In the Islamic Republic of Iran, where Westerners are rare, I am an exotic creature, to be stared at with open astonishment. Not even the scarf covering my hair can hide the fact that my eyes are bluer and my skin fairer than those of anyone around me. On a recent trip to a museum in Shiraz, I found myself surrounded by a class of girls in pink school uniforms, all of whom wanted me to autograph their notebooks. Me, a celebrity! It was my fifteen minutes of fame.
Fish-out-of-water stories are common, especially in the crime novels I like to write. But usually the fish is the fictional character, not the author. So how do I get my Iranian settings right?
For the past two decades, I’ve belonged to an Iranian family, so everyday life is what I know best. That’s where I began – by constructing a fictional world around an Iranian-American private investigator. Born in Tehran and raised in California, she moves back and forth between both cultures, not always with ease.
In venturing further from what I already know, I need to add reading, observation, and lots of questions to my bag of tools. On the bright side, I can justify frequent trips to Iran in the guise of research.
Once in Iran, I go everywhere equipped with a camera and notebook. I take pictures of all I see, from lovely gardens and blue-tiled mosques, to rust-encrusted cargo ships and garbage-clogged joobs, the gutters that run along Tehran’s streets. To these images, I add notes scribbled in my little book: smells, sounds, and life stories that I encounter along the way.
You can learn a lot from books and maps, but certain details require being on the spot. How else would I know that the Caspian Sea sounds like a lion roaring when a storm hits, whipping waves against the shore? Or that the air along Jomhouri Eslami Avenue in Tehran, with its embassies on one side and moneychangers on the other, is fragrant with the coffee scents wafting from a multitude of tiny cafes? Would I ever have noticed that Kurdish villages clinging to the Eastern flanks of the Zagros Mountains are constructed so that the roof of each house forms the front yard of the home above it?
When I sit in front of my computer, ready to write, these photos and notes help fill the gaps in my faulty memory so that I can add authentic details to bring my fictional world to life. And when I occasionally think of a question I forgot to ask, I have a live-in consultant: my husband, who was born and raised in Tehran.
What about you? Have you read books that feel so authentic, you know the author got it absolutely right? How do you feel when the setting is all wrong?