Tag: Burma

Back to Burma (Myanmar)

Back to Burma (Myanmar)

I traveled to Myanmar (Burma) in 1997 while I was living and working in Thailand. At the time, the country was still mostly closed to foreigners. Only select parts of the country were open. During my month ‘in-country’ (the maximum the visa allowed) I conducted research on the Burmese puppet troupes and stayed at small guesthouses for a better chance of meeting local people. Unfailingly, everyone I met was giving of their time, knowledge and their kindness.

That began my love affair with Burma. (You can read more about my travels here.)

Since then I’ve written a number of novels set in Burma, including the modern, paranormal romance Shades of Moonlight.

In April 2017 Guardbridge Books published Death By Effigy, the first in my historical Aung and Yamin Fantasy Mystery series, in which an aging puppet singer and a mischievous puppet, must solve the murder of the king of the puppets or risk the destruction of the entire troupe.

I’m pleased to announce that the second in the series, A Death In Passing, has just been released, continuing the trials and tribulations of Aung, the puppet singer, with his troublesome assistant, Yamin, as they try to solve the murder of Burma’s most powerful spirit dancer.

In all of these books I’ve attempted to be true to the country’s culture and to accurately present the wonderful nature-magic systems (with a few embellishments). Burma seems to be in my blood and I envision more novels set in this wonderful and varied country. Whether historical or modern novels, I hope to capture the country’s magic for readers.

If you’ve traveled in Burma, I’d love to hear how I did.

Romance: Past, Present and Paranormal Book Bundle

Romance: Past, Present and Paranormal Book Bundle

I’m thrilled to announce that Shades of Moonlight,  my paranormal romance set in Burma, will be part of a story bundle scheduled to come out on April 30th. If you love Romance in all its past, present and paranormal glory, you are going to love this bundle by an astounding group of best-selling authors. Click HERE to visit the site.



Do We Need Maps in Fantasy Books?

Do We Need Maps in Fantasy Books?

Alentejo house wall, Portugal (2005) Photo (c) KarenAbrahamson

Yesterday I spent part of the afternoon mapping the layout for a community event I’m planning. I found myself confounded (for a bit) about the need for scale, because I needed to be able to estimate the amount of security fencing I needed. What struck me was that I didn’t actually need to make a map. Others could have determined the fencing needs through simple math. But for me, the answer to my fencing needs lay in graphic representation so that I could measure the length of fencing from visualizing the exact boundaries of everything. It raised the question for me of whether maps of fantasy worlds were always necessary.

Controlling the reader’s experience of imaginary places seems to me to be the main purpose of maps in fantasy books – to set hard boundaries around the reader’s imagination. Whether a map is actually necessary has been a topic of discussion among writers. I wonder if the debate about the inclusion of maps couldn’t learn something of benefit from looking at dialogue within the cartographic world.

Dhamayagyi Phayto, Pagan, Burma (1997) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

You see, there are some pundits who suggest that professional and academic cartography is dying because it has become too cut off from the human experience and too insistent on rules and scales and design constraints, while the human need to map (or simply to talk about location) is under constant evolution. Think about some of the things mapped today. It’s not mountains and rivers and landscapes. In my non-writing life I’m dealing with maps of childhood vulnerability, community asset maps and maps of fast food restaurants placed near high schools.

Not exactly like the maps of the great explorers, which is why I question whether qualities like scale are necessary, or even possible or useful, for many types of maps including those in fantasies. The maps I’m dealing with in my non-writing life are helpful to because they help me express certain phenomena occurring in the community, but I didn’t have to do it with a map. I could have provided a chart or a list, just as the fantasy author can provide description. Was a map even necessary? Is it necessary in a fantasy?

In the past, most of my books have been without maps, instead painting the picture of place with my words. In my epic fantasy, however, (The Warden of Power) I felt that a map was necessary as I wrote the first volume of my epic so that I could ensure place names, etc., were used consistently in the manuscript and its sequels. Did I include the map in the book? Actually, no.

I think the reading experience should be one that transports the reader to a place that they and the writer create together, without a map setting boundaries around the reader’s experience. Let the reader read my words, their brain cells fire, and reinterpret the world in my fiction. It doesn’t matter that they might not imagine the world exactly like me. My words are code and the reader will interpret them from within the context of what matters to them. Isn’t that what

Morning shepards, the Sunday Market, Kashgar (1999) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

reading is all about? Creating a world in your head? Some of the most disappointing experiences I’ve ever had involved artists (or Hollywood) providing their interpretation of a book I love. Inevitably their attempt to place boundaries around a character or the landscape wasn’t consistent with what I had in my head.

Mapping, like other forms of communication, reflects a need to express, to create and to understand, but setting a map in a book – like setting rigid rules around mapping — it can stymie the imagination. This applies whether we’re creating new maps to express new ideas or situations, or creating a world in a reader’s mind. Mapping, like dreaming, is a human need. Must we, as writers, place boundaries on that need?



That Research Thing

That Research Thing

Ashes and Light - coverReaders of my books set in Afghanistan or Portugal and Burma often ask me how I got the details right. Of course the answer is research, and in all truth I can’t say that I got all the details right, but for me to write I have to have a sense that I have enough knowledge of the place and the culture to write it correctly, or as close to correctly, as I know how. Same goes for a particular time period or a specific piece of technical knowledge. This blog is about how I go about building the knowledge so that when I sit down to write it flows out of my hands.

1. Reading: I read about what I want to write about. I read fiction that gives me a flavor of how other people write about a location. I read non-fiction accounts, memoirs, biographies and histories. These both allow me to pick up the nuggets these writers gleaned about the place or culture. I’ll pick up cheap coffee table books from remainder tables at book stores just so I can look at the photos. This often fuels my sense of place. I haunt the history and geography sections of used book stores like Powell’s to find relevant writing about the place or timeframe, like for 1400’s Portugal for my upcoming book, The Cartographer’s Daughter. I’ll read the coffee table book if something captures my imagination. For example, I was living in Thailand and saw a small coffee-table book about Burmese Puppets. I picked it up and what I read spurred me to want to write a story about the puppets – I know, it’s a ridiculously esoteric subject – but I read that book from cover to cover and used it as a jumping off place to identify other information I needed to know.

2. Maps: I’m a huge fan of maps. Maps give a me a sense of location and perspective. I recall traipsing around Venice, and it was the maps with the bird’s eye view that I first looked at when I arrived, that stopped me from ever getting totally lost in the maze of streets, canals and alleys. The same map put into perspective where Marco Polo’s house was and how that location within Venice might impact his view of the world. Maps let you identify potentialities in the location and they also show specific locations for events in your stories. Maps, I find, are an inspiration.

This is especially the case in writing historical stories, because maps not only show you the landscape back then, but they also tell you a lot about the culture, belief system and world view of the people. I’ll talk more about maps in a later blog.

Similar to historical fiction, when the story is a fantasy set in a fantasy landscape, I make maps up. Knowing where things are located and having place names in your head, allows you to build histories around those landscapes which are so important to making fantastical places real. It also forces you to think how long it would take to get from point A to B and about how the landscape would impact the characters who live or travel there.

3. Talking to people: Talking to people who are experts in their fields can help to get the details right. It can also be a source of inspiration with those odd facts that are so obvious to the experts, but no one else is aware of. These are jewels for writers, because they let readers in on the secret language of whatever this specialty is.

When I was writing about the Burmese puppets I had the good fortune to travel in Burma(Myanmar) and made a point of going to every puppet show in every town I travelled through. I made arrangements to interview the owner of one of the shows in Mandalay who spoke moderately good English and he referred me on to another man who made the puppets. It turned out this kind man was an ex-surgeon and spoke excellent English. He had been instrumental in providing information to anthropologists doing research on the puppets and kindly showed me how they were made, demonstrated some of them for me and even gave me a precious manuscript he had received from the anthropologists so that I could photocopy it for myself. You have to understand that at the time Burma was almost a closed country and that he was taking a risk even talking to me, a writer. Those items I treasure to this day and those unbound pages still have a place of honor on my bookshelves. They were also critical to a couple of fantasies and Karen L. McKee’s Paranormal Romance, Shades of Moonlight.

If you can’t talk to the people, you might be able to get in touch via e-mail. When I was writing my Afghan novel I was in touch with past foreign correspondents, and members of the military that friends helped me locate.

Writing about other cultures, it’s also important to talk to people of that culture. For my Afghanistan book I spent a number of coffee and lunches interviewing a lovely Afghani woman who was brave and interested enough to talk to me about woman in her culture, about her faith and about what was happening in her country, as well attitudes amongst her people towards the foreigners ‘liberating’ her country. These attitudes shaped my characters. She also provided me with small phrases and legends that are common in her country. These are also gold because they allow you to build in the real words and beliefs of the people.

4. Old Newspapers: If you are writing about a historical period where there were newspapers, or you are writing about another part of the world and can get newspapers in a language you can read from that time period, this can be an invaluable way to get a sense of the background events that were occurring in the location at the time you are writing about. Nowadays many major newspapers have their archives available on line. Reading the old papers can also spur inspiration regarding events that are reported and how your characters might have been involved or touched by the event, and can also give you a sense of fashion and language used ‘back in the day’. For example, a story about how bats had taken over the old Regina City library back in the 1920s led to an opening chapter of the first adult novel I ever wrote.

5. Library and Internet research: Having a local librarian as an ally can be a boon, because a librarian can suggest you try looking at books in areas you might not have even thought of. University libraries are also superb resources. When I was writing about Burma I wanted a specific book about the magic systems and the animistic spirit worship. There’s been very little written on the subject at the time, but there was one fairly comprehensive anthropological study. I found the book (a very old, falling apart version) and ended up photocopying the whole thing so I could have it available as a resource.

The internet can be helpful in finding old journals and photos of locations taken by other travelers. Blogs can be a wonderful source of information, both about the place and about the traveler’s reactions to it. I used old articles in The Economist and old travel journals about a very rough ride through northern Afghanistan to bring realism to my novel set in that country.

6. Travel: I try to travel every few years and I don’t go to resorts and I don’t do tours. I go to places I think I might want to write about and I spend my time poking around the back streets and absorbing the feel of the place. I spend time talking to people to get a sense of people’s attitudes. I’ll sit in a park and let people come to me. I talk to waiters and taxi drivers and vendors on the street – often with very limited communication skills because we speak different languages, but enough to get a sense of small bits of their realities—like the

Carmelita of Puno, Arequipa (2011) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson
Carmelita of Puno, on the Arequipa streets (2011) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

woman who worked in one city in Peru, but who had left her children behind in another city because there was better money to be earned where she was – a hard economic choice the country’s situation had forced on her.

Before I travel I think about where I want to go and what I want to see and a plan a general itinerary around that, but I also let fate take me where it will. There have been times when a chance meeting, or a wander off the beaten path, has allowed me to find something wonderful that takes the potential writing in a whole new direction.

So research for writing isn’t so much simply gathering facts and then writing about them, it’s about immersing yourself in a location or situation (even if you’ve never been there), so that when you sit down to write the place itself inspires what you are writing. I recall my Afghan book as one of the most difficult books I have ever written. Why? Because I had so many false starts on the book. I would start and get a chapter in and realize I wasn’t ready to write that story yet because I wasn’t filled with the sense of place and the culture. So I kept on researching and wrote other books and then one day I sat down and the book poured out wiht all the wonderful details in just the right places. And yes, there are probably errors in the book, because in a war-torn country there are places so remote that you just can’t get the information. So you know what? There are things in that book that arose purely from my imagination.

Because it’s fiction, folks. Remember that. Fiction.

Zen and the Art of Travel

Zen and the Art of Travel

This topic came to mind as I was running around through the frantic holiday seasons. Too many people, packed too close together and all of them trying to get too much done too fast under too much pressure. No wonder there were so many unhappy faces. I’ve seen the same look of tension on my face when I’m in the midst of a novel and things don’t feel like they’re working well. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve called writing colleagues and gained their help to talk me through days of angst and despondency.

The same sort of tension can be experienced when you travel.

Ranakpur - old temple worker and the Zen of repetitive work (2000) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson
Ranakpur - old temple worker and the Zen of repetitive work (2000) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

You’re in a strange place, with a strange language so you can’t express yourself and as a writer that’s something you need to do. You don’t understand the logic or the cultural norms of the place and the people and that alone is frustrating. The fact you don’t necessarily know where you are, or how to get to the place you want to go, all add to the tension and vulnerability a traveler feels. This not knowing how to get from point A to point B (or even what point B should be) are both anxieties a writer feels, too.

So how do you react?

I know that both at home and abroad, when I’ve felt vulnerable and tense I’ve barked at people—and usually felt bad about it afterwards. The trouble is, we North Americans feel quite comfortable showing our displeasure at something. Often it’s a matter of blaming someone else for how we are feeling, but that’s not the way it is in most parts of the world. In many parts of the world just showing such negative emotion is considered rude—or worse.

My lesson in this came travelling in Burma. There I was, all 6 foot 1+ of me about to travel by local bus from Yangon to fabled Mandalay. I was careful. I did the right things. I made sure I was on an air-conditioned vehicle, had a seat by the window, and that I wasn’t at the rear of the bus. Well the best laid plans oft go awry, they say, and so it was for me. The first clue was when I arrived at the bus. Sure I had a window seat and I wasn’t at the rear. Nope. I was seated over the left front wheel well which meant that all the foot room in the seat was gone.

Okay, tension there.

Then it turned out my seat partner was a stout little man who was wide enough (or I was – it’s all a matter of perspective) that it was impossible for us both to lean back in our seat at the same time.

Okay, frosted now.

So we leave Yangon with me fuming and travel north into the dry lands south of Pagan and the air conditioning broke down. (Did I mention that NOTHING works in Burma?) And then the bus overheated so we had to keep stopping to cool the engine. And on. And on. And on. For hours.

I was furious. I was fuming.

Until I noticed something.

That stout little man never once leaned back and he never once stopped smiling.

 He shared his foot space with me and every time we came to a stop, he made sure I got off the bus, got food and found my way around. The entire group of passengers took me under their wing, laughing when I doused my head under a water tap, being gracious when I shared my snacks (Good old M and Ms travel exceedingly well) and making sure I got back on the bus in time.  What I learned from those people was patience. When my legs cramped up from their position or the heat became unbearable, I just had to look at my Buddha-shaped travel companion to remind myself that the Buddhist philosophy is that all things pass away, and so, too, would this bus ride.

Offering bowl and flame, Wat Phra Keaw, Temple of the Emerald Buddha, Bangkok (1997) Photo (c) Karen AbrahamsonAnd really, in the whole scheme of things, how bad was a twelve hour bus ride anyway? I made friends, I saw the country and I learned a vital skill that helps me to this day in my writing and travel.


For every bad day, for every time that the words have to be pulled like hot coals from my brain or my wrists burn with pain, or I’m lost in another country, this too will pass. And when it’s over I’ll have learned so much along the way.

For the Writer: Travel Open

For the Writer: Travel Open


Dawn at Holy Amristar's Golden Temple (2000) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson
Dawn at Holy Amristar's Golden Temple (2000) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

Reviewing my travel journals for excerpts in this site reminded me of facts I had long ago forgotten. Like the fact that Moroccans have a unique way of holding their hands when clapping, or the way my Mauritanian guide, Akbar, poured his mint tea by holding his red teapot at least three feet above the small juice glasses we drank from, or the way the Rajasthani women regarded my small gold earrings as symbols of an ancient royal family. Alone, these aren’t particularly earth-shattering bits of information, but in a story they provide unique bits of authenticity about a country that help establish a place for others.

To me these are the small bits of place – I call them the gifts – you can only gain by travelling. So how do you go about gaining these insights?

My basic philosophy is to travel open.

This speaks to being willing to be where you are:

1. Coming from our fast-paced culture it can be easy to set a schedule that keeps you moving on to new places all the time, rather than taking the time to get to know a place. When I traveled in India, for the first month I hired a car and driver to help get me to all the spread out places I wanted to go. They expected me to spend a day in each location. Instead I spent the time traveling around the state of Rajasthan, and only that, when the company I had hired the driver from had advised that the one-month period allowed most tourists to visit Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and one other state.

But the way I traveled I was able to spend two evenings as the sun went down, with a hotel owner and his friends as they played evening ragas (songs to the time of the day) on sitar and tabla on the rooftop terrace overlooking the lake of Udaipur. I was able to meet an Indian woman in an old fortress town and be invited home for dinner with her family. I was able to sit beside the pool at the golden temple of Amritsar and chat with young Punjabi women. On other trips I was able to stay an extra day and walk the long, pristine beaches of Zanzibar. Or decide at the last moment NOT to go to Beijing, but to return to the Tibetan highlands of Lamusa instead.

2. Traveling open also means not being consumed with your own needs all the time, and not being afraid. Some of the ugliest travelers I’ve seen are the people who won’t take the time to adhere to local customs. Like the tourists who won’t remove their shoes at a temple door. Or the tourist who complains vociferously about the native food not being like it is at home. Note to tourist: YOU ARE IN ANOTHER COUNTRY, HERE!

I once had a lovely Indian guesthouse hostess practically cry with pleasure when I said I would love to eat whatever her family was having. I was invited for dinner every night and had some of the best food I ate in India. She even took me into her kitchen and showed me her spices. As a result of being open to things like this I’ve been invited into Tibetan tents, and taught how to make chapti. I’ve sipped tea with retired Ministers of Culture who were trying to preserve their country’s ancient arts, and I’ve had a man in an empty Cairo street turn and give me flowers in welcome when my first inclination was to be afraid. All of this when I rarely spoke the language.

Rajastani kitchen (2000) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson
Rajastani kitchen (2000) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

Traveling open means being willing to put aside your own schedule to take advantage of the many gifts along the way. Like the young woman at Burma’s Schwedigon Pagoda who told me her sad life tale that inspired a short story of mine.

Most of all, traveling open means traveling with a smile. That, and a writing notebook or computer, are the most important things you can pack when you travel. One gets you the memories and one helps you keep them. These are the gifts that fuel my writing.

You’re Going Where?

You’re Going Where?

Okay, so I’m going to Peru. I’m going to follow the Gringo Loop and hike the Inca Trail all the way to Machu Picchu.

Machu Picchu

 Or at least that’s the plan. If food poisoning and altitude sickness don’t get me first.

But then neither of them has ever stopped me before. You see, I like to travel. I like to travel just as much as I like to write fiction and so I thought I’d combine my two passions in a blog as I get ready for the trip and as I hike (uphill both ways) to Machu Picchu.

A lot of people ask me how I decide where I want to go. Yes, I’ve been to ‘normal places’ in Europe, but mostly I travel a bit off the beaten path. I’ve traveled through East and West Africa by truck. I’ve spent three months in northern India travelling by train, bus, jeep and, dare I say, camel.  I spent two months travelling the Silk Road through China and made side journeys to the Tibetan highlands. I’ve travelled in Egypt, Burma, and Cambodia and lived in Thailand. A good friend described my travel as going to all the weird places in the world. Of course he followed it up with the question “Why don’t you go someplace normal? Like Palm Springs? Like Florida?”

Answering that question is a lot like answering a best-selling author who, when I told her I was writing a suspense novel with romantic overtones set in Afghanistan,  asked to me why in god’s name I would write something like that.

The answer?

Why not?

Besides, it was something I was interested in. It was something far away and foreign that I wanted to understand. That inspiration became Ashes and Light, it was just after the invasion of Afghanistan and I wanted to understand what was happening in that country. I’d enjoyed Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner, but I wanted to write something that was more mainstream, that would reach into the hearts of readers who wouldn’t read The Kite Runner and provide them with insights that might explain – even a little bit – the misunderstandings that were brewing between Islam and the rest of the world. My travels to northwest India and far western China—areas that enjoy similarities of people, religion, culture and landscape with Afghanistan—all helped me with the book.

While the Afghan story arose from a cerebral process, sometimes the idea for a story or destination arises from something far simpler. Sometimes it’s another traveler’s tale. Sometimes it’s a photo. In the case of Peru, it was two postcards: One was a framed postcard in my doctor’s office of a traditionally dressed Peruvian girl peeking out from behind a brightly striped blanket. There was something so fresh and lovely in her face that it made me want to meet people like her. The other post card was of Machu Picchu and was from my parents who were on a world cruise. Unfortunately, they couldn’t visit the ancient Inca site because they are 83 years old and if the altitude sickness didn’t get them, the uneven ground would have. 

So part of my reason for going to Peru is to bring the feel of Peru back to my folks. And that’s what I see travel as being—one part inspiration, one part imagination, and a whole lot of hard work and a magnificent gift—when it works. A lot like writing a book.

So I leave for Peru on March 25, 2011. Come on along, if you like, and I’ll try to get us through without the food poisoning and altitude sickness.

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