3. Use your secret expertise.
When I was planning my first novel, I knew I wanted it to be about immigrant life in America, its challenges and joys. The subject fascinated me because I was living it myself; it surrounded me on every side in my Indian-American community. But I didn’t want a realistic documentation of daily life to portray the ways in which we were changing America and being transformed by it. I’d already done that in my debut collection of stories,Arranged Marriage. This time I wanted something unusual and unexpected, something to astonish readers into delight and attention.
The answer came to me one day when I was cooking. As I opened the steel container that held my spices and their pungent smells rose up to greet me, I thought of how recipes containing them had been passed down through generations of my family—not just to gratify the palate, but for their medicinal properties and lucky powers. I knew that turmeric was a germ killer that could be smeared on fish to preserve it until frying time. Considered sacred, it was also used in prayer ceremonies. Fenugreek soaked in water soothed stomach ailments. Red pepper thinned the blood, mitigated colds and guarded against the evil eye. All of this was common knowledge in my ancestral village. But here in America, this information was rare, even exotic. What if I created a character who truly understood spices? Who had studied them all her life and now used her knowledge to help her community? Where would I place her?
It came to me that one of the most magical places I have encountered in this country is the Indian grocery store. Stepping into one is like stepping into a separate world. The shadowy aisles are crowded with mysterious substances—mysterious, that is, unless you possess a special knowledge. I visualized a woman walking the aisles, plunging her arm into a bin of coriander, tucking a stick of cinnamon into a lonely customer’s turban to bring him friends.
That was how the idea, protagonist and setting for my first novel came to me: Tilo, the owner of the spice store, had special powers. She could look into her customers’ hearts; she could commune with the spices and ask them to do her bidding; in exchange for this power, she had promised never to fall in love. Suddenly I could see the plot structure: Many people would come to Tilo for assistance, and their problems would help the reader understand the immigrant community. I also had my conflict: Tilo would fall in love with one of the customers and be forced to choose between her power to do good and the love she craved. The resulting novel, The Mistress of Spices, became a bestseller.
The things that are second nature to you, or that have fascinated you since childhood, can be some of your most authentic, amazing things—and yet authors often overlook them, hidden in plain sight. In fact, drawing on your secret expertise is perhaps the most natural way of all to write what you know.
These techniques have helped me take the raw material of my life and shape it into fiction that no one else could have written. I am confident that if you experiment with them, you will be equally pleased with the results.