FRESH FROM THE INKWELL

Q: QUEEN OF HEARTS

September 29, 2014

Tags: Alice in Wonderland, theater, Red Queen, Queen of Hearts, Knave of Hearts, Off with their heads, tea towel, cream teas, storytelling puppet, actors, school play

After a 5th grade production of "Alice in Wonderland" thirty years ago, a parent thanked me for letting her shy daughter play the Queen of Hearts, because it had boosted her self-confidence. Sally's classmate Brian had relished the role of King. Both children were what you might call solidly built, making their presence felt like Pavarotti onstage. Then there was absent-minded Chester scurrying about with his watch on a chain as the White Rabbit, and Mad Hatter Michael pontificating at the tea party in a top hat, priced 10 shillings and sixpence. It would be interesting to know how much of it they remember now, in their forties, likely with kids of their own at the same school!

As I get to know my characters in the fictional town of Hickory Bend, I will enjoy drawing up a cast list for "Alice with a Texas twist" and watching the drama unfold, on and offstage. Cal wants to be the hookah-smoking caterpillar, but he and his cousin Luke might end up as Tweedledum and Tweedledee. Costumes made by Sue Graham and other moms will offer possibilities for mistaken identity, or notes hidden in pockets, clues to the Riddle of the Samovar.

Let the show begin!

P: PHYLLIS

September 27, 2014

Tags: aunt, prejudice, family opposition, family tension, Islam, Big Tex, State Fair of Texas, Quran, Bible, Jesus, Son of God, overseas contract, ex-patriates, Texas, writing process, characters, antagonist

Jandy mentions Aunt Phyllis in SECRET OF THE SEVENTH GATE as a relative who fails to understand why Clint (Phyllis’s brother) would drag his family halfway around the world, even for a short-term contract. The school counselor, Shirley Anne Traylor, expresses similar views when trying to sort out Jandy’s grades in RIDDLE OF THE SAMOVAR.

Meanwhile in Iran, Maryam’s Aunt Simin is close-minded in matters of religion. “God is too holy to have a son,” she asserts, “and the Bible is full of lies.” My 2nd graders at a Christian school in Texas cried in horror when I read that part of my book to them. Blasphemy!

I haven’t decided how much of a role these aunts will play in the sequel. But I’m sure they will let me know soon enough.

O: OBSTACLES

September 26, 2014

Tags: obstacles, plotting, teenage angst, relocation, siblings, friendship, Alice in Wonderland, school play, school counselor, prejudice, cliques, mean girls, middle school, junior high, eighth grade, art

Jandy's adjustment to life back in Hickory Bend after three years in Iran is fraught with setbacks. Classmates ridicule gaps in her knowledge of rock music; teachers berate her ignorance about American history. The school counselor insists that Jandy still lacks one math class, and they cannot fit art in her schedule. Then Mom suggests a nerdy tutor to boost her chemistry grade. Relatives wonder why Dad ever took that job overseas, and the Islamic Revolution hasn't helped matters.

Old friends have moved on to new pursuits - band, cheerleading, athletics. If only Maryam were here! Communication with Iran, by mail or phone, has broken down. Brother Cal is upset that his dog disappeared while staying with Maryam, and takes it out on Jandy. But if they can't work together, how will they solve the Riddle of the Samovar? That knotty problem carries enough complications of its own.

Maryam's arrival in Texas, which should be an exciting, longed-for event, is hampered by resentment from Cal and prejudice from a clique of mean girls. Worse yet, Jandy's attempts to get her a role in "Alice" backfire, when students (protesting the shah's admittance into the US) take over the Embassy in Tehran. No wonder she feels like Alice down the rabbit hole.

N: NUTS

September 21, 2014

Tags: pistachiso, baklava, biryani, Persia food, hot tea, rituals, Middle East, kids' games

“Gotcha last!” Cracker called through the bazaar. He aimed a nut at Jandy, and it hit the back of her head.

She thinks about this game three months later, while eating California pistachios in Texas. The last time they played it was at Maryam’s house just before the Ashura parade took a hostile turn. Jandy wonders how much longer her brother will play these games with her. But it won’t be the same without Maryam.

She remembers how her family belted out “Jingle Bells” in the car one evening, on a quest for a Christmas tree. Then a road block had forced them to turn back, because Hank’s Chicken had been set on fire as an anti-American protest.

The Grahams still like to sip hot tea Iranian style, from small glasses, with sugar cubes on their tongues. Mom cooks lamb biryani with jasmine rice, and picks up authentic baklava from a Dallas bakery. So what if classmates think them weird, or even un-American? These rituals keep alive the memory of their Middle-East experience.

M: MESHKI

September 19, 2014

Tags: stray dog, unclean to Muslims, foster, black Lab, sniff out clues, 7th Gate mystery, Nasser the gardener, missing a pet, pining, friendship, rescue, pets, puppies

In SECRET OF THE SEVENTH GATE, Jandy and Cracker rescue a stray Lab and name him Meshki -- Farsi for black. He helps them sniff out clues for the latest mystery, but also gets them in trouble. Dogs are unclean in the Islamic religion. So, when Nasser the gardener sees Meshki with the kids outside the mosque, he throws rocks, and they have to run home. Cracker thinks the dog's previous owners were from Oklahoma, which may or may not tie in with the sequel.

When the Graham family leaves Iran in a hurry, their friend Maryam Darabi agrees to take care of Meshki, not knowing if or when they will return. Eight months later, Cracker -- or Cal, as he now prefers -- pines for Meshki and wonders how they can get him out of Iran. Worse yet, a tearful Maryam tells Jandy by phone, before being cut off, that the dog had been shot by a Revolutionary guard. Is he dead? Injured? Roaming the streets again? Cal wishes they hadn't entrusted Meshki to Maryam, which causes tension between him and Jandy as they await further news.

I haven't decided yet what happens to Meshki. A backup plan, if he can't come to Texas, is for Grandma Graham to give Cal a golden retriever pup, or for him to choose one at the animal shelter. I've read plenty of sad, realistic children's books, but don't want to turn mine into too much of a tragedy. My friend Alison and her 10-year-old daughter were quite upset when Jandy had to leave her teddy bear behind in SECRET OF THE SEVENTH GATE. Another option is for one of the teachers who stayed in Iran to adopt Meshki.

L: LOBSTER QUADRILLE

September 15, 2014

Tags: quadrille, line dancing, Texas, Dallas Cheerleaders, Alice in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll, choreography, immigration, Iranian, community theater, writing process

While Jandy Graham is content to paint and shift scenery, Maryam Darabi prefers acting and dancing. When the international school in Shekarabad, Iran, staged “Ali Baba” in 1978, Maryam played a slave girl, Morgiana [SECRET OF THE SEVENTH GATE]. She swayed and twirled in an ever-faster dance, until she was close enough to the wicked oil merchant to seize his hidden dagger. The school’s previous show had been "Alice in Wonderland" with Maryam in the lead role.

Fast forward to Hickory Bend, Texas, 1979, setting for the sequel, RIDDLE OF THE SAMOVAR. Jandy sees the local production of "Alice" as a way to help her friend get involved in the community, after the ordeal of fleeing Iran. But Tammie Traylor, a Buffalette cheerleader, has different ideas about the Lobster Quadrille.

Should it be danced with the French traditional four walls (lines) or just one, as in the new craze called line dancing? Another girl suggests the disco-inspired Electric Slide. Will the dancers dress as sea creatures, as per Lewis Carroll's book, or wear hats and boots like the popular Dallas Cheerleaders? As Jandy points out, they can be flexible, because this version of the story is already like no other, having been given a Texas twist by a local writer. She even considers a samovar instead of a china teapot for the Mad Hatter scene. But who has the final say on choreography? What about the music? Opera, zydeco, or twangy country?

I had fun researching the evolution of these dances over the decades.

K: KING

September 12, 2014

Tags: shahs, Shah Pahlavi, Iran, Persia, ayatollah, Khomeini, 1979, Persian Empire, Peacock Throne, legendary, monarch

In January 1979 the king of Iran, Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, kisses the ground of his homeland and boards a plane to Egypt, where he is to receive treatment for a blood disorder. Two weeks later, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini returns from exile to great acclaim and takes over the reins, as the Shah’s provisional government collapses. The era of the Peacock Throne and a centuries-long line of legendary shahs is over.

Iranians who had hoped for a western-style democracy see the revolution take a bloody, extremist turn, with most of power going to the mullahs. A militant group attacks the hospital where Dr. Darabi (Maryam's father) works, calling it a nest of spies in league with the Great Satan America. The family scrambles to prepare US visa applications.

Meanwhile Jandy wonders why she can never get through Maryam on the telephone. And the deposed king is shuttled around in the quest for quality medical help, as each host country fears reprisals from the Iranian government.

J: JEWELS

September 10, 2014

Tags: writing process, secrets, jewels, necklace, grandmother, Iran, samovar, hidden, Persian soil, coded message, mystery

Deep in the belly of an antique samovar nestles a little bag of something precious, concealed inside a bag of Persian soil. Is it a necklace belonging to Maryam’s grandmother? Did her Cousin Ahmad steal it, or was it (as he insists later the story) a gift to help him pay for college in the US? All Jandy and Cal have in chapter one is a note stuck in the chimney of the samovar, asking them to look after it “until we meet again” - with a list of numbers and letters on the back which they suspect is a coded message.

No amount of wrestling and brainstorming on my part has persuaded the samovar to cough up its secrets. Like Congress passing a bill so they can read it, I can’t answer these questions until I write the book. That’s how the process worked for SECRET OF THE SEVENTH GATE and ARROWHEAD’S LOST HOARD. May the genie of the samovar be kind to this humble weaver of tales.

I: IMMERSION

September 8, 2014

Tags: taking the plunge, immersion, swimming, languages, fictional world, writing process, imagination, writing tips, mindset, motivation

With my sister and brothers, I spent many happy hours by the sea. As soon as our picnic lunch had been digested, we would run down the beach to splash, dive, swim, jump the waves, do handstands underwater, toss a beach ball, and gather seaweed - hardly noticing the temperature after the shock of that initial plunge.

"Come on, get in!" we yelled, as our mother hovered at the edge and shivered in her swimsuit. "It's warm when you get used to it!"

At last, Mum would make her decision, take the plunge, swim non-stop for ten to twenty minutes, and go back up to get dry and dressed, leaving us to play.

In high school, my friend Marie spent the fall trimester in France, living with a French family. I wished I'd had the courage to do the same; foreign languages were my forte , but my oral proficiency lagged below the reading and writing. Having to speak a language all the time would have built vocabulary, fluency, and confidence.

Whenever I've taken part in a play, a parade, a book fair with a theme, or a week-long Bible school with kids, the whole world of that event has taken over. Last July I lived and breathed Agency D3; May was all about Fiesta; this month at school, it's Sir Read-a-Lot's Castle.

Total immersion. That will be the key to finishing my work-in-progress. I've hovered too long on the edge. When I set aside other projects (even writing tasks, if not directly related to RIDDLE OF THE SAMOVAR), and surround myself with Texan/Persian/seventies/Alice books, artifacts, pictures and music, each writing session will flow more easily.

Jump in, Hazel. The water's fine!

H: HISTORY

September 6, 2014

Tags: Appomattox, Civil War, Persia, Texas, Esther's palace, Daniel's tomb, eighth grade, junior high, Art, Geometry, Riddle of the Sam0var, teenage angst

Having been to Daniel’s tomb, Esther’s palace, and other ancient Persian landmarks, Jandy Graham is no dummy regarding world history. But when it comes to US history, she is made to feel like a complete idiot by teachers and classmates at Hickory Bend Junior High.

Boring Warring embarrasses Jandy by asking her to spell Appomattox while her mind is on more interesting subjects such as art. She cannot tell him what a courthouse had to do with the Civil War. Time after time during her first semester back in Texas, gaps in Jandy’s knowledge are exposed like holes in her jeans revealing Mickey Mouse underwear. She enjoys learning about how ordinary people lived in previous eras, but can never remember dates of battles and presidents, unlike her brother Cal. “I’m not a numbers person,” is Jandy’s excuse.

“Didn’t they teach you anything at that school in Eye-ran?” the counselor asks, as she checks Jandy’s credits and finds them deficient in geometry.

Mom suggests the pastor’s nerdy son, a math whiz, to be her tutor. But who will help with US History if Jandy fails the final and has to re-take the class? That will mean she can’t take art next semester. Worse yet, she might not even graduate 8th grade.

While Jandy’s academic record is not the main problem in RIDDLE OF THE SAMOVAR, it plays into her despondency over leaving friends in Iran (especially Maryam) and failing to regain a foothold in her childhood home.

G: GOSPEL

September 3, 2014

Tags: Jesus, good news, faith, salvation, conversation, Muslim background, friendship evangelism, truth seeker, Scripture, invitation, Persian Bible, New Testament, eyewitnesses, angels, Mary, Isa, Maryam, People of the Book

Just before Jandy left Iran, she had given her friend Maryam a Persian Bible in a plain brown cover - not to pressure Maryam into converting, but in response to her questions in an earlier scene, when the girls were decorating a Christmas tree. She had told Jandy that Jesus (called Isa) is mentioned in the Koran, and his mother's name in Persian was Maryam, the same as hers.

Both girls believe that angels are sent by a Creator God to protect and to bring messages, like Gabriel's news that Mary would have a son. The nature of that son - human, divine, or both - is a bone of contention between Christian and Muslim teachings. Maryam wants to discover the Truth for herself, and her parents are happy with that. In fact, they too are curious about what eyewitnesses wrote about the life, death, and resurrection of this man. Even cousin Ahmad had secretly asked to borrow the Persian Bible.

Despite opposition from uncle Gholam and aunt Simin, Maryam had been studying the gospel accounts during the girls' separation from each other. When the Darabis flee Iran and show up in Texas, she will have more questions for Jandy. Whether Maryam becomes a Christian or not, they will remain friends and stand together in the face of prejudice and misunderstanding from the residents of Hickory Bend.