Josephine (Jo) Mele is a world traveler, tour guide, magazine editor, and life-long mystery reader. Author of: The Odd Grandmothers, a memoir of three generations of her Italian immigrant family, and The Travel Mystery Series: Bullets in Bolivia, Homicide in Havana. Mystery in Monte Carlo, Bandits in Brussels, Death on the Danube, Corpse in the Castle, Sicilian Sanctuary, and she is about to release Incident in India. Jo lives in Contra Costa County and is a member of Sisters in Crime and the California Writers Club.
Mark Twain is credited with saying, “Write what you know.” I’ve been fortunate enough to travel around the world with my job as a tour director, and I am an avid mystery reader. I decided to blend the two. The teacher in me feels the need to share what I’ve learned about the culture, history, and people of places I’ve traveled to. I love to cook and eat, so food plays an important part in each book, to the dismay of my critique group, who often call for a lunch break after I read.
In my cozy mysteries, I spotlight a current event or problem the locals face. In Bullets in Bolivia, large corporations were taking control of the water; human trafficking was the theme in Sicilian Sanctuary.
June Gordon, my protagonist, has one job; to come back with the same number of people she left with. Fate often has other plans, and June finds herself tripping over bodies, rescuing victims, helping the police, or fighting off the bad guy. She’s known at police stations and emergency rooms around the world. I never know what June will get us into, and after eight books, I’m getting a little afraid of traveling with her. Today, she has me in India, saving a young girl from an honor killing. Yes, I’m a pantser.
I recently spoke at a book reading. At the Q&A session, a precocious ten-year-old asked how long I’d been writing and why I chose to self-publish. I told her I’d been drafting short stories about my extended family for a long time, and my writing teacher and friend Camille Minichino suggested I put the stories together in a memoir. I wrote The Odd Grandmothers and decided to publish it on Amazon in 2019. I wanted to get my books out quickly and not wait years for an agent to sell my book to a publisher. I didn’t want the honor of being the oldest person to publish my first book. Self-publishing is the route I chose.
My relatives loved the memoir and said they’d learned things about our family history they never knew.
My sister said, “I remember some of this much differently.”
Thanks for taking the time to read about my adventure into writing. If you have any questions or comments, you can reach me at email@example.com. My books are available at Amazon or at Reasonable Books in Lafayette, CA.
Damyanti’s short fiction has been published at Smokelong, Ambit, Litro, Puerto del Sol, and she helps edit The Forge literary magazine. Her Amazon-bestselling crime novel, You Beneath Your Skin, was optioned for screen. Her next crime novel, The Blue Bar, was published by Thomas & Mercer and was one of 2023’s Most Anticipated Mysteries & Thrillers on Goodreads. She’s an active member of Sisters in Crime and a member and volunteer at Crime Writers of Color.
THE BLUE BAR – In gritty, glam Mumbai, a dynamic police officer and a bar girl in love are unaware that a serial predator is watching them both.
Where do you write? What, if any, distractions do you allow? – I’m not very fussy about where I write, but it turns out I write little at my desk. I can get words out at the library, at a food court, and on a park bench, but at home, it is mostly the sofa or the bed. At food courts and parks, I see a lot of color and movement, which helps me focus. I block out the sound with white noise on my headphones.
What is the most challenging part of your writing process? I’d say the copy-edits. By this time, I’m so familiar with the manuscript and have changed it so many times that it’s impossible to see it with any clarity, and they come to me with tight deadlines from my publisher. I need a lot of help to see what’s going wrong at the language level with the text.
Do you have subplots? If so, how do you weave them into the novel’s arc? I definitely write subplots. In my crime novels, romance is often a subplot employed To provide an echo or a contrast to the theme that the protagonists illustrate with their lives.
Sometimes, they bring in a bit of relief from what can be some very dark and gruesome main storylines.
It can also heighten the conflict and tension in the dominant story: a romance subplot between the protagonists of a crime novel definitely heightens the stakes. It’s not about a victim and a rescuer anymore: it is about two people who love each other, and the reader feels more deeply invested in their fates.
How do you raise the stakes for your protagonist—for the antagonist? A powerful antagonist would often help raise stakes for the protagonist and vice versa. If the protagonist and antagonist are evenly matched, they can truly challenge each other, and the outcome of their conflict is in doubt till the end, keeping the reader turning the pages.
Time running out—like ticking clock, as well as inclement weather, can raise stakes. If the protagonist or antagonist’s family or love lives are involved, the stakes of a violent event will soar. When the beef is personal, reader engagement rises.
Do you outline, or are you a pantser? I began my writing life as a literary short story writer, so I thought I could be a pantser all my life. While writing crime novels, though, I realized I needed at least a cursory outline in order to work faster. These days I must write outlines because I need to flesh out the books I’m planning for my agent and editor. I veer off the story in the telling, so in a way, that’s pantsing, but I’m a pantser with an outline.
What is the best book you have ever read? The best book is always the last favorite book I read, but the one I keep going back to at times of personal turmoil is Old Man and the Sea, where an old man battles over days and miles with a fish bigger than his boat.
He wins, but sharks feed on the fish on the way to the shore, and he tows back an enormous skeleton.
It brings back to me the beauty of human endurance and the triumph and futility of all effort— a healthy reminder that nothing lasts. The biggest wins mean nothing against the sharks of mortality, and that’s part of life. We need to find our meaning elsewhere.
What are you currently working on? I’m finishing up the edits of THE BLUE MONSOON, the second in the Blue Mumbai Series contracted with Thomas & Mercer, and this crime novel is about religion, caste, and castration in the background of a hair factory in Mumbai.
It’s the sequel to THE BLUE BAR, which was published on January 1 this year, and was a number 1 International Release on Amazon.
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Vaseem Khan is the author of two award-winning crime series set in India. His debut, The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra, was a bestseller, translated into 16 languages, and a Sunday Times 40 best crime novels published 2015-2020 pick; the series won a Shamus Award in the US. In 2021, Midnight at Malabar House, the first in the Malabar House novels set in 1950s Bombay, won the Crime Writers Association Historical Dagger, and in 2022 it was shortlisted for the prestigious Theakston’s Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year award. MW Craven, CWA Gold Dagger winner.
ELEVATOR PITCH – THE DYING DAY by Vaseem Khan. Bombay, 1950. A 600-year-old copy of Dante’s The Divine Comedy vanishes, leaving behind a series of complex riddles and bodies. ‘The Da Vinci Code meets post-Independence India.
Do you have any advice for new writers? I wrote and submitted my first novel aged 17! It was awful. I spent the next 23 years and seven novels trying to get published before landing a four-book deal for my Baby Ganesh Agency series. Perseverance is important. But more crucially, it’s important to recognise that quality will out – it takes time and effort to bring your writing to the standard that agents and publishers consider publishable. On my website www.vaseemkhan.com you’ll find a blog piece entitled “Is this is a Dagger I see before me – lessons from 30 years of writing”. It might be useful.
What was your debut novel? And what happened next? My debut, The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra, was written after I went to work in India for ten years. It became a Times bestseller after I launched it on the BBC Breakfast sofa to an audience of several million! I then found myself having to write a novel a year. That has meant strict discipline. Luckily, I’m a deadline masochist!
Tell us about your writing process: Wake up. Drown in a few moments of existential angst. Remember that there are still books and cricket in the world, so it can’t be all meaningless. Write for about three hours until my brain stops working. Potter around for the rest of the day, avoiding any DIY assignments my wife would like me to tackle.
What is the most challenging part of your writing process? I’m a detailed plotter – that takes months to get right. My current historical series is compared to Agatha Christie in style – so much so that this year I’m speaking at the International Agatha Christie Festival. The books include complex clues and, sometimes, codes and cyphers, as well as a wealth of historical detail about the period when India became independent after 200 years of British rule. Balancing all these elements is a challenge!
What do you feel are your biggest writing achievements? Getting published after two decades of trying! Followed by winning a Crime Writers Association Historical Dagger, the world’s premier prize for historical crime fiction – for Midnight at Malabar House. In the book, we meet my protagonist, Persis Wadia, newly qualified as India’s first female police Inspector at a time when India is still an intensely patriarchal society. No one knows what to do with her, so they stick her in Bombay’s smallest police station – Malabar House – where all the rejects and undesirables are sent. And then a sensational murder – of an English diplomat – falls into her lap… and she’s off! In fiction, we love pioneers. There’s something mythic about a protagonist challenging the status quo. Persis, as a woman in a male dominated environment, is forced to prove, time and again, that she belongs. As a man, it wasn’t easy to write such a character!
Why do you write about India? I was born and grew up in England but lived in India for a decade in my twenties. It was an intense culture shock. In The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra, there is a chapter that takes place in a slum in Mumbai. I visited that slum while living in India, and it was eye-opening to observe poverty on a scale we simply can’t imagine in the West. At the same time, it was life-affirming to see the locals just getting on with things – especially the ever-grinning kids!
How do you come up with character names? A great character name is euphonious, meaning it is pleasing to the ear because it fits the character completely and makes them more real. I trawl through hundreds of online name lists to get just the right name.
We hear of strong-willed characters. Do yours behave or run wild? The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra, introduced a middle-aged Mumbai policeman who must solve the murder of a poor local boy – whilst dealing with the odd dilemma of inheriting a baby elephant. What do you do when you live on the fifteenth floor of a tower block, and someone sends you an elephant? Read the book to find out! That elephant has become incredibly popular with readers around the world, so much so that I continue to get email about him. To be clear: he doesn’t talk or fly or solve the mysteries. The elephant is merely a symbol for India and allows me to showcase a different side of Chopra’s personality – he’s a very rigid and honest man. He has to gradually come to terms with the idea that he is responsible for this animal’s welfare.
What’s the most challenging thing about writing characters from the opposite sex? I wrote a female lead for the Malabar House series because I wanted to say something about the patriarchal, sometimes misogynistic society that was India in the 1950s. Persis is ambitious, so much so that she is sometimes quite ruthless in her desire to prove herself. And why shouldn’t she be? We allow male mavericks in crime fiction, so why not a female?
Do you have subplots? If so, how do you weave them into the novel’s arc? Always! For instance, inThe Dying Day, the second book in the Malabar House series, we see twin plots. A 600-year-old copy of Dante’s The Divine Comedy vanishes from Bombay’s Asiatic Society, and the case lands on Inspector Persis Wadia’s desk. Uncovering a series of complex riddles written in verse, Persis – together with English forensic scientist Archie Blackfinch – is soon on the trail. But then they discover the first body.In a subplot, Persis must also investigate the murder of a beautiful white woman whose body is found on train tracks. Could the two cases be related? The trick is to plan in advance exactly how your subplots fit together. If they don’t hang together at all, I think it can sometimes lead to readers feeling cheated! .. Oh, and to date, only one person – an Australian reader – has claimed to have solved all the riddles in The Dying Day. The challenge is made!
Do you base any of your characters on real people? A lot! Early on in Midnight at Malabar House, Persis finds herself working with Archie Blackfinch, an English forensic scientist based in Bombay. They get off to a rocky start, but we know this is going to be one of those will-they-wont-they situations. And this presents a challenge for Persis. Because, of course, this is India just after Independence. The idea of an Indian woman in a relationship with a white Englishman… They’re both socially awkward people – but whereas Archie is one of those Englishmen who’d rather hack their own arm off than speak out of turn, Persis’s determination to succeed sometimes means that she’s a bit ruthless, such as when she almost shoots Archie’s ear off. I guess you could say there’s a lot of me in Archie. (Though my wife hasn’t shot my ear off. Yet.)
Looking to the future, what’s in store for you? I’m getting ready to promote THE LOST MAN OF BOMBAY, the third book in my Malabar House series, out in August in the UK and Kindle in US on August 18, 2022, hardcover on November 22, 2022, in the US. Frankly, I’d buy it just for the amazing cobra on the cover! It’s set in 1950 in Bombay, India. In this one, a white man is found frozen to death in a cave in the Himalayan foothills. His face is crushed, making his identity a complete mystery. When the case lands on Persis’ desk, she discovers a notebook on the body holding a series of cryptic clues. As Persis and Archie Blackfinch chase down the clues, more murders occur in Bombay of Europeans. Could there be a serial killer loose in the city? Pre-orders really help, so don’t be shy!
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Harini Nagendra is a Professor of Sustainability at Azim Premji University, Bangalore, India, and has written several non-fiction books, including the award-winning Cities and Canopies: Trees in Indian Cities. The Bangalore Detectives Club, the first book in the Detective Kaveri mysteries, is her first novel. She lives in Bangalore with her family.
The Bangalore Detectives Club is the first in a charming, joyful, cozy crime series set in 1920s Bangalore, featuring sari-wearing detective Kaveri and her husband, Ramu. Solving crimes isn’t easy. Add a new marriage and a jealous mother-in-law into the mix, and you’ve got a problem. But Kaveri finds nothing is too difficult – not when you have a talent for math, a head for logic, and a doctor for a husband.
Do you write in more than one genre? Yes, I have written several popular non-fiction books on nature and the environment – part of my day job as an ecologist and university professor. I also write a regular monthly Sunday newspaper column. Writing non-fiction is a very different process – I write tight, to a specified word count, and need to make every word count. I need to switch off my non-fiction voice very firmly in order to write fiction, or else I can never get going!
What brought you to writing? From when I can remember, I’ve always written – at first, short stories for school newsletters, then a small ‘book’ for my father when he was living in a different city for a while. Writing is a huge stress-buster for me and one of the things I love doing the most.
Where do you write? What, if any, distractions do you allow? I write anywhere and everywhere, but my favourite writing spot is on an old couch in my bedroom. I drink copious amounts of tea as I write – Indian masala tea, or chai, with milk and many spoons of sugar. When I’m especially stuck, I ask Alexa to play old Indian movie songs – period music, for inspiration.
Has an association membership helped you or your writing? Sisters in Crime, and Mystery Writers of America, have been of huge help. I’m beginning a career in fiction writing late in life – my first book will be published in the same month I turn fifty. I’m also based in India, thousands of miles from where my books are being published in the US and UK. Thanks to SinC and MWA, I have met so many incredibly supportive authors, attended virtual happy hours, and made some good friends – and lucked out on blog opportunities such as this one!
How long did it take you to write your first book? The Bangalore Detectives Club is my first fiction book. I wrote a number of short stories when I was younger. And I have written non-fiction books, but that’s always been easy, as they are largely based on my research as a career academic. I never thought I could write a full-length novel.
Sometime in 2007, the main protagonist, Kaveri, apparated into my mind and demanded that I write about her. In my innocence, I thought it would take me a few months at most – I was then pregnant with my daughter. I believed I could churn out the book in the few months that I planned to take slow with my new baby, rocking her with one hand while typing with the other. Boy, was I naïve. It took me fourteen years to complete the book and bring it to publication. The best part of the long journey is that my daughter, now a teen, is one of my best beta-readers (the other is my husband)! With a three-book series in hand, I can’t afford to take fourteen years for each new book. I need to write a new book every year and shift gear into a different mode. My day job is hectic – I teach, lead a research centre, and do quite a bit of research administration, so finding time to write is not easy. But thanks to my long experience with writing non-fiction, I’m used to squeezing time out to write in brief chunks – it all adds up.
How long to get it published? I was very fortunate. My agent, Priya Doraswamy of Lotus Lane Literary, is an old school friend from Bangalore. She really ‘got’ the book from the start and was a great help in pushing me to the finish line and helping me edit and revise the book into shape. That took about six months. Then things moved very quickly. Within a few weeks, Priya found a terrific publisher in Little Brown UK’s Constable and Robinson imprint, which specializes in crime fiction. Later, Pegasus Books acquired the US rights.
How do you come up with character names? That’s relatively easy. I look for common Indian names of the era I’m writing, which are specific to the community I’m writing about – I try and make sure they’re relatively easy for a foreign audience to pronounce, but that’s about it. I did make a blooper when I realized (just before the book was going into copy-editing) that one of my main characters, who had a very common name – think Mike or Anne in the US – shared her name with at least two close family members, and one friend, any of whom might take offence. I quickly changed her name to a less common one. Now I try to make sure that I select names of people that I do not know personally.
We hear of strong-willed characters. Do yours behave, or do they run the show? My characters certainly run the show. Two new characters – Inspector Ismail and a woman in trouble, Mala – were not part of my original plot. Still, they turned up one day, inserted themselves onto the page, and insisted on taking the story in a different direction. They’re terrific, and I have enjoyed getting to know them – I guess I just need to get comfortable with giving up control.
What kind of research do you do? My series is set in 1920s Bangalore, during the British colonial era, and I need to get the setting right. I’m fortunate to have a large amount of archival material on Bangalore history, which I’ve collected over the years as part of my work on Bangalore’s ecological history, but I do need to re-read to gather details on the architecture, weather, traffic conditions, and other important aspects that determine the setting. I read old newspapers to get the little details, such as a notice of a flower exhibition or a workers’ strike. And to understand the social milieu, I talk to my mom, who is in her 80s. Her grandmothers came of age in the same era that my protagonists did. The stories my mom tells, passed on from her grandmothers, give me an intimate glimpse into women’s domestic lives in 1920s Bangalore and help me to understand their daily joys and obstacles in a way that historical documents simply cannot match.
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