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I write multicultural fiction inspired by the places I have visited around the world.
As a student in Leipzig, East Germany, I sampled Hungarian wine at the Auerbachs Keller, the underground restaurant where Johann Wolfgang von Goethe set scenes from his tragic play, Faust. While living in Switzerland, I biked around my family’s Bürgerort (ancestral village), explored the Jura Mountains near Neuchậtel, and never passed up an opportunity to sample Swiss fondue. These days, I regularly travel to Iran, where I have pondered the ancient past amid the ruins of Persepolis, baked translucent bread with Kurdish women in the Zagros Mountains, dipped my toes into the azure waters of the Caspian Sea, and observed the dichotomy of a publicly religious yet privately modern culture. My work has appeared in World Literature Today, Nautilus Magazine, and several anthologies and has been translated into five languages.
What brought you to writing? When I was in college, I studied languages and world literature and wrote stories on the side. When graduation approached, and it became time to put some thought into a career, I decided to combine my two loves, language and writing, and become a translator. I had a vision of translating works by my favorite German novelists. But the reality is that we all have to make a living and, as any writer will tell you, literature doesn’t pay the bills. Not even literary translation. So I became a patent translator and continued to write stories on the side.
Do you write in more than one genre? I write short stories and novels, but the short form is my favorite. I’ve written murder mysteries, capers, thrillers, and political satire. More recently, I’ve begun to write literary fiction as well.
What kind of research do you do? My stories usually begin with a place. I never leave the house without a small Moleskin notebook in my pocket. Perhaps some detail or snippet of conversation will come my way, and I whip out that notebook to jot it down. I’ve written entire travelogues in my little notebook while on extended trips to faraway locations.
Research always gives me a good reason to travel. When writing my short story, “Trading Places,” which was published in the online magazine, Nautilus, I went back to Leipzig for the first time in thirty years to check out locations for my setting. Set in the city’s socialist past, the story is about a graffiti artist who paints satirical political slogans all over town in an attempt to inspire a workers’ uprising, similar to the Polish Solidarity movement. I discovered that the city had changed a lot since my student days, so I enlisted the help of a local friend to scout out places that still held the old socialist atmosphere. And I filled my Moleskin with personal stories I learned from the people I met along the way.
Where do you place your settings—real or fictional locations? I use both real and fictional places. In Trading Places, I set the story in real-life Leipzig, but some streets and businesses no longer exist or have been renamed since German reunification. I am currently working on a novel that takes place partly in New England and partly in Iran. The early chapters are set in a fictional town in Vermont because I wanted the flexibility to alter the setting to fit the needs of the story. The Iranian portion of the story unfolds in two real places (Tehran and Shiraz) and one fictional village on the Caspian Sea. I chose the real places for authenticity, but again I wanted more flexibility for the Caspian Sea setting, so I made up a town. However, it’s based on a real village situated on the shore of the inland sea. I simply added a few features that don’t exist in the real place and changed the name.
The photo is of an Iranian fish market near the Caspian Sea.
How do you come up with character names? I collect names all the time. I keep lists of them on my computer, and when I come across an interesting one, either through my reading or in real life, I jot it down and add it to my list. Websites of baby names are a great resource, especially for foreign names. Often they list the meaning of the name as well. This can be fun when picking Iranian names, which sometimes refer to mundane objects or abstract concepts: Mozhgan (eyelashes) or Arezou (wish). I named one hot-tempered character Atesh (fire) and gave the name Noor (light) to another, who helped the protagonist find what she was seeking.
Has an association membership helped you in your writing? I’ve been a member of Sisters in Crime for many years, and it is likely the reason I am published at all. It is a wonderful group for both support and learning craft. Also, I always run my work past several beta readers, both in a critique group that meets twice a month (on Zoom at the moment) and others with whom I exchange completed manuscripts by email. Many of these readers are people I met through Sisters in Crime.
The former Stasi headquarters in Leipzig, Germany, now a museum.
How can our readers contact you?
My Cold War short story can be read here: https://nautil.us/issue/6/secret-codes/trading-places
KIRKUS REVIEW: An authentic and tense portrait of everyday people dealing with war.
V. Z. Byram was born in a displaced persons camp in post World War II Germany of Latvian parents. They immigrated to the USA when she was three. She received her MFA in Creative Writing from Goddard College, has won numerous writing awards, and taught literature and writing as an adjunct professor. She is a past president of the Philadelphia Writers Conference and currently sits on the board of Gulf Coast Writers Association in Fort Myers, Florida.
WRITER’S DIGEST JUDGE’S COMMENTARY: This was a powerful and beautifully written epic novel with historical significance. After reading to the end, I had to sit for a little while to digest it all, wiping away the tears. This novel is a moving tale of struggle and loss in a terrifying and often seemingly hopeless situation. I love the heroine, Mija, who is a testimony to the strength and power of women. She inspires us all with her determination to help others as well as her own family, risking her own safety in the process. As a parent, I can’t imagine what it’s like to try and protect your children in a war-torn, occupied country with such callous, ruthless enemies, first the Russians then German forces. The author succeeded in pulling us completely into the story, as I was worried about the kids throughout. I also loved the horse, Big Z, who became a character in his own right. Some of the scenes are superbly written, for example when Laima gives birth – I was transported to that room in 1940s Latvia. The pacing was fast and tense and kept me turning the pages. I also loved the setting, it was very interesting to learn about Latvia – it encouraged me to do further research. I like the cover and the author has written one of the best one-liners I’ve read in a while: “with her husband’s name on a hit list, the fight got personal.”
What brought you to writing? In July 1990, I stepped off a plane in Riga, Latvia for my first visit to my home country. Latvia had been under communism since the end of WWII. My first impression was that I walked into a time warp. Almost everything was just as it was at the end of World War II. The rubble was still there. Nothing had been rebuilt. The same trolleys and trains ran. Store shelves were bare. The few restaurants in existence did not have a menu. You either ate the meal they offered that day, or you didn’t eat there. I stayed with relatives and learned what my life would have been like if I had grown up there. I am very grateful that I grew up in the USA.
I had no idea I would go on to write a novel about Latvia during World War II. I was a computer programmer then. But between the stories I heard growing up in the USA and what I saw in 1990, an idea was born that wouldn’t go away and led to my writing Song of Latvia. I also went back to school for my MFA in Creative Writing and am now a full-time writer.
In 1991, Latvia regained its freedom. I go back to visit every couple of years. Every time I go, Latvia looks more and more like any other European country. Everything has been rebuilt. Before WWII, British writer Graham Greene dubbed Riga the “Paris of the North”. Travel writers are calling it that again and with good reason.
Do you write in more than one genre? Yes. I started writing historical fiction, which culminated in my debut novel. I also write poetry because sometimes I get an idea or thought that can only be expressed in a poem. I never thought about Memoir but like my novel, Memoir came to me. My younger daughter was diagnosed with breast cancer. After a fierce three-year battle, she passed away in July 2019. About six months later, I was so filled with grief that I thought I would explode. In an effort to lessen the pain, I started writing. First came a prose poem about her death. Then I started writing stories about her life, about when she first told me, about my experiences helping to care for my grandchildren who had asked me questions like, “Is my mom going to die?” Then I started writing about my own life as an exiled Latvian. A new idea was born. My daughter Tara loved Latvia as much as I did. We took a number of trips there together. Our last trip was the summer of 2018, a family trip with Tara, my husband (her Dad), her husband and their two teenaged children. I am now writing a Memoir which holds the intertwined stories of Tara’s battle with cancer and my own life as an exiled Latvian.
Do you base any of your characters on real people? The main characters in Song of Latvia are based on the personalities of people in my family and many of the things that happen to them happened in real life. However, I didn’t want to tell the story of one family. I wanted to tell the story of the whole country, so all of the minor characters are based on research I did about what happened to other people. Although many events are based on things that really happened, the writing is my own version of events and my book is truly a novel.
Do you outline or are you a pantser? I am both. I start with a rough outline that changes as I write. I know the beginning and the end. I have some vague ideas about what will happen in the middle. However, in the writing, my characters lead me in directions I don’t expect. For instance, I didn’t expect that my two main characters in Song of Latvia, Aleks and Mija, would wind up having their own chapters. I started with Mija as the main protagonist. And then one day I wrote a chapter in Aleks’ point of view. He refused to have just one chapter. I went back and gave him a voice in all the appropriate places.
What kind of research do you do? For Song of Latvia, much of my research involved traveling to Latvia and visiting the places I wrote about, interviewing relatives and other people, and visiting archives in Riga to look up records. I also did historical war research online and read period books written by Latvians and others. I did the research as needed, relative to where I was in the writing. When I got to the end of the novel and realized Mija would have to go to a particular town, I took a trip to Latvia just to visit that town for a few days. I walked the streets and talked to various people who lived there.
Looking in the future, what’s in store for you? After I completed Song of Latvia, I started writing a post WWII spy thriller based on the personality of my father, titled The Reluctant Spy. It starts in Germany (where I was born), moves to Brazil, and finishes in the USA. I am still working on it while I also work on the Memoir. I’m not sure which one will be finished first, but I know they will both come in their own time.
Order book: https://www.amazon.com/V.-Z.-Byram/e/B081LFL3NC
How do readers contact you? https://vzbyram.com
Sabrina Flynn is the author of Ravenwood Mysteries, set in Victorian San Francisco.
When she’s not exploring the seedy alleyways of the Barbary Coast, she dabbles in fantasy and steampunk. She has a habit of throwing herself into wild oceans and gator-infested lakes.
Her new historical mystery, Beyond the Pale, is the eighth book in the Ravenwood Mystery series. An innocent accused. An infamous hotel. And a murder everyone wants to hide.
While recovering from a brutal beating, Atticus Riot is arrested for the murder of his ex-agent—the same agent who left Riot for dead. His wife and partner, Isobel Amsel, watches helplessly as he’s taken to San Francisco’s notorious ‘sweat box’ for interrogation by an inspector with a grudge.
Desperate to save her husband, Isobel seeks out the one ally they have—only he’s in the infamous Hotel Nymphia, neck-deep in a murder investigation with a ghastly corpse and over three hundred suspects. In exchange for the inspector’s aid, Isobel agrees to work as a consulting detective on his case.
Now Isobel needs to prove Riot’s innocence while tracking down a killer no one wants to be caught. The diverging trails lead to an old friend, a tangled web of secret lives, and one all-consuming question: where’s the line between justice and murder?
Do you write in more than one genre? I feel comfortable writing in all genres. I’m currently published in historical mystery, epic fantasy, Gaslamp fantasy, and have a WW1 thriller I’m editing along with a planned contemporary mystery series. It’s always hard for me to pin a genre on the novels I write. Ravenwood Mysteries is a mix of mystery, history, romance, action and adventure, wild west, Victorian, and noir.
Tell us about your writing process: I just tell myself a story. I’ll start at a point or with a vague idea, and that’s pretty much it. My writing process is a lot like hiking to a distant mountain. I know the starting point; I know where I want to end up, but I have no clue what lies between those two points. And sometimes, the twists and turns and obstacles along the way take me to an entirely different mountain. But that’s all right. It’s the journey that’s exciting.
*Note from George: I love Sabrina’s example of hiking from a point to a distant mountain and all the obstacles one faces.
We hear of strong-willed characters. Do yours behave, or do they run the show? I’m an organic writer. So my characters definitely run the show. I don’t know what they’re going to say until I type it, then end up laughing at whatever joke they cracked. There have been numerous times when I want them to do one thing, and they just won’t do it. For example, in the first book, Atticus Riot showed up with a gentleman’s walking stick. I didn’t know why he had a walking stick. I tried to make him limp, but he wouldn’t limp. So I tried to take it away from him, and that didn’t work either. I said, ‘Fine, keep the stick!’ And it wasn’t until halfway through the book that I was like… ‘Oooh, that’s why you have the stick.’ Then in book three, I discovered the stick had sentimental value, so I’ve learned to just go along with the unexpected.
What’s the most challenging thing about writing characters from the opposite sex? I grew up with four brothers, so I actually find writing feminine women difficult. It’s hard for me to connect and understand women (or men) who are stylishly dressed, are worried about breaking a nail, or getting sweaty because it will mess up their hair. I’m not big on talking about feelings in my prose either. I’d rather show it than tell it. So I think that’s something my readers notice pretty quickly with my writing. Several readers have compared Ravenwood Mysteries to some classic noir authors like Raymond Chandler.
Do you ever kill a popular character? If so, what happens to your story? Death is the end of a story. It’s a common everyday occurrence where life goes on for the living. So it’s not something that’s thrilling to me or even shocking in a book. It’s just… death. It’s much more interesting to me as a reader (and writer) to read about people who survive against all odds. Writing characters who live and thrive despite difficult circumstances is the hard part. Death is easy to write.
In my epic fantasy series, I came to a place where the hero could have died this epic death that would’ve been perfect for him, but I found keeping him alive left more of an impact.
Do you have subplots? If so, how do you weave them into the novel’s arc? Oooh, do I ever. I come from an epic fantasy background, so I naturally write overarching storylines into my mystery series. I plant seeds throughout my books for future books in the series. For example, the first sentence in the first chapter of the first book (From the Ashes) isn’t explained until book four of Ravenwood Mysteries. I did the same with another subplot that’s been woven throughout the series, and that will finally be addressed in book nine. I usually have multiple storylines and mysteries going at once, which keeps things interesting.
What kind of research do you do? Lots of reading. And not just from one source. Newspaper archives are great, but they can be slanted one way or the other, so I look for other sources as close to 1900 as I can find. It’s a great way to pick up the actual language of the time and not fictionalized vocabulary and slang.
I’m also very hands on whenever possible. When I lived across from San Francisco, I tried to visit whatever place I was writing about. But so much of San Francisco was destroyed in the 1906 fire that most places have changed locations or were destroyed. Isobel, one of my protagonists, is big on sailing, so I took a sailing class in the bay to get a better feel of it. And when my protagonist was learning lock-picking, I bought a set of lock picks to practice with.
But I think my most drastic bit of research was when I tossed a protagonist overboard into San Francisco Bay, and a beta-reader claimed she would’ve drowned, been eaten by a shark, or died of hypothermia. So I jumped off a ferry at Alcatraz and swam to Aquatic Park in San Francisco sans wetsuit. She didn’t argue with me anymore.
Looking to the future, what’s in store for you? Hopefully, lots of ocean swimming, trail running, and writing!
Where can we find you and your latest work, Beyond The Pale: http://www.sabrinaflynn.com
My books are on all the major online retailers. Here are some links.
Bookbub profile: https://www.bookbub.com/authors/sabrina-flynn
Apple books: https://books.apple.com/us/author/sabrina-flynn/id747418916