The Book Research Survival Guide

Whenever I leave the house, even if it’s only for a pint of milk, I get the sense that I should be carrying a survival kit, like Martine in the White Giraffe Series. That feeling gets stronger if I go anywhere requiring a passport. In fact, my survival kit is generally the first item I pack but, since it’s stuffed with every emergency supply from suture kits to space blankets, Superglue and surgical scissors and is the size and weight of three gold ingots, it’s also always the first item to be left behind.

It’s not just paranoia, or a side effect of reading too many adventure novels and thrillers. A lot of it stems from PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) incurred on family vacations – specifically vacations involving my mother.

 

Try watching your mum cycle off a 50-foot bridge in the Seychelles. One moment she’s pointing at the view, the next she’s lying like a discarded rag doll on the rocks below. My sister and I carried her back to our hotel (I use the term loosely because it was run by a piratical figure who’d fallen from grace in the Seychelles government and had rooms populated by cockroaches the size of eagles), where we stemmed the blood as best as we could and revived her with coconut milk. Despite our protests, she insisted on continuing the cycle ride to the other side of the island. Not surprisingly, she ended up in hospital all but requiring an amputation.

 

Nothing is simple with our family. We can never go on a vacation and just lie on the beach or take a sightseeing tour and be “normal.” Once, we went to Egypt, where we thought it might be nice to visit the pyramids and sail down the Nile. On the first morning, I was nearly killed when a horse I was riding bolted down the kind of sheer cliff-face mountain goats would quail at. The pyramids were blurred because my life was flashing before my eyes. In the Valley of Queens, near Luxor, I only narrowly escaped falling down a 100-foot storm drain, and in Aswan we were conned into going on a 700km round trip across the desert in an unairconditioned station wagon, driven by a man who spoke no English and crouched over the wheel with his face pressed up against the dusty windshield like a deranged and near-sighted pensioner. Our only comfort was a bag of oranges.

Another time, at the behest and expense of a sea captain my mum had met on her travels, we spent days trying to obtain a death certificate for a sailor who’d fallen into the harbour in Venice, Italy, only to discover that he had in fact drowned in Venice, Florida.

It’s always been my practice to blame these disasters on my mother, who thinks that being chloroformed in a hotel in Austria or enduring an emergency landing in Portugal is all part of life’s rich tapestry, but, disturbingly, I seem to have inherited the same disease. I’ve been stranded with no money in Guilin, China; lived through a hurricane in Florida; been camping in a monsoon in the Bahamas. An hour after being flown into one of the most remote safari camps in Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe, a place with no phone and no working radio – the kind of camp where elephants drink out of the swimming pool – I was struck down by a mystery illness. The plane having flown away, there was no choice but for me to be taken to hospital overland.

A mattress and crisp white duvet were laid on the back of a Land Rover, and at 4pm we set off – we being the driver, a guide from the camp (a gentle, charming man who later became the inspiration for the character Tendai in The White Giraffe), my best friend, Kellie, and, of course, myself, writhing in agony with what later turned out to be kidney stones, although at that point I just thought I was dying. To save time, we cut across the game reserve, one of the largest in Africa. For hour upon hour, herds of elephant, giraffe and impala wheeled across the perimeter of my vision like a surreally beautiful Jungle Book kaleidoscope. Periodically, we stopped in the middle of nowhere – quite literally at an anthill – and a new driver would take over.

 

The sun sank below the acacias, bringing with it the night-perfume of the African bush and smoky traces of the woodfires of distant villages. Darkness fell like a cape, glittering with stars. By then the pain was so excruciating that I began swimming in and out of consciousness, but in moments of lucidity it seemed to me that the star-flung sky, lit by the red glow of Mars and the powdery sprawl of the Milky Way, and lent drama by the cries of the night creatures and the occasional lion’s roar, had a collective magic beyond compare.

It was 11pm when arrived at the Victoria Falls Clinic. We’d had no way of communicating with the hospital since late afternoon and yet when we pulled into the parking lot, Dr Nyoni and a team of four immaculately turned out nurses were standing in a line waiting to greet us. One of the nurses took my hand and led me into the most spotless medical facility I’ve ever seen. It had only been open nine days and I was their 14th patient. The wards were decorated in African prints. In the morning, after a night in the hands of these divine, dedicated people (Dr Nyoni laughed continually, like an especially cheerful bird – the Ndebele meaning of his name), and a breakfast worthy of a five-star hotel, I was completely restored.

 

Like all the best travel disasters, it was an experience I wouldn’t have traded for the world.

 

There were no disasters in Namibia, where I went to research The Elephant’s Tale. I took my survival kit because it seemed like the kind of place where a survival kit was required. Accompanied half the time by my sister, Lisa, and half by my mum, I drove 3,000 kms in a week, from Windhoek to Sossusvlei and then on to Damaraland and Etosha National Park. Apart from the Black Forest gateaux, the thing I loved most was the emptiness of the country, the way you can drive for three hours without seeing a living soul or any sign of habitation. Apart from the famous red dunes of Sossusvlei, I imagined it to be flat and bleak and barren. Instead I was blown away by the colours of the landscape and by the endlessly changing panoramas, each more vivid and spectacular than the last.

There was, I suppose, one minor disaster. The main purpose of my trip to Namibia was to see the desert elephants, the focus of The Elephant’s Tale, but they’d inconveniently gone away into the mountains to have their babies the night before I arrived. Ever-resourceful, I changed tack and went with my mum to Etosha National Park, where there are 2,500 elephants. I reasoned that seeing an ordinary elephant was better than seeing no elephant at all. Every evening the guides at our camp, enthusiastically prompted by other guests, would tell tall tales of the many elephants they’d seen that day, and the marvellous antics they’d performed. Yet somehow even these elephants continued to evade us.

On our final morning, we risked missing our flight by going on a two-hour hunt for elephants in an area which, we’d been assured, was awash with them. None were forthcoming. We gave up and were leaving the reserve when we spotted, in the far distance, a grey rump, partially obscured by trees, which may or may not have been an elephant. It was not quite the up-close-and-personal encounter I’d been hoping for.

Driving back to Windhoek, after spending an entire week in the desert without once having had to resort to my survival kit, I should have been relieved. Instead I found myself thinking: if only the elephant had charged. Not at us, of course, but if only there’d been some…well, drama.

How I Fell in Love with Rhinos

When I was a teenager at boarding school in Zimbabwe, my best friend, Merina, and I decided that we had to do something urgently to save the rhino. We wanted to save all animals, but it seemed to us that the rhino was in greatest peril.

Earnestly, we composed a letter to the Environment Minister, offering our help. Of course, we had no real plan and never really expected an answer. We simply thought that doing something was better than doing nothing. Next thing we knew, a government car with blacked-out windows pulled up outside our hostel and whisked us away for an audience with the minister. We were minor celebrities for a day in our boarding school.

To cut a long story short, we never did do much to help the rhino, beyond dreaming up cake sales in aid of Save the Rhino that never quite happened. It’s not that we stopped wanting to save animals; far from it, we were passionate about them and, at seventeen, spent a year working as veterinary nurses. It’s just that there always seemed to be something cuddlier or cuter to rescue.

That was one of my biggest challenges when I sat down to write Operation Rhino: their image. They’re not cuddly. Elephants aren’t cuddly either, yet we adore them. When we look into their eyes, we see a whole world of intelligence and emotion.

Rhinos, on the other hand, have tiny, piggy eyes that, from a distance or in photos, convey nothing at all. Most people know only three things about rhinos – they’re short-sighted, short-tempered and their horns are worth more than gold to the criminals who sell them to gullible Chinese, Vietnamese and other Eastern and Middle Eastern customers who believe that a substance (keratin) no different to our fingernails can cure cancer and dozens of other diseases and ailments.

Many of the people who do want to save rhinos do it on principle, because they feel an entire species shouldn’t be wiped out because of man’s greed and idiocy. They don’t do it because they’re madly in love with rhinos.

Growing up in Africa, my own view of rhinos was a bit like Martine’s at the start of Operation Rhino. If they have a personality, I used to think, it’s well-hidden. That changed on a visit to a South African reserve, when I spent nearly an hour watching two rhinos. At first, they were on their feet and bristling, warning us off. When they realised we weren’t a threat, they lay down and dozed. I was taken aback by how vulnerable they seemed.

Then my sister, Lisa, took me walking with wild-orphaned rhinos at dawn in Zimbabwe. Up close, I could look into their eyes and what I saw there shocked me. Far from being the myopic, belligerent modern-day dinosaur of myth, their gentle, beautiful, intelligent spirit shone from them. I would defy anyone to touch a rhino or even be close to one and not fall in love.

Even if you were stony-hearted enough to meet a rhino and not fall for them, you simply couldn’t resist a rhino calf. Have you ever seen one? OMG they’re they cutest things on earth. They really are like the most adorable lily-eared alien nature could have dreamed up. Don’t believe me? Go to the Facebook page of the Rhino Orphanage and look at their gallery of rhino babies.

In Rhino: at the Brink of Extinction, conservationist Anna Merz describes her work saving black rhinos in Kenya. The story of her relationship with orphaned rhino calf, Samia, the inspiration for Jabulani in Operation Rhino, is one of the most moving and wonderful human-animals stories I’ve ever heard. Merz believes that rhinos are most similar to horses. They have intricate social systems. They’re sensitive, smart, playful and deeply loyal to their loved ones. Time and time again, Samia saved Merz’s life, often chasing off her own friends to protect her adopted mum.

Nobody could hear Merz’s stories or those of wildlife vet, Dr Will Fowlds, who reconstructs the faces of rhinos attacked with axes, or see the traumatised babies at the Rhino Orphanage and fail to understand that to lose Africa’s unicorn because of human greed and wickedness would be to lose something irreplaceable. Over 1,215 rhinos were killed in South Africa in 2015. All signs are that that figure will be eclipsed year after year.

Don’t save rhinos just because you think you should. Save them knowing that, beneath the rhino’s suit of armour beats a huge, soft heart and a vast intelligence that can teach us so much. Save them because rhinos have been around for 50 million years and they’re a million kinds of wonderful.

Do you really want them to go extinct on your watch?

How to Become a Writer

I first tried writing a novel when I was ten. At the time, my family and I lived on a farm in Zimbabwe and books were as precious as jewels to me. The nearest proper bookshop was over an hour’s drive away and my parents had very little money so every couple of months when I did get two or three books I’d read them obsessively over and over again. Often, I restarted a novel the second I’d finished the last page.

One day an English visitor gave me a boxful of second-hand books, including a horse encyclopedia, which I still have, and a guide to stargazing. Among them was a novel by a thirteen-year-old. This blew my mind. A kid not much older than me had written a book and had it published. I immediately resolved to do the same.

As a child, I was obsessed by animal stories and besotted with animals in general. I had a fat, blind pony, an orphaned calf called Daisy and four or five orphaned lambs that I fed morning and night. I filled a notebook with a story based on my favourite lamb, Snowy. All I remember is that it was about a sheep and a snake in a woodpile. Back then we didn’t have computers, and I was quite certain a publisher would not take an interest in my work unless it was neatly typed. I begged my mum to take me to a neighbouring farm, where there was a typewriter.

Over the course of one dispiriting afternoon, I used up half a ream of paper and a bottle of Tippex attempting to type the first page without error. Eventually, I gave up. However, the dream of becoming a novelist now lived in me. I tried again when I was seventeen and also when I was nineteen before finally getting my first book commissioned – a non-fiction book called Shooting at Clouds about life on the PGA European Tour – when I was twenty-two.

For the next decade I had an amazing life as a Sunday Times journalist and author, following the men’s golf tour around the world and riding across America on the tour buses of country stars like Steve Earle and the Dixie Chicks and writing a series of books about them, but I pined to be a novelist.

From time to time I wrote a woefully poor short story (none published) and in my mid-twenties I wrote a full-length novel that effectively cured me of the desire to write novels. It was uncomfortable to write, for starters. None of the characters felt real. They were like chess pieces I had to move around a board. I found dialogue impossible and wondered if I could somehow get away with writing a novel that didn’t have any. I became convinced not only that I lacked imagination, but that I had none.

In 2005, when I was ready to give up on writing altogether, I was walking down the street on my way to do Christmas shopping. Out of nowhere, an image of a girl on a giraffe came into my head. When I was a child I had a pet giraffe (a real one called Jenny) and I thought: Wouldn’t it be the coolest thing on earth if you could actually ride a giraffe? And right then and there, the whole story for The White Giraffe came into my head, including the name of the main character: Martine. I went home and jotted it down on a bit of paper. I thought, one day when I retire I might have a tinker with it.

But the story wouldn’t leave me alone. I couldn’t not write it. In the end, I set aside the project I was supposed to be working on and wrote The White Giraffe in a month. It took me numerous rejections and rewrites and eighteen months to get it published, by which time I’d come up with the ideas for the other three books in the series. Now I find that characters and stories fight to get out of my head. I sit at my desk and their worlds and stories live in me. I never take what I do for granted. I feel fortunate and blessed every single day. After years of trying, I somehow got to become a novelist.

How I Researched The Glory

When it comes to book research, how far is too far? That’s the question I asked myself as I drove through Wyoming’s Wind River Canyon in a whiteout blizzard, with a jade river churning below. I was on a nine-hour drive along twisting mountain passes in the freezing depths of winter at the time.

It was the first day of a planned 1,800-mile journey across the American West to research my new novel The Glory – the story of an epic 1,200 endurance horse race and the teenage boy and girl desperate to win it. Already I was questioning my sanity. Normal, sane people dream of lying on Caribbean beaches or drinking Sangria in Tuscan villas in their holidays. They don’t seek out savage wolves and bears like Michelle Paver when she was researching Wolf Brother, or trek across the Amazon (Katherine Rundell, author of Rooftoppers and the Wolf Wilder), or take helicopter trips over smoking volcanoes (me while researching Kidnap in the Caribbean), or run barefoot through the woods and allow themselves to be locked in a car trunk with zip-tied hands (Tess Sharpe, author of Far from You).

And those are only the children’s authors.

To be truthful, my journey wasn’t only about book research. I’d dreamed of riding a wild mustang across the giant landscapes of the West since I was a child growing up in Zimbabwe and it was those dreams and the cowboy books I loved that had inspired The Glory, the story of Alex, a girl on the run from the law, and Will, a boy on a mission to save a life. Now I wanted to experience what they were likely to experience – if I survived the blizzards on day one.

Ten days, 1,800 miles and four US states later, I knew the answer to my question. I’d ridden a palomino mustang, rescued from a round-up only a year earlier, through the creeks and mountains of Wyoming in snow, sun and rain. I’d leaned over cliffs, side-stepped a rattlesnake, watched real-life cowboys (wranglers) train quarter horses, touched ancient Native American rock etchings known as petroglyphs, seen great herds of bison and peered into Yellowstone’s steaming geysers.

I’d also eaten many heaps of pancakes, because, obviously, it’s not only important to live like your characters but to taste the sort of things they might eat. The yummy things, naturally, as opposed to the cans of unheated beans, burnt toast and other not so nice meals eaten by my heroes. Without these adventures, The Glory would never have been written.

Where I Write

Over the last decade, I’ve moved home almost as often as I’ve written books and the only constant about my writing environment has been my cats.

First, there was Felix, who part African wild cat. He was a day-old kitten when my mom rescued him from the streets of Mozambique and smuggled him into Zimbabwe on a light aircraft. A year or so later, I brought him to London, where he grew and grew until he was the size of a small leopard. He and I were inseparable. At the time I was living in a South-East London flat with a Rear View Window lookout, and I wrote a couple of golf books and Walkin’ After Midnight: A Journey to the Heart of Nashville with Felix lying on my desk watching me with his huge green eyes, like a leopard bodyguard.

Felix could be moody and because of his enormous paws and great strength was quite dangerous. Every so often his wild genes would kick in and he’d go on the attack. My friends were all terrified of him. He enjoyed ambushing them on the stairs. At the same time, they found him irresistible. Everyone wanted to win his love. It didn’t really work. Ultimately, he was a one-woman cat.

We moved to Greenwich, where he seemed to mellow and was content with chasing balls of paper through the paper chaos in my attic study as I researched and wrote my authorised, unauthorised biography of country rocker Steve Earle, Hardcore Troubadour, a life involving numerous arrest warrants and court documents attesting to six (now seven) marriages.
Unlike my previous study, which overlooked a pretty patchwork of flower-filled gardens and a doll’s house view of lives lived in the houses opposite, this one only had skylights, which suited me better. I love views but they play havoc with my concentration. If I’m facing a wall, as I do now, it seems easier to step into the portal of my imagination.

My book was published and life took a difficult turn. Reviews were great but sales weren’t. My journalism work dried up. Money was tight to non-existent. One wintry day, I was walking down the road when an image of a girl on a giraffe popped into my head. I thought: Wouldn’t it be the coolest thing on earth if you could actually ride a giraffe? When I was a child in Zimbabwe I actually had a pet giraffe and right there on the street the idea for a children’s book came into my head.

In the attic study, Felix watched as I feverishly embarked on this new project. I wrote The White Giraffe in one intense month. The rejections came almost as quickly. My then agent told me it was unpublishable.
Forced to sell my flat, I moved with Felix to St Ives in Cornwall, a place I’d never been but had heard was artistic. I rented an apartment, sight unseen, and arrived to find that it was right on Porthmeor Beach. I wrote in the light-filled upstairs bedroom, with waves crashing and seagulls screaming and ate my lunches on the beach. It was utter bliss. Felix roamed the alleys and faced-down the seagulls.

My time was divided between re-writing The White Giraffe and trying to put together a proposal for a memoir. I’d more or less convinced myself that my writing career was over, but in the absence of any other means of making a living I kept trying to improve the bits and pieces I was working on. One day I made a spur of the moment call from a phone box to a former editor friend, now working in New York. That call and a subsequent flight to New York changed my life.

Back to London we went, one of the hardest moves I’ve ever made. In Cornwall, close to nature, I felt a freedom I hadn’t experienced since leaving Africa. London felt dark, closed in. Felix brooded too, as we were forced to move three times in rapid succession. There were compensations. Five publishers bid for my memoir, Rainbow’s End, and a month later Orion gave me a four-book deal for my White Giraffe series. For the first time in my life, I felt like a real writer.

We moved again, but when I was in the midst of writing The Last Leopard it became clear that Felix was desperately ill. After two wrong diagnoses, I took him to a third vet who confirmed what I already feared: he had stomach cancer. I was totally devastated. When I told my friends he’d died, several broke down in tears.

I vowed never to get another animal, but that resolution lasted less than a month. Writing didn’t feel the same without Felix on my desk. Like everything else, it felt sort of pointless. But what to do? Felix had been so extraordinary that the idea of an ordinary cat, one who didn’t engage with me or watch over me, filled me with despondency. I read up on different cat breeds and decided that Bengals sounded most like Felix, both in build and in character.

When the RSPCA’s Ashford Cattery in Kent had an influx of Bengals, I went in search of a perfect cat. They had a dazzling array from which to choose. There were snow leopard Bengals with blue eyes, an orange one with black spots and vivid green eyes that looked like a cheetah, and other majestic ones with fancy patterns. There was only one ordinary one – a small, chunky Bengal with plain tabby markings and an annoyingly persistent meow. I cuddled each cat in turn and only took the tabby one out of his cage to be fair. Of all of them, he purred the loudest. Still, I rejected him out of hand as too dull and noisy.

While I was down the other end of the run looking at the magnificent ones, however, something amazing happened. The small Bengal jumped down from his high cage, snatched a box of treats from the pocket of a volunteer who was crouching on the floor, absorbed with another cat, then leapt back into his cage with the treat box between his paws. The whole thing showed such breathtaking audacity, athleticism and intelligence that I was totally blown away. I knew right then that he was the only cat for me.

I don’t think Felix would be offended if I said that Max turned out to be the best, smartest, most loving cat in the universe. If he’s not bringing me felt mice presents, he is asleep on his back in his bed beside my computer, his spotty belly exposed, and somehow he makes even the toughest writing day better.
I’ve moved twice since he came to live with me and now I write in a bright study at a desk overlooked by a metre-high white giraffe – not a real one, unfortunately, but a cardboard cutout promotional one.

Above my desk is a wooden plaque that belonged to my grandfather inscribed: ‘When you’re down in the mouth, think of Jonah. He came out alright.’ There’s also a Steve Earle postcard, a Tibetan prayer flag and lots of pictures of my favourite things – animals, Cornwall and Africa. So far Max has presided over the writing of The Elephant’s Tale, four Laura Marlin mysteries, The One Dollar Horse trilogy, The Glory and The Obituary Writer, my first adult novel.

Recently, ago, I relocated yet again – this time only as far as the sofa, where I was recuperating from a serious foot injury while working on a teenage horse novel. The good thing about being in the living room is that I’m watched over by a mural of life-sized Argentinian wild horses, so I don’t have to look far for inspiration. And, of course, I have Max by my side.

Why I Wrote The One Dollar Horse

The One Dollar Horse is a wish fulfillment book for me. Growing up on an African farm, I used to dream about winning the Olympic gold medal for eventing like Tatum O’Neal in International Velvet. We had eight horses, including my black horse called Morning Star, the son of a champion racehorse, who had been born in a rainstorm – I was there and covered him with my raincoat. To me, Star was the greatest horse that ever lived and it was only a matter of time before we got to the Olympics.

The best thing about growing up on a farm in the middle of nowhere is that there’s tons of space and free wood, and loads of people to help you with crazy ideas. I persuaded my dad to build me a cross-country course in our 100-acre game reserve. It sprawled through the whole thing, and even incorporated a water jump. I used to race around the game reserve on Star, watched by our pet giraffe and the impala, dreaming of Badminton.

Quite apart from the fact that I wasn’t a good enough rider, Badminton didn’t happen because our farm was sold, we had very little money, and because before very long writing took over from riding as my chief passion. But I love horses and eventing as much as I ever did. Writing The One Dollar Horse was my way of living out my dream through Casey Blue.
With all my books, I find that my characters become friends, and I’ve never felt that more strongly than I did with this novel. I pined for them when I’d finished it. For that reason and many others, it was a joy to be able to move on to a new horse book, The Glory, which is about a race across the American West. I hope very much that you enjoy it.