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FRESH FROM THE INKWELL

U: UNITY

What makes this book hold together like glue? Like staples? Like saddle stitching? Not literally, but figuratively speaking. I named it RIDDLE OF THE SAMOVAR. So, the samovar has to take center stage (or at least make its presence felt) throughout the story. The discovery and decoding of its contents must drive the plot. Maryam, Tammie, Grant, cousins, teachers, and the “Alice” cast, if they are to participate at all, must somehow fit into the unifying principle – the riddle of the samovar. Read More 

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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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S: SEVENTIES

As one who lived through the 1970s in my twenties, I didn’t recognize “That ‘70s Show” (which appeared on TV in the ‘90s) as true to the decade. Were we really that moronic in our speech and dress? Am I just ashamed to admit it? I guess anything can seem normal at the time, even new fads that take a while to accept, at least for parents. Yet, trawling the albums today, we laugh at photos of our Afro hair, platforms shoes, bold, striped sweaters, and clunky technology.

It has been suggested to me that kids prefer to read stories set in today’s time. But time-travel books like the Magic Tree House series remain popular, and the Seventies are long enough ago to contrast with 21st century life in an amusing way. What, no cell phones? No video games? Mom, Dad, Grandma, what did you do for fun?

If the characters’ thoughts and feelings are genuine, they will resonate with kids today. Family conflict, friendship, jealousy, ambition, fear, etc. are part of the human condition, which hasn’t changed since Cain killed Abel.

As the decade draws to a close, the residents of Hickory Bend will looks forward to the brave new world of the 1980s. Wahoo! Read More 
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R: ROSE GARDEN and RIDDLE

"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. Read More 
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Q: QUEEN OF HEARTS

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!  Read More 
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