Updated: Jan 11, 2021
In my novel writing, my aim is not only to entertain but also to render as authentic an experience as possible to the reader, especially since I set my detective stories in a part of the world most readers will never venture: Ghana, West Africa. Whether that location is considered “exotic” or just foreign, I try to write about it as it really is. The characters and murders are made up, of course, but even there, some content is based on real events and people. Many of the jaw-dropping fictional events in my upcoming (2019) novel THE MISSING AMERICAN, where you might say “Give me a break, that would never happen,” do exist in Ghana’s reality.
Actress Lupita Nyong’o (Photo: Shutterstock)
The Missing American is a standalone novel not in the present Darko Dawson series, although there are connections with it. It introduces Mabel Safo, a Ghanaian female private investigator, whom in my fantasy could be played by the amazing Lupita Nyong’o.
MAKE YOUR SETTINGS COME ALIVE
As I set my murder mysteries in foreign locations, I like to think of setting as a character itself–something that is alive, with a personality and temperament. To do this, I need to explore and research my settings to see what they have to offer, and I always hope there’ll be a surprise around the corner.
Here are my rough guidelines for researching my novels.
Go there–in person
Yes, we now have Google Maps and you can view a remarkable likeness of faraway land or location, but some things Google Maps can’t give you: smells, sounds, the feeling of the ground underfoot, the weather, the general ambiance. In The Missing American, a young mother witnesses two men throwing a large, mysterious bundle over the railing of the Adome Bridge, located in the town of Atimpoku in Ghana, not too far from the Akosombo Hydroelectric Dam.
The Adome Bridge (Photo: Kwei Quartey)
The Adome Bridge, closed for some 6 months in 2015 for repairs, has been photographed often, and for the purposes of my novel, I could have simply described it from Internet images. But had I not visited the bridge in person, I could not have known for example that the bridge, because of its construction, flexes slightly up and down as heavy trucks pass along it. Neither would I have gotten a good sense of the height of the bridge.
Southward view of Volta River from Adome Bridge (Photo: Kwei Quartey)
I had first visited Atimpoku in 2008. In 2018, I wrote the bridge scene in The Missing American from memory a few months before returning for my second visit. I found I would have to update my description of the town because during the intervening ten years, it had grown exponentially, spilling over from the west to the east bank of the Volta. I also realized I had forgotten something: there’s a toll booth at each end of the bridge. Oops. Fortunately, it won’t adversely affect my bridge scene.
Get out and explore (on foot if possible)
In addition to the bridge, I remembered from ten years ago the infamous truck stop where food vendors pounce on vehicles stopping–even slowing down–in an attempt to sell food items and soft drinks.
Vendors swarm a mini-bus (Photo: Kwei Quartey)
I had recalled Atimpoku’s terrain as flat, but on my second visit there, I found that really much of it is on a hillside, which is where most of the new building is taking place–all the space on low-lying land already taken up. This significantly affected a key scene in The Missing American.
Hillside home construction in Atimpoku (Photo: Kwei Quartey)
From near the top of the hill, one can see past the town all the way to the Volta River.
Hilltop glimpse of the Volta River (Photo: Kwei Quartey)
Notice small details
What might seem like insignificant details add atmosphere and authenticity to scenes in a novel. Those who have read my stories might have noticed I make mention of two kinds of animals in Ghana: the ubiquitous goats and to a lesser extent, dogs. These animals, quintessential to both rural and urban Ghanaian life, coexist with humans but have pretty much independent, free-range lives, foraging for their own food and otherwise taking care of themselves. A dog with a collar would be an exception rather than the rule. (If I told a Ghanaian that some dogs in America get to sit at the dinner table alongside people, the reaction would be a mixture of horror and hilarity.)
Ubiquitous self-sufficient goats of Ghana. They eat everything and always appear overfed (Photo: Kwei Quartey)
Take pictures when you can–just be careful
I recommend as many photos as possible, but not all societies are equally sanguine about pic-taking. Ghanaians are more accepting of it than before and mostly pay no attention to you, probably because using a mobile is somehow less threatening from a separate camera with an obtrusive telescopic lens. In Ghana, certain areas are a no-no for photography–embassies, ministries in general and the Ministry of Defense in particular, police stations, and others. When in doubt, it’s best to ask. I confess, however, that I do sometimes use surreptitious, “ninja” photo-taking techniques.
CID Forensic van (Photo: Kwei Quartey)
Seek out the rougher parts of town
Especially if you write crime fiction, find the wretched parts of your settings (if you can do it safely) because wretchedness and seediness are often vital and fascinating components of a novel. In my writing, I like to contrast the gritty with the opulent, and in Ghana, there is much of that contrast, as shown in the following photos.
Tough, bustling neighborhood of Nima, Accra (Photo: Kwei Quartey)
Grounds at Royal Senchi Hotel (Photo: Kwei Quartey)
Most important, keep your writer mind open to the unexpected. You might have plotted your novel in a certain way and when you get to the real-life setting you discover it just wouldn’t work in practice. For instance, in The Missing American, I thought two villages on the map were fairly close, but when I did the actual journey, they were much too far apart in real life for one of my plot points to work. In the end, it turned out better, so there’s often a silver lining when you discover you’re wrong about a particular detail. You can even incorporate that into the story, i.e. your protagonist might say, “I didn’t realize the two villages were so far apart. Mr. X couldn’t have murdered Mr. Y and then returned home in time for the six o’clock news. Unless . . .”
Finally, don’t forget to put in passersby and random sights, especially those that warm your heart.
Best friends forever (Photo: Kwei Quartey)