Guest Chick: Damyanti Biswas

Ellen here, thrilled to introduce you all to Damyanti, an author of Indian descent currently living in Singapore. She offers an absolutely fascinating perspective on what it’s like to write for an audience in another country – namely us, here in the good old U.S. of A. (And FYI, due to the time difference between countries, Damyanti’s responses to comments will probably be delayed.)

Writing a Thriller in an International Setting

When I started my life as a writer many moons ago, I’d have laughed at you if you told me I’d one day write a thriller set in India and sell the book in the USA. And yet, that’s exactly what I’ve done.

The Blue Bar is set in Mumbai, which means it holds a lot of local color.  You might think it would fit right into a city like Los Angeles, with its similar mix of grit and glamor. Not true. When writing the first draft, I didn’t know I’d sell the book someday. I’d simply attended a writing class and the tutor gave us a prompt: write about someone who is being watched, but doesn’t know about it. This was how Tara came into being, posing in her shimmery sequinned saree (yes, that’s an alliteration) at a Mumbai railway station, and breaking into a run in order to leave within three minutes of receiving a call. It brought me more questions than answers. Who was she? Why was she there? Who was watching her?

And in some ways, writing for an audience in a country you’ve never been to becomes a similar experience. Who is reading my book? What does it say to them? Why am I writing it?

Earlier, I would use my craft to bring nuance to my characters. I’d be wholly absorbed in their journey. That fascination would never quit, but alongside, I have a new one: what is the reader’s journey? What did they think? How did they feel? What did they understand? It’s been a revelation. I’ve learned, for instance, that a US audience can withstand horrific abuse against women, but not puppies. I learned that the word gypsy is a slur. That there are only windbreakers, no windcheaters. Flashlights, not torches.

While these have proven fun discoveries, a part of me remains forever on alert. What translates? What will not? How much will they google (answer: not much at all). In commercial fiction, you must serve it on a platter or be ignored. I’ve drawn a balance between local flavor and international accessibility— tried to be like a burger—sell global, stay local. I also straddle the boundaries between neutrality and erasure. Takes quite some craft to live in that liminal space.

When you write commercial fiction in an international setting, you must make compromises. Most are on the side of pleasing your reader, or at least, not scaring them off. Woo them in easy steps before going all authentic on them, is the sane advice.

I may or may not have taken it.

Tara lives in Mumbai, and she walks, eats, smells like a Mumbaikar (that’s citizens of Mumbai, in case this is a new term).

My effort to thrive with an international audience/ setting is to dig harder, dig deeper. Lean on the side of being real, and work to find universal resonance in deep specificity. Because life in Mumbai and Los Angeles has that one thing in common: our shared humanity.

Readers, what do you enjoy about reading mysteries set in other countries?

BIO: Damyanti is an Indian author currently based in Singapore. Her short fiction has been published at Smokelong, Ambit, Litro, Puerto del Sol, among others, and she’s the coeditor of The Forge literary magazine.

 She’s the author of You Beneath Your Skin, an Amazon-bestselling crime novel, which has been optioned for screens by Endemol Shine. Her next crime novel, The Blue Bar was published by Thomas & Mercer USA. It received a starred review from Publishers Weekly, and Goodreads named it one of 2023’s Most Anticipated Mysteries & Thrillers. The sequel, The Blue Monsoon, will be out in Oct 2023.

Her popular blog Daily (w)rite, where she speaks about the writing life and interviews publishing professionals, turned 15 this year.

Synopsis: On the dark streets of Mumbai, the paths of a missing dancer, a serial killer, and an inspector with a haunted past converge in an evocative thriller about lost love and murderous obsession.

After years of dancing in Mumbai’s bars, Tara Mondal was desperate for a new start. So when a client offered her a life-changing payout to indulge a harmless, if odd, fantasy, she accepted. The setup was simple: wear a blue-sequined saree, enter a crowded railway station, and escape from view in less than three minutes. It was the last time anyone saw Tara.

Thirteen years later, Tara’s lover, Inspector Arnav Singh Rajput, is still grappling with her disappearance as he faces a horrifying new crisis: on the city’s outskirts, women’s dismembered bodies are being unearthed from shallow graves. Very little links the murders, except a scattering of blue sequins and a decade’s worth of missing persons reports that correspond with major festivals.

Past and present blur as Arnav realizes he’s on the trail of a serial killer and that someone wants his investigation buried at any cost. Could the key to finding Tara and solving these murders be hidden in one of his cold cases? Or will the next body they recover be hers?


26 thoughts on “Guest Chick: Damyanti Biswas

  1. Stories set in other countries sometimes personify the location, suggesting qualities akin to another character. Sounds interesting.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Damyanti, I love to travel, and love reading about other cultures in mysteries. It does us so much good to be exposed to ways of life and thinking that are different from our own. In writing, the most important thing I’ve learned about readers is that they each bring their own experiences to what they read, and each reader comes away with something a little different. Your book sounds enticing!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for the kind words on my book, Mary. As an Indian who has grown up reading British and American books, I’ve learned about things like baseball and root beer, about the right to bear arms or driving across the country (in India, you’d take a flight or train).

      I hope readers coming to The Blue Bar do take away something from the book, and are maybe intrigued enough to visit some day.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Congrats on all the buzz for The Blue Bar, Damyanti! (Beautiful graphic on your bookmark!) And glad you’re here on the Chicks!

    I admire that fine balance you bring to writing for an international audience. Personally, I love traveling to different countries and areas via books (plus, it’s easier on my travel budget!). I also appreciate getting a sense of the local flavor and wordings (including windcheaters, which is terrific).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for letting me be here on the Chicks, Jennifer! It is absolutely lovely to be here.

      Like you, I travel through books as well, and though I’ve never been to the states, it feels as if I might recognize some places through memory when I do visit!

      Liked by 2 people

  4. Damyanti, it is lovely to meet you. Thanks very much for visiting us on Chicks today–and sharing your fascinating insights about writing for an international audience. Really something for all of us authors to think about. I was 100% mesmerized by the synopsis for The Blue Bar. Clicking now…


  5. Damyanti, what a wonderful post! Thank you. It’s funny… I wrote for American TV for 25 years. And so much of it was incredibly culturally insensitive. However, the one word we were never allowed to put in a script? Gypsy.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Ellen. It’s been amazing interacting with you.

      25 years? WOW. That must be a spectacular experience.

      Yeah, that ‘gypsy’ bit threw me. I won’t comment on American TV’s portrayal of other countries other than to say it gave me insights on what a dominant culture may or may not do when portraying a lesser known one 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  6. You’re book sounds wonderful!

    It’s definitely a balance to write about a location your audience might not be familiar with without turning them off. I hadn’t thought about it, but your post really brought it home. You’re key – focusing on our shared humanity – sounds like the right one to me. After all, if we care about the characters, we will get hooked on the book.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Mark.

      Writing the book was like any other, but while editing, I was constantly aware of the audience’s gaze, and of ensuring that I don’t puzzle, bore, or scare them away.

      Educating an audience while never appearing to do so (no one likes being educated, certainly not me) is a slow and arduous process, but I shall prevail if publishing allows.

      I do focus on the shared humanity, because that’s what drew me to Westerns or books set during the war in the USA–the fact that we all know what a day is. We can be all similar or different, but we all live in days, in families, in communities, with similar hopes and heartbreak.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Thank you so much for visiting the Chicks today, Damyanti–your new book sound terrific! To answer your question, absolutely! The next best thing to actual travel is armchair traveling via reading!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Damyanti, Your book is now on my To-Be-Read pile. I love reading suspense and I’m an avid armchair traveler. Thanks for visiting with the Chicks today!

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Hi Damyanti! I love reading books set in different places, and it doesn’t even have to be international or exotic. I remember reading Willa Cather as a kid and even though she writes about the Great Plains and I’m in Colorado, it was still an interesting window on other lives in other places. And for the record, I always trust the writer about their facts, as long as there is truthiness to it. I mean, I’m not going for a polar bear attack in Mumbai!

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Yes, Becky–traveling via books lets us travel not just geographically but also into the minds of people in other places, which, in some ways, can be even more rewarding than travel itself.

    I assure you there are no polar bear attacks in Mumbai or The Blue Bar. The only assault it begins with is the one on your senses. As anyone who’s been to India will tell you, you can love or hate the country, but if you visit, you can’t ignore it. 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  11. Thank you so much for joining us, Damyanti, and for sharing your book and this story. I love reading mysteries set in other countries as it affords me the opportunity to get a glimpse into the culture, cuisine, traditions, and day-to-day life of other places. Your book sounds absolutely fascinating, and I am very much looking forward to reading it!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for the warm welcome, Kathleen. I appreciate that you’re open to new experiences when it comes to the quotidian in foreign locales 🙂 . I’d love to hear your take on The Blue Bar.


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