Monday, July 21, 2014

Guest post: Tokyo Heist and Latitude Zero's Diana Renn Talks Writing Thrillers in Foreign Places...

Hola readers! 
Today I'm really pleased to have author Diana Renn joining the blog to talk a little about her latest release Latitude Zero and how she goes about writing her thrillers 
so often set in foreign places.
 First, a little more info on Latitude Zero:

Latitude Zero
by Diana Renn
July 3, 2014
Viking Juvenile
448 pages

“I have to run,” said Juan Carlos. “You will call? Please? It is very important.”
“Yes. I will call. Definitely. At two.”

That’s what Tessa promises. But by two o’clock, young Ecuadorian cycling superstar Juan Carlos is dead, and Tessa, one of the last people ever to speak to him, is left with nothing but questions. The media deems Juan Carlos’s death a tragic accident at a charity bike ride, but Tessa, a teen television host and an aspiring investigative journalist, knows that something more is going on. While she grapples with her own grief and guilt, she is being stalked by spies with an insidious connection to the dead cycling champion. Tessa’s pursuit of an explanation for Juan Carlos’s untimely death leads her from the quiet New England backwoods to bustling bike shops and ultimately to Ecuador, Juan Carlos’s homeland. As the ride grows bumpy, Tessa no longer knows who is a suspect and who is an ally. The only thing she knows for sure is that she must uncover the truth of why Juan Carlos has died and race to find the real villain—before the trail goes cold.
(Goodreads Summary.)

While I have not yet had the opportunity to read Renn's latest release, I did read and enjoy her debut, Tokyo Heist a couple of years back (you can read my review HERE.) I loved the Japan setting of that YA mystery/thriller.

Take it away, Diana!

On the Run: 
Writing Thrillers in Foreign Locales

Cave Homes in Caapadocia, Turkey
A few years ago, my husband and I were traveling in Turkey. Our travels took us to the region of Cappadoccia, known for its surreal landscape of rocks and mesas and volcanic material sculpted by wind.

We had mapped out a sightseeing route to a national park. Somewhere en route, we took a wrong turn. We drove on, and at last found a smaller entrance to the park. No one was there, but a sign indicated we could park, and warned tourists not to leave any belongings in the car.

As we were locking the rental car, an older, gray-haired, mustachioed man materialized. He looked clean cut, with pressed trousers and a crisp shirt. He had a companion with him, a younger man, unsmiling. Mustache Man said it was Turkish custom to welcome foreign guests with a cup of tea. We declined, politely, because while we knew it was a custom, we’d also heard tourists are occasionally given tea laced with drugs, then robbed.

Besides, there was no obvious place to enjoy tea. We were in an empty parking lot surrounded by empty roads, dust swirling up around us, off the beaten path. Mustache Man led us to a sign on a chain link fence with a map of the park. While his unsmiling companion looked on, he explained many long, circuitous routes we could hike.

Then he told us he was a famous jeweler who had a store in the nearby village of Avanos. He took out a business card, drew us a map, and exhorted us to visit. We finally extracted ourselves with vague promises, and went to the park. Halfway down the path, we turned and looked. Eight young men were leaning against the chain link fence, staring after us.  We hurried along the main path, snapping photos, pretending to enjoy the natural wonders yet always looking over our shoulders. Every cave we saw looked like a great place to stash our dead bodies.

Creeped out, we ran back to the car. All the men were gone. Then we saw handprints all over our rental car, made visible by the dust that had settled all over the car.

We peeled out of the parking lot. We passed some guys who were pulled over to the side of the road comparing guns. Turning on to the main road toward Avanos, we saw a white car behind us. It passed us. The driver waved. It was Mustache Man. He slowed down and let cars pass so that he was right in front of us. There were no turn offs. We had no choice but to follow. The sightseeing plans were out the window now. It was clear from his whole demeanor that we were on his itinerary.

Mustache Man signaled left with his blinker, rolled down his window, and pointed to a black building on the side of the road. My husband signaled as if we would follow. Then, when the white car turned, he floored it and blew past him. Safe!

But not really. The village of Avanos was little more than a rotary that routed us right back to that black building. We passed it again, and to our horror saw Mustache Man standing by the road with two brawny men. The word “thugs” came to mind.

We sped on. We did not stop driving for an hour, until we were sure we had lost him. We spent the rest of the day sightseeing in an underground cave city, on a guided tour, but the day was shot. I couldn’t get the taste of fear out of my mouth. Then fear gave way to resentment. He hadn’t robbed us of cash, but he’d robbed us of an entire day of sightseeing, and planned experiences.
I’ve never written about that incident in fiction. The mustache-twirling bad guys would be too stereotypical. But it’s that moment of sheer terror and need for speed that I try to tap into when I write my thriller scenes set in foreign locales. I try to bring back my sense of total disorientation (where are we? who are these guys? where will I go for help?). I also try to capture how moments of awe in a foreign setting get undercut by imminent danger.

In my novel Latitude Zero, half of which takes place in Ecuador, I want my characters and my readers to explore another culture, as I was doing in Turkey. But the trick is not letting characters linger in their sightseeing. A character is not going to be marveling too long over a baroque building façade when running for her life. And if she’s perusing a museum and learning about art history, great, but someone had better bust through a window or something, or a clue should turn up, so that the thriller doesn’t turn into a travelogue.

I’m always looking for ways to let the unique features of a setting leak in despite the pressing danger. In Latitude Zero, Tessa Taylor, an American teen volunteers with a bike advocacy organization in Quito as a cover for investigating a murder mystery. Spies are on her tail, trying to prevent her from solving the puzzle, but I found fun opportunities for her to experience a new culture nevertheless. She visits a local crafts market and then puts together a disguise made of Ecuadorian garments. She visits a famous local statue while interrogating a witness. And an Ecuadorian mode of transportation – a party bus called a chiva – becomes a key way to get her from point A to point B.

Researching foreign settings can spark all kinds of ideas for other crimes. (Can someone be run off a narrow road? Clobbered with a pre-Colombian artifact?) I try to mine the territory for terror, too. (What if my character could get locked up in a foreign prison, falsely accused of a crime? Can the police here be trusted?) And there are logical things to research. (What law enforcement agencies step in? How are crime networks organized abroad?)

Maybe Mustache Man in Turkey really was a desperate jeweler, hustling potential clients where he could. Maybe the car thieves were unrelated to his scheme. But at the time, that brief experience of being on the run--felt kind of like being in a thriller. Now my challenge is to make my thrillers feel kind of like real life. And that’s a challenge I don’t want to run from.

Thank you, Diana! 
What a crazy and frightening personal experience you and your husband had in Turkey. 
Maybe I'll stick to my armchair traveling ;) 

And you can check out Latitude Zero which is in stores now! 

I write contemporary YA novels featuring globetrotting teens, international intrigue, and more than a dash of mystery. My first novel, TOKYO HEIST (Viking/Penguin), came out in 2012, my next, LATITUDE ZERO, releases July 3, 2014. I am also the Fiction Editor at YARN (Young Adult Review Network), an award-winning online magazine dedicated to short form writing for teens.

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  1. This one sounds really intriguing! I haven't heard of it before, but it's DEFINITELY under my radar now. :) Thanks for sharing Heather! :D

    ~ Zoe @ The Infinite To-Read Shelf

  2. Oh, wow, that is quite the harrowing tale. But I love how it manifests itself into the author's work. I've had Tokyo Heist on my TBR, but I'll be adding Latitude Zero to the list and hopefully getting to both very soon. Thanks for sharing such an insightful post with us, Heather!


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