When your 5-year-old daughter wants to play "I Spy" and says, "I spy with my little eye ..." and decides that her mystery object starts with a "B," and then she points to a bar — one of the iron bars on the door of a jail cell — you know you're in a pickle.
That was where Nina Darnton found herself some two decades ago, when she and her two young daughters were briefly jailed in Nigeria. Darnton's husband, New York Times reporter John Darnton, had filed stories that irked government authorities.
Prior to deporting him, they gave his family a taste of incarceration.
It was harrowing, but it was also great source material, Nina Darnton says. Her first novel, "An African Affair" (Viking), is scheduled to be published Monday.
"Living in Africa was mind-blowing. It was the story I wanted to tell," says Darnton, who has reported for the Times, Newsweek and many other publications. "But I couldn't figure out how. I didn't want to write a memoir."
She finally decided to tell it as fiction, and to make her main character a female foreign correspondent named Lindsay Cameron, whose professional and romantic exploits are chronicled in the novel.
"I'm hoping to take her to the other places where we lived — Poland and Spain — and set a book in each place, with Lindsay as the continuing character."
No matter where her travels have taken her, Darnton says, an earlier journey still was the most profound: She and her husband, native New Yorkers, met at the University of Wisconsin.
"The trip from New York to Madison did more to open my eyes than all my years living abroad," she says. "It's important to learn how small your world really is, no matter how big a city you come from."