Anthony Bidulka counts academia, accounting, footwear, food services, and farming among his former careers. A decade ago, he left all that behind to write novels full time. His award-winning Russell Quant mystery series features a gay, world-traveling detective who lives a big life in a small city on the Canadian prairies and whose adventures take him, and the author, to settings as varied as Barcelona, Botswana, the Arctic, Hawaii, and, most recently, across the Middle East. Date with a Sheesha is his seventh book in the series.
Writing a mystery series where in every book the main character travels to some foreign destination, begs the question. Which comes first? The travel? Or the story? The answer, for me, is not as straightforward as it might seem. I can say this. I never select a travel destination solely for the research possibilities. Yet, when I arrive in certain places a neon sign seems to light up in my head blaring the message: this is a location you'll want to write about. Although I always do some amount of journalling while travelling, in these instances, I pay closer attention to details, to smells and sounds and food and drink and weather – all the things I use in my writing to evoke a foreign setting.
All this being said, the story is still tantamount. A foreign locale needs to fit the story I want to tell. Not the opposite. I often tell the story about when I was on my honeymoon, which took me sailing around the Arabian peninsula. At the time, I was in the midst of writing what would become the sixth book in my series. It would have made sense – given the proximity of source material and inspiration – that I would have set the book in the Middle East. The book's title? Aloha, Candy Hearts. As you might guess, I did not use my adventures in Dubai, Fujairah, and Jeddah in this book. Why? They simply did not fit the story I wanted to tell. Of all the books in the series, this was meant to be the most romantic and whimsical of the bunch. Hawaii fit the bill. Riding camels in a dust storm and dealing with the religious police in Saudi Arabia did not. Even so, the neon sign in my head lit up like Christmastime. I did write about my Arabian adventures in the next book, Date With a Sheesha.
I was blissfully unaware (at first) of the import of our big, white, birthday cake of a cruise ship docking in Jeddah (the first American based vessel in five years). But as the women donned their abbeyas prior to disembarkation, turning the ship's jovial ballroom half black, it started to sink in.
At some point during our time ashore, my spouse and I deviated from the group to do some investigating on our own. We shopped for shoes and spices in the old souk. The vendors seemed less than friendly. But we ventured on, undaunted. At one stall a rather aggressive seller managed to fit me with a Middle Eastern headdress (complete with skull cap) before I could manage to say a polite 'no' and move away. He was that good. And fast. This was my first moment of true discomfort. What to do? I was certain if I walked the rough runway I'd just come through wearing this sideshow version of the populace's daily dress, I would be scorned, spit on by camels, and run outta town. I decided to buy it (to be polite), and wear it only as far as the other side of the nearest corner. But I had no idea what I was about to be in for.
The headdress was ridiculously inexpensive – something like Cdn$3. I paid and walked off, almost immediately sensing a change in my environment. Vendors who'd previously ignored me when I'd tried to buy something without speaking the language, suddenly smiled as I sauntered by, the thick white shafts of fabric floating behind me like a cape. Others waved. Some began to follow me and tell me (they suddenly knew some English) that I looked like the King of Jordan. By the time I returned to the tour bus area, I had a Justin Bieber-ish entourage. And then the media descended. I spent half an hour giving interviews for radio and print and having my picture taken with the head of Saudi Arabian tourism (who just happened to be our tour guide that day...guess who alerted the media?). I could almost believe that if you were to visit Jeddah today, you might see my face on the latest travel brochure for 'Visit Saudi Arabia'.
As writers, we wear many hats. Creator. Editor. Financial manager. Promoter. Salesperson. Spokesperson. Researcher. This headdress was never a hat I'd expected to don. But it brought me a wonderful experience and taught me a valuable life lesson. I learned that the best way to show respect for a person's culture or way of life is to walk a mile in their...hat.