Maybe it’s the journalist in me, but I like to interview sources for my fiction—the same people I would be most nervous about showing my work to.
I’m shy about approaching people—always have been—but I’m getting over that in every aspect of my life. And I’m finding, more often than not, that I only have to ask.
When I was researching My Soul to Keep, I remember calling the hematology department at the University of Miami’s Medical School, stammering through the reason for my call.
“OK, see, there are these immortals, right? They never die or get sick…”
It was excruciating to make the call, but someone eventually offered me a way to illustrate to readers how the blood behaved from a scientific point of view. I was lucky enough to find an expert with a sense of humor.
For my novel Joplin’s Ghost, I charged straight at Joplin’s primary biographer, Edward A. Berlin, despite my worries that he wouldn’t appreciate the novelist’s role in recreating history. Here was a guy who’d dedicated much of his career to studying Scott Joplin’s life and music—and I was asking for help writing a ghost story. I would sound like a loony!
Berlin turned out to be wonderfully imaginative, and he kept me honest.
I’m really proud of our sourcing for our upcoming mystery novel, because we had access to an FBI agent and a military expert. It was so refreshing to feel the world of the novel expanding as different voices piped in their experiences.
That’s what I want with Blood Prophecy, so yesterday I charged into my deepest fear.
I have been to Africa, but only once—and not nearly to the extent that readers might think. I have never been to Ethiopia. I have never been to Botswana. (It’s so ironic: I had the chance to talk to Anika Noni Rose about her experiences shooting HBO’s No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency, and she mentioned the location in Gaborone, Botswana, saying, “Just like you wrote in The Living Blood!’”) I try hard to make it real from a distance, but it’s hard to forget how much more I could have done with a visit.
In Blood Prophecy, there are one or two chapters set in Nigeria. And part of the novel will also be set at the colony in Lalibela, Ethiopia.
Why Nigeria? Because I’d mentioned in the previous book that the Nigerian government was cooperating in the distribution of Glow.
A setting, yet again, in a region I have never visited.
Where in Nigeria? Not a city. I wanted an isolated village.
Google is my first line of defense, practically another lobe of my brain as I’m writing. When I’m ready to go hard-core, I follow up with books or documentaries. (Google Books comes in handy for reading only single pages of obscure books. Sometimes.)
Armed with Wikipedia, I approached the person I was most nervous about: a writer friend of mine from Nigeria. My friend is very smart and talented, and she’s fed up with negative images of Nigeria. She was enraged by the depiction of Nigerians in District 9, and I knew she wouldn’t be in the mood for any foolishness regarding her homeland.
I described the blood to my friend, and the major plot points in Nigeria. (I won’t share details, but they aren’t exactly circumstances any nation would want to deal with.)
She was okay with most of it, but she had a concern about the centerpiece of my series—The Living Blood. (This is the blood in the veins of my African Immortal characters, and a mere drop of it can heal human ailments. The premise of my last novel was that the blood was being diluted into a drug and distributed worldwide, usually known by its street name: Glow.)
My mention of healing blood smacked of ritual, and my friend wasn’t shy about telling me she had a problem with it. Oops! I wrote her back, explaining that there was nothing ritualistic about the use of the blood in the story. It’s administered in clinics, injected by needle.
With that, I won my friend’s stamp of approval—and a great suggestion for the region I should choose. When the pages are written, I’ll ask her to read them for accuracy.
I know I can’t please all of the people all of the time, but maybe it’s the ghost of my days at The Miami Herald: Accuracy and sensitivity matter to me.
Even in fiction.