Monday, October 11, 2010

American Fish in Persian Waters

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?


  1. The practice will come in handy. Soon, we'll be hounding you for your autograph on this continent as well.

    And interesting setup in the Kurdish villages. Do they keep lawns and gardens on what is essentially their neighbors' terraces?

  2. Thanks for such positive thinking, Supriya! In the meantime, I'll practice on Iranian school kids. :)

    I did see flowers and vegetable gardens in front of some houses in the villages (on the roof of the house below). But no lawns. Those I saw only in public parks, an even then they were rare. The region is too arid for such luxuries, I suppose.

  3. There's nothing like first hand knowledge to get those little details right, huh? How fortunate you've had the opportunity to get to know another culture so intimately - and you have your own walking, talking reference guide in your living room!

    I'm a big fan of Michelle Moran's books. She writes about ancient Egypt and Rome. Her research is impeccable and every time I read one of her books I feel like I am transported back in time. It's such a hard thing to do but she does it so well.

  4. Not quite as exotic a setting(lol), but I just finished reading a book where the setting is in central Ohio. The author is not from Ohio and mentions a couple of times that the characters are getting a "soda" to drink in referring to a carbonated beverage/soft drink.

    I've lived in Ohio my entire life and generally a soft drink is referred to as "pop." Granted there might be some Ohioans that refer to it as soda, but for the most part, to native Ohioans, it's pop.

    For some reason, even though the rest of the descriptions that the author refers to are accurate of Ohio, that one little mistake stood out to me.

  5. Alli, my reference guide does come in handy sometimes. LOL I always get him to run his eyes over the bits of Farsi I toss into a story, just to make sure I get it right. I love books set in the ancient world. But nothing will pull me out of the story faster than when the characters start talking with modern slang. It has me picturing them in cut-off jeans and tank tops. Sorta ruins the image.

    Anon, what a great example of how a small, seemingly insignificant detail can make a huge difference. As a native, you know exactly what people call a soft drink, so when you see fictional Ohioans getting it wrong, it jars on you. Thanks for sharing that!

  6. Anon, I almost forgot that word "pop" from my Ohio days. Later, when I made the move from Texas and to D.C., I got some odd looks (and a couple laughs) for using the word "cuss," which I guess in the North would be "curse." In Texas, a curse might be considered some kind of a hex. ;)

  7. The one thing that destroys any sense of authenticity for me is when authors use words or even entire sentences in another language--and don't get it right. It's so annoying to come across mistakes that could easily have been avoided by having a native speaker proof the manuscript. I should add that I'm a professional linguist, so I suppose I'm more sensitive to things like that. Heidi can relate!

  8. Gerhard, I hate that too. I'm grateful to have a live-in human dictionary and context checker for the bits of Persian that I stick in my books. I have him check everything, even the phrases I think I got right, just to make sure the expressions are ones the characters would use in that particular context.