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Having been to Daniel’s tomb, Esther’s palace, and other ancient Persian landmarks, Jandy Graham is no dummy regarding world history. But when it comes to US history, she is made to feel like a complete idiot by teachers and classmates at Hickory Bend Junior High.

Boring Warring embarrasses Jandy by asking her to spell Appomattox while her mind is on more interesting subjects such as art. She cannot tell him what a courthouse had to do with the Civil War. Time after time during her first semester back in Texas, gaps in Jandy’s knowledge are exposed like holes in her jeans revealing Mickey Mouse underwear. She enjoys learning about how ordinary people lived in previous eras, but can never remember dates of battles and presidents, unlike her brother Cal. “I’m not a numbers person,” is Jandy’s excuse.

“Didn’t they teach you anything at that school in Eye-ran?” the counselor asks, as she checks Jandy’s credits and finds them deficient in geometry.

Mom suggests the pastor’s nerdy son, a math whiz, to be her tutor. But who will help with US History if Jandy fails the final and has to re-take the class? That will mean she can’t take art next semester. Worse yet, she might not even graduate 8th grade.

While Jandy’s academic record is not the main problem in RIDDLE OF THE SAMOVAR, it plays into her despondency over leaving friends in Iran (especially Maryam) and failing to regain a foothold in her childhood home. Read More 
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Just before Jandy left Iran, she had given her friend Maryam a Persian Bible in a plain brown cover - not to pressure Maryam into converting, but in response to her questions in an earlier scene, when the girls were decorating a Christmas tree. She had told Jandy that Jesus (called Isa) is mentioned in the Koran, and his mother's name in Persian was Maryam, the same as hers.

Both girls believe that angels are sent by a Creator God to protect and to bring messages, like Gabriel's news that Mary would have a son. The nature of that son - human, divine, or both - is a bone of contention between Christian and Muslim teachings. Maryam wants to discover the Truth for herself, and her parents are happy with that. In fact, they too are curious about what eyewitnesses wrote about the life, death, and resurrection of this man. Even cousin Ahmad had secretly asked to borrow the Persian Bible.

Despite opposition from uncle Gholam and aunt Simin, Maryam had been studying the gospel accounts during the girls' separation from each other. When the Darabis flee Iran and show up in Texas, she will have more questions for Jandy. Whether Maryam becomes a Christian or not, they will remain friends and stand together in the face of prejudice and misunderstanding from the residents of Hickory Bend. Read More 
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"Nobody can make me hate you for being American," Maryam told Jandy tearfully before they said goodbye in SECRET OF THE SEVENTH GATE, not knowing if they would ever meet again. Fast forward to Texas several months later, to RIDDLE OF THE SAMOVAR. When letters from Iran tail off, and phone calls can't get through, how will the girls' friendship survive? Readers want to know!

The main theme of the first book was the triumph of friendship (along with faith and family) over hatred and prejudice. Its sequel develops along those lines, with the addition of hospitality - symbolized by the samovar - when the Darabi family shows up in need of shelter.

Can Jandy return the kindness she received from Maryam in 1975, when Dad first got his job in Iran? Or will her attempts flop like the March Hare's ears at the Mad Hatter's tea party in ALICE? How will a teenager uprooted from her culture and extended family be treated by students and teachers at Hickory Bend Junior High? Read More 
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In grade school, I wrote in exercise books, nurturing the dream of becoming a writer. As a piano student, I repeated scales and arpeggios to limber up my fingers and facilitate performance for exams or entertainment. So too, physical exercise is beneficial to health at any age. Practice may feel like a chore, or a child's play, depending on the task, coach, energy, mood, etc. But it results in a sense of accomplishment, bringing us closer to our goals.

A helpful exercise I learned from Jane Cross in Dallas is Clustering. Write a word inside an elliptical bubble. As one thought or image leads to another, add lines and words radiating out from the first. (This is also called mind-mapping. The bubbles may omitted. Our brains store information in a similar way. I cluster people, objects, places, seasons, etc. for use in a particular story, or with random words as a general exercise for the "writing muscle."

One instructor guided my writers' group to empty our minds of distractions and recall a moment from childhood. I saw myself jumping the waves on Sandown beach, licking ice cream, smelling the salt breeze, enjoying a carefree summer. Then we imagined a character and saw what was in his or her pockets, shopping cart, etc. These details were noted in "free writing" sessions of 10 minutes each. They re-emerged when I wrote poems for HOMEWARD TRACKS and scenes for ARROWHEAD'S LOST HOARD. I also interview protagonists about loves, hates, habits, and what they want to achieve.

An SCBWI author once recommended writing to music, which I often do now, matching style to story. Whenever I played "Arabian Dance" from The Nutcracker, I was back with Maryam in the Middle East, where SECRET OF THE SEVENTH GATE takes place. I surrounded my desk with pictures of Iran from National Geographic and Newsweek. For ARROWHEAD'S LOST HOARD, I listened to Elgar and found magazine pictures of people who resembled my characters.

Several writer-friends swear by 3 Morning Pages a day. I do this (sporadically) on the backs of discarded rough drafts, stashed in my nightstand. I record fleeting emotions and events from dreams while in a sleepy state, over my first cup of coffee. Later, to engage the left side of the brain, I might write a list. Lists generate ideas and can even turn into a finished piece, such as my "Exotic Places" poem.

Shery Ma Bell Arrieta-Russ describes 10 approaches to journaling in her e-book, LIFEWRITES: Descriptive; Process; Comparison; Classification; Persuasive; Definition; Characterization; Analysis; Inductive; and Deductive. "Journaling is a process that lets you discover and re-discover yourself," she states in the introduction. I've enjoyed all these approaches, because they provide new ways of looking and thinking. A range of gel pens and journal covers makes exercises fun.

I recently worked (actually, played) my way through THE WRITE -BRAIN WORKBOOK by Bonnie Neubauer: no white pages, but lots of word games, fill-in-the-blanks, and visual tricks, to get the juices flowing.

If I go for a walk or a swim, to stretch my legs after slaving over the keyboard all day, the wheels go on turning. Plot developments pop up subconsciously; I jot them in a portable notepad, ready to add to the mix during the next writing session.

Hands-on activities I've taught over the years are listed on the Works page of this website. My blog is another form of exercise. It's more rigorous than Facebook posts, but a great way to find readers in cyberspace, as I sift my thoughts and advance the current writing project, RIDDLE OF THE SAMOVAR. Time to put on my Loreena McKennitt CD, An Ancient Muse, and cluster SAMOVAR. Read More 
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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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