Friday, January 28, 2011

How Matryoshka Dolls Inspired a “Nested” Mystery

  • Note: This article on my trip to a matryoshka factor outside Moscow appears in this month's issue of Mystery Reader's Journal. You can check out this excellent publication at

Walking into the Souvenir Factory in Sergiev Posad, (45 miles from Moscow) my 16-year-old son, Ian, and I were greeted by the earthy smell of wood chips laced with the pungent odor of lacquer. Souvenir was a landmark stop on our whirlwind trip to Moscow and the Golden Ring to research settings for my new mystery novel, THE LAST MATRYOSHKA. Guided by the factory director, Elena, we stopped first at the lathe operator’s workshop, where we watched a master craftsman create the bottom half of a doll by hollowing out a round piece of linden wood spinning on his lathe. He fashioned the top half in the same way and then started on the next, smaller version of the doll. All this accomplished with no patterns or templates in sight.

In the painting room, a half-dozen highly skilled women employed the tiniest of brushes to paint intricate designs and faces on the matryoshki. Ian was given a blank doll and he surprised everyone by painting a Brazilian soccer player, all greens and yellows to match their flag. His creation now sits atop his computer at home.

Originally known as the Zagorsk Artistic-Production Workshop, the factory was built in 1944, during what Russians still call the Great Patriotic War. The Soviets considered Matryoshka dolls to be powerful representatives of Russian culture and soldiers were even called back from the front to manufacture them. Under Soviet rule, the artists were forced to paint one image only on the required yellow background—the noble peasant woman, wearing a bright red scarf. But of course it hadn’t always been this way. During the early 20th century, an astounding variety of nested dolls were created and decorated with everything from fairy tale scenes to the faces of famous generals and the life of Christ. Many nested dolls contained as many as 30 pieces! Today these early masterpieces are avidly sought by collectors.

The core idea for THE LAST MATRYOSHKA came to me while visiting my mother in Brooklyn. As I listened to her neighbors chattering in Russian, admired the Russian fashionistas shopping in high heels on Kings Highway and gazed at the newly minted Matryoshka dolls in the shop windows, the mystery writer in me got to wondering: what if a Russian émigré had a lurid past in Russia that followed him to Brooklyn and created havoc in his new life? I imagined him receiving a series of packages, each containing a nesting doll with a threatening message inside. The smallest doll would be opened in Russia and reveal a devastating fact that would turn the tale on its head.

The storyline of my book soon began to resemble the way a nesting doll is constructed, with the antagonist hiding his true identity inside layers of deceit and challenging poet and private investigator Jo Epstein to unmask him. By the time I reached the part of the novel that was to be set in Russia, I realized that I could read a stack of books and click through endless pages on the Internet and still fail to find the telling details I needed to lend credibility to my Russian characters. So I booked a flight to Moscow and learned some basic Russian phrases—please, thank you, where is the Metro?—from a CD that I played in my car while driving around Seattle.

In addition to touring the Matryoshka factory, Ian and I visited Vladimir Central Prison and were told that we were the first American tourists to do so. It was chilling to see all the books on exhibit in the prison museum that had been written by authors imprisoned there.

Ian was my “official photographer,” and we were always on the lookout for unusual settings to document. Since I love “writing to picture,” almost every setting we photographed appears somewhere in THE LAST MATRYOSHKA: the Monastery of St. Euthymius at Suzdal, the iconic telegraph office on Tverskaya Ulitsa, the apartment where was stayed (which during Soviet times housed three families), and of course the famous Petrovka 38, headquarters of the Moscow Criminal Police.

Everywhere we went, Ian and I saw Matryoshka dolls. The widely accepted story is that a Russian merchant transported the first nesting doll from Japan to Russia in 1899. Russian lathe operators had been making nested Easter eggs for years, so it was no surprise that they were quick to adapt the dolls—whose many “babies” made them potent symbols of fertility—to their own culture.

But much like the country in which they are made, these dolls have broken free from their past while remaining distinctly Russian. It was inspiring to see how post-Soviet artists have ushered in a Matryoshka Renaissance. There are Bill Clinton dolls inside of which Hillary and Monika reside; dolls painted with scenes from Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are; reproductions of masterpieces from the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow; even dolls portraying the family members of the last Russian Tsar.

One of my favorite matryoshkas is the Famous Russian Poets and Authors doll. Who knows, maybe Famous Mystery Writers will be next…

Friday, January 21, 2011

How many times do I have to tell you to feed the dog?

I'm delighted to welcome author Susan Schreyer today as a guest blogger! Susan lives in Monroe, Washington with her husband, two teenage children, an untrustworthy rabbit and a demanding old cat. Her horse lives within easy driving distance. When not working diligently writing her blogs "Writing Horses" and "Things I Learned From My Horse," articles for worthy publications, or about people in the next town being murdered, Susan trains horses and teaches people how to ride them. She serves on the steering committee of the Guppies Chapter of Sisters in Crime and is co-president of the Puget Sound Chapter of SinC. Death By A Dark Horse, is Susan's debut mystery and the first of a series. Her website is

In the conceiving of a new story, the creation of unique characters can be difficult. We don't want them to be just like all the others, but with different names, so we build complex biographies. We explore the family trees and significant events in their time that shape each character and the way they respond to the world around them. It's all good, and all useful. Occasionally, a character will spring fully formed into our minds. We see them, hear them speak, feel we know them like a brother or sister. Lucky us! Or is it really lucky? We may know them well, but how are we going to bring that knowledge to the reader? We still face the same struggle we had with characters we had to build from the ground up.

We try to avoid a laundry list of personality traits in much the same way we try to avoid a laundry list of physical traits. For example, if a character is overweight we can show his size by making him unable to squeeze through a small restroom window and escape his pursuers. That solution is pretty easy, and obvious. And it's fun for a writer. More complex and frustrating is how to communicate the nuances of character and emotion.
We can show the character's body language, and write dialog between that character and another. We can show how he responds under pressure. We can have other characters talk about him. All of these tried and true methods have potential for conflict -- and conflict is excellent for driving the reader to turn the page.


But…can't we add more depth, be more subtle, do something else to pull the reader into the story and build understanding of our character?

Of course. Add a pet.

We can explain much about a character by showing his interactions with animals -- and without screaming the information at the reader. This is one of my favorite tools. People can act very differently around animals than humans. Much pretense is dropped and we catch glimpses of their psychology that would normally be hidden in human interaction. Animals also respond differently to individuals. What's more, the writer can use a character's relationship with an animal to mirror and add a depth of understanding to another plot line. There's a lot of creative potential in this approach.

So, consider getting your character a pet. And instead of using it as live furniture, exploit the opportunities they can provide. Your readers may thank you for it.

What are some of your favorite character-revealing moments involving animals?

Friday, January 14, 2011

How to avoid the “sag” in the middle

We’re talking about strengthening a writer’s storyline here, not his or her tummy—although that dangerous “sag in the middle” may require some vigorous exercise to fix.

How many times have you reached page 200 in a book that got off to a great start and wondered why you feel compelled to describe the passengers on a bus in excruciating detail or flash back to childhood memories so distant that their relationship to the main events of the plot are totally obscure? Maybe you don’t have this problem. Maybe you’re one of those writers who doesn’t experience the doldrums in Act Two. In that case, unless you’re fooling yourself (I’m just sayin’) I extend my congratulations.

For the rest of us, how do we bust out of the mid-book stalemate? Let’s say you’ve got an excellent outline, complete with solid motivations and growing conflict, with the crises and resolutions laid out on a graph, peaks and valleys in all the right places, no surprises. Did I say no surprises? Oops.

You may know exactly where you are going and still run out of gas before you get there. It happens to driver on the highway all the time, why not to writers?

What to do? Here are a few ideas:

Ask yourself – “did the plot come easily to me and if so, will the reader find it as predictable as I do?” The answer may be “yes,” but don’t despair. You can use this predictability to your advantage—for example, if you are writing a thriller or a mystery, consider reincarnating your run-of-the-mill villain as a red herring. This will leave you free to create a new, more complex antagonist whose machinations will spiral the story up to a whole new level.

Let’s say your story is a quest and you think you have successfully mined your protagonist’s insecurities and challenged her to face her greatest fear. Or have you? Dig deeper.

In her excellent book, “Write Away,” Elizabeth George quotes author T. Jefferson Parker as saying “When my story stalls out on me, I’ve played my hand too soon.” Take another look at the journey – have you taken shortcuts around obstacles that you need your protagonist to face directly in order to build suspense? Does she have an Achilles heel, a weakness that trips her up just when she is about to prevail? In ASK THE DEAD, Jo Epstein’s biggest fear was that she would die by drowning and this was foreshadowed in the beginning, intensified in the middle and resolved at the end. I didn’t plan it this way, but as her character developed and her core needs and emotions surfaced, the story gained traction.

I hope I’ve provided enough examples to get the discussion going. Now it’s time to hear what YOU have to say.

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Timeliness vs. Timelessness

This seems like a good topic with which to start the “turnover” into the new year.

Like most authors, I want my books to last, to be free of the limitations of “dated” material and stay relevant for many years to come. Sounds fine – but does this mean I should resist the temptation to glean storyline ideas from today’s headlines? How does one achieve a balance?

A case in point is THE LAST MATRYOSHKA, (started in 2006 and published in Nov. 2010) in which private investigator Jo Epstein visits Russia for the first time. This vast country, with its labyrinthal political system, may be slow to change but there were still a few last-minute edits required before publication—such as handing over the presidency from Putin to Medvedev! I also kept track of developments in the conflict between Russia and Georgia and the insurgency in Chechnya, so that the plot would stay fresh for future readers. My reasoning is that readers enjoy a book that provides insight into current events, even when those events recede into the past, as long as the historical and cultural context is solid.

In ASK THE DEAD, Jo visits a fictitious Caribbean island, which was a great way to sidestep the issue. However, my next book is partially set in Cuba, and has sparked a whole new set of questions: Will today’s slow progress in reforming the Cuban economy reach critical mass and become a rapid transformation, such as happened in the Soviet Union in the ‘90s? Will the United States lift the embargo before (or after) the book is published? What about the status of Cuba as now defined in the Patriot Act? Since I do not have a working crystal ball, I have chosen to rely on interesting characters and realistic conflict to propel my storyline, with politics kept to the background as much as possible. It will be interesting to see if I find myself scrambling to incorporate last minute changes before publication, or not…wish me luck!

Please share your own views about timeliness vs. timelessness.