From The Writers' Room Featuring False Idols

On Crafting International Intrigue (Or, How I Broke TripAdvisor)

In real life, when I’m not writing, I love to travel, though I suspect I’m a lousy travel companion. This is because I’m never really not writing. I write international mysteries / thrillers. My first three books were set in Japan, Ecuador, and Turkey, respectively. I’m always looking at my surroundings with my radar up for danger. I’m looking for trouble around every corner and down every alley – or at least a book idea lurking somewhere in the shadows. I’m never fully relaxed. And nothing inspires me like travel. That’s partly what drew me to working on False Idols – the chance to write about more international settings.

If I’m not able to visit a location for research, I’m frequently combing travel guides and websites with that same eye for intrigue. A marketplace or a festival? Great! How could I propel a high-speed chase scene through it? Pretty sunset over the river? No time to enjoy it! A yacht filled with thugs is headed our way! Gorgeous ancient temple? Let’s blow it up!

Because of my proclivity for writing about intrigue-infused international settings, False Idols felt like familiar territory to me in so many ways. When Layla got assigned to an operation in Cairo, my heart leapt, for I, too, was going on assignment in Cairo, even if I knew, logistically and financially speaking, I wasn’t physically going to be able to travel there.

I threw myself into research early on in the writing process, looking for the lay of the land and the right details to help bring scenes to life. I read articles and essays about Cairo. I read a novel set in Egypt. I learned about the art scene and the complex political history. I traced and highlighted maps, trying to understand the transportation system and the proximity of various neighborhoods Layla must visit. I checked out a stack of travel guides from the library. I perused photos. Restaurant menus. Hotel policies. Egyptian law enforcement websites. The American Embassy in Cairo. And I clicked on countless tourists YouTube videos to get a person-in-the-street perspective of walking through crowded Cairo streets, hearing the calls to prayers broadcast over the mosques’ speakers, riding a felucca down the Nile.

As I stumbled across scene-setting details, I also noted opportunities for danger or confrontation. This two-column note-taking system, which I’d used in other books, served me well here, helping me to fuse scene-setting and action or plot development in every scene. In a thriller like False Idols, and especially in the Serial Box format, where we had strict word counts for each episode, I did not have the luxury of providing passages of pure description. Just like me on “vacation” (whatever that is), characters couldn’t get too comfortable. They couldn’t really relax or fully explore their surroundings. They had to be ever on guard. Layla in particular is constantly looking over her shoulder in her undercover role – and then over the other shoulder when she starts to violate that role. Not only that, every scene had to do triple duty. Scenes had to establish the sense of place (which I think is so important in a book like this), to deepen our understanding of Layla’s character, and above all, to propel the plot.

How Layla interprets the settings she finds herself in is extremely important. The surroundings – the countries and neighborhoods she travels to as well as interiors — reflect her growing sense of disconnect between her undercover roles, her “real life” role as an FBI agent, and her authentic, mostly hidden self. In Episode 3, the gaps between these various aspects of her identity widen considerably. She’s now plugged in to the social scene of the younger set, and accompanying them on their dizzying travels. She’s disoriented, not only by their constant movement, but by the dizzying height on the socio-economic ladder on which she has risen. She’s found herself in a world of extreme privilege, breathing rare air.

In this episode, we start off with Layla still in Geneva at the guest house of the Ghaffar family, her undercover role nearly blown. Then she’s back in Cairo before jetting off to Lake Como, pursuing a lead on one of the top-tier antiquities collectors, Kyoshi Tanaka,. Within Cairo, too, various neighborhoods are mentioned or explored, from Garden City – the wealthy suburb where Layla resides – to “Garbage City,” the slum she grew up in, and which she can now view from her penthouse.

For this book, and for this episode in particular, one of the resources I used heavily was TripAdvisor. Travelers reviews provide useful up-to-date information, photos, unusual details, and travel mishaps, as well as general regional inspiration. I also looked at a fair number of vacation chalets on Air BnB, trying to find details that Layla would encounter and to get a general layout. I looked at ferry schedules on Lake Como, and tried to figure out if this was a bustling place or an isolated place in March. I looked up museums, hotels, restaurants and art galleries in Cairo in order to create composites for ones we invented for our book. (Fun fact: There is one real-life hotel whose name we retained, the Nile Zamalek Hotel and its famous rooftop bar overlooking the Nile. The name and location were just too good!)

Long after Episode 3 has been written, Layla’s journey stays with me. Literally. I am still inundated with digital ads for places I researched. Air BnB asks if I’m still interested in that cozy nine-bedroom ski chalet in Geneva. (I sure am, but I’m a few thousand dollars short for that week-long stay). Yelp periodically suggests some great bars in the Lake Como region. And TripAdvisor pushes numerous hotels and restaurants on me, poking me by email about once a week. “Diana, are you still interested in the Nile Zamalek Hotel?” “Diana, we found great deals on Nile cruises!” “Diana, Here’s a great tour of Lake Como!” And finally, in exasperation, TripAdvisor asked me just the other day: “Diana, it’s time to plan your next trip! Where would you like to go?”

To which I might smile and respond: Ask Layla!

Start reading Diana Renn’s episode, “Who Do You Think You Are?” now!

If you enjoyed this installment, check out what Malinda Lo has to share about writing on season one of Tremontaine!

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