Sherry Knowlton has an adventure with each of her award-winning books, and the location of her new one, Dead on the Delta is a real humdinger – Botswana, Africa. Why there? Because her heroine, lawyer Alexa Williams, decides to hie herself off to spend four months researching lions, looking forward to “witnessing the elemental life-and-death struggle of the African wild.” Instead Alexa ends up being hunted on the vast Okavango Delta.
So what’s a writer to do about a location so far away and, well, exotic? She must visit first. Here’s Sherry’s tale before the tale…
I research all my books, some on site in places like the fracking fields of Northeastern Pennsylvania or Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. So, when I decided to set my next Alexa Williams book in Botswana, what a wonderful excuse for a safari.
My husband and I have been on safari multiple times, and I especially love Botswana’s Okavango Delta. But experiencing Africa for the sheer joy of the adventure is different from absorbing enough information to credibly weave together the elements of the suspense thriller that I wanted to write.
There were things I needed to know. About animal patterns, poaching, Botswana’s famed anti-poaching force, government and politics in the country, lion research and more. Plus, I’d never been to the capital city of Gaborone or spent more than a few hours passing through the small town of Maun, the gateway to the Okavango.
So, my husband, Mike, and I flew off to Botswana and Southern Africa for four glorious weeks. The core of that time we spent on safari in Botswana, Zambia, and Zimbabwe with some friends. That immersion in the wild was amazing. We observed the Big Five and countless more species from small planes, safari vehicles, boats, and on foot. Our great guide was Dave Luck, who our host company, Wilderness Safaris, calls one of their most experienced and knowledgeable. Most important, Dave set aside plenty of time for me to pepper him with my constantly evolving list of research questions.
Before and after our safari, Mike and I spent time on our own, carrying out my research mission. Upon arrival in Johannesburg, we took a day to adjust to the time zone, and then hopped a plane to Gaborone. While there, I met with a contact from the US Embassy who had agreed to give me off-the-record background for the book.
Our other days in Gaborone were devoted to touring; learning the neighborhoods, observing life in the streets and halls of government, and learning about the HIV/AIDS infrastructure that supports the medical needs of a country where 25% of the adult population is infected with the disease.
In a great compliment to the mystery genre, our city guide made sure that we stopped at several sites that figure prominently in The #1 Ladies Detective Agency series and television adaptation of the books. Early on, it took me a few minutes to realize that when he spoke familiarly of Precious and Grace, our guide meant the fictional Precious Ramotswe and Grace Makutsi from the books. Alexander McCall Smith is a legend in Gaborone.
The highlight of my research came when Mike and I headed back to the Okavango to spend a few days with lion researcher Robynne Kotze. In my planning for the trip, Wilderness Safaris helped arrange time with Robynne.
I’m so grateful to her employer, the University of Oxford’s WildCRU unit, for allowing her to engage with me in the field. Generous and enthusiastic, Robynne educated me about the life of a lion researcher, study methodologies, conservation issues, politics in Southern Africa and more.
Robynne and her group work on a research project called the Trans-Kalahari Predator Programme which studies lion populations in both Botswana and Zimbabwe. The Director of the project, Dr. Andrew Loveridge, has written a book about his experience as the researcher who had long studied Cecil the Lion until the famous cat was killed by an American big game hunter.
Most fun were the hours we spent driving through the bush, looking for lions with Robynne. One of the handsomest fellows we encountered even made it to the cover of Dead on the Delta. The cover artist was able to use my husband’s photo of this striking lion as the basis for his design.
For the next Alexa Williams novel, I’ll probably return the action to Southcentral PA, the primary setting for the earlier books. But, what’s the lesson I’ve learned from my African research experience? Make sure I send Alexa to many more exotic settings around the world.
Fiji? Bali? Nepal? The opportunities for hands-on research are endless.
What about you, Rogue Readers … where would you love to visit someday?