For indie author Victoria Tait, writing happened by chance. Through her ‘Kenya Kanga Mystery’ series, she takes us to Nanyuki, a small town in Kenya, where lives the silver-haired, gentle-hearted Mama Rose who helps solve many a crime
Drawn to the short excerpts from her books set in exotic Kenya, I subscribed to Victoria Tait’s newsletter. And then one fine day, via the newsletter, arrived a free pdf of Fowl Murder. Victoria’s approach is simple and her style keeps one hooked, moving between the Kenyan landscape and the myriad emotions that make up human life.
All the people in the cozy mystery series could be your neighbourhood lot with shades of grey. The elderly, arthritis-stricken sleuth, ‘Mama Rose’ Hardie is Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple reincarnated and living in Kenya. She does not solve crimes with the hard core approach of a policeman, but is a compassionate human being. She does not solve crimes to please anyone, but the result is genuine good. From the title, one would assume that Fowl Murder is a crime related to the wildlife. But it is related to a childhood friend, and Mama Rose, despite reservation, works on helping her friend’s children find their mother’s murderer.
Victoria does not rush any scene. A multitude of emotions play out such as hostility, love, greed, guilt, trust, loyalty, whispers from the past and more. Mama Rose seeks answers–she’s curious and concerned.
I enjoyed the chapters where the Kenyan wildlife comes into the picture–Mama Rose driving to help with a sick horse or putting a light on the poaching in the area. There’s a poignant appeal about the setting and the characters.
Moreover, the conversations are sprinkled with native Kiswahili words, which makes it more pleasurable. Yes, the author does give a glossary at the beginning of the book.
A military wife, Victoria’s realistic approach to her books comes from living in rural Kenya for 8 years. Currently, she lives in Sarajevo, capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina. She has two teenage boys and enjoys horse riding and mountain biking. In an email chat, she shares how Mama Rose and the cozy mystery series came to life:
What inspired you to become an author?
Unlike the majority of authors, I had no lifelong ambition to write a book. Two years ago, we moved back to the UK from Kenya, so my husband could begin training for his next military posting in Bosnia and Herzegovina. It was unlikely that I would get a job in Bosnia as I didn’t speak the language. I would also be moving around the UK, and potentially the world, for the next 8 years. In Kenya I set up a farm shop, but now I needed to find something portable and flexible to fit around my family and changing locations.
I looked at writing to convey the distinct way of life in Kenya, and the outlook of the people. Their first priority is survival, and after that it’s family and community. Few people judge others by what they wear, what car they drive (as most people don’t even own one) or what possessions they own. And yet they are friendly and enjoy sharing at a joke, or swapping news under the shade of an acacia tree.
Kenya has some fantastic sights. It’s famous for its wildlife and scenery but I found the everyday scenes the most intriguing, and different from what I knew: vegetable markets, second-hand clothes stalls and the street sellers, to name but a few. All of these, I’ve tried to capture and convey in my books
When did you start writing? What major challenges did you find in this journey?
I started writing two years ago, but I knew nothing about the craft, publishing or marketing. Luckily there’s a ton of free information on the Internet and in podcasts. I realised I didn’t want to take the traditional publishing route as I would lose control of my books, and they may, or may not, get published sometime in the future.
As I struggled with my first draft, I met an author and asked for her advice. She recommended a residential course run by a writing foundation in the UK. I learnt a lot, particularly about points of view and voice. I took the advice my tutor gave me and found an editor who could help me from the beginning of my manuscript.
I rewrote my 30,000 word draft, and the opening scenes at least five times, until I was confident to write through to the end. I immediately wrote a second book in the same series, and a novella, before I returning to the first book which I re-edited and prepared for publication.
As an Indie, or self-published author, I then learnt the publishing process and the basics of book marketing. It is a journey I am still on.
Not many would choose to have an elderly sleuth as the protagonist.
My principal character, Mama Rose, is based on a friend of mine who helped and supported me through tough times. She was incredible in the way she helped so many people, and animals, and she had her own strong moral view of life.
The crimes in my books are not solved by chasing the killer but though observation, knowledge of human nature and linking clues together. An elderly character, who has suffered her own hardships, has more experience and a greater understanding of life. She also works as a community vet, which enables her to move around the area and interact with local people.
For many of us, Kenya is an undiscovered land. Did you personally stay in such a small town in Kenya?
My books are set in Nanyuki, which is three hours north of Nairobi. It isn’t a particularly exotic location, but a rather dusty market town where I lived for nearly six years. It’s dominated by the often snow-capped Mount Kenya which, at 17,000 ft, is the second highest mountain in Africa.
I write cozy mysteries which are typically set in small towns rather than large cities. This allows my readers to get to know the characters and location intimately, as both tend to re-appear throughout the series.
You have interwoven many aspects of a small town life in Fowl Murder. How do you break the monotony in the other books?
Small towns, in cozy mystery series, can develop the ‘Cabot Cove’ syndrome; if Cabot Cove, from the Murder, She Wrote series, existed in real life it would top several categories of the FBI’s national crime statistics. To avoid this phenomenon, the themes of my second and subsequent books are woven around events which actually take place in Kenya. These include an important elephant-focused wildlife summit, a 4×4 off-road charity event in the Maasai Mara and, in the book that I am releasing in May 2021, a marathon in a UNESCO World Heritage wildlife reserve.
How do you flesh out your characters? Did you have any help from experts, any mentor or any book or website?
Apart from the heroine, who had been central to planning my Kenya Kanga Mystery series, the others characters appeared and developed along the way. It has amazed me at how many take on a life of their own and demanded larger roles in future stories.
I’ve read many books and listened to a myriad podcasts about writing and characterisation. But recently I had a one-on-one session with Jeff Elkins, The Dialogue Doctor. We went through one of my multi-caste scenes and discussed each character’s motivations and internal view of the world. From this, Jeff helped me develop each character’s voice, and importantly for me, their actions and non-verbal communication.
Who is your target audience?
I’ve discovered that it is women, generally over the ago of 35, who have lived in, visited, or are fascinated about Africa, or are interested in foreign locations.
How many books do you have in the series?
I’ve released four books in the series and a fifth will be launched in May. I’m currently re-writing the novella I completed last year, which will be launched as a novel in August. And I intend to write a sixth book to be released by the end of the year, and then I may take a break from this series, but I do intend to write more books.
Are you planning to write a series on the other places that you have lived in?
I’m planning a second series set in the UK, using places I have lived in or visited. Due to the pandemic, I haven’t visited much of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and we’ve been unable to travel around the region. I hope we can do that soon, as there’s an enormous amount of history. Everyone has a story to tell, from the war in the 1990s and various sieges, including the longest in modern history in Sarajevo.
Your books are primarily marketed through your newsletter. How do you find the response to this?
I don’t have a huge marketing budget, so I can’t run many ads. The great advantage of my newsletter is being able to communicate directly with my readers. In the last email I sent, I asked them to name my lead character’s cow, and I had a fantastic response. I’m in the writing business for the long-term. I prefer to build an audience of loyal readers rather than spend a fortune on advertising where I may sell books, but have no idea who the purchaser is.
With easy accessibility to self-publish a book, what is your advice for those aspiring to become authors? What makes the art of writing important?
The answers to these questions could fill an entire book. First, an aspiring author should ask why they want to write the book? If it is just for themselves, or some family members, then the process can be simplified.
But if they want to sell books to those outside their immediate circle, they need to look at self-publishing as a business. I had an idea for a story, and I’ve enjoyed mystery books since I began reading Agatha Christie as a teenager. I researched the mystery genre, and then the cozy mystery sub-genre, and learnt the tropes and aspects of such books that readers expect.
The first step in self-publishing is to write the best book you can. I listened to podcasts, watched on-line courses and read books on writing craft and story structure. My tutor, at the residential course I attended, suggested I find an editor to work with me as I wrote my book. Usually a writer doesn’t approach an editor until the book is completed, but working together improved my confidence and ensured I had a decent end product. I did edit it several times before publication.
Most indie authors write in series, so there are advantages to writing several books before publishing any. As you write the second and third books, you can correct anything that does not work in the first, such as the heroine’s job not allowing her time for sleuthing. Writing more books hones a writer’s craft. It also allows, after launching the first book, subsequent books to be released more frequently. Many cozy mystery readers don’t start a series until there are at least three books.
Many people think that writing is the principal part of the author process, but in self-publishing it is only the start. It can take several books to break even, and more to make a profit, so the best advice I’ve been given is not to spend a lot of money marketing the initial books but to keep writing. I’m still working on it!
Buy Kindle edition
Publisher: Kanga Press (July 17, 2020)
Simultaneous device usage: Unlimited
Print length: 286 pages
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