Finding Authenticity in Fiction Writing via Travel

The protagonist of my mystery series, Carol Sabala, usually dashes to her murder mystery adventures in Santa Cruz, California—a town often known for its surf culture, oceanfront Boardwalk, and attempts to push back against the mainstream and “Keep Santa Cruz Weird.” Locals who read my books are treated to mentions of familiar sights and stops, while those who have never stepped foot in this part of California can get a feel of the place I call home. Life in Santa Cruz is a cornerstone of much of my writing, but so has been my experiences traveling.

After spending a month in Cuba in 2010, I knew I had to use this colorful country as a backdrop. I sent Carol to the island in my seventh book, Black Beans & Venom. Fellow crime writer Allen Eskens said: “Set in the vibrant and gritty back streets of Cuba, this cat-and-mouse hunt for a missing woman is full of intrigue, suspense and authenticity.”

Intrigue and suspense are what get a mystery writer’s brain humming. Authenticity can be more elusive. My trip to Cuba was worlds apart from previous experiences I’ve had visiting Latin American countries. Cuba is electric and memorable, and if you have the chance to visit, you’ll find that you don’t have to explore back streets to encounter the gritty.

a young Cuban boy rides a makeshift bike
The people of Cuba are resourceful. Photo © Vinnie Hansen.

If you want a Starbucks on the corner and memory-foam mattresses, Cuba is not for you. The long-standing embargo has created many shortages, compensated for by great resourcefulness.

Cuba beckoned my husband and me—a non-stop flight to Cancun and then an hour hop to Havana. Fairly simple travel to be in one of only two places in the world without Coca-Cola. Our trip, unencumbered by a sanctioned tour, was illegal.

We purchased our flight tickets via a Canadian travel agency. Americans can enter Cuba with a special visa instead of the normal passport stamp. Reentry to the United States is the sticking point. It is against the law to lie to a Customs Official about one’s travel. Fortunately, when we returned—my husband camouflaged with his new Cancun cap—no one asked where we’d been. My private detective heroine adopts this same ploy.

a fruit cart loaded with bananas in Havana
Bananas are a staple in Cuba. Photo © KWphotog/iStock.

The two of us stayed in casas particulares, private homes that rent out rooms and provide a breakfast of bread, coffee, eggs, juice, and the fruit grown in Cuba—guavas, pineapple, mangoes, watermelon, and small, firm bananas. While the menu doesn’t vary much, the quality does! We were served everything from rotten bananas and instant coffee with powdered milk to sweet fruit and strong Cuban coffee.

Propaganda billboards line the main highways. One announces that Cubans eat Cuban pork. Fish with cristianos and moros—white rice (imported from Vietnam) and black beans provided our standard fare. Steak is practically none existent, and with chicken, expect only dark meat. White meat is reserved for higher-ups. You have two choices for beer—light or dark. Rum, however, is abundant!

Tourists don’t use the same money as Cubans. The two economies segregate visitors from the locals. For example, Cubans can ride on the air-conditioned busses available to tourists—if they can afford them. But they’ll most likely be traveling on hot, crowded buses, or trying to hitch a ride from someone who owns a car. People with cars are, by law, required to pick up hitchhikers.

Vinnie Hansen pioses with a bronze statue of Ernest Hemingway
Hemingway memorabilia abounds. Photo © Vinnie Hansen.

Although Americans have been restricted in their travel, people from all over the world flock to Cuba. Like me, some are drawn to the Hemingway memorabilia—“his room,” in Hotel Ambos Mundos in Havana; the Floridita bar, a Hemingway haunt, also in Havana; and the perfectly preserved Finca Vigía, Hemingway’s home in San Francisco de Paula.

We visited Cuba in December to catch the International Jazz Festival, procuring tickets for ten dollars on each night of the performances. While we loved listening to the world-famous pianist Chucho Valdez, we encountered some of our favorite rhythms on the streets.

a man in a hat and sunglasses playing a guitar
Some of the best music can be found outside of festivals. Photo © Vinnie Hansen.

The clave beats we associate with Cuban music are derived from the drumming of Santería celebrations. The Santería influence abounds in Cuban life. In 1992 Cuba revised its Constitution removing references to the country as Marxist-Leninist, opening the door for a resurgence of religious worship. Santería has grown in popularity since that time. One can see initiates dressed in white strolling the cobblestoned streets of Havana or Trinidad.

In Trinidad, we visited a Santería church where altar objects reflected the complicated mix of Catholicism with beliefs imported from Africa with the slaves.

In Black Beans & Venom, the missing woman, seeking a cure for her cancer, visits a babalao, or babalawo—a Santería high priest. For this scene, I relied on a friend’s first-hand experience, right down to the sacrificed goat and pigeon on the altar.

According to Eskens, Black Beans & Venom delivers “readers completely and believably to another world,” so if you can’t make a trip to Cuba, or to California, you can explore both places in my Carol Sabala series!

Vinnie Hansen fled the South Dakota prairie for the California coast the day after graduating high school. Her eventual home in Santa Cruz serves as the backdrop for most of her Carol Sabala mystery series. Black Beans & Venom, the seventh and latest installment (misterio press), was a Claymore Award finalist and also received a B.R.A.G. Medallion.