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 FRESH FROM THE INKWELL 

T: TAMMIE TRAYLOR

Tammie Traylor bounces on to the page in her purple Buffalette uniform, popping watermelon bubble gum. Her hair is pulled across her head and secured with spray-net and two tight ponytails. Her voice is perky, ever ready with a cheer for Hickory Creek, be it volleyball, basketball, or football. Cheerleading is her life. She has moved on from the pursuits she and Jandy shared -- before the Grahams moved away.

"So what happened at Camp Mockingbird?" readers will ask, when I first drop the hint of a falling-out between the two girls in fifth grade.

I don't know myself yet! But the root of Tammie's resentment lies with Jandy's abandonment of her (or so it seems) when Clint Graham took a job in Iran. Like Jandy's Aunt Phyllis, the Traylors cannot fathom why anyone would travel so far to visit, let alone to live. What about the language? Food? Way of life? Religion?

"The world needs stay-put people," Shirley Anne Traylor tells Tammie, "and that's what we are."

A small part of Tammie, however, secretly wonders what it would be like to take that step, to have the courage to begin such an adventure.

By 1979, Jandy's adventure has come to an end. She feels like Alice ejected from the rabbit hole into reality, still getting her bearings. She tries to explain that the ex-pat community in Shekarabad was its own kind of world, neither Iranian nor American, but a mix of interesting people from several continents. Some of them have returned to their countries of origin, and Jandy longs to hear from them, because they understand.

The counselor fusses about incomplete grades. Classmates tire of her "harping on" or "harking back to" Iran. Former friends have changed, but accuse Jandy of changing. Teachers expose gaps in Jandy's knowledge of US History. Cousins under the influence of their mom, Phyllis Graham, rub it in about family celebrations she and Calvin missed out on.

How fair is it that Tammie does all the cheerleading she wants, choreographs ALICE, and helps out in the school office, while her mom (the counselor) can't find a time-slot for Jandy to take 8th grade Art? It's possible that Tammie misfiled Jandy's records accidentally. But how do we know it wasn't deliberate - either to get back at her for the Camp Mockingbird incident, or just to be mean? Somehow the conflict between the girls will tie in with the Riddle of the Samovar. I don't know how, but it will. My subconscious imp (as the late, prolific author Phyllis Whitney called him) is working on the case as we speak. Read More 
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O: OBSTACLES

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. Read More 
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M: MESHKI

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. Read More 
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D: DANGER

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. Read More 
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B: BIBLIOGRAPHY

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. Read More 
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