Thursday, October 14, 2010

Burning The Images

I didn’t have to do much research when I wrote Inescapable Presence, my first novel – an international suspense set in Russia and New York. My behind-the-Iron-Curtain upbringing gave me enough inspiration and command over the Novosibirsk settings of the late eighties, when food shortages created long lines in supermarkets, and the promised Communist utopia lost its credibility amongst its most fervent supporters.

The memories of Russian winters, as savage as they could be beautiful, were still so vivid in my mind, my fingers and toes were freezing when I wrote about snowstorms, blizzards, and icy paths leading through an old park. The American part wasn’t that hard either – by then I’ve lived in New York for ten years. Since my next two novels were set mostly in Brooklyn, my sources of inspiration lay outside my doors and windows. Sometimes I wandered around searching for a street corner that would look just right for my character to abandon a car. Sometimes I’d be out on a quest for the subway station that would only have one exit onto a dark street. Once I spent a few days trying to discover a good place to dump a body. Not that I ever had to dispose of a corpse, but the villain in my book needed to.

The settings for Death by Scheherezade’s Veil, a bellydancing murder mystery, which delves into Turkish culture and traditions, were inspired by Astoria, a Queens neighborhood across the East River from Manhattan, dubbed the United Nations of New York City for its diverse ethnic populace. A mix of Eastern European, Asian, Greek, Arabic, and everything in between, Astoria offered plenty of Middle Eastern settings, from mosque minarets to hookah bars, and from the Islamic fashion stores to bellydancing nightclubs.

When I wanted an easy trip to the Middle East, I walked a dozen blocks to an area unofficially called Little Egypt where Turkish coffee was strong and silty, baklavas were sweet and nutty, and the store signs were jotted in the cryptic weave. I had to remember to dress modestly and tie up my long unruly hair – out of respect for the locals. It was easy to depict Astoria. What I found harder to deliver, was the mindset and psyche of its inhabitants, which I was trying to explain while maintaining the delicate balance between the old-fashioned concepts of Islamic family and honor, which many people in our modern Western society would find hard to perceive.

Whenever I travel, especially to the Middle East, my favorite destination, it is the people that interest me the most. I want to know what they are thinking and why, what makes them happy or angry, and whether their smiles are genuine or simply polite. I want to know what they consider beautiful versus ugly, courteous versus rude, and right versus wrong. I want to know how different they are from the other cultures I know – or how similar. For me, being able to place my reader inside my character’s mind is vital. While a setting is something I always try to memorize in every detail, it’s people I ponder the most.

Interestingly enough, I’ve never been a picture-snapping tourist; some of my trips landed amazingly few photos. I find the results of my camerawork lacking depth so I prefer to create multi-dimensional images of my own. I would stand on an unpaved street and look around, taking in everything I can, and then close my eyes to burn the imagine in my memory: a mouthwatering aroma of shawarma cooked by a street vendor to the right, a donkey braying on the left, the taste of dust in my mouth, which permeates the air in dry deserty climates, a child climbing a tree and an old grandma sizing me up, trying to figure out whether I may cast an evil eye on her beloved grandchild.

When I am back in my house, curling up in my favorite chair with a cup of tea next to me, this is how I will restore the picture so I can write it: I will close my eyes again and summon the grandma, the boy, and the donkey from my memory – until I can taste the dust, smell the meat, and sense the old woman’s gaze, so palpable I can feel a light chill running down my back...


  1. Lovely! I must visit Astoria for a shorter route to the Middle East.

  2. What a fabulous post, Lina! Just reading your descriptions made me feel I was there. I could sense your apprehension, wonder, respect. Wonderful!

  3. Thank you for sharing your process when writing about exotic locations, Lina. I am going to practice making a mental picture and being more observant about all of the sights and sounds that can deepen the experiences of my characters.

  4. Like Raleigh RoxStar, I was fascinated by your process. I've done the end part, close my eyes and try to get back somewhere, but how smart to take the "mental picture" in the moment. Thanks for this idea and a delicious post as well.

  5. Great post, Lina. I felt as I was there, thanks to your beautiful descriptions.

  6. Raleigh and twilightme, thanks for your great comments!

  7. Hi Lina,
    (Your roommate from Crime Bake several years ago!) This is a wonderful blog. I'm going to add it to the very few I take time to read regularly. And I look forward to reading your fiction. Thanks for sharing your neighborhood stories - that's such a cool part of living in a big, international city.


  8. Lina, I remember those food shortages and long lines from living in East Germany. When riding the tram to classes, I could always tell when a shop had something you rarely saw because the tram would suddenly empty and everyone would make a mad dash for one of the shops.

  9. OMG, Heidi, I just stumbled upon this comment that you left more than a month ago. I am impressed I have an American friend who can relate to food shortages. Yes, the tram image is also so vivid and real - the same used to happen in Russia too, when a bus or a trolley stopped by a store that had something to offer that day.