
There I was, in a coastal village, about two hours from Cape Town, having some time out, and doing a load of research. Curiously, some of the stuff I thought I’d have to make up about this seemingly chilled place turned out to exist in reality. Grim reality. Think drugs and gangs and abject poverty. Stories I heard bore out the undercurrents of violence and simmering resentment flowing through what to the tourist eye looks like an idyllic resort brim-full of bobbing fishing dinghies and whitewashed cottages. And all of this set along a crescent of white beach with gently rolling waves bordered by shades of blue that stretch on forever. Duality at work. Gloriously so. Just the sort of thing to that makes place into a fascinating, unpredictable and dangerous character...
Just how dangerous I didn’t realise until we were leaving – and had one of those experiences that goes straight into a manuscript.
We pulled up at the local general dealer/post office/petrol station and cash machine place.
A toothless old woman and a mangy dog crouched on the shady steps leading to the shop. A battered Golf idled in front of the petrol pumps. One guy, large and sweaty, leaned on the roof of the car, another hung over the back door, two more squashed together on the back seat and another strutted towards the car and planted a litre bottle of beer on the bonnet. It was too good an opportunity not to record.
I dug out my camera and raised it.
A strident voice bellowed in Afrikaans, “She’s going to take your photo! She’s going to take your photo!”
I took one look at the guy who no longer hung over the back door, but who stood agitated and aggressive, eyeballing me. The verbal imagery helter skelter eyes sprung to mind.
I know enough about the place I live in, enough about the effect of certain drugs on behaviour. It didn’t take rocket science to realise the guy was high on crystal meth - and that these guys were drug dealers from the city.
I dropped my camera. Sat silent, unphased - and watched them. I don’t like to be cowed. The leader of the pack, the guy with the beer bottle turned around – his attitude bolshy, full of it.
“She’s going to take your picture!” The agitated guy bayed again.
The leader looked at me with hardened eyes, smiled wolfishly and roared. “You take my picture, I’ll shoot you dead!” And with that he cocked his hand at me and fired off an imaginary bullet.
They leapt into the car and amidst squealing tyres and the smoke of burning rubber, they shot onto the road and bombed off through a sea of rolling green wheat fields.
Didn’t take rocket science to realise they are probably also wanted by the police.
Oh the things writers get to experience in the name of research!