Saturday, August 25, 2012

Trust Your Instincts

This little piece was originally published on the Venture Galleries Blog -

Beginning a book is like taking a wrong turn on the way home from the airport. You may end up in a bad neighborhood, and run out of gas before you find your way out, or you may decide this is the place for you and settle in to get your work done. In that case, everything you need is right there… a church or temple as the case may be, a bodega or bordello depending on your mood, and enough shady characters to balance the host of heroes mandated by the current vogue in publishing.

Your family will miss you, but they’re used to it. Whether you check into a flea-bitten SRO or a gilded mansion on the edge of town is entirely up to you. But do not fail to write yourself a note saying something like: My surroundings are entirely illusory and I can return to reality at any time. Post it on the fridge, just in case.
As for the actual writing, for me it is a process of unlearning, each and every time. Like a kitten refusing to move when attached to a leash, whatever has worked for me in the past declines to take the first step on the new journey. I’m on my own and the sooner I accept this the better. I wrote Ask the Dead in the first person, present tense, a technique that shot the story forward at bullet speed. I tried the same thing with The Last Matryoshka (aka Code of Thieves) and ended up tossing the first 30,000 words and switching to past tense. My new book, co-written with Indian journalist Arindam Roy, is set in India, the US and Canada, and is a saga told from multiple points of view.
The company of an independent-minded cat can also be a great help.
I write both literary fiction and mysteries and have found them remarkably similar in structure. Why not, since life is the ultimate mystery. As long as my protagonist has something at stake, something to believe in, something challenging her belief in herself and a compelling reason to put herself at risk, the story will move forward. When I feel blocked, I seek out the noisiest coffee house, park bench, or subway car I can find, and use the white noise to focus my mind.
A few consistent rules that work for me are:
  • Outline only when events begin to contradict each other and continuity is in danger.
  • Develop your characters fully and they will reward you by revealing your plot and bringing life to every moment on the page
  • When a story is not climbing toward a peak of some kind there had better be a deep ravine up ahead.
  • Never write in a vacuum. Even the most insular love story takes place somewhere. Rub the lantern fervently and often, and with the help of your imagination the world you create will reveal and challenge your characters and enchant your readers. My own genie has whisked me off to Russia and India on life-changing, so called ‘book research’ trips for which I will be ever grateful.
Above all, trust your instincts and don’t think too much.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Mysterious Musings

Today I am being interviewed by the astute, inquiring mind of Julia Buckley. Please stop by - she has entitled the interview New York Streets, Russian Gulags, and Indian Poetry.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Bringing Moscow to Allahabad

I wrote this post as a guest on Timothy Hallinan's blog and thought I'd share it here too, since this experience in Allahabad was so amazing:

Arindam Roy—with whom I am writing a novel-in-progress set on two continents—loves concocting surprises. So when I checked into the Hotel Yatrik on a Friday and he told me I’d be giving a talk to students at Allahabad University that Sunday, I managed a grin and a thank you for the opportunity. Then I rushed across the street—risking life and limb amidst the madly rushing rickshaws, wildly over-burdened scooters, and incessantly honking cars—to see if I could get my Mini laptop fixed in time to retrieve my slideshow on my book-research trip to Russia.

On Sunday afternoon, Professor Sanjoy Saksena came to fetch me in a taxi. I was duly grateful, knowing that if I braved the intense humidity and walked the quarter mile to the University, I’d arrive looking more bedraggled than a shipwrecked cat.

The University’s English Department is one of the oldest in India, situated in a grand Edwardian Mughal structure. The Head, Professor Dubey, greeted me warmly, with an offer of tea and many expressions of appreciation. “Your visit will be recorded as was that of Mark Twain, who visited us many years ago,” he said. I was flabbergasted and tried not to show it. Instead I told the students who joined us around the table how remarkable it was that in both Russia and India people could be counted on to treat authors with great respect, regardless of the size of their book sales or reputations. “There is a special appreciation for the act of writing itself that is imbued in both cultures,” I said. I don’t remember if I shared my opinion that this would never happen in celebrity-crazed America.

My presentation, titled The Place of Place in Mystery Writing, always opens with a discussion of how Raymond Chandler, Walter Mosley, and Elizabeth George use the settings of their stories to reveal character—so much so, that in Chandler’s case, Los Angeles became a character in its own right. I then segued into how I got the idea for writing The Last Matryoshka while visiting my mother’s downstairs neighbors, two lovely Russians who held house concerts in their apartment. It was when I reached the slide showing a group of √©migr√© men playing chess on the Brighton Beach boardwalk that it hit me. Here I was, describing a book largely set in Moscow while showing pictures taken in Brooklyn to a group of graduate students in India!

As if to jar me out of my dream, one of the faculty members spoke up. “Do you think that mysteries are really a form of literature?” he asked. Fighting words—more like what I was used to. “Yes, as a matter of fact I do,” I replied. “Just because publishers find it convenient to classify books into genres in order to market them doesn’t mean that some are better than others. It depends on the writer.” I looked around the room and found a young woman I could tell was just dying to raise her hand. I looked directly at her and asked, “What do you think.”  There was an eerie silence…perhaps I had defied some classroom etiquette of which I was unaware. Then she smiled. “I like reading Agatha Christie and I think her books are every bit as good as Charles Dickens,” she said. A girl after my own heart. We were off and running then—even the quiet students leaned forward in their seats to listen.

Afterwards the professor who had challenged me came up to apologize. “Are you kidding?” I asked. “You made it happen.”
Before I left, they draped a beautiful, orange shawl around my shoulders, as is the tradition with honored guests. By that time the classroom was close to inferno temperature and sweltering under the hot wool scarf I did my best not to pass out. Then came the flowers.  I could get used to this.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Here's my interview with Fun Sherpa: Interrogating the Interesting, just posted today:

Stop by and join the fun...

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

I'm very excited about the next stop on my blog tour - Tim Hallinan's "Blog Cabin!"

Tim is an exceptional writer of mysteries and thrillers set in exotic locales. He was recently nominated for two major awards, the Edgar and the Macavity. I'm honored to be his guest.

Come on over to the Blog Cabin anytime on Wednesday and Thursday, April 18 and 19th to read about my extraordinary experience "Bringing Moscow to Allahabad."

You will also find a link there to FREE copies of THE LAST MATRYOSHKA on Amazon.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Blog Tour

The next stop on the blog tour arranged by Istoria Books for The Last
Matryoshka is SIA MCKYE OVER COFFEE - on Friday, March 23rd

My topic is "Back in the USSR" - the merits of packing one's suitcase when researching international settings.

Please stop by on Friday and enjoy the great fiddle music that plays as you read.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012


On March 14 and 15, The Last Matryoshka will be available on Amazon FOR FREE, courtesy of Istoria Books.

If you do not own a Kindle you can download the free reader from:

I am also guest blogging at Thoughts in Progress -
Please stop by and join the discussion about Writing the Female PI.

See you there,

Saturday, March 03, 2012

The Last Matryoshka Comes to a "Theatre" New You

Am thrilled with the atmospheric book trailer that Istoria Books produced for the upcoming e-release of The Last Matryoshka. This also raises a question  -- how do readers react to these videos - are they seen as mere marketing tools or is there real entertainment value perceived?

Comment and reviews welcome :)

Saturday, February 04, 2012

Travels with an Identity Thief – Part Three – Seeing Through Marilyn’s Eyes

As a writer assuming the identity of a visual artist, I am faced with a special set of challenges. Marilyn thinks in pictures, whilst I process life through words. To be true to my ‘character’s character,’ I must learn to experience the world as she does, to open myself to her emotions as triggered by the colors and textures around us, to let my eyes experience the world before my intellect.

On the other hand, to be true to myself as a wordsmith, I am committed to finding the language that will convey Marilyn’s experiences as vividly as possible. No wonder I am totally exhausted at the end of each day!

It was not until I reached Aurangabad, two weeks after my arrival in India, that my shift into the visual mode gained noticeable momentum.  Who can visit the rock-cut caves of Ajanta—discovered in 1819 by a band of British officers hunting a tiger—without being transfixed by images masterfully created by the great sculptors and painters of 2nd Century India?

Marilyn had pored through books of photographs and listened with fascination to her husband Shankar telling Jataka tales of Buddha’s reincarnations and the Bodhisattvas. No way had this prepared her for a face-to-face encounter with the ancient world.

Later that same day I visited a market in Aurangabad, along with hundreds of shoppers caught up in the Diwali festivities. From the grey stones and ancient murals of the caves out into a modern riot of color… what a transition! I could hardly snap pictures fast enough. This one will definitely inspire Marilyn to paint as she never has before.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Travels with an Identity Thief - Part Two

So here I am in Varanasi, searching out experiences that will reveal Marilyn’s character and provide settings for scenes in the new book. I have assumed her identity yet in many ways she is a total mystery. She is an artist who lives through her eyes, while I’m a writer who lives through words. And how can I think straight, with my senses transfixed by the chaotic sights and sounds around me?

The annual Hindu festival of Durga Puja is in full swing. The streets of Veranasi are packed with worshipers of the goddess, who have come to offer food and flowers at her feet and visit the pandals (temporary temples) where they celebrate the goddess who saved the entire cosmos from destruction! Trucks packed with young men commandeer the narrow alleyways, blasting earsplitting chants and music in honor of the holiday. The best I can do is to keep my eyes open and “give” Marilyn my camera, setting her loose to follow her instincts...

It’s dawn, and Marilyn and I watch a golden streak of sunlight paint the dark waters of the river as we listen to the happy chatter of bathers near the ghat steps. Maa Ganga envelops us inher peaceful embrace. India may be crowded, noisy and hectic, but carved into the chaos, like a Buddhist cave hollowed out in a rock, moments of boundless serenity await.   I know Marilyn will stay in Veranasi for at least a year –far longer than the three days I will be here – and that I too will be back.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Travels with an Identity Thief - Part One

It's been a while since I've posted but I have a good excuse - traveled to India, where I assumed the identity of Marilyn, a character in a new book I'm co-writing with Arindam Roy. I covered a lot of ground on the Subcontinent and will start with my marvelous experience in Varanasi, where I stayed at Nirman School and met many talented teachers and artists.  On my very first day I was privileged to hear the classical vocalist and Bhajan singer, Ganesth Mishra, accompanied by Nawal Singh on tabla. Since one of the characters in the new book is also a talented singer, this was a good sign that my travels were already bearing fruit.

Marilyn is an artist, so my second day in Varansi I interviewed a remarkable mural painter from Kerala, Suresh Nair. He works with traditional materials, which means it takes him a full month to prepare the surface of a brick wall with layers of lime, sand, and coconut milk before painting. Visit his Facebook page to learn more!

Photo courtesy of
Balakrishnan Kavungal Anat
Stay tuned for more pictures and some discussion of my travels as an Identity Thief.

 Stay tuned for a virtual trip through La Alpujarra and Ceuta, the places in Spain that inspired me to write Zahara and the Lost Books of Li...