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Mystery’s Magic Number

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.


A crowded party is almost always considered successful. When the guests pile in and you can’t even reach the buffet, it means you are at a happening place. This is why there are maxims like, don’t spread a party too thinly through a house and garden. Get everyone in the living room, or around the pool, so the energy explodes.

In books, it’s a different matter. Too many characters can subtly derail the story, no matter how necessary and fascinating they seem. The chief problem is readers forget who they are.

One of the biggest challenges for me as a writer is whittling down the characters coming to the party. It isn’t until a book is close to done that I realize I allowed in too many characters.

I’m writing mysteries set in  Bombay. Even in 1921, the city was crowded. I can rationalize all the way from the docks to the hills that my story must have plenty of characters because that’s the way that cities are. Regardless of time period, most mystery series have “regulars” reappearing in various books who might be fellow crime-solving associates, family members and friends, and the suspects. The trick is giving everyone just enough time—and vacations away, if they really don’t serve a purpose in a particular story.

Daily activity in early 1900s Bombay

Right now, I’m working on a mystery set mostly in a Bombay college. I’ve been writing for almost a year. During this time, I’ve created five important undergraduates, five professors, two adminstrators, a college guard, two servants, and the college lawyer. That’s 16 people—about half of the total number of players in the novel, which certainly includes protagonist Perveen Mistry, and Perveen’s family and friends, police and legal figures.

This week I started a reducing plan, but only three have been cut so far. The process made me wonder whether there is a magic number of characters in a mystery.

I am too frantic to take time away from my book to read several others, so I took the easy route and spent 90 minutes streaming a high-quality mystery program. I am entranced by Endeavour, which features a young Inspector Endeavour Morse in 1960s Oxford. An excellent show in Season One, “Trove,” had nineteen characters of note, with eight supplementary characters (aka extras) speaking just a line or two.

I felt like I followed it all brilliantly. A few days later, could I recount the names of the show’s characters excepting Morse and his boss Fred Thursday?

Absolutely not. That is the big difference between visual and literary storytelling. Watching Endeavour, I only had to recognize a character by sight—and what others said about that person—to know who they were.

There were some things, though, that Endeavour’s writers did that led me to think about some self-improvement. There were rarely more than two characters of the same type—i.e., two people who were friends, two people who were coworkers, a family unit such as mother and child. I could eliminate a few characters that are very similar. Do I really need four boys under the age of twenty?

Another question I’ll ask myself is why each character needs to be in a novel. The most important characters are emotionally rich, not just information-givers. These are recurring players in Perveen’s life, or are people with enough suffering they might feel tempted to commit despicable acts, or shield such acts from knowledge.

Perveen is a lawyer, and I enjoy writing scenes where she is collecting secrets from various characters who’ve been disregarded by the British colonial authorities. Yet I realize Perveen can still learn about minor characters when other people narrate what they said. And fewer interviews mean fewer scenes, and the heavy cloud of cigar smoke begins to lift.

Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None has a tight cast

I might throw a party when I finish writing this book. It will not be a standing-room-only bash: the kind of party that I would have loved twenty-five years ago. The gathering I’m thinking about it looks more like one of the early dinner parties in And Then There Were None. 

Not too large, and not too small.

And without terminal losses.

A Road Map of Bombay

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

Lately, my work in progress has been dragging its feet. Maybe it’s because I’m writing from my home in Baltimore, while I long to revitalize myself with a walk through Fort, the historic Bombay neighborhood I write about in the Perveen Mistry novels. Even though I’ve been there in person, I feel like I need to be led along the streets again.

If I could step into an old map, it would fix everything, wouldn’t it?

Maps inside a book are like sugar in dessert. You don’t need it, but it’s so much nicer when it’s there.

Philip Schwartzberg’s map created for Widows

My relationship with maps did not start out well. I used to be terrified of when my parents were driving, and we got lost. The driving parent would call out for someone (the spouse or eldest child in the car—yours truly) to study a large, cumbersome road map and discern the correct way back. It seemed I could never read the map fast enough nor could I orient myself in a direction other than the printed paper. Because of the way my brain processes direction, I was not a natural fit with maps—though I need them, because I have a terrible instinct for misdirection.

I began feeling less overwhelmed by maps when I lived in Japan. This was the era when I was a foreigner in Japan doing groundwork for a first novel. I wanted to write a mystery that felt real; and for me, that meant naming actual streets and train stations. The little line maps on the back of every shop or restaurant’s business card were my salvation in cities like Tokyo and Yokohama where many streets didn’t have names, just numbered buildings.

After publication of my first book, The Salaryman’s Wife, I learned how attentive readers are to details of place. If I located a known building on the wrong corner, I would hear about it. But just as quickly as people catch errors, they also delight in hearing the names for almost-forgotten places.

In India, many city and street names have changed due to political progress—and here I am, sounding like an old person, talking about “Bombay” instead of Mumbai and “Bruce Street” instead of Homi Modi Street. I search out the oldest-looking places and commit them to my camera, and my heart.

On the way to Crawford Market

Apollo Bunder, with the Taj Hotel

After independence in 1947, Indians refused to continue speaking of streets named for men who were the enforcers of its colonial past. Many city and street names on maps officially changed from English government officials to Indian heroes, although verbally, the English names are often still used in spoken directions by locals. Ironically, there is at least one area renamed after a British person: Horniman Circle. Benjamin Horniman was a progressive British journalist who was thrown out of the country in the early 1900s for writing supportively of Mahatma Gandhi. The handsome driving circle in South Mumbai framed by offices and shops had previously been named in honor of the 13th Lord Elphinstone, one of Bombay’s governors. If I hadn’t learned who Mr. Horniman was, I might have mistakenly misnamed the circle in my novel. Interestingly, there still is an Elphinstone College in Bombay (named after the second Lord Elphinstone) as well as Wilson College, named for the Scottish Presbyterian missionary educator who founded it.

Horniman Circle (once Elphinstone Circle)

For quite a few years, I have been gathering such arcane details from old guidebooks and maps. Some of my key sources are huge, vintage reference books like the Imperial Gazetteers of British India, and old city guidebooks, especially if they have maps. The best place in the United States I know to find such wonders is the Ames Library within the University of Minnesota.

Rare antique travel guides to Bombay at Ames Library

The newly translated vintage guide

Karl S. Baedeker was the famous publisher of 19th and early 20th century travel guides that originated in Germany, a country with people still passionate about travel. The Baedeker guides were meant to help Westerners see marvelous places beyond their imaginations, all the while in comfort and security. Baedeker guides were often translated into English. However, Baedeker’s only guide to India was published in 1914, and due to hostilities between Germany and Britain, never found an English language publisher. Not until 1985 was the guide translated into English by Michael Wild.  I was grateful to be able to buy the modern translation and picked up from it some interesting details about the city from an early 20th century German viewpoint.

Because old maps are very helpful, I was tempted when I discovered a 1967 Bombay folding map being auctioned on eBay by a seller in England with a starting price of 49 pounds. Once airmail delivery was included, the map would run me about $77 US dollars.

I’ve bought moisturizers that cost more, but I hesitated. My worry was this mysterious map on eBay would be focused exclusively on tourism venues. I knew it also would have plenty of Indian street names, so I would continue to need to cross-reference street names.

The seller had posted some photos of the map booklet that looked promising, so I pressed the button to bid. It was the last day of the auction, and it turned out I was the only person on earth interested in a Tej Brothers 1967 Bombay Street Map.

Two weeks later, a neat little package in a sturdy, waterproof envelope arrived from England. The map booklet had traveled safely between two pieces of cardboard inside the package. It was just the right size to put inside a handbag, yet it was utterly fresh, as if it had never been opened up and read. To say this map is in perfect condition is an understatement. Some of the booklet pages unfold into very large, easy to read maps which are rich in color and landmarks.

The booklet also has listings of popular name of restaurants and hotels, movie houses and shops. I can’t wait to show it to my stepfather, who was a young man-about-town during the map’s prime.

In the week that I’ve been studying it, the map’s provenance has intrigued me. Because there is absolutely no smell of mold or deterioration from moisture, I believe the map probably left India many years ago and was kept in a cool, dry location. I wonder: was the map’s first owner someone who meant to use it while exploring Bombay, but instead relied on the directions of a human companion? Or did the planned trip to Bombay get cancelled? Could it be the map never had a real owner, but just resided for decades in a travel agent’s file cabinet?

I’ve come to realize that a map can offer much more than geographic placement or inspiration for story; it can be a mystery unto itself.

Plum Passion

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

A book I owned and adored as a child

A book I owned and adored as a child

In Maryland, strawberries mean spring, and peaches and plums mean summer. These aren’t the only fruits that prosper due to our excellent fruit-growing climate, but they are ones that are truly ravishing and worth only eating in season.

I feel especially passionate about plums this summer. They are so varied—my farmers market had at least five varieties last weekend. The sensual experience of looking inside a plum reveals gold, pink, or purple or red flesh. The taste ranges from tart to tangy to sugary sweet. Sizes range from slightly bigger than a cherry to palm-sized. It carries a rose-scented perfume, because the plum is actually linked to the rose family… stop laughing. I am not talking about sex, okay? I am talking about a healthy, anti-oxidant rich plant.

Despite its obvious allure the plum is regarded as the slightly odd cousin to most stone fruit. Perhaps this is because some raw, ripe plums are still tart—and after cooking, plums take on a deep flavor. If the plum is dried, it becomes a prune—and there are no end of jokes about the medicinal benefits of prunes.

I have a special affinity for plums because my German mother introduced me to them. In fact, she considers them the highlight of summer baking. I still remember my mother carrying crates of prune plums into our Minnesota house every August. These were not Minnesota plums—the weather there is too cold to plant plum orchards. But these California plums with tart interiors that were only in the supermarket for a few weeks were treated like treasures. Once the plums were free of stones—a tiresome process that could take hours—they became the stars of Pflaumenkuchen: neat rows of plum slices arranged atop a yeast dough stretched across a cookie sheet. Warm Pflaumenkuchen was served with coffee to adults, because very few children were excited about a sour fruit dessert topped with plain whipped cream. You could say that plums are the Cabernet Sauvignon of fruit. Big, bold, mind-blowing.

Other plums from the crates were boiled down into a dark, thick plum jam that would be eaten year round on toast. I liked this, too. After a childhood of plum jam, most jams made from strawberries and raspberries taste too sweet.

I live a thousand miles from my mother now, so we cannot make plum desserts together. But I am set on carrying the plum torch, and I have sampled all the different kinds of local plums that show up at my farmer’s market. This past weekend, I got a $6 container of Methley plums, doll-sized, purple globes that are slightly bigger than cherries. They are sweet and much juicier than the plums used in German confections; I understand the Methley originated in Asia, where plums are much juicier than the varieties native to Europe.

I remain cheerfully determined to introduce plums to the prejudiced. This week, I found an easy recipe for deconstructed plum galette on the Food52 website. It specifically calls for Methley plums. Preparing the fruit from pitting to cooking took less than fifteen minutes, because the plums are small enough to fit inside a cherry-pitting tool.

The dough was sticky and a little tricky to work with. It baked up delicious and crisp and the perfect foil to warm, juicy fruit. as the recipe suggested, I used two rounds to create a kind of plum sandwich. They were the perfect counterpoint. With cooking, the very sweet plums I’d tasted raw had deepened to a nuanced, bittersweet flavor.

My son took one look and said, no thanks.

A Writer’s Garden

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

I was home for a short week between book tour traveling, and the main thing I realized was how delicious it felt to be home for spring.

The more common wish in America is to be “home for Christmas.” But Maryland’s shining moment is spring. It is a long, fruitful, blossoming season. It starts in February with crocuses, continues with daffodils and forsythia and hellebores in March, rises to tulips, azaleas, plum and cherry trees in April, and rioting roses everywhere in May and June. Maryland is not one of those places that suddenly switches to summer—it’s a very slow, enjoyable process, whether the plants are native or adopted.

It is fun for a garden enthusiast to spot gardens in  Arizona, California, Wisconsin and Washington, but I feel an urgency to get back to my ragged garden, which is only growing more outspoken every day. My husband only has so many hours in his day, so I sent out an SOS for help. I was very lucky to find a local gardener to take care of the six or so old rose bushes in the back and also attack the weeds. So when I come home, I feel pleased, rather than defeated.

During my time home I also did a lot of daily writing. It’s inevitable that these two loves, garden and book, coincide in the spring.

I believe a lot of writers like to garden. Tending flowers and writing books are quiet, meditative processes that each involve creation and reshaping. Both are hard and take years to get results. And often, an interest in gardens can begin no matter what kind of place you grew up in, because of books.

Did you read The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett? I read this famous 1910 serial-turned-novel set in Yorkshire when I was a third grader living in snowy Minnesota. My mother had not yet started her odyssey into passionate gardening, so I knew nothing about gardens except for being charmed by the wildflowers that edged our paths, and climbing the sprawling old apple tree with bird-pecked fruit to read a book. I probably read The Secret Garden in that tree.

Many years later, I live in my own old house on almost an acre, which is a big lot for a house inside the city. In a few ways, it is similar to the garden experience of the fictional Mary Lennox. One certainly has to chop, tear and pull what is overgrown, but then come surprising discoveries.

Here’s one. Under a rectangular expanse of weeds that rise to happy heights every summer, there is an actual cement floor about twenty feet long by ten feet wide. It’s likely that it once was the foundation for a garage. And there are neatly paved paths throughout the garden, mostly covered by a thin layer of earth and lovely moss.

I love the moss and plants that belong to Maryland. The native plant garden I put in three years ago in the front of the house is growing so vigorously that birds have decided to secret themselves in a thicket of four-foot-high black-eyed Susans (which won’t flower until August). Daisy, the little Yorkie-Cairn terrier who lives with us, realizes the birds like to go there, so the rudbeckia forest has become her number one spot for exploration every time she goes out. As Daisy charges in, there is an explosion of feathery action. So far, nobody’s been caught!

During the brief time I was home, I worked on Perveen 3 in fresh air with the sun on my face. This is entirely possible because we have an outdoor sort of room on two sides of our houses: screened porches attached to bedrooms, in the event it is too hot to sleep inside.

I have seen photos of old sleeping porches fitted out with enough cots so the whole family could sleep in air that finally turned cool. I imagine all the story telling that went on, finally quieting down so the go-to-bed soundtrack would be left to the crickets. In those days, there might have been a nighttime call from a train, not drag-racing cars. And the wake-up alarm would have been birds.

Writing on our second floor porch is a sacrosanct ritual starting every May that lasts through September. I’ve set my porch with a vintage wicker chaise for reading and sleeping, a table for eating and writing, and a cheap old desk that faces tall trees where I stare at squirrels when I’m bored. The dogs stay with me, looking down two stories to the lane behind the house. They enjoy the power that comes with being high up and feel invincible from the wrath of those they bark at.

When I first moved into my Baltimore home, a few people suggested glassing in the sleeping porches in order to have more bathrooms. The suggestion was never taken seriously. I would never want to lose the joy of being outside-in that the porch provides. I hope whoever takes over the house after I’m gone feels the same.

The Satapur Moonstone is Out and About

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

I’m thrilled to share the news that The Satapur Moonstone is finally in bookstores. My newest mystery novel was released last week as a hardcover in the US from Soho Press and as a Penguin India paperback for the Indian Subcontinent.

The Satapur Moonstone

This is the second Perveen Mistry novel in the new series I am writing. In this adventure, Perveen takes a long, convoluted journey through mountainous jungle  to investigate the living conditions of a young maharaja… and uncover the truth about the suspicious deaths in his family.

I am journeying through the United States to talk about the book, and while the airplane rides and freeway drives seem quite long, when I remind myself of Perveen’s exhaustive travels in 1921 India, my life seems pretty easy.

Perveen, who is a young solicitor working in her father’s law practice in Bombay, starts her journey to the Western Ghats with a train ride to the hill station of Khandala. From there, she is surprised to find herself the lone passenger in the back of a horse-drawn postal cart, tumbled among musty sacks of the Imperial Mail. A few days later she’s gingerly riding on horseback, and after that, she’s forced to recline in a short-roofed palanquin, a wooden box set on wooden poles that is carried by men for more than twenty miles through the hilly terrain to the palace. Believe it or not, when I visited the hill station of Matheran to research The Satapur Moonstone, I saw palanquins lying by the edge of the path, waiting for 21st century customers.

Rich foreigners being carried on the shoulders of poor locals is one metaphor for colonial rule. Perveen is against colonial rule, but in this novel, she finds herself taking a job for the government. She is well aware the British who’ve given her this temporary position as a legal investigator want her to make a decision that’s beneficial for them. While almost half of the subcontinent was territory governed by maharajas and nawabs, these rulers were considered princes of the Empire required to be loyal to the ruling British monarch.

Just as Perveen stopped to rest in a dak bungalow, or traveler’s rest house, I have recharging points: bookstores. Many of the independent mystery bookstores I’ve visited have dogs in house, just as the dak bungalows did. While the dogs in colonial India guarded people who felt vulnerable away from the city, bookstore dogs have a different role: making customers fall in love with them and go crazy buying books.

Back to Perveen’s trip! Our intrepid heroine arrives after a day’s travel to the palace. She is sore from a palanquin accident and sopping wet from rain only to learn there’s more than just a prince to worry about. She discovers that two maharanis living there are locked in a private war over the with each other, and the maharaja’s smart younger sister is being completely overlooked. What about their lives? Can her legal investigation change things for them and the future of Satapur?

When I write books like this, I strongly desire to write socially-just endings—yet I am mindful that my solution must be a realistic outcome for conventions of the time. A solicitor bound by rules of British common law, Parsi law, and other religious codes, knows this well. Perveen also isn’t the type to shove her decision on any client.

Perveen soon understands why the royals are stressed (a word I can’t use in the book, because it wasn’t invented yet). In the British Empire, Indian royalty were rarely allowed to choose where their sons were educated and what jobs they took after their studies; the British liked to handle that, in order to make sure the royals didn’t become too smart or independent. The British resident attached to a princely state also helped select brides for the princes, and they held the power to grant or deny a prince the freedom to leave India.

I spent about a year-and-a-half writing this book, so it cracks me up to learn some people have already read the whole book in less than a day. I am always curious to hear what readers liked and didn’t like about this book, and where they would like to see Perveen go next. When I spotted some women going into a bar in Houston carrying my book, I descended on them to find out.

Shared journeys are the best. And although my book tour of the US is undertaken alone, any feelings of loneliness disappear when I enter a different bookstore every evening, readying myself for unexpected questions and conversation.

The Right Kind of Malice

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

When I began writing fiction, I didn’t know conventions for writers even existed. (I think the Murder is Everywhere gang might excommunicate me for the confession). Before I was published, I joined   the wonderful international program Sisters in Crime. Experienced women writers in that group told me that I would learn a lot to help myself at mystery conventions. For example, I could hear famous mystery novelists talk about how they wrestled with plots; make friends of readers who knew everything and everyone, and maybe even catch up with a literary agent.

Signature collector Risa hits up novelist Vivien Chien

The first mystery convention I visited was Malice Domestic, a fabulous convention that advertises it is “not everyone’s cup of tea.” Malice does not usually have pleasant connotations, but if you meet a Malice reader, chances are she will hug you before the conversation is over.

Photographer Iden Ford, Welsh author Cathy Ace, and author Donna Andrews

Mystery authors drawn here are primarily (but not exclusively women and the style of mystery storytelling is “traditional” (no gratuitous sex or violence). Yes, the favored mysteries are chock full of suspense and bad things happen—usually a murder that must be solved—but the reader will not feel like vomiting at language and painful images in a Malice book. Also, the mysteries of choice tend to be series books, rather than stand-alones.

My friend Patsy Asher in the hospitality lounge. Writers have filled a table with promo items!

And Malice Domestic is itself a long-running series, if you talk about location. Unlike many conventions, this one does not move around: it has been in the Washington DC suburbs for all of its 31 years, save a couple of years in downtown Washington, when something mysterious happened in an elevator that made the convention shoot back to the suburbs. Currently it’s housed over a three-day weekend at a Marriott Hotel in North Bethesda.

Because of the recurring DC area location, many of the fans are from DC, Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania and Ohio. It takes me about an hour to get to the con by car or train. What could be easier?

Kathy Harig with her assistant Dorothy from Mystery Loves Company Books in Oxford, MD, are the primary sellers of new mysteries.

However—writers come here from Canada, England, and all over the country—and they also tend to be repeat offenders. Male mystery folk are welcomed like brothers come home from college, but to my unscientific eye they make up less than ten percent. Bloggers are a new crowd that came in over the last fifteen years or so… these hardworking, usually unpaid book reviewers are great company.

Hanging with Blogger Dru Ann Love of Dru’s Musings

I began my association with this crew when I won a Malice Domestic Unpublished Writers Grant. In 1996, I submitted a partial manuscript of my first mystery novel into a contest that was overseen by longtime serious mystery readers on the Malice board including Bill F. Deeck, a marvelous mystery man who sadly passed away too young—and as a result, the award is now named in his honor. There are other awards, too: the Agathas, named in homage to the mother of the traditional series mystery, Agatha Christie. Malice attendees nominate their favorite novels, stories and true crime books that relate to writing mystery and the traditional mystery genre from the previous year. These are extremely coveted awards because they come in the shape of a teapot. Yes, an actual working teapot that is custom made to the convention’s specifications, with a lovely new design revealed each season.

Beth Schmelzer, retired children’s librarian, has been influential in bringing children’s mystery authors to Malice

I returned to Malice Domestic last weekend. Over the 23 years that have passed, I think I only missed six conventions because I’d moved to Minnesota. I always wind up having long, happy conversations with the friends I’ve met over the years—and I make new ones each time. In a way, Malice is like the high school you should have gone to, where everyone is welcoming, and everyone wants to read (as opposed to playing sports).

At my banquet table, you’ll see mystery writers Maya Corrigan and James Ziskin from left.

This year, I was on quite a high because The Widows of Malabar Hill was one of five nominees in the Best Historical Mystery category. This first novel in my Perveen Mistry series brought me very good luck at the Left Coast Crime convention and the Edgar Awards, so I figured my luck had run out. And just look at these fabulous fellow writers who were nominated.

My fellow best historical nominee LA Chandler, left, and writer Lea Wait on right

I nearly passed out when I heard that I won… I managed to float through the ballroom up to the stage but proceeded on the exit stairway rather than the entry stairway, so I had to go down again to get my beautiful teapot before making my acceptance speech.

The teapot is just right for tea with my agent Vicky Bijur

Several days later, I am still reeling from the shock of this recognition for Perveen Mistry. I am so happy that a book set in India, telling a tale of strong women facing adverse circumstances and ending on an upbeat note, made it into the hearts of so many readers.

I am about to launch the second Perveen Mistry, The Satapur Moonstone. I don’t expect lightning to strike twice, but the joyful celebration at the Malice convention will buoy me through whatever comes next.

A Pink Moment

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

My baby cherry tree!

These days, pink is everywhere. Millennial Pink is the official name of the soft hue that now colors chairs from Target, rose-gold phones from Apple, and yes, pink clothing for both genders. Why this soft shade now? Is it because treatment of people has become so hard? Pink is a color of childhood, whether you call it blush, petal, nude or cherry.

Cherry is a pink that simply gives me joy. The Baltimore-Washington area has a long, mild spring, and the crowning glory of our area from March through April are the cherry trees, which bloom in waves, depending on their age and variety. I grew up in snowy Minnesota reading Japanese fairytales with cherry blossom themes and books about dolls from Japan such as Rumer Godden’s 1961 delight, Miss Happiness and Miss Flower. Did that set me on a lifetime love of sakura trees?

One of the old-friend cherries nearing end of bloom

My street in North Baltimore has some very large, sprawling flowering cherry trees that might be older than the 40 years I’ve been told is the average cherry tree lifespan. But how old are they?

Sakura trees were brought into the United States by an American food explorer working for the US Department of Agriculture called David Fairchild. Mr. Fairchild first shipped them from Japan to his garden in Chevy Chase, MD in 1902.

President Taft’s wife, Nellie, took to heart his idea of beautifying Washington with cherry trees. It was also a difficult time in the country, when there was popular agitation over immigration of Asians. This idea was a variation of an olive branch. Could Americans see something good about Japan?

Mr. Fairchild was tasked with brokering a deal for cherry trees in the nation’s capital with the Mayor of Tokyo, who then offered them free. The first cherry trees were shipped to Washington DC in 1909; however, their roots were found to be heavily infested with insects that could have wreaked havoc across many agricultural species in the United States. These trees were burned in 1910. The Japanese who heard about it were not angry—they were sorry to have sent a defective gift and insisted on sending more. In 1912, healthy trees were planted in Washington and celebrated ever since.

I have been to the Tidal Basin to admire this sweep of cherries and see the excitement of Washington DC’s annual Cherry Blossom Festival. I’ve also seen the blossoms celebrated this year in Vancouver, Canada. Cherry blossoms create a kind of worldwide party where we all stop and pay attention to nature. And in the 1990s when I lived near Yokohama, I’ve participated in Hanami parties, enjoying not just the trees but the special decorations throughout Japan and cherry-themed foods that go with the fleeting blooms.

Cherry blossom fans in downtown Vancouver

Entering their second century of life in the United States, the cherry blossom tree is no longer a fragile, exotic beauty. The City of Baltimore’s tree program donates all kinds of trees to neighborhoods where residents want them; not just cherry, but serviceberry, redbud, and others that are beautiful, yet support native insects. My street had suffered the death of several aged giant cherry trees, so an enterprising neighbor put together a plea for more cherries to go on any street in our neighborhood five years ago.

The green-leafed cherry in background is one of our grand dames

One early spring day, trained gardeners planted four seven-foot-tall trunks with bare limbs in front of my house. I bought water-bags and tucked them around the young trees, so they would have a slow release of water all the time during our hot summers. Now the trees are approaching 30 feet high and don’t need their waterbags, except in extremely prolonged heat waves. They flower several weeks after the street’s grand dame cherries, so we are fully blooming two weeks long.

I am grateful to our block’s seven new children, and four senior citizens, for showering me in pink every spring regardless of politics and fashion.

When Food is a Character

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

There’s a poignant food moment during Made in Heaven, the gorgeous Amazon drama set in New Delhi, that makes me hungry remembering it.

Tara, the show’s beautiful and troubled heroine, is alone at night when she buys a snack called golgappas from a street vendor. Golgappas are mini puris stuffed with cooked vegetables and bathed in spicy toppings: a sloppy, crunchy treat that pretty much everyone in India knows, although the dish’s name is different according to your region. Tara returns home from her street food adventure and tells her husband Adil that he’s got to try these particular golgappas. He refuses, saying that street food is will only cause disease. Because the dish is drenched in spiced water, I can understand the objection; although in this case, Adil’s a snob and is denigrating his wife along with street food. Golgappas, in his mind, are an evil force.

I wish I had the superpower to blithely eat street food in India. I still dream about about the gorgeous purple grape juice that was being hand-crushed on the street in Mumbai, that I longed to sip but did not dare. The trouble is that I have a sharp memory from my first trip to India in the 1970s, when my whole family became violently ill after sampling chai made in the railway station. I was the only one who escaped tummy trouble because I was asleep in my berth in our train compartment and missed the opportunity to get a cup.

I still get a taste of street food in a very pedestrian way. It turns out that a lot of Indian expats miss street food, so they tend to make it at home in the United States. This is where I first tried golgappas and a whole world of fantastic snack foods including pav bhaji and bhel puri.

As I continue writing historical fiction set in India, I write meals into my books, and my kitchen experiments grow. I like to match food to the region, of course, because in the 1920s, the only dishes crossing the various provinces were European ones. There was no such thing as a generic Indian restaurant serving Punjabi style dishes like tandoori chicken and saag paneer.

Fresh curry leaves are essential to pohe

In Western India, one of the simple, popular breakfast dishes is beaten rice (rice grains pounded flat) typically cooked with a few spices, green chilies, onion and peanuts—though there are variations. The beaten rice itself is called pohe or poha, and I was introduced to it by my mother, who prepared it in my house when she and my stepfather, who was born and raised in Mumbai, were visiting. When I went to Mumbai, I recognized it on every breakfast table, whether at home or in the hotel. Pohe is also a very mild dish, which made me want to do bad things with it in my novel. If setting can be a character, why can’t food? Could the pohe serve as a kind of weapon aimed to derail my heroine Perveen Mistry, who never resists something that smells tasty?

I first tried making this dish for friends from India a few years ago, and it was an epic fail due to my soaking the pohe too long before cooking, and then serving everyone an hour after the dish had finished cooking. The grains were all wet and sticky. For my sophomore effort, I resolved to eat the pohe as soon as it came out of the skillet.

Once I had my recipe in mind, I detoured to my nearby South Asian grocery (Punjabi) which had the basics I needed for this dish. The most important key, besides the pounded rice, are the fresh curry leaves, which are soft and can be eaten just as you might eat cilantro leaves. I studied a variety of recipes and noticed a trick for softening the pohe, which I will share with you. I implore you, do not attempt this dish without authentic pounded rice, sold in bags in Asian stores. You can pick up the recipe’s second key ingredient, fresh curry leaves, in the store’s refrigerator.

The rinsed beaten rice is massaged with turmeric and sugar

I used a large pan ate give everything a chance to cook evenly

Bravo! Pohe!

POHE (or POHA)

1 cup thick pohe, beaten or flattened uncooked rice
3 tablespoons raw unsalted peanuts
1 cup diced onion
¼ teaspoon turmeric
¼ teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon mustard seeds
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
12 fresh curry leaves
1 jalapeno, seeded and chopped and divided into two portions
2 tablespoons high heat cooking oil, such as grapeseed
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon fresh lemon juice
Handful of chopped fresh cilantro

  1. Begin by chopping the onion, the jalapeno, and assembling all ingredients to be used in the dish.
  2. Place the dry pohe in a colander and let a stream of cold water run over it for about 3 minutes. Turn off the water and add the turmeric and sugar. Massage these into the wet pohe until it is tinted yellow. The pohe should be soft to the touch.
  3. Heat the oil over medium heat and fry the peanuts for a few minutes. Set aside. Into the same hot pan, add a little more oil as needed and toss in the mustard and cumin seeds. When the mustard seeds start popping, add the curry leaves and saute for no more than 5 seconds. Now add in the chopped onion and first portion of chopped jalapeno.
  4. When the onion is translucent, pour in the damp pohe and ½ teaspoon of salt. Stir briefly, lower heat and cover pan with lid. Let everything steam-cook on low for about 5 minutes; it’s OK to check that nothing is burning.
  5. Sample the pohe to make sure it’s soft enough to eat (but not too soft or sticky). Add the lemon juice and chopped cilantro and peanuts.
  6. When serving on individual plates, allow people to add extra jalapeno from the reserved portion to their own dish if they are hot food lovers.

I think I’ve figured out pohe, because it tasted like I remember in India. I ate two portions at “brenner” (breakfast for dinner) and went back for another taste while I was writing it. The proportion of this recipe feeds two people.

This is my taste of homey Maharashtra for you. When The Satapur Moonstone comes out in May, you’ll understand how a mild-mannered dish can be distorted for nefarious purposes.

A Writer’s Escape to the East Caribbean: St. Kitts

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

Confession. Last week, I did a scant amount of writing, and a lot of hillside climbing, on the Eastern Caribbean island of St. Christopher, better known as St. Kitts.

I had flown here with all good intentions. Freed of daily chores, including dog walking and driving and cooking, I suspected my mind would expand. To stay in a colonial style cottage in the rain-forest, to gaze through a screen of trees at sparkling blue water, would only enhance my motivation. It all made sense!

The problem with going to a place like St. Kitts is that the scenery is so spectacular it’s difficult for a visitor to notice anything else. I became mindful without being tied to any formal practices. I simply could not focus on much, except for my immediate environment: the sparkling sea and endless parade of clouds. Although it wasn’t all sunshine; sometimes it rained gently, or the water poured down like an Indian monsoon.

I’d dragged my husband along with me to Bellemont Farm, a working organic farm/luxury resort. The farm is investor and government-owned, meant to bring jobs and profits to the island. The eco-resort has 44 guest cottages and villas, and about as many more that are partially built. The development was  designed by Bangkok-based architect Bill Bensley in St. Kitts’ historic cottage style and built stone by stone by carpenters and stonemasons from the island.

Without a doubt, the raw landscape is Bellemont’s greatest asset. There are almost 500 acres of undeveloped hilly land that once belonged to sugar barons, but was unsuitable for sugarcane. These hills are close to the island’s dormant volcano, Mount Liamuiga; and volcanic soil is said to bring a special sweetness to the vegetables and fruit grown in its terroir.

It is hard not to slip into French here, even if you don’t speak it, because the French and English were continuously vying to dominate the island since the 1600s.  The island was originally inhabited by Carib Indians who were the victims of a. horrific genocide by the French and British settlers working together. Without anyone to undertake the hard labor of sugar farming, the colonists ordered slaves brought from Africa. After the British government outlawed slavery, British sugar plantation owners used indentured laborers from Asia.

St. Kitts and neighboring island Nevis became an independent nation-state in 1983, and they still retain membership in the Commonwealth nations. St. Kitts’ last sugar plantation closed in 2005, quite late compared to other countries with sugar. The island has both a veterinary and medical school that attract North American students. There is a main tourist drag called Frigate Bay on the south end of the island close to the airport.

On a half day tour of the island, we saw plenty of simple houses in villages that we passed through on the main island road. This is not a prosperous island, and the government is encouraging people to invest in good building projects here, in exchange for a St. Kitts passport. I thought it was great that the original villages, some going back to the 1600s, have survived and are honored with signs one sees driving along the winding beach road.

For the smallest sovereign state in the Americas, sustainable luxury is a delicate issue. Bellemont’s shingled guest cottages are not a literal depiction of the homes that sugar workers lived in, but they do succeed in making someone like me feel pampered in a homier way than a chain hotel could. And the benefit to the community is clear. Many employees had worked in sugar before the mills closed and were proud to be creating a visionary project for St. Kitts. Our taxi tour guide, Zien, worked as a surveyor at Bellemont while it was being laid out. Zien explained that if there was a big tree on the property, it could not be cut down for the sake of a cottage. The cottage could be built near the tree or on another slope. Such ecological wisdom has kept this rainforest area  very attractive to animals and gives a feeling of age and longevity to the resort.

Another sign of island pride is that every cottage is named for a Caribbean writer. Cottage 204’s designated author was Slade Hopkinson, a poet from Guyana. The cottages and villas are scattered throughout the hilly terrain to give their temporary tenants breathtaking views and maximum privacy from human eyes.

Many of the cedar-shingled cottages have their own private plunge pools. For some reason, ours did not—but like all of the cottages, it had three gorgeous verandas wrapping around. Because the resort is in the mountains, we experienced no mosquitos and happily spent many hours on the verandas—though the cottages themselves have subtle mosquito screening backing the shuttered windows and doors, just in case a whining bug might show up, perhaps in a different month.

The cottage’s rear veranda is open to the sky to allow a maximum sea view. I found this place extremely magical at sunrise, but too bright during the day to spend much time there.

But no worries! When the sun rose, I hung out on a roofed veranda fitted with a long daybed that was perfect for writing. And the last veranda was on the cottage’s south side and was clearly for Tony and me only. This was a full-scale outdoor bathroom—with tub and sinks in the open, and toilet and shower that did have latching doors for privacy. We felt utterly private because that side of the cottage was shaded with many lush trees and bushes.

Well, we weren’t entirely alone. While in the outdoor bath, Tony was spied on by a curious monkey. Another time, he saw a baby monkey came off the banana tree to investigate the veranda, only to be loudly reprimanded by its mother.

Inside, our high-ceilinged cottage was a muted fantasy of tasteful blue and white cotton fabrics and traditional island wooden furniture. We shut off the cottage’s air conditioning and were thrilled by the refreshing cool air coming through the shuttered doors and windows. It was a shock to leave Bellemont’s lofty perch for the long drive to the city’s capital, Basseterre, and realize that the island could actually be humid and hot.

Some of the vast acreage is used as a sustainable organic farm, with hundreds of different fruits and vegetable. The Kitchen restaurant offered all-organic seasonal produce, meat and fish and meat cooked in a fusion of European, Caribbean and Asian styles. At breakfast, I had smoothies made from sour oranges, kale, cucumber and cantaloupe. Locally-caught mahi-mahi, lobster, tuna and snapper were on the menu, as well as free-range pork, beef, chicken, duck and rabbit.

One misty evening close to our departure, we rode a golf cart through the twisty up and down trails to the heart of Bellemont Farm’s vegetable garden. About twelve of us gathered with the hotel’s executive managers for a special farm dinner. It was an astounding array of pickled vegetables and fruits, grilled meats and fish, freshly baked breads and fruit pies.

Conversation and wine flowed, and three hours passed without us realizing it. As my husband and I traveled up the hill for the fifth and final night of my stay, I thought about how far we had come from our everyday urban world… and how wonderful it was that respite could be social, as well as solitary.

Picturing History with Homai Vyarawalla

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

These days, photography seems to have become an expected skill for writers. Confession: I like to take pictures, but I don’t understand how to artfully compose them or wait until the right moment to get a great shot. I wish I’d learned more during my years as a newspaper features reporter, because so many photographers were working just over my shoulder.

When I think back on that era—the late 1980s—I remember that out of the newspaper’s whole photography department, just two photographers were women. This was a significantly greater gender gap than among the newspapers reporters, although there were many more males than females in the newsroom.

The composition of my newspaper’s staff made me all the more surprised and impressed to learn about India’s first woman photojournalist, Homai Vyarawalla.  I first heard this name in a conversation with a smart and famous Bollywood actress. She said to me, “You probably already know about India’s first woman photojournalist, who was working in British India during the time of your books…”

I didn’t know anything about her. But I was intrigued.

Homai was born in 1913 into a priestly Parsi family who moved from Gujarat to Bombay for a better life; her father worked in the fledgling film industry that later became known as Bollywood. Some accounts say that Homai married at age 13; other accounts say that at 13, she met the man whom she later married. The gentleman in question, Manekshaw Vyarawalla, was both an accountant and a photographer. After high school, Homai went to Bombay’s famous training school for artist and artisans, the Sir Jamsetjee Jeejeebhoy School for the Arts. Homai was interested in painting, but because the new field of photography was booming and had paying jobs, she went for the latter.  Her first jobs were snapping pictures of women and often went into the Bombay Chronicle. She earned one rupee per published picture.

Because Homai was a woman, she wasn’t considered a trained and reputable photographer, and she therefore had to use her husband’s name on her work. Later on, when she was accepted as a working photographer, she created a catchy professional name: Dada 13. This was a combination of her car license number, her birth year, and the age she was when she met Manekshaw.

During Homai’s years in Bombay, her pictures had a wide range of subjects, but during World War II, she and her husband shifted to New Delhi, and she was hired by India’s ministry of information to take official photographs as part of an imperial propaganda force: the British Information Service. (In my novel The Sleeping Dictionary, this was the kind of work Mr. Lewes undertook during the war). While Homai was shooting pictures for the government, Manekshaw Vyarwalla managed the studio and dark rooms where the film was processed.

Homai now had front row access to shoot both staged and candid photos of famous politicians and visitors to India. Among her typical subjects were Mahatma Gandhi, Lord Mountbatton, the Dalai Lama, Indira Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, whom she considered her favorite subject of all time because he was both photogenic and fun to be with. Homai’s photographs were always shot in monochrome and processed by her; they are mostly part of the Alkazi Collection of Photography in New Delhi. Some of her most famous photographs are gathered in this story by Catch News. After the British were gone and there was no longer a need for British propaganda, she worked for the Illustrated Weekly of India, which ran from 1880-1983 and was kind of like TimeNewsweek and People rolled together.

Within the press corps, Homai Vyarawalla was a standout, with her practical but elegant short hairstyle and trademark sari or salwar kameez. Although many Parsi women felt free to wear dresses instead of saris, she chose the sari as her daily dress probably as a means of securing a bit of respectful distance  at the chaotic, male dominated events. Yet she was no shrinking violet. Homai carried her own cameras, rode long journeys to get the pictures she needed, and did not ask for special favors. She talks about her special vintage cameras and the adventures they brought to her  in this documentary film by producer CS Lakshmi.

In 1970, one year after her husband’s death, Homai abruptly quit working as a photographer. She was at the peak of her career, but she said she was sick of the rude behavior of the photography corps. She retired to live with her only child, now an adult, and after his death, stayed alone in a walk-up apartment without a telephone in a small town. Far removed from the life she’d once lived close to the top of Indian politics and power, she passed her days quietly and thriftily, sewing her own clothes and doing other homemaking. Yet journalists persisted in visiting to ask about her trailblazing career, before she passed away in 2012 at age 98. Fortunately, she was awarded the Padma Vibhushan, India’s second highest civilian honor, in 2011, when she was still alive to receive it.

Being first at something, and even being very good at it, does not guarantee a long or well-paid or publicly honored career. Such was the situation for  Cornelia Sorabji and Mithan Tata Lam, India’s first two women lawyers. But the joy for the ones who come afterward is exploring the records they left for us. These great ladies may not have felt like legends during their lifetime, but the work they left ensured it.