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 FRESH FROM THE INKWELL 

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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L: LOBSTER QUADRILLE

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. Read More 
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K: KING

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. Read More 
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J: JEWELS

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. Read More 
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I: IMMERSION

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! Read More 
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