Friday, May 30, 2014

Book Promotion and a Recipe

When I have a new book out, I’m excited to hold it in my hand. My newest book, For the Love of Parvati, is no exception. I stare at the gorgeous cover (and my publisher does beautiful covers for my series), and then I start worrying about promotion. This is a big job, and I do the usual—guest posts on blogs, library events, bookstore signings, online promotion. But this year, for my new book, I wanted to do something different. I decided to do simple giveaways, and I settled on recipe cards. But I got a surprise when I started looking for mentions of food in the earlier Anita Ray books.

Have you ever reread something you wrote and been surprised by what you found there? I have. I reread Under the Eye of Kali, the first Anita Ray mystery, to find any foods I’d mentioned, so I could pick one for a recipe. I mentioned meals on eighteen pages, and not just one meal. Some of the references read like a menu from an Indian restaurant. I had no idea I was so into food. Or rather, that Anita was so into food. That character seems to have done nothing but eat.

When we lived in India, our maidservant, Lakshmee, made very traditional meals. She never used a cookbook, borrowed recipes for new dishes from friends, and tried to make anything different that I asked for. When I asked her for recipes, she described what she was doing, and I wrote it down. My notes are laughable. Here is one example of Lakshmee’s instructions.

Coconut Chutney: Coconut, chili, salt, onion, and grind. Raisins and a little ginger.

Whenever I asked her how much of this or that ingredient, she held up her hands and positioned her fingers and said, This much. But she did make wonderful coconut chutney.

Here’s the recipe for Kiccari.

Boil cut cucumber. Grind coconut. Add ciraka and little garlic (cumin and garlic) and grind. Boil with cucumber. Mix.

Lakshmee spoke very little English and had trouble remembering the difference between sauté and boil. She sometimes couldn’t spell, and used alternate spellings for spices (ciiraka and jiiraka for cumin).

Despite all these setbacks I’ve come up with three recipes so far that I hope to put on postcards to give away to people at events. I will probably use bookmarks with book covers also, but the recipes are more fun to work with. Look for recipes for Curried Potatoes, Curried Chicken, and Cabbage Thoren.

And if you can’t wait to find postcards at a signing, here’s my version of Lakshmee’s recipe for Curried Potatoes. And it comes with many thanks to David Scott Allen, who knows far more about cooking than I do, and helped me work out the recipe.

Curried Potatoes

1 Tbsp oil
1 Tbsp black mustard seeds
1 tsp ground coriander
½ tsp ground cumin
½ tsp ground turmeric
½ tsp ground cardamom
1 Tbsp butter
1 inch fresh ginger, finely chopped
1 onion, diced
3 large Yukon gold potatoes, cut in half and boiled until almost soft
½ cup water

Heat oil and cook mustard seeds. When they pop, immediately add spices and cook for 3 to 5 minutes. Push to the side of skillet (do not remove). Melt the butter and sauté chopped ginger and onion. When the onion is translucent and ready to brown, mix with spices and continue to sauté. Cut par-cooked potatoes into small chunks and add them to the skillet; mix well. Add ½ cup water and continue to cook, simmering until most of the water is reduced.

Serves 4 as a side dish.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

The Writer's Day: Orphan Works

Over the last few months I’ve been writing a lot of guest blogs to promote my new book, writing about India, photography, food, plotting, and other aspects of my series. I have completed or signed up for 20 posts and have several more to do. I think every post has to be different, and so far each one is. I love the story behind this book, the story in it, and writing it. I always seem to find something new to say about it, but in this post I'm doing something different.

On my own blog I write all sorts of things, including about a toaster that died and the gifts a dear friend left behind after her death. Sometimes I rack my brain to come up with something, and sometimes I come up with nothing. Last night, I listened to five writers talk about blogging and how they use it, their expectations and surprises. The results for all of them have been a surprise, edifying and fun and often unexpected. The program was presented by the Gloucester Writers Center and held at the Rocky Neck Art Colony Center.

So, today, I’m adding in a little of what I as a writer do every day. The first thing on my desk this morning is to report on the effort in Congress to consider legislation governing so-called orphan works of art and literature. This legislation would allow a publisher, journal, or anyone else to take over a book, for example, and reprint it for their own financial benefit if they deem the book to be an “orphan.” What is an “orphan” book? This is a book whose author, or copyright holder, cannot be located.

Library of Congress, Washington, DC
Every writer who reads this should be fully alert by now. Just how does someone decide the copyright holder cannot be located? Who decides if sufficient effort has been made? If due diligence has been conducted? Therein lies the problem. We have already faced this challenge in one form, and the Authors Guild and other writers’ groups, including the National Writers Union, beat back efforts to claim “orphan” works for another project. Now the discussion is back.

Today is the last day for comments to the Library of Congress on this topic. If you want to offer your opinion, you can do so online. You are asked to complete a form and attach your comments. The comments must be received by 5:00 pm today.

To learn more about why this matters, go to and scroll down to the center of the page.

It is common to say that writers write. Indeed we do. But we also attend programs to learn more, lobby for or against legislation that affects us, send off books for charity events, teach classes, and read to the dog if no one else is around to listen to our current WIP.

Monday, May 12, 2014

India Then and Now

This post originally appeared at Murder Is Everywhere ( on May 4, 2014.

If I say India and visitor, almost everyone who hears me will think Taj Mahal, Varanasi and the Ganges, or Calcutta and Mother Theresa. But North India is not India, at least not all of it. There is also South India, a different culture, different group of languages, and different traditions. The state of Kerala is located on the west coast, almost at the bottom tip of South India. First and foremost, Kerala used to be a matrilineal culture, and still is in some ways. That was enough to get me interested.

In 1976, while everyone in the States was celebrating our bicentennial, I was immersed in an ancient culture. I was a graduate student studying Sanskrit and picking up Malayalam, the local language, for fun. In a city of almost one million people, with a few Brits and other Europeans, my husband and I were the only Americans living there. We had no telephone, no television, no car. We waited for the mail to find out how the Red Sox were doing, and we were the last to know that Carter had beaten Ford.

I arrived at Trivandrum airport in the early afternoon in late January. The airport building was two rooms, arrivals and departures, with a cluster of small offices between. You could walk in from the tarmac and look through to the unpaved parking lot outside, where taxi drivers slept in the back of their cars and goats claimed the one lane road beyond, unless a bus came along. I felt like I’d stepped into a Graham Greene novel. The city now has a very modern airport that rivals anything in the US for size and landings.

In a couple of weeks I’d rented a house, hired a maidservant, and settled in to learn as much as I could in a year. Our maidservant, Lakshmee, loved having a foreigner for an employer, and from her I learned enough Malayalam to ask questions and hold rudimentary conversations with non-English speakers. I visited temples, chatted with the women who sold fish and fruit, and took the bus to get to know the city.

Friends invited us to their homes, often to participate in various rituals and festivals. Lakshmee had a separate shrine, about the size of a tool shed, where she sometimes performed pujas, or worship rituals, for friends and neighbors. As a follower of Shiva, the shrine included a trident and other articles associated with him.
One of my favorite festivals was the Sarasvati Puja, held in September-October, when devotees offered their books and study materials to the goddess as a way of invoking her blessing and support before beginning an important project.

 Trivandrum is located on the west coast, on an endless strip of white sandy beaches mostly unsafe for swimming. The beaches today are packed with tourists, hotels rise up on the edge of the sand, and nights are spent wandering from one restaurant to another. But in the 1970s the beaches still belonged to the fishermen, and the few tourists who wandered through couldn’t have afforded a hotel room anyway. 

 The story of the fishermen is the same the world round—the work is hard and the catch is diminishing. The Catholic fishermen fish at night, in large groups, with lights. So many boats line the horizon that it looks like another city across a bay. They bring up the fish and load them onto their small boats, and return as a group in early morning. Other men broker the sales. The women take a share and head into the city to sell.

The Muslim fishermen fish during the day, in larger boats with larger crews, and pull their nets onto the beach. In the 1970s one net brought in dozens of fish, but in recent years, the catch has been so small I wonder why they even bother to go out. Today, the fishermen share the beaches with the tourist population, and their numbers dwindle. 

The city of Trivandrum has growing pains. Trivandrum, or Thiruvanantapuram in its traditional form, was once the capital of a princely kingdom. Travancore was never ruled by the British, and had a very advanced ruler in the form of the maharajah who took the throne in 1924 as a boy. The open-front shops that lined the hills from Chalai Bazaar up to the Secretariat are still there but just as likely to be stuck between two air-conditioned and glass-fronted high-rises selling men’s clothing or electronic goods.

 The waterways still run through the city, along with the railway and buses, and enough traffic to clog New York and Chicago for days.

But for all its modernization, life still revolves around festivals and celebrations. The Pongala festival is considered the largest gathering of women in the world. Each year well over three million women come to Trivandrum for the ninth day of the festival, when women line the streets with clay pots cooking a kind of porridge that is blessed by the goddess of the Attukal Bhagavati Temple in Trivandrum, promising harmony and well-being in the home for the coming year. For one morning, the city is one long row of millions of women tending bubbling pots on open fires, lining all the main thoroughfares and many smaller side streets.

 In contrast with the small pujas in private or temple courtyards are those at the larger temples. At the center of Trivandrum is the Shree Padmanabhaswami Temple, owned by the royal family and the center of many celebrations. The Laksha Deepika Festival is held every six years, when the temple is illuminated inside and out by a thousand lights and special pujas are held. 

 Despite all the changes in the city, from a backwater state capital in a largely rural area to a city rivaling Bangalore with its high-tech services, Trivandrum along with its environs retains its heart-stopping beauty.