Set in Havana during the Black Spring of 2003, a charming but poison-laced culinary mystery reveals the darker side of the modern Revolution, complete with authentic Cuban recipes
Havana, Cuba, 2003: Matt, a San Diego journalist, arrives in Havana to marry his girlfriend, Yarmila, a 24-year-old Cuban woman whom he first met through her food blog. But Yarmi isn’t there to meet him at the airport, and when he hitches a ride to her apartment, he finds her lying dead in the bathtub.
With Yarmi’s murder, lovelorn Matt is immediately embroiled in a Cuban adventure he didn’t bargain for. The police and secret service have him down as their main suspect, and in an effort to clear his name, he must embark on his own investigation into what really happened. The more Matt learns about his erstwhile fiancée, though, the more he realizes he had no idea who she was at all—but did anyone?
Today I am sharing a guest post about crafting a character: from life to page. Enjoy!
Readers often want to know if there is at least a kernel of truth in fiction. Did “it” (the crime, the affair, that juicy element in the plot) ever happen to the author? Are the characters based on real people? I tend to answer that, for the most part, my books are products of the imagination. My life isn’t interesting enough to be turned into fiction. (I joke that if I ever write a memoir, it won’t be over twenty pages.) As for the characters, though I incorporated bit and pieces of friends and relatives into them, the majority were either totally fictional or composites of several people.
The one exception is Lieutenant Marlene Martínez in Death Comes in through the Kitchen. Halfway through the book, I realized that I didn’t have enough information about the way the Cuban police operates. I hadn’t been back to the island in a long time and, even when I lived there, I didn’t know anybody who worked in law enforcement. There aren’t many police procedural Cuban novels. Internet wasn’t a good source either. It isn’t readily available there and, in any case, cops wouldn’t be posting their experiences online. The plot required that Matt—an American journalist who travels to Havana and finds his fiancée dead—had an encounter with the authorities, but I wasn’t sure how to handle it. I risked sounding silly or worse, making blatant mistakes.
Then a friend suggested I glean some information from her cousin, a former Cuban cop now settled in Miami. (Let’s call her “Lili.”) I emailed her and explained my predicament. Lili was willing to be interviewed on two conditions: not to use her real name (which I didn’t intend to anyway) and describe her the way she wished she looked like. The most important thing, she told me emphatically, was to be depicted with a big fondillo, a Kardashian-like behind like the one she longed to have in real life.
That was easy enough. It would make for a visually compelling image, if nothing else. This is the way Marlene Martínez is described when she makes her initial appearance in the story. “The next person to come to the door was a young woman. Matt didn’t see her face, zooming in on her behind instead. It was a big, round, monumental butt ready to explode inside the tight uniform pants.”
Lili was very pleased when she read the book. (For those who aren’t familiar with life in Cuba, a big ass is an asset there. So are curves.)
During the writing process Lili provided me with priceless details, like the way police stations are built and organized internally, the fact that they are commonly called “unidades”—that’s why I kept the term in Spanish; using “units” didn’t sound right in English—, the detectives’ runs-in with La Seguridad (the secret police) and their power struggles, the way they deal with foreigners, and the scarce resources they have at their disposal. “I didn’t get my first computer until 2005,” Lili told me. “And it crashed more often than not.” She helped me create a believable character. Marlene isn’t a “bad cop,” nor is she a stereotype. Her evolution in the novel (the so-called character arc) follows, with some variations, Lili’s real-life journey.
Maybe because Marlene Martínez had a flesh-and-blood inspiration, she didn’t go away like the other characters did once the novel was finished. She let me know she didn’t want to be a one-book character. A few months after turning in the manuscript, she showed up again in Death by Smartphone/ Muerte por Smartphone, a novella published in serialized format in The Taos News, where she investigates a cruise passenger’s disappearance. Now Marlene is living in Miami and owns a bakery called La Bakería Cubana. And she intends to star in many more books
Thank you, Teresa Dovalpage and RachelsRandomResources
About the author
Teresa Dovalpage is a Cuban transplant now firmly rooted in New Mexico. She was born in Havana and now lives in Hobbs, where she is a Spanish and ESL professor at New Mexico Junior College.
She has published nine novels and three collections of short stories. Her English-language novels are A Girl like Che Guevara (Soho Press, 2004), Habanera, a Portrait of a Cuban Family (Floricanto Press, 2010), and Death Comes in Through the Kitchen (Soho Crime, 2018), a culinary mystery with authentic Cuban recipes.
Her novellas Las Muertas de la West Mesa (The West Mesa Murders, based on a real event), Sisters in Tea/ Hermanas en Té and Death by Smartphone/ Muerte por Smartphone were published in serialized format by Taos News.
In her native Spanish she has authored the novels Muerte de un murciano en La Habana (Death of a Murcian in Havana, Anagrama, 2006, a runner-up for the Herralde Award in
Spain), El difunto Fidel (The late Fidel, Renacimiento, 2011, that won the Rincon de la Victoria Award in Spain in 2009), Posesas de La Habana (Haunted ladies of Havana, PurePlay Press, 2004), La Regenta en La Habana (Edebe Group, Spain, 2012), Orfeo en el Caribe (Atmósfera Literaria, Spain, 2013), and El retorno de la expatriada (The Expat’s Return, Egales, Spain, 2014).