Death of a Sequel

July 2, 2018

Tags: sequels, the writing life, YA fiction, middle-grade mysteries, Secret of the Seventh Gate, Iran, Texas, expats, the writing process, plotting fiction

Those of you who followed the progress of my YA novel RIDDLE OF THE SAMOVAR via blog posts of 2014 (A-Z or Z-A) might be wondering whether the book has been published. I must confess that it was never finished. Less than halfway through, after an investment of several years' plotting, I admitted to myself - and to any who would listen - that I was flogging a dead horse.

For whatever reason - unfamiliarity with Texas high school culture in the '70s, being forced to fit events into a precise historical timeline (the Iran hostage crisis) or just plain busy-ness in my non-writing life - this was a failed romance. Much as I enjoyed researching the era and watching my characters from SECRET OF THE SEVENTH GATE start a new adventure, the time had come to close the drawer on all my notes for possible future use, or not.

This freed me up for other projects! I will have two books out this fall - a poetry collection, CATCHING THE TRADE WINDS, and an illustrated London alphabet, X MEANS TEN ON THE FACE OF BIG BEN.


September 18, 2015

Tags: moving, location, selling a house, icebreakers, shyness, strangers, new community, home, familiarity, packing, relocation, homesickness, expatriates, England, Britain, UK, the Pond, Transatlantic, Iran, overseas contract, teaching, job transfer


Farthest temporary move: England to Iran

Biggest regret about living in Iran: Not taking the time to really learn Farsi. Not seeing prettier towns like Shiraz and Isfahan.

Farthest permanent move: England to America

Worst homesickness: First weeks of college at 18. First months in Florida at 28.

Hardest adjustments on arrival in the US: Different words for things, or the same words with different meanings. Driving on the other side of the road, changing lanes in fast traffic, and turning left. Too much choice at the grocery store, unfamiliar items. How to feed a new husband?

Shocks: My husband chewing gum when we opened a bank account and a deacon’s wife chewing gum in church - both frowned on where I came from.

Reasons to move: Romance. Divorce. Adventure. Job opportunity. Be close to the city. Get away from the city. Be close to family. Get away from “bloomin’ relations.”

Unusual finds: Someone had dropped a molar, halfway up the stairs. I put it under my pillow for the tooth fairy, and she left me a tinfoil sixpence! The attic of that house was filled with cherub paintings and floral chamber pots that went to the auction rooms.

Welcome gifts: In Iran, home-made pizza from the American students’ moms, who also lent us clothes, because our luggage had been misplaced. In Florida, a home-grown avocado from our Dutch neighbor.

Most refreshing moving-day gift: Six bottles of ginger beer (non-alcoholic) from a Canadian couple at our church in Texas.

Surprises: Mexican dinners for the Ex-Pat community, made by the US Army cook in Iran. Transatlantic Brides & Parents Association in Dallas. Meeting Nona, who’d taught in Iran the same year as I did. British shows on PBS. Radio 4 on the Internet. Golden Oldies at the grocery store in Kansas. Lakes and rivers whenever I missed the sea.

Mother’s response to news of Mark’s job transfer to Surrey: “Oh Hazel, that’s wonderful - and you’ll be near Linda!”

Care packages: Candy corn, Blow Pops, and Kool-Aid from US to UK. Easter eggs, Yorkshire tea, and Christmas pudding from UK to US.

Hardest adjustments on relocation to the UK: Driving on the other side of the road. Figuring out the coins while jet-lagged. Gloomy grey sky for days on end in winter.

Hardest thing on returning to the US after three years in England: Teenage daughter leaving a close-knit bunch of classmates there, discovering her old friends had moved on to different pursuits. Sorting out academic credits with the HS registrar.

Most humbling requirement for a teaching certificate: After my degree from TWU, one semester of student teaching, in spite of seven years’ experience overseas.

Funniest requirement for US citizenship: Having to prove my grasp of the English language by writing the sentence, “They could not find the dog.”

How to feel at home: Get a library card, volunteer at a school, join a church, and seek out arty, crafty people. They are everywhere!

Ice-breakers: Dogs and children

Number of trips taken by husband and dog from TX to KS with a load: Nine.

Unusual send-off: Texas tea with ladies in gloves, jeans, and lampshade hats.

What helped sell our house fast: Decluttering, a bowl of fruit, and location.

Number of boxes unpacked in KS after all the giving, selling, pitching, and ditching: Too many to count. Some are still in the attic.

Number of moves in my life: Thirteen, not counting temporary rentals.

Number of times I want to move again: Zero. But you never know…

How to keep in touch with roots: Facebook, and fly back for one fortnight a year.


November 12, 2014

Tags: bonfire, jumping over fire, Persia, Zoroaster, Zoroastrianism, religion, Iran, Mazda, Persian tradition, winter solstice

One of Jandy's most vivid memories is of Iranians jumping over bonfires on the eve of the last Wednesday before the new year.

"Give me your beautiful red color. Take back my sickly pallor!" they shout to the flames. The short, dark days are filled with hope for spring's return and a brighter future.

This custom, celebrating the triumph of good over evil, had been part of Persian culture for 4,000 years, long before the rise of Islam. During the reign of Darius I, the prophet Zoroaster had a vision of an uncreated Spirit named Ashura (Light) Mazda (Wisdom), who alone should be worshiped.

"Red Wednesday" celebrations in Shekarabard combined old and new traditions. By the light of bonfires, kids ran through the streets dressed as ancestral spirits, banging pots and pans to ward off bad luck, and knocking on doors for treats. Special foods were prepared to make wishes come true. After serving noodle soup, the Grahams' neighbors had passed out a mix of pistachios, almonds, apricots, and figs.

Through stories of Esther and Daniel, Jandy knows how the fortunes of the Persians intertwined with those of the Jews and Babylonians. Her home-church group had visited the palace ruins at Susa ("Shushan" in the Bible) with its museum full of animal carvings and ceremonial relief sculptures. While history is not her forte, the sense of being steeped in a land of ancient legends was quite intoxicating.

Texas has its own folklore--of pioneer women in covered wagons, cattle drives, and indigenous tribes pre-dating Columbus. But Jandy's soul remains in Central Asia. Above all she misses Maryam, her closest friend. So begins RIDDLE OF THE SAMOVAR.


October 3, 2014

Tags: Dolly Parton, roses, garden, paradise, Iran, Turkish delight, Paul Ruffin, Persia, Texas, 1979, spy science, archetypes, monomythic cycle, detective science, codes, ciphers, secret message, writing process, plotting

"I beg your pardon, I never promised you a rose garden..." It is 1979. The counselor at Hickory Bend Junior High sings the latest Dolly Parton hit as she digs in her files for Jandy's grade reports. A long way from the rose garden indeed, Jandy muses. She and her brother had left their friend Maryam and dog Meshki among the lush, walled gardens of Shekarabad, Iran.

In the archetypical hero’s journey, circumstances alternate between ideal and unideal until all is resolved. Jandy sees Iran as ideal because after the initial culture shock (3 years before 7th Gate began) she immersed herself in life at the international school and enjoyed her friends, especially Maryam. So, although Texas is her birthplace, she no longer feels at home there. Foreign travel has broadened her perspective, and nobody but family understands. How can Jandy get back to the rose garden, literally or metaphorically? What makes a situation ideal? To what extent will she have to compromise?

Intertwined with the readjustment theme like thorns on a rambling rose are questions about the samovar. Who sent it, when will he or she collect it, and what's inside? A message in the brass neck of the vessel is written, drawn, or typed in a code that Cal must crack. I haven't decided on one yet. I like Pig Pen, which my friend Pat Cooper and I learned at the age of 9 or 10. It's fairly straightforward, but could make publication more tricky, involving images rather than a font.

An alphabet code is simpler to print. I can layers of intrigue and humor by having Cal look up Bible verses and getting in trouble from his Sunday school teacher, Aunt Phyllis, for talking in church. But is the sender familiar with the Bible? And what if a different translation is used?

Both my previous mysteries felt too tangled halfway through the plotting stage. There were so many possibilities, and not enough answers. But that's all part of the writing process. One year at a literary festival in Texas, poet Paul Ruffin advised us to "trust the process." His words are secured with magnets to my filing cabinet, visible from my desk. So, I will hack my way through the briars until I smell the Turkish delight fragrance of roses.


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.


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.


August 21, 2014

Tags: Islamic Revolution, Iran, escape, car chase, danger, friendship, pursuit, menace, prejudice, conflict, culture clash, fear

In SECRET OF THE SEVENTH GATE, hostility toward Americans intensifies with anonymous notes, phone calls, and street protests. When Jandy and Cracker investigate strange goings-on at the mosque, Nasser the school gardener stones their dog, Meshki. They run home, but continue to work on the case with Maryam at school. Then a religious holiday turns violent; Jandy summons help for an injured man, who turns out to be Nasser. The school play goes ahead with a number of kids missing because ex-pats are leaving Iran.

Next day, Dad's boss instructs engineers and their families to take a bus to Abadan airport; but Dad's passport is stolen. On the way to Maryam's house with Meshki, whom she has agreed to foster, Jandy distracts two soldiers by drawing their portrait, while Cracker sneaks into the empty house on the corner and emerges with the passport. Now they have missed the bus! Dr. Darabi offers a ride and they head south down the desert road, chased by local revolutionaries. One hazard leads to another, until all the family is safe inside their plane.

Jandy reads a Persian proverb in the book Maryam gave her for Christmas: "The best thing you can bring back from your travels is yourself unharmed." Will Hickory Bend, Texas, feel like a haven of peace after escaping such danger? Or will it seem too tame, especially for mystery-loving Cracker? They worry about the friends - and dog - they left behind. According to news reports, the Shah has been deposed; Ayatollah Khomeini has returned from exile. For moderate Iranians, the Revolution is not going as hoped.

Will the kids decipher the cryptic note hidden in a samovar? Why does Maryam sound upset when Jandy speaks to her on the phone? Will they ever meet again, as she prayed at the airport last December? Has Meshki been shot, or did he run off, only to roam the streets again?

Like Cracker puzzling over his codes, I can't yet see how to shape a sequel around another play (ALICE); the trials of transferring grades from Iran while catching up on Texas curriculum; plus Jandy's challenge of helping Maryam fit in at HB High, when no longer sure of her own place there. I trust it will all work itself out as I write.


August 19, 2014

Tags: bibliography, research, Iran, Persia, ex-pats, Islamic revolution, 1978, 1979, dichotomy, national identity, Maryam, travel, friendship, Secret of the Seventh Gate, immigration, self-concept, adoloescent angst

Although I had lived there for a year, I needed to dig deeper into the history and culture of the land and people known as Persia, or Iran, in order to accurately portray a community of ex-pats in Khusestan province, at the end of 1978. My bibliography for SECRET OF THE SEVENTH GATE grew to 30+ books, as I eagerly gleaned tidbits to incorporate into the story. Then came the trickier task of keeping the narrative thread without bogging it down with too much detail. "Spread it thinly, like manure," is the advice often given at writers' conferences.

I thought a sequel would be easy! I knew most of my characters, and knew I was going to place them in a small town near Dallas, not unlike one I'd lived in. But again it would be set in a specific historical context. I should learn more about the immigrant experience for Iranians, which in many ways is different from mine as a GI bride from England. When the Islamic Revolution heats up, Jandy's friend Maryam flees her home and arrives in Texas, where it will be the Grahams' turn to help the Darabis feel welcome.

"Time for Tara Bahrampour!" I told the dogs as we headed for the day bed, a sunny reading spot in the spare bedroom of our last house, armed with my latest Amazon purchase, TO SEE AND SEE AGAIN: LIFE IN IRAN AND AMERICA. Then there was NEITHER EAST NOT WEST by Christiane Bird; PERSIAN MIRRORS by Elaine Sciolino; a couple more memoirs; and poetry by Rumi. My most recent research adventure was GUESTS OF THE AYATOLLAH by Mark Bowden - in case I decide to set the story in the fall of 1979, when the Embassy hostages were taken.

Sooner or later, I will finish RIDDLE OF THE SAMOVAR! I owe it to myself and all these authors who graciously shared their lives with me.


August 16, 2014

Tags: A to Z, passion, art, eighth grade, junior high, blog challenge, work-in-progress, writing process, plot, characters, middle grade mystery, samovar, Persia, Texas, Islamic Revolution, Iran

Art is Jandy Graham's obsession. The first chapter of Secret of the Seventh Gate showed her walking home from school, hugging a sketchpad. Its sequel, Riddle of the Samovar, begins in a similar way. But now the Grahams are back in Texas, forced out of Iran by that country's Revolution, leaving behind her best friend, Maryam. The only bright spot for Jandy, as she readjusts to American life, is the opportunity to take art as an elective - but only if the counselor approves. Characters are not based on real people, but I do see a bit of myself and my daughter in Jandy's passion for art. It will drive the story and may help her solve another mystery with her brother, Calvin.