In which it’s Ryder’s backstory

So today I’m not here–adios, chickens! I’m on my way to Houston for tomorrow’s signing at Murder by the Book. Details are on the Tours page, but here’s something you won’t find there: IT’S A FLAPPER AFFAIR WITH PITH HELMETS AND MIMOSAS. Yeah, you will want to come. Also, if you want a signed book and can’t make it, just phone up the awesome peeps at MBTB today and request a book. They will make that happen for you–mostly by chaining me in the back room with a pen in my hand and not giving me mimosas until every book is signed. (Booksellers are PROS, y’all.)

Anyway, today is about Ryder. There’s a wee discussion of him on my guest blog today at Writerspace, specifically about how he and Delilah got their names. Since I’m writing this ahead of time, I can’t perform link magic, but if you pootle over to and click on the blogs you’ll find it, I promise!

Ryder was FUN to create. I started by reading as much as I could get my hands on about the early settlers and hunters in British East Africa. Most of them were hard-drinking, large-living, fearless womanizers. (Not all, but most.) And most of them had the distasteful habit of shooting wildlife–LOTS OF IT. Teddy Roosevelt’s safaris with his sons will absolutely turn your stomach. But there were some men who were actually at the forefront of the conservancy movement that was just in its infancy in the 1920s. Big game hunting was a tremendously popular pastime among the rich and famous–everyone from Hemingway to TRM Howard ventured out to bag game, and it was a particular favorite of royalty. But hunters could also turn conservationist, and many of them accompanied filmmakers and natural historians like Martin Johnson and Carl Akeley on their expeditions.

Two of the most famous big game hunters in Africa–both connected at least peripherally to the Happy Valley set–were Denys Finch Hatton and Bror Blixen. Very different men, they were both involved with Karen Blixen and Beryl Markham, two of the most interesting and dynamic women in Africa. I took Finch Hatton’s love of poetry and flying, and from Bror I took his way with women and his coolness under fire. I gathered up bits and pieces of all these men to assemble Ryder–with a few unique touches all his own. (Such as his Maasai and Turkana bracelets.) WDM Bell was a big game hunter who left Africa for the Yukon to participate in the Gold Rush; I took Ryder on the journey in reverse. Making him Canadian created a nice pairing with Delilah’s half-American heritage; both of them are newcomers to Africa and the colony’s ways.

As to his name, J. Ryder White, it’s a series of jokes. First, Ryder is an homage to the godfather of the adventure novel genre–the great H. Rider Haggard. Haggard essentially created the archetypal character of the “Great White Hunter”, and there is not an adventure writer after him who doesn’t owe him something. Edgar Rice Burroughs, Conan Doyle, even Elizabeth Peters were among the great writers influenced by him. (If his name doesn’t ring a bell, his most famous novels are KING SOLOMON’S MINES and SHE. Think Allan Quatermain.) The alternate spelling of Ryder is due to Ryder Hesjedal, the Canadian cyclist, since I was watching the Tour de France at the time–an homage to my character’s countryman. (It also gives a nod to BRIDESHEAD REVISITED–a more understandable one than calling a character Aloysius…)

The choice of White as his last name was a way of thumbing my nose at the fact that he is a “white” hunter–and by the end of the book not a good one. He is no longer willing to hire himself out to shoot whatever his clients want. (This is a trend we saw beginning in FAR IN THE WILDS.) By the end, he’s committed to conservancy, to figuring out a way to preserve the wildlife and the land. Of course, wildlife management is a hideously complicated business; even today debate still rages about the best way to manage the conflicting interests of animals, land, and people, but Ryder has a stubborn belief he can do better than the average colonial, and having spent most of his life there, he feels obligated to try.

If you want to read up on some of the influences who went into creating Ryder, the bios of Denys Finch Hatton by Sara Wheeler and Errol Trzebinski are thorough. Trzebinski also wrote a bio of Beryl Markham that detailed her relationships with several of the prominent men in the colony.

Also helpful was SAFARI by Bartle Bull. It’s a comprehensive and sometimes stomach-turning history of the tradition of safari. And the diaries of Peter Beard are beyond incredible. Beard, an internationally acclaimed photographer, has spent most of his adult life in Africa, and during that time he has kept lavish visual diaries. They are albums of his photographs loaded with ephemera of his life–feathers, blood, egg shells, bones. They are extraordinary, and a few years ago Beard released a two-book set of coffee table books that are photographic facsimiles of the originals. The set is not cheap–they are out of print and the last set I saw went for $400 per volume. But I was able to find them via interlibrary loan, and his other books offer a wonderful insight into his African experiences. THE END OF THE GAME is particularly heart-breaking but beautifully presented.

Alright, my dears–this wraps up the backstory posts on how different characters were created. I LOVE doing the backstory posts; it’s one of my favorite parts of any book’s launch, and I hope you enjoyed them. Since I’m traveling and on deadlines, next week’s posts are already written and loaded, but if you have any questions about research, pop them in the comments, and I’ll write a catch-up post when I’m able. Happy weekend!