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 FRESH FROM THE INKWELL 

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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P: PHYLLIS

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. 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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N: NUTS

“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. Read More 
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