Being There

Kath here. Please welcome award-winning crime fiction author Libby Fischer Hellmann back to Writer Unboxed today. Libby is writing her way around the genre, taking risks and pushing boundaries,which is why we were delighted she agreed to guest with us again. Her 2012 literary thriller, A BITTER VEIL, takes place largely in revolutionary Iran. Her other stand-alone, SET THE NIGHT ON FIRE (2010), goes back to the late Sixties in Chicago. She also writes two crime series, one with PI Georgia Davis, the other featuring video producer and amateur sleuth Ellie Foreman, which Libby calls a mix of “Desperate Housewives” and “24.”.  Her short story collection, NICE GIRL DOES NOIR, was released in 2010. She has also written a cozy novella, THE LAST PAGE, and a police procedural, TOXICITY. She is currently working on another stand-alone thriller set in Cuba. We’re inspired by her willingness to march to the beat of her own drum and write the unboxed novel. Thanks for guesting with us again, Libby. Enjoy!

Being There

I remember writing an article when I was first published called “Doing it by the Book.” I was very proud of myself for following the rules everyone schooled me in: show don’t tell, write what you know, follow the genre’s conventions. But now it’s twelve years later, and my 10th novel, A Bitter Veil, was released this past April. This time I didn’t do it “by the book.”  I broke some rules.

Probably the biggest rule I broke was  “Write what you know.”  We’ve all heard that canard, and for years, I obeyed. I set my protagonist on the North Shore of Chicago, which is where I live and what I know. I made field trips to virtually every other location I wrote about, including Douglas, Arizona; Lake Geneva, Wisconsin; neighborhoods in Chicago I’d never visit alone; even Cuba.

But A Bitter Veil is set in Iran, and I did not go to Iran. Nor am I a part of its culture. And yet I set it in that part of the world during the late Seventies and early Eighties. This was not without risk, and I was prepared for some people to find it unacceptable, especially Iranians. How could I write about a time and a place I’ve never seen? How could anyone? How could I understand their lives? Their pain?

I’ll try to explain.

Iran is not a place one can easily visit. Particularly a US citizen and a woman. A Jewish woman, too. Especially since I would be questioning and interviewing people about a delicate time in Iranian history. It’s certainly possible some people might get the wrong idea. It’s possible I might have been stopped. Maybe apprehended. So a trip was out of the question. In fact, knowing that, I debated long and hard whether I should write the novel at all. Maybe its story was better left untold. After all, there are plenty of books—fiction and nonfiction—already written about that period. I’ve read many of them, and, indeed, I’ve included a list of some at the end of A Bitter Veil.

But the story wouldn’t leave me alone. I am drawn to stories about women who have no choices—whose options have been taken away from them. What I had in mind was just that kind of story. Plus, I’m a former history major, and I have always been captivated by the past and how we bend it, learn from it, or ignore it at our peril.

So I dug into the research to see if I could find the comfort level necessary to write the story. Fortunately or not, the Islamic Revolution of Iran is one of the most well covered revolutions in history. It was easy to find chronologies, books, articles, reactions. I started reading. Over a dozen books, both fiction and nonfiction. I took notes, researched more, watched films, examined photos.

I also put the word out that I was looking for Iranian-Americans who were in Iran during the revolution. Mystery writers are a generous lot, and between them and my friends, I found five people who were willing to talk. One of the women had such a harrowing story that some of it ended up in the book. Some warned me not to be too critical, others not to be too gentle. And, as you might expect, none wanted their names made public.

All of my research and planning took about two months. After sifting through what I’d gathered, I decided I might actually be able to write the novel. The first fifty pages take place in Chicago, so that section wasn’t too difficult. But, then, the two main characters travel to Tehran. I plunged in, but it wasn’t as complicated as I thought it would be. Of course, I had to do more research, so I asked the people I’d interviewed more questions and looked up more information. For example, it turned out that my character buys two chadors. I discovered a chador shop in Tehran and incorporated it into the story.

Eventually, I finished a draft and sent it to one of the Iranian-Americans I’d interviewed. This person vetted the entire manuscript and told me where I’d gone astray. I made revisions. Then I sent it to my editor who sent it to a second Iranian-American for further checking. Finally, when producing the audio, we checked with yet another person for the proper pronunciation of Farsi phrases.

A Bitter Veil is not perfect. I’m sure astute observers will point out what I got wrong. However, I’m comforted by the thought that I wrote about the setting as seen through the eyes of a young American woman. What she observed was the result of what I learned during my research. Some of it was beautiful—for example, the sheer magnificence of the Persian culture. Some of it, less so. I hope the critics will take that into account.

Thanks Libby! A BITTER VEIL is available at IndieBound and all online booksellers.



  1. Carmel says

    I am inspired by the brave writers I encounter here on WU — brave, and willing to do the work.

  2. says

    Congratulations! If we only wrote what we knew, nine-tenths of modern literature would disappear, including all of sci-fi/fantasy (my favored genres). I’ve always thought “Write what you know” a badly misstated rule: it should be “Know enough.” It’s all about research and the well-chosen details that bring our readers into the world of the story. Beyond that, as writers we also get to teach–whether its by inserting real science into science-fiction or by taking readers to a time and place they know nothing about. I’m impressed by the amount of research and checking you’ve done to insure your story is factual and true to events, and I’m sure it will do very well.

  3. says

    Bitter Veil is a compelling and informative read which I have recommeded to many readers. They have all found it to be impressive and thought provoking.

  4. says

    Your book sounds fascinating, Libby. I look forward to reading it.
    I had Iranian friends at the college where my father taught– two were later killed during the revolution.

    Kudos to you for “going for it” and writing the story!

  5. says

    I have a friend who is a Bosnian refugee who lives in Sweden – Adnan Mahmutovic is a brilliant writer, and just a wonderful person to know.

    And what he is doing, this man who lives so far away, is writing a book set here in my mountains of WNC. He had never been to the US – just this summer he finally came to see me and to attend a conference in another southern state — it was a marathon of me showing him around my little area.

    I read some of his book and would grin sometimes at how things translate, or do not translate. But I admire him for doing this, for taking a risk as this – to write about a place so very different from his experience.

    Maybe I’ve done this to some degree in certain areas of my writing, but I think more of him when I read this blog.

  6. says

    From this reader’s point of view, it sounds to me like you used due diligence. I can only imagine that your understanding and empathy for another culture broadened, and now you’ll pass that on to your readers. Personally, I think the world could use more honest attempts like this, even if they’re somehow imperfect.

  7. says

    I relate completely. Much of my writing is about places/times I ‘need’ to know more about; Eastern Kentucky, the SW of England, Reconstruction after the Civil War, the Lebanese Christian and Muslim communities of Dearborn, etc. Broadening? Oh, yes.

  8. says

    Thanks for all the comments, everyone. I love your comment, Alex, about “places/times I ‘need’ to know more about…” that’s exactly how I feel.

    Jan, I hope you’re right. In the final analysis, there are no “ism’s”, just people doing the best (or maybe not) they can. Which is why it’s so fascinating to write about them.

    Kathryn: Your Bosnian friend has so much courage!

    Gayle, Bree, Cindy, Marion, and Carmel: Thanks for the support.


  9. says

    There’s the conundrum. While I am grateful for the influence of Said in decolonizing our way of thinking, I think that he would agree that we need many voices and many POV looking at an international event. Who am I to write about another culture? That is only an issue if only one official or authentic voice is deemed acceptable. Kudos for adding to the library of literature by adding your unique vision.

  10. says

    If everyone wrote only what they know, literature would be a lot more boring.

    That said, when dealing with historical events, other cultures, and so on, especially ones with living members, I think writers have an obligation to do research and try to be as accurate as possible to the events, mindsets, etc. It sounds like you did that, though! Best of luck with your book!

  11. says

    Great work. I think that books that are so specific should be researched. I don’t think that Sci-fi need to be researched depending on what kind of Sci-fi it is.

  12. Denise Willson says

    All true, Libby, thank you.

    To add another layer to the dilemma, I’m a Canadian writer. Here we’re told not to write with Canadian settings. This is pushed at local conferences, writing classes, and by agents who make us choose alternative locales for our manuscripts.

    I doubt we’d have such a talented pool of Canadian authors if we only wrote what we know.

    Denise Willson
    Author of A Keeper’s Truth

  13. says

    Your book has been on my to read list for a while, and I’m now nudging it to the top of the pile.
    Sounds to me like you write what you know, about women in complicated situations, but research the setting. Seems Ike a winning strategy to me.