Archive for writing

The Purgatory of Book Revision

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

The Bombay Prince by Sujata Massey

What a grand feeling for a writer to labor over the creation of the book, reach the final page, and triumphantly type: THE END.

(Sujata clears throat) Sorry, it’s not the end. If you’re a writer working with a traditional publisher, finishing a book means you’re submitting it to be read by an editor and will soon be asked to make revisions; anywhere from a few fixes per page to dozens. Multiply that by four hundred pages, and it’s like writing a book again.

Almost three months ago, my marked-up book that took 16 months to write in the first place came home again, along with a host of to-dos in the right margin. I got right to it, but it’s not been a cakewalk, and I’m not done yet.

It’s a joy to have time for a revision, and an editor like mine who cares to delve thoroughly and seek to make the book truly understandable, and ensure the fact given on page 100 is not negated on page 200. For any book to be fluently readable and enjoyable, there are going to be multiple drafts. And it’s always better for a writer to make the changes than an editor—though a copy editor does make lots of changes, subject to an author’s approval.

In order to meet sales, printing and distribution dates, not to mention marketing to booksellers, press and librarians, a publisher needs about a year. And that means Soho needs a workable manuscript from me for their year of labor. I can’t be on a pandemic schedule with my book, even tough I’m writing from home.

How I envy the writers who can rewrite their manuscripts in two to four weeks. These angels really do exist. I think the rewrite takes a longer time for me because I take the editor’s notes as a starting point. I read everything, word by word, just like a reader coming to the book for the first time. My eyes are glazing over with red, green, and blue “track changes” type. I went through all 440 pages already; but am traveling the same road once again, to clean up what I missed.

As much as I labor over rewriting, I love the fact this book came to me. It’s a historical mystery set in November 1921, a time that Edward, Prince of Wales, arrived in Bombay for a four-month tour meant to get Indians thrilled for continued British rule. Yes—that’s what the government thought. My lawyer sleuth, Perveen Mistry, knows the tour will mean trouble.

Up until this afternoon, I had it in my head the book was going to be titled Prince of Bombay. However, I looked at the draft cover illustration and realize it’s actually titled The Bombay Prince. I’m making the revision in my mind.

Everywhere, kids are back to school, either virtual or hybrid. And I’m in a school of my own making; a never-ending English assignment with plenty of Indian proper names. I fire up my laptop at six-thirty or seven in the morning; take short naps, long walks, and stretch my aching hips and hamstrings on a foam roller. I do my work perform at a desk, and also on my porch, and in bed, and even on my exercise ball. My brain is dead for more editing by five o’clock, although if someone picks up a carryout dinner, I may have the juice for a few more pages.

One hundred and ten pages left to read in five days. I’ll make it.

Mexican Gothic: Talking With Silvia Moreno-Garcia

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

The most exciting kind of travel has been taken away from us. Borders are closed, flights cancelled, museums shuttered. And who dares go to a restaurant? Yet we can still escape quarantine with books. And nowhere has seemed more mysterious, gorgeous and suspenseful to me than the inner world of a book called Mexican Gothic.

This remarkable novel by Silva Moreno-Garcia is narrated by Noemi Taboada, a smart young single woman who is sent by her wealthy family in Mexico City to check up on a cousin who’s sent a worrying letter after having moved to her husband’s family estate in the mountains. This is a true Gothic novel, with the benefit of being enriched with Indian mythology and surreal dream imagery, and colonial history, warped eugenic theory, and biology of plants, animals and insects. Critics are calling it intoxicating and pitch perfect gothic and admire its chills and thrills. It debuted on the New York Times bestseller list and is still in the top 15 three weeks later.

I am grateful to Silvia for answering my questions about the book and her writing life.


Silvia, this is a very special book. To me it feels like part historical suspense, part gothic novel, part Latin-American magic realism, part horror. Were you aware you were doing something ground-breaking with this book? Did you hear “this book doesn’t fit any category” when you were in the submission process? Was this book an easy sell or a complex sell?

Gothic fiction is a hybrid genre. It contains elements of psychological suspense, sometimes of outright horror, sometimes romance, sometimes supernatural elements, often a historical setting. It can have a mystery. It’s the literary grandparent to modern domestic noir, but also an ancestor of modern romance. It’s why I was interested in working in a Gothic mode. It can spill out of categories.

As to how it sold, it was easy in the sense that Del Rey bought my previous novel, Gods of Jade and Shadow, in a two-book deal. So this was the second book I delivered and because I was under the contract we didn’t have to shop it around.

However, that ease is relative. I’ve had a hard time selling almost everything I’ve ever published. Right after finishing Mexican Gothic we tried selling Untamed Shore, a noir, and it was basically impossible to move that. We ended going with a new, small press called Polis/Agora for a very modest advance of a few hundred dollars and a print run of 2,000 copies.

English Pantheon
by Diego Delso, Lic CC-BY-SA

Is this book coming out in any other countries, and any film interest yet?

I’ve never had much luck with translation but Gods of Jade and Shadow and Mexican Gothic will be translated into a handful of languages. And there is film interest. Nothing firm, though.

Mexican Gothic has been on the NYT bestseller list for two weeks, and hopefully more, as word spreads. What is different about life for you now that you are a NYT bestselling author? 

I can hopefully worry less about my future. As I indicated above, it hasn’t necessarily been easy to sell my work. My vampire narco novel Certain Dark Things and my fantasy of manners The Beautiful Ones both went out of print very quickly. Publishing houses expect very quick successes and have little patience in nurturing talent. And they didn’t think much of my genre-switching ways. I’m not interested in writing in just one category, I don’t want to write series, I write a lot about Mexico. All those were minuses for me. But now that might not matter.

This book presents an old-fashioned Mexico with most characters living elite lives, rather than the stereotype of suffering that is predominant in novels published in English about Latin America. Did you intentionally wish to share a different Mexico?

All my books show different slices of Mexico. In Certain Dark Things one of the POVs is a homeless teen, in Untamed Shore we have a woman in a very small town in Baja California with limited social mobility, in Signal to Noise the characters are different shades of middle class. There are programmers, cops, radio announcers, small business owners, translators, and everything else.

It’s the 1950s, and two regions are central to the novel—sophisticated Mexico City and the quiet mountains, where peasants still labor in silver mines for foreign landowners like the Doyles. What is your relationship with these areas? Had you visited each place over the years and how else did you learn such intimate details of these places?

Mexican Gothic is inspired by Real del Monte (also known as Mineral del Monte), which is a town located in Hidalgo in central Mexico. It was mined by the Spanish and then by the British, which earned it the nickname of Little Cornwall. It has a very unique look and feel because of that. There’s an English cemetery and it is high in the mountains, so it can get chilly and foggy. Yuri Herrera by coincidence recently released a non-fiction book about this region and its mines called A Silent Fury. If you want to learn more about it, check it out.

The Pool Las Pozas
by Rod Waddington of Kergunyah, Australia, Lic CC-ASA-2.0

It’s also worth mentioning that Edward James built a surrealist garden in Mexico, in Xilitla. I didn’t include this in my book but at one point I wanted to have structures inspired by it, with stairs that go nowhere and things like that. I think it has a very haunting look.

A Stairway to Heaven in the surrealist garden
Photo by Pavel Kirilov from St Petersburg, Russia

The novel’s heroine, Noemi, is a pampered society girl who wants to study anthropology rather than marry. She longs to enroll at the national university, and her father promises to pay for it if she’ll check on her cousin. Noemi arrives at the remote Victorian mansion with a suitcase of lovely clothing, cigarettes and a lighter. Tell us more about the inspiration for your protagonist.

My family on my mother’s side was poor, my great-grandmother was a maid and my grandmother wanted to be a doctor, but her father forbade it. He said she couldn’t go to medical school because there would be men there. Plus, they expected her to bring money in for the family. So at 15 she finished secretarial school and by her early twenties she married, which was what you did in the 1950s.

My father’s side of the family, my aunts came from a family with some money so they were able to live a life of leisure, and a couple of my great aunts remain unmarried (solteronas) because the family had enough money to support them. One of my great aunts that did marry had a bad marriage and stayed for a while because she was terrified of what people would think if she separated. And in the case of my own grandmother, my grandfather abandoned the family and divorced her, but she couldn’t say that publicly. They lied because if anyone knew about it, my father and his siblings would have been expelled from their Catholic school. There were a lot of secrets that we kept because of the prevailing morality.

My heroine is going to rural Mexico in 1950. Women don’t even have the right to vote. She can’t just phone the authorities and drag her cousin out of a house, even if the people there are creepy. And the family wants to keep this all obviously hush-hush.

Mexico was never a British colony, buts its land and people were exploited by British and American businessmen, following Spain. Discuss the Doyles and how they fit in with this picture.

Spain was the first European nation that exploited Mexico, but obviously it wasn’t the only one. We didn’t get a French empire in Mexico for a few years just because we were bored. Colonialism is not something that ends and everyone says let’s go home. One reason why Latin America is an absolute mess nowadays is because the USA intervened in many countries there, backing coups and destabilizing countries. My next novel briefly mentions some of the CIA’s work in Mexico in the 1960s when they helped train Mexican forces so they could repress and violently neutralize Communist activists. The Doyles are in many ways a much easier boogeyman than the horrific legacy we have in Latin America.

The description of ghostly people in the novel ring true to paranormal experiences people have chronicled. Can you share if you used real accounts of hauntings as background for what happens in the house, or is it all a glorious fantasy?

Ghost stories are fun but it’s all completely made up.

When the pandemic is over and we can travel, what are a few must places in Mexico, that are beautiful and historic, you’d recommend? 

Mexico has very different regions. In the south you have the jungle and a number of Maya archeological sites, in the middle there are many cities that were colonial sites, in Baja California we have desert and water and whales and sharks, and we obviously have beaches too. And then there’s Mexico City which is huge. So it really depends what you feel like doing.

Can you tell us about the crime novel that you released earlier this year?

Untamed Shore combines a coming of age narrative with a noir sensibility. It’s set in the 1970s in a small shark fishing village where a young Mexican woman becomes entangled with some American tourists. I’ve seen people compare it to Jim Thompson’s work. It had two starred reviews (Booklist, Library Journal) but because it came out from such a small press not many people heard about it. LA Review of Books said “Brutality takes on an almost divine quality.” So, maybe check that out.

I think once people have finished Mexican Gothic they’ll be ravenous for your other work. I’m grateful you’ve got all these books waiting for me, and that you continue to take risks and tell the stories that are in your heart. Thank you for visiting with Murder is Everywhere.

Roots of Writing

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

I got a three-month writing retreat with every comfort needed!

I scrawled the grand statement, which sounds like a cheesy advertisement, and taped it next to the guest room desk back in March. I was upset about the pandemic, and I was trying to reframe what I could do with the quiet time in my future. There would be no school activities, doctors’ appointments, no grocery shopping, no hours at the gym. The time would really be mine alone to write.

Of course, I wrote down the hours I planned to write. They came just before or amid zoom appointments and phone calls. In between those appointments I had other duties, ranging from cooking to dog walking and gardening. All of it went into my bullet journal. Some days, I felt like I was writing more in my bullet journal than anywhere else.

It’s crazy how fast the three months of retreat turned to four. And no end in sight.

Here’s my plan, which no longer requires documentation for myself, or anyone else. I work on my writing for as long as I can before my brain goes dead, usually two to three hours. And then I credit myself for what I’ve done and move onto something else. Often, it’s the garden.

I’ve described the growing pains for my fledgling victory vegetable garden, which has yielded the tiniest radishes I’ve ever seen, a bit of parsley, and some shallots that may or may not be ready. I’m afraid to dig them out and be disappointed.

My native plant gardens are different. Started in fits of activity and lulls of laziness over the last four years, I have three distinct zones filled with cuttings and young seedlings that took root, require little water or care, and are bursting with enthusiasm.  If you could imagine a book that would write itself for each year—yes, that is my actual fantasy—you only need to see a native plant garden doing just that.

Pictured at the top of my blogpost is a native plant to the Maryland-Delaware-Virginia area; it’s called veronicastrum virginatum and is more commonly known as Culver’s Root. Already it’s almost five feet tall, with flowery stems set up like a candelabra. I’m thrilled this one huge clump of vv has become Studio 54 for native bees, all shapes and sizes.

I am not afraid of my bees. I love to watch them dance around the Culver’s Root and the other neighboring plants in flower. I smile when I see the squirrels chase each other in the trees, and I even tolerate watching a rabbit munch the leaves of a baby native flower.

Insects and animals are my company, breaking up the isolation. And the distraction they offer is oddly medicinal. When I am literally grounded—with my hands in the earth, I mean—I look two feet away and discover a small robin has settled down to watch me, and doesn’t budge when I move.

Gardening does something magic, even if it means I’m not writing. After I dust off the dirt and shower, I feel like a new person eager to return to my book. I wind up able to write longer, because of time spent in nature.

A writer’s lament is that her job is never done. Just as a garden is never finished; something’s always coming up, whether it is noble and bountiful like the Culver’s Root, or unhealthily dominant, like the pesky unnamed green vine that shoots up and twists the good guys down to the ground. Such drama to clip those vines and attack their roots.

I’ll always have writing work to do. But thank God for it. The volume of my work fills the void. Having a creative project at home gives order to a life when rules have evaporated.

I do not know the future. Come August, I’ll probably be done with edits to my third Perveen Mistry novel. Maybe not.

What I do know for sure is that the Black-Eyed Susans are going to burst into full, glorious bloom, and the bees will be drinking their fill.

Glorious Gargoyles! A Chat with Gigi Pandian

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

Gigi Pandian

Continuing our journeys to Paris, I’m interviewing author Gigi Pandian about her new book, The Lost Gargoyle of Paris. Gigi has been a friend of mine since the time she was writing her first mystery featuring archaeologist Jaya Jones. She grew up as the daughter of anthropologists from New Mexico and South India and spent her childhood traveling the world with them for research. Those adventures built the imagination that created the Jaya Jones mystery series, followed by the Accidental Alchemist series, and many locked-room short stories. Gigi has won Agatha and Lefty awards for her fiction and made it to the USA Today bestsellers’ list. The Alchemist’s Illusion, published in 2019, is a finalist for the GP Putnam Sons’ Sue Grafton Memorial Award, which we’ll learn about on Edgars Night, April 30. Yes, I’m also competing for the same award, but I’ll happily lose to Gigi.

I was thrilled that Gigi could join us to talk about her latest Accidental Alchemist mystery, a novella titled The Lost Gargoyle of Paris. It was released last week and is an immensely cozy, comforting read for me during these difficult times.

Thank you for inviting me back to Murder is Everywhere, Sujata. I hope everyone is doing well in these difficult times! It’s great to see everyone remotely, from my cozy little house in Northern California where I’ve been sheltering in place for four weeks now.

Tell us a little about your new book, and especially its connection to Paris.

The Lost Gargoyle of Paris is a novella in my Accidental Alchemist mystery series about a centuries-old female alchemist Zoe Faust and her impish gargoyle sidekick Dorian Robert-Houdin. I hadn’t planned on writing a novella set in France before the next full-length novel, but the idea came to me after watching helplessly as Notre Dame Cathedral caught fire in April of 2019.

Both Zoe and Dorian’s histories are connected to the cathedral, so I found myself unable to focus on their next adventure set in Portland, Oregon. I knew they had to go on an excursion back to Paris first. Like all of my books, it’s a lighthearted puzzle plot mystery steeped in history.

In The Lost Gargoyle of Paris, Zoe and Dorian travel to Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris to investigate a mysterious discovery found in the wreckage of last year’s tragic fire: a long-lost gargoyle illustration drawn by Victor Hugo himself.

American secret alchemist Zoe narrates the novel. Her Dr. Watson figure is Dorian. He’s the most extraordinary sidekick imaginable. What’s his bio? 

Dorian would definitely take issue about being called a Watson rather than the hero! He thinks of himself as a modern-day Poirot—and as a gargoyle, he has the “little gray cells” to make him convinced of his brilliance.

Dorian Robert-Houdin is a gargoyle who was originally carved in stone for Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, but was accidentally brought to life through alchemy. He was a prototype who was just a little too small, at three-and-a-half-feet, so architect-restorer Viollet-le-Duc gifted the cast-off carving to his friend, famous French stage magician Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin. The magician didn’t realize an antique book he was using as a stage prop contained real magic until it brought his carving to life. He raised Dorian in secrecy, teaching him to be a proper Frenchman.

I am a gargoyle lover—there are so many gargoyles and whimsical animals built into the grand stone buildings of old Bombay, and I’m always trying to photograph them. Was there a special time that gargoyles were in architectural fashion worldwide? Besides England, India and France, where else were gargoyles adored?

True gargoyles are water spouts, but the term “gargoyle” has come to be used more broadly for all sorts of animal grotesques. Gargoyles can be found in ancient Egyptian and Greek architecture, but they’re most associated with medieval European cathedrals. But there’s a mystery that scholars disagree about. What were they meant to represent? Were gargoyles meant to be demons who would frighten people into attending church? Did they represent the trapped souls of people who’d been wicked on earth? Or perhaps to ward off evil themselves?

By having Dorian a living, breathing character, you’ve woven a little magic realism into cozy mysteries. How has that been received by the reading audience?

When I created Dorian, I didn’t imaging it was for anyone beyond myself. I was 36 years old and had just been diagnosed with breast cancer. I had a year of cancer treatments ahead of me, so I threw myself into writing something meaningful to me. I’ve always found gargoyles to epitomize all things mysterious, and have been fascinated by them since I was a kid, so I created a gargoyle character to amuse myself. (And of course my subconscious had kicked in and had me create an alchemist who’d discovered the Elixir of Life, while I was going through chemotherapy.)

I’ve been surprised at every step of my publishing journey how much readers love Dorian and Zoe’s cozy world of alchemy. From my agent and editor to the enthusiastic readers who made the series a success, I’m still pinching myself.

Do you draw the covers for the Alchemist series? If so, what is your art background?

I do have a background in art, but illustrator Hugh D’Andrade is the talent behind the amazing illustrated gargoyle image. In a funny coincidence, Midnight Ink hired him to illustrate the book covers, not knowing that he’d been one of my instructors in art school!

You have a career that is sometimes called a hybrid: some of your books are published by traditional presses, and some, like this current book, are self published. What advantages does this give you?

I’ve learned so much about publishing through the various ways my books have been published. I’ve been able to see firsthand the challenges of different types of publishing—not just self-publishing versus traditional publishing, but also what it’s like to be published by presses of different sizes.

I began my career self-publishing after my agent had been pitching my debut mystery for a year and kept hearing that marketing departments weren’t sure what do to with my books. It was a rewarding experience but a lot of work, so I was happy to be picked up by publishers after my debut novel novel did well. When the large publishing house that published my Accidental Alchemist mysteries closed their mystery imprint, I knew I wanted to continue writing the series and that my readers wanted more books, so I decided to publish the series on my own (and happily I was able to buy the gargoyle illustration so I can continue to use it). It’s an in-progress experiment that I’m having fun with, but I’m not sure what the future holds.

How’s quarantine going for you? What are some of your stress-beating tips for us?

My agent is patiently waiting for a project I owe her, but I’m finding it so difficult to focus these days! But I’m very fortunate to have a house full of books and a small but beautiful backyard vegetable garden.

I had an online video meet-up with my writer’s group last week, and that helped me see I wasn’t alone in having trouble focusing on writing, so I’m not being too hard on myself.

The things that are helping most with stress are staying connected to my distant loved-ones, cooking, and getting plenty of exercise. I love to cook and already cooked most of my meals at home, so I’m making a point to experiment with more recipes while I have additional time at home. I’m the cook and my husband is the gardener, so we each get the benefits of both. Personally I think I got the better end of the bargain.

Sending good wishes to everyone! I hope you have many fulfilling armchair travels this spring.

Get a free Jaya Jones eBook download and recipes by signing up for Gigi’s newsletter and say hello to her on Facebook

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.

How to Feed a Writer

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

black coffee, blackberry jam, and a dark story

M.F.K. Fisher, the great American food writer, once stated:”A writing cook and a cooking writer must be bold at the desk as well as the stove.”

In the 1930s and ’40s, when Mary Frances began her concurrent explorations of cooking and writing, most writers did not cook, probably because these writers were primarily men. And the earliest published women writers who were lucky enough to have the space and time to do this work—Edith Wharton, Virginia Woolf and the like—were typically upper class and had household staff to feed them.

I love to write, and my escape from the stress of writing is cooking. if you follow my blogposts, you’ve seen me wax rhapsodic about mushrooms, about Parsi eggs dishes, and all kinds of food.

In my quest to spend more time on writing, I am striving to be more balanced in the kitchen—and to also explore whether certain food powers my brain to focus better. I’ve read several cookbooks with recipes promising better neurological health, but my goal is not to work with cookbooks as often as I’ve been doing.

This year I asked myself: what is the healthiest way to fill both the stomach and the imagination? How can a person too easily diverted by cooking avoid such temptation when she’s alone at home?

pumpernickel is a powerful base for a breakfast sandwich

Plenty of writers have decided it makes sense to write outside of the house—and to eat there as well. In this era, they are mostly at Starbucks. I prefer to think of Dorothy Parker striding into the restaurant inside the Algonquin Hotel for breakfast and lunch with her friends. Not that she used a pen at the table! It was all about joking, drinking, and probably not getting much done in the afternoon.

Okay, let’s return to the present. Have you ever tried going to a real restaurant with your laptop? While it’s nice to have eggs and toast brought to me at the table, once I’m finished with my plate and continue to write, I feel like a barnacle on the side of the establishment. And how does the writer handle bathroom breaks in the restaurant? Do I leave the laptop containing my big project on the table, or carry it to the potty the way I’d bring my purse?

There’s nothing wrong with dining at home on food prepared elsewhere. However, to undertake this needs a good deal of planning, and the food choices that look the most beautiful are often destructive. A sugar-dusted doughnut is tempting with morning coffee, but it will make me shaky and unable to concentrate within a few hours. Gourmet sandwiches from stores often stand six inches high and are made from such thick bread that they also put my insulin into overdrive. And don’t get me started on full-sized entrees from proper restaurants. If you’d like to see me snoring through the afternoon, just serve me a delicious, heavy lunch.

This year, I am streamlining my dining at home. My goal is not to spend longer than 30 minutes cooking anything during my workday. Here’s the M.O.

For breakfast I toast good brown bread from a local bakery, and I top it with a quality cheese or jam, and several times a week the toast topping is an egg scrambled with vegetables. I take vitamins and calcium on the side, and I try to drink a couple of glasses of water. I am seriously dehydrated, all the time.

Ahh, the antioxidants in cherries!

After that, I try to write at least two hours. Fresh or cooked fruit is the second energy shot that I take around 10 in the morning. After that, I break for some activity at the gym.

Lunch is always eagerly anticipated. Like breakfast, I eat it by myself, so I don’t have to worry if anyone else likes what’s going on the plate. A fridge full of leftovers means various cups of soup, beans, small cooked vegetables, kimchee, and rice. Sometimes there’s even a half-serving of chicken or fish or a couple of meatballs. So, how is my meal different from tapas? I can imagine Dorothy Parker poking fun at my lunches, especially since they are washed down with a glass of water and a couple of Vitamin D gummy raspberry chews for dessert.

A simple homemade carrot soup

Chicken curry, rice and a melange of potatoes, yams and green beans

I work again. Around 4 p.m. I’m often craving salt. The standard snack to fill the void used to be crackers and cheese, but now that I am trying to reduce dairy, I dip raw vegetables or plantain chips in hummus or munch some almonds or cashews. If I have a sweet craving, I might slather peanut butter on a toasted waffle (I keep a few homemade ones in the freezer) or Nutella on a digestive biscuit.

A homemade waffle with almond butter, banana, and chia topping

The writing day is done by five and cooking is once again allowed! I I relish the chance to sway between the fridge and stove and bend to lift up pots and pans. I usually cook meat or fish with vegetables and some form of rice. Usually it’s Asian or Mediterranean food—easy dishes flavored with spices and herbs—true friends with benefits.  I often use the InstantPot to pressure cook dried beans or to concoct a dal that can be eaten at a few different meals during the week. My husband likes this kind of food. My children do not.

You might have noticed something missing in my diet. It is coffee, the infamous element in a lot of writers’ rituals.

I drink about one and a half-cups of locally roasted coffee made in a French press at breakfast. I might have another cup in the mid-afternoon if I’m dead-tired and have to go out and drive the carpool or drive to a faraway book signing. But chain-drinking coffee does not make me feel grounded and focused on work—it gives me the jitters. Some therapeutic drinks that work for me throughout the day are water, black tea, green tea, mint tea, and before bed, the venerable chamomile.

Writing a book is slow work, and in my experience, it can be detrimental to the body. There have been years when I would sneak downstairs from my study to snack as a way to escape the half-written page. I’m no saint—if I know there’s chocolate in the cupboard, I may have an afternoon binge. But overall, I take a great deal of pleasure in eating this way.

Am I feeding my mind?

I don’t know about that—but I do feel sated.

Digital White-Out

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.


When the snow fell last weekend, I welcomed it, not just for its beauty, but the way it stops time.

I grew up in Minnesota, where children are hardwired to appreciate the beauty of snow and also to expect it as a normal rhythm of the winter, rather than a natural disaster. As an adult I am able to admit that snow is not just fun and games. I can’t decide what is more treacherous; the flat packed snow that forms a shiny, slick surface; the thick ice lurking under snow; or the thick salt crystals scattered over the sidewalks that sting my dogs’ paws.

Even though snow trips me up, I still love it.

Snow only falls a few times each winter in Maryland—but often it’s a storm, rather than a casual sprinkling. Supposedly it’s because of the freezing air coming down from Antarctic meeting up with the warmer Atlantic. And when we have snowstorms in Baltimore, we never have  enough plows. In bad winters, the whole Eastern Seaboard runs out of salt and sand. In my city, the protocol is to concentrate on freeways and major roads while the storm is ongoing, and to address the rest of the city later. Or not.

Last Sunday, when Baltimore was snowed in, a tremendous quiet descended over my world. I bundled up and went for a walk around nine in the morning with my husband. The streets and lanes had only a few car tracks. On my way back, I slipped on one of the slick snow patches on an unplowed street, but no lasting harm was done.

Unspoiled snow gives the feeling of open time. It is the opposite of an ordinary day dominated by rapid-fire texts and emails demanding answers. The snow seems to wipe all of that out.

This weekend’s snow came just before I started reading a book called Deep Work written by Georgetown professor Cal Newport. Dr. Newport examines what a lot of us already know: that toggling between different kinds of intellectual activities leads to a poorer quality of life and produced work. Using studies and examples of scientists, psychologists, tycoons—as well as his own hard-fought academic writing accomplishments—he talks about the need to limit shallow work that distracts from the deep snowbank of joyful, rewarding work.

I’ve become very interested and inspired by this theory of deep work, though I cannot of course end my daily life as a person raising children and dogs, helping with my husband’s business, and keeping in touch with readers. But I know that I do many more distracting activities now than twenty years ago, when I was starting my fiction career. Now I understand why focusing was easier.

One of Dr. Newport’s suggestions for managing smaller job-related responsibilities  is to address them in batches rather than every day. For instance, I could write a couple of Murder is Everywhere posts over one day or two days and then I’d be ready for the month. In that same week of managing small writing assignments, I could write my monthly author newsletter and cue up some Instagram posts. And in the other weeks of the month—at least three!—I could immerse myself in 1921 Bombay, the very un-snowy setting of my current novel.

So I’ve got an idea. Regardless of what the weather predictions are, a metaphoric storm is headed to my house tomorrow morning.

It will be a white-out from the digital world. I aim to concentrate on my neglected next novel, which means I can answer email just thrice daily. And podcasts, radio and TV will have to wait two weeks as well. My mind doesn’t need any more jumbling.

I intend to listen hard enough in the silence that I can hear snowflakes fall.

When Writing Series, Third Time’s the Charm

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

Daisy’s checking up on the day’s progress

Did anybody ever tell you that it’s easier to raise three children than two?

I am fine with the two that I have, but I’m beginning to believe the saying could be true.

Especially when I think about books.

If each book a writer births is like a child, I have fourteen. I am like the old woman in the shoe, and all my children are troublesome in different ways.

But this week it’s been a lot easier. Every day that I’ve powered on my laptop to write, I’ve had an idea of the next sentence.  The words have been flowing now better than they have in years. That is because the book I’m writing is Untitled Perveen Mistry, the third book in a series.

Having been in print for more than a couple decades, I’m starting to draw some conclusions. Don’t hire me to teach any writing courses yet, but I’ll tell you that the third book is the magical point when a writer finally gets comfortable writing a series.

Okay, I’ll admit the first book is usually the most exciting part of writing a series. Book One is totally novel. A first book lays out the protagonist’s backstory and introduces me to her family, lover, friends, career, and the world where it all takes place.

The Widows of Malabar Hill by Sujata Massey

Book One for Perveen Mistry!

Because it’s a first book, there is plenty of time to flesh the characters and build the location. Editors don’t usually accept Book One without it being written in totality, so there’s not so much pressure (this was completely different for The Widows of Malabar Hill, which was written on spec for Soho Press. But the pub date stretched so I could revise it to my heart’s content).

My very first Book One was published in 1997 and had the typical lifestyle for such a creature. I wrote it over the course of four years of suffering and was thrilled beyond my imagination when The Salaryman’s Wife was accepted by HarperCollins. I will take off my hat to everyone who has finished writing a first novel, whether or not it made it to print.

After writing this first book in my Rei Shimura series, I discovered that the second one, Zen Attitude, came surprisingly slowly. Even though I had a due date to motivate me and could reuse characters from the first book, I still felt stalled. I remember trying many drastic

behavior changes to push myself to be someone stronger and capable of writing Book Two.  I changed my diet to avoid meat (it lasted two years). I ran daily around the Hopkins track. I went on research trips, not just to Japan but to a Buddhist monastery in update New York. I was thirty-three, childless and without the curse of a day job. I had no real pressures in life outside of the book… yet  I stared at my desktop day after day and wondered if I really could write more than one book.

The first three books of the Rei Shimura series

Rei Shimura’s Book Three, The Flower Master, was—ha, another story! I don’t remember much about the process, except I began the book in India when I was staying there due to delays with my daughter’s adoption. I did not have so much as a laptop with me, so to work on Book Three I had to go to my grandfather’s office where there was an old desktop with viruses galore where I could ply my trade. I had a lot on my mind—but I still was able to proceed at a reasonable pace with this book. Frankly, it was kind of mental retreat.

I have enjoyed writing the Rei series, but as time passed, I wanted to try something new. I had spent all that time in India–and I wanted to go back. In 2006 I began writing a long historical suspense novel titled The Sleeping Dictionary. That first-book process lasted more than four years, and the book was hard to sell. By the time it came out as a Simon & Schuster paperback in 2013, I felt all the work I’d done made it a natural opener for a new series. I figured that Book Two would occur several years later, when the daughter of the protagonist in Book One could grow up to be a moody teenager caught up in the horrific violence after India’s partition. I knew my characters well and felt the plot was sound, but as I worked on this book, showing my agent revision after revision, I never got farther in than a few chapters.

Writing a second book is always a struggle, and during that time, I was busy with two children and had no energy for tricks like changing my diet or starting a new sport. Also, there was no contract for the unwritten Book 2, which translated into no time pressure to press on with it. I also understood the book’s themes of violence against women and religious intolerance were darker than anything I’d ever written. Would my longtime readers be willing to spend so much time in sadness, when I thought writing this could put me into depression?

The Sleeping Dictionary by Sujata Massey

This “book of my heart,” first in a series that might never be.

The second book in the Daughters of Bengal series was simply too daunting for me. I chucked it. Although I did not give up on the idea of revisiting it someday.

I’m working on my third series now. It’s about Perveen Mistry, Bombay’s first woman lawyer working in the 1920s. I’ll admit that while The Widows of Malabar Hill (Book One) was very exciting to work on, Book Two was a pain to write. This time I could partially blame my struggles on a health issue. Lyme Disease was diagnosed after nine months and I bucked up with medicine, acupuncture, and Ayurvedic herbs. Heck, I got so excited about Ayurvedic herbs I worked them into Book 2 (because it’s set in the mountains of India, it’s not such a stretch). And this Book Two, The Satapur Moonstone, had a deadline. I turned it in a month late, it still needed serious revision, but I’d done it!

I’ve come to understand that only when I slay the dragon that is called Book Two can I get to the love affair with Book Three. And while it won’t be a romance that makes writing every series book feel like fun, it feels like being on honeymoon this week.

Book Two of the Perveen series slated for May 2019

Longest Deadline on Earth…Stay Posted!

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

Once again, this is not a typical blogpost. I’m still on deadline—a new one!

I did not realize before I became published is there’s not just one deadline per book. There’s the deadline to turn in your unedited manuscript. It’s followed by a deadline to turn in a completely revised manuscript (completed two weeks ago). And now I’m on a deadline to approve edits to that revised manuscript and add in whole new sentences and paragraphs to clarify points. I’ve got one week to go through 370 pages—a feat I’m not sure I can accomplish. There will be a deadline later for me to look at the copy edit, with only very minimal alterations allowed, and another chance to look at bound galleys for errors.

Does this sound like creative, inspirational work? You’re right, it’s not. However, a well-edited book is so satisfactory. It lasts longer in people’s minds than the average novel does. And that’s what I want to create.

I have illustrated this brief posting with some dog photographs to make up for the lack of content. My dogs, Charlie the Beagle and Daisy the Chorkie, do not approve of deadlines.  Sure, I’m around the house more than usual—but I’m parked at a table ignoring them.  They disapprove of the attention I’m giving the gray metal box with the funny light on the back. Daisy walks across the laptop sometimes, to prove a point.

Deadlines will be met! I am keeping an eye on the prize and will not let go of my spirits.

Deadline!

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

My comments this week will be my briefest yet. I am on deadline with Book 2 in my Perveen Mistry series. A writer is always working on a book, but there are many times in the early days of a novel that it must be handed back and forth between the author and the publisher. And this process turns the work from private to teamwork, and can create stress.

The first time this particular tale met a deadline was back in February, when I handed in an 80,000-word book about 4 weeks later than planned. My editor wrestled with it and returned it to me in March, at which point I began the big improvement campaign. Most writers don’t spend months on a rewrite, like I do. Typically, novelists rewrite in a month or less. But I have learned I’m not the kind of writer who just swaps in a few words.  I delete sentences, create new paragraph after paragraph, and write many more pages. I do plenty of cutting as well. About ten weeks and 20,000 words since the handoff for Book 2, I am elated to be almost through, although I still have a supermarket’s worth of names and titles and typos to address. After I submit it, I expect to have to rewrite more bits (but not as much), and then there is the line by line evaluation of the copy-edit, followed by a couple of rounds with galleys. You could say rewriting and editing is a job in itself, but I should have started Book 3 back in February, when I was researching it in India.

Being close to a deadline—or knowing I’ve just missed it—changes my life. I exercise and cook less, I forgo social events, and worst of all, I SIT for hours. My back is often stiff and there’s a permanent dull pain in my unexercised hamstrings. The dogs are becoming too accustomed to having me home, staring at my laptop either at the dining room table, at my desk on the sleeping porch or my study, or on the living room couch. Daisy, pictured above, thinks nothing of walking across the keyboard to make the point that I should pay attention to something else (her).

Deadline is a concept I first met when I was a newspaper journalist. During those years I wrote articles that were conceptualized, researched and written by me and edited by someone else in the same eight-hour time span. The story would be printed in the next day’s paper. It seemed like plenty of pressure, but in hindsight, a 600-word story is not that hard to pull off. Getting the facts straight was the most important part of the journalism process, whereas fiction writing, it is not just facts but expository language, dialogue, and a sense of heart.

People sometimes ask what happens if a writer doesn’t meet a deadline. Will you lose the chance to have your book published? The answer typically is no. The book will still come out, but it’s likely it will shift to another month to allow time for editing, marketing and printing. If a book is late and the pub month can’t be adjusted,  it will be a major challenge for the book’s publicity arm to get clean galleys out to critics and the publisher’s sales force. That said, back in the 1990s I was with another publisher that suddenly axed a lot of writers with late books, actually demanding they repay their advances. Chief among them were authors who had signed contracts with due dates years earlier that were not met. It seems that turning books in late is a very common thing.

Deadlines are a necessity to keep books coming to the shelves. But serious editors and writers  agree that the quality of the book is the most important factor. A truly exceptional book coming in late is welcomed because it really is that good. However, a bad book arriving on the dot, driven there for fear of being late, hurts everyone involved its publication.

And the reader, too!