While hunting for story ideas and researching obscure facts, authors can sometimes have bizarre experiences, as Mandy J Watson discovers.
rite what you know. That’s always the sage advice handed down to writers tackling a new project, but when you play in the speculative-fiction and crime genres, you’re likely to head into territory you know nothing about. Ideas can come from anywhere, as you’re about to discover, but even the most bizarre ones need to be backed up with research. Sometimes an idea can form from something as simple as driving down the road and taking in the ephemeral sights. ‘I often joke that South African tabloids are the biggest speculative-fiction publications in the country,’ says Charlie Human, whose second novel, Kill Baxter, continues the adventures of 16-year-old Baxter Zevcenko, a young man who becomes immersed in South Africa’s seedy underworld of zombies, tokoloshes, and shape shifters, and ends up at a magical training school. ‘“Tokoloshe twerking for my husband”, “Priest fights fire demons”, “Satan goes to school” – these are all real headlines, all great seeds for stories. ‘Apocalypse Now Now and Kill Baxter draw directly from this vast pool of urban myth, taking old South African mythologies and mashing them together with new urban legends,’ he says. ‘They’re a tribute to the bizarre fiction of our tabloids, revelling in the weirdest the Daily Voice and Die Son have to offer and trying to outdo them.’ Yet, for other authors, something may sit in
their brains for decades before suddenly finding a place in a book. Take, for example, the following words, which were spoken more than 25 years ago by a man at the Fort England Psychiatric Hospital outside Grahamstown whose hallucinations were very real to him: ‘There’s a chain you can’t see running from my stomach to the bellies of all my brothers and sisters on other continents. We are all connected by this chain. But there is also a shark. He lives in my stomach and chews on the chain. You can hear him if you want.’ ‘These words – spoken with great conviction – prompted nine years of university study on two continents, a lifelong fascination for psychopathology, as well as my novel The Unsaid,’ says Richard de Nooy, who grew up in Johannesburg and now lives in Amsterdam. The Unsaid is a psychological thriller whose protagonist, a journalist who specialises in reporting from war zones and conflicts, is locked up in a psychiatric ward for evaluation after violently attacking people in a bar. Here, as he becomes immersed with thieves, rapists and murderers, we begin to wonder about his mental state and grasp on reality. ‘We writers are continually doing research, long before we know what we’re going to write,’ says Richard. ‘As David Grossman put it in Her Body Knows: “Telling secrets to a writer is like embracing a pickpocket.”’