We're All Kids Who Want To Find Lost Treasure

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Two of this year’s releases are based around treasure hunts.

THE BALTHAZAAR TREASURE, in the Gwen Finnegan Mysteries (under the Devon Ellington byline), is set around a sunken pirate ship off the coast of the Bahamas. The premise is based around a pirate and his land-based paramour, inspired by such tales prevalent here on Cape Cod and on Long Island. The bulk of the book is built around the salvage operation for the ship, both for the lost treasure, and for the archaeological value of the history.

DAVY JONES DHARMA also deals with sunken pirate treasure off the coast of Bermuda (since we were in the Bahamas in SAVASANA AT SEA, and each book follows a different cruise route). This treasure hunt is built around the lost treasure of one of pirate Dark Annie’s ships. Dark Annie is a fictional creation, inspired by the tales of Mary Read, Anne Bonny, and other infamous female pirates through the ages.

One of my novels in draft, ELLA BY THE BAY, is set on a fictional Caribbean island whose history is deeply laced with piracy, and a piratical ménage á trois.

Growing up, I loved mysteries built around treasure hunts. Nancy Drew and many of the other juvenile mystery series had books built around lost treasure, and I gobbled them all up. The popularity of movies such as PIRATES OF THE CARRIBBEAN has as much to do with the treasure, I believe, as with the actors involved in the scripts.

What is this fascination with treasure and treasure hunts?

I love the hunt itself. What do the protagonists uncover? How do they put the pieces of the puzzle together? How do they decipher the map and follow it? For me, the process is more interesting than the actual treasure. How the characters unravel the clues, put together the pieces, and treat each other and the antagonists along the way reveals so much about them. That is what I find interesting.

Other people are more interested in the treasure itself. Finding something valuable that was lost in dramatic circumstances and being able to profit personally from it drives plenty of people, both on and off the page.

There’s an assumed romance about treasure hunting that has little to do with the grueling day-to-day involved in marine salvage and marine archaeology. There’s also a tendency to ignore the very real cruelties that were involved with the treasure’s loss in the first place.

One of the big issues in DAVY JONES DHARMA is the strain the treasure hunt puts on the relationship between Sophie and Sebastian, especially once Sebastian is hit with “treasure fever” and becomes obsessed with the treasure. Many of the pressures on their relationship have to do with the relentless schedule that the staff and crew of a cruise ship faces, and the temptations and manipulations of the people around them, both working on the ship and passengers. Add to that a lack of privacy, and the relationship is already challenged.

Not to mention the fact that this a mystery series, so there are a number of bodies that drop in every book. At some point, I’m going to have to deal with the PR on that. It’ll be like Jessica Fletcher’s Cabot’s Cove or the Midsommer Murders villages — why would you go there on purpose and shorten the odds of survival?

Adding this additional pressure to Sophie and Sebastian, and exploring how they deal with it interests me. It’s one of the reasons I wanted to build this book around a treasure hunt.

The relationship challenges Sophie and Sebastian face in their treasure hunt are very different than the ones that Gwen and Justin face in THE BALTHAZAAR TREASURE. It’s been interesting to write these very different relationships with their different challenges close together and see how each set of characters deals with them.

I didn’t plan for these books to be written or published so close together, but that’s the way the business works.

I hope you will read them both and enjoy them both! Both books will release this year.

Second Book Syndrome

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I thought “second book syndrome” only hit on one’s actual second book.

Silly me.

I suffer from it with each series.

DAVY JONES DHARMA, the second Nautical Namaste Mystery, suffered from it, which is why its release date was pushed back. We’re getting there, thanks to a good editor who helps me navigate where it stumbled. But DAVY JONES DHARMA is far from my second-ever book. It’s my I-have-no-idea-which-book-it-is-because-some-will-never-be-published.

For me, I get Second Book Syndrome in each series I write.

I’m in the last stages of overcoming it with THE BALTHAZAAR TREASURE, the second book in the Gwen Finnegan Mysteries (under the Devon Ellington name). I even tried to trick myself with that one.  We had “Myth & Interpretation” release. It’s a between-the=books novella.

“Myth” came about not just as an attempt to trick myself out of Second Book Syndrome. Part of “Myth” was originally in the first portion of THE BALTHAZAAR TREASURE. What happens in “Myth” affects the way Gwen and Justin relate to each other and to the world. It sets seeds that grow and are harvested later in the series, both in BALTHAZAAR and in the third book in the series, THE SANDOVAHL SECRET.

However, those chapters were a distraction from BALTHAZAAR. They hurt the book. The book was a mess.

It suffered from Second Book Syndrome.

After a discussion with my editor, I ripped out those chapters and expanded them, creating the novella “Myth and Interpretation.” It gave the readers necessary information.  It fit between the books. It wasn’t necessary to be a novel. Putting it where it was kept it from being a distraction in BALTHAZAAR.

Yet BALTHAZAAR still balked. I finally managed to unknot it, with my editor’s help, thank goodness, and we are, at the time of this writing, in what I hope are the final galley proofs before publication.

THE SPIRIT REPOSITORY (the second Coventina Circle novel, also under the Devon Ellington name) nearly killed me to get done. I had the outline. I knew the characters and the story. And it still bucked and balked and fought me all the way through.

What is Second Book Syndrome? I’m sure there are as many definitions as there are second books and writers of second books. For me, it’s a sense of I’m still exhausted from Book 1. Book 1 in the series is always a book of my heart. All of the books I write are books of my heart, but Book 1 happens because I couldn’t find what I wanted to read, so I wrote it myself. It’s the introduction; it sets things up; it builds the world. It’s the sense of discovery I had in writing it, even when it was outlined ahead of time. It’s the joy of sharing this new world with readers. Even a book set in a real location, or a mix of real and fiction (what I call “stretched geography”) is a built world and has to make sense.

Book 2 is about sustaining and expanding. It’s hard. There’s a fear that Book 2 will never live up to Book 1, even when there’s more to say about the characters and their world. I can think of many, many series I’ve read where I don’t quite feel the passion for the second book that I feel for the first. But I still like the characters and the world, so I then look forward to the third book of the series. Because I’ve experienced that as a reader, the Doubt Demons attack me as a writer.  What if I can’t sustain? What if it’s not as good? What if, what if, what if, and not in a good way. The worries about Book 2 become too much about other peoples’ response and not enough about trusting character and story, even with a strong outline. it becomes a case of trying to survive it instead of enjoying the writing. If I don’t enjoy writing it, the reader won’t enjoy reading it. Second books, for me, tend to get written, then torn apart, most of the draft tossed, and rebuilt in ways that none of the other books in a series are built and revised.

In my experience as a writer, Book 3 of a series is where I hit my stride. The world is established, I know the characters, and they have the room to grow and change and surprise me, because now I trust them. From there on out, returning to each world in the series is like a homecoming, where I can slip in and tell the next story. That’s the comfort and energy and joy I feel writing the fifth Coventina Circle mystery, THE BARD’S LAMENT. I love these people and their stories. I’m still going to test them and make them earn their endings, but being in the world is returning to a favorite location.

Two authors I admire for second books (and not suffering from Second Book Syndrome) are Theodora Goss and Yasmine Galenorn. The second of the Extraordinary Adventures of the Athena Club mystery, EUROPEAN TRAVEL FOR THE MONSTEROUS GENTLEWOMAN is my favorite, so far, in the series. Character, plot, story, structure — loved it all. It built beautifully and differently on the previous novel, while allowing the reader more intimacy with the characters.

In her Otherworld series, Yasmine Galenorn wrote each book from one of the POVs of the sisters: Camille’s in Book 1, Delilah Book 2, Menolly Book 3, Camille Book 4 and so on and so forth. All the books in the series fit the overall arc; each of the sisters has her own arcs, each few books has arcs, and each book is satisfying in and of itself. It’s as though each sister started her own series with the first book in her voice, but by the time it reached the second book in her voice, the series had so much momentum, it didn’t suffer from Second Book Syndrome, and Delilah’s book, the second in the series, was the first in her voice, so it didn’t, either. I admit, I haven’t ever read one of Yasmine’s books that suffers from Second Book Syndrome, so maybe she’s just brilliant at not suffering from it! Nor is it anything I’ve discussed with her, so this is all my response as a reader who writes. She might see it quite differently!

DAVY JONES DHARMA suffered badly from Second Book Syndrome, even though the original outline was promising. But when written, it didn’t fulfill its promise. While the PREMISE of the book remains — the treasure hunt — a lot has changed as far as plot and characters. Harmonia gets herself into a painful situation that she knows isn’t healthy, but the fascination is too strong. Sophie tries to support as best she can, but it hurts her not to be able to help her friend who is in pain. That’s a vital subplot to the book, and builds their friendship. Some of the major plot points remain. But it also explores some of the hierarchy within the passenger/crew/staff system of the ship, and the racism and misogyny inherent in the hierarchy.

I’m happier with the way this version of the book is turning out. At one point, the series was going to focus on comic cozy mystery elements, but it’s definitely turned away from that. There’s humor, but the slapstick elements that I was encouraged to include (that dumbed Sophie down) are gone from both SAVASANA and DAVY JONES, and it’s truer, I believe, to character and situation now. AND to the way Sophie tries to live her life, with kindness and compassion of a yogic path, which is challenging in the world.

We’re getting there. I’m sure my editor will have more notes in this next draft, as we’re nearing galleys. But I’d much rather have you read this book than what it was originally, had it been pushed through into publication on its original schedule. That book made me unhappy as a reader and a writer.

I hope this book enlarges the world of the ship, and points out some of the issues in dealing with the entitlement of the passengers. I hope there’s enough love and humor and friendship among the characters. Because how they grown and change in this book leads them to where they start in Book 3, where they face new challenges, especially when Sebastian’s ex-wife shows up to make life difficult for Sophie and Sebastian.

But that book is still down the road (although outlined and in early chapters). First, I want to get DAVY JONES DHARMA right. I want the second book in this series to earn its keep and keep its promise.

Namaste.

What They Miss

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I chose to set the Nautical Namaste series on a cruise ship because I liked the locked room aspect of the characters stuck on the ship together during the course of the mystery, and for the international ensemble aspect of it. Cruise ships have international crew and staff, and that mix and match is, to me, one of the more interesting aspects of having the mysteries set at sea.

Cruise ships are, basically, floating cities: shops, activities, restaurants, library, medical facilities, hotel-like facilities, resort facilities, fitness.

The passengers go to get away from their regular lives.

The staff and crew work around the clock to make it a good experience.

But what do staff members miss about living aboard the ship?

Early in the second book, Davy Jones Dharma (coming out later this year), Sophie mentions that she misses cooking. As the ship’s yoga instructor, she eats her meals in the crew dining room. She doesn’t actually have to cook for herself.

She didn’t even realize she’d miss it until she was on the ship for a few weeks.

As someone who enjoys cooking (and whose characters often enjoy cooking), that was a personal longing I understood.

Another thing Sophie misses is having a window in her living space. As a staff member, the cabin she shares with her roommate is below the water line. No windows. It makes her appreciate the wonderful windows in her yoga studio, and it part of the impetus for her to give moonlight yoga classes on deck at least once every voyage.

Even with her tight schedule and barely being in her room a few hours’ a night to sleep, the lack of natural light in her living space affects her. The longer she’s on the ship, the more it will affect her.

Those parts of her life weren’t planned when I outlined the book or created the development notes on the series. But they evolved as the books evolved. And they will continue to do so throughout the series. There will be times when certain parts of life that are missed will create or deepen the conflicts and the stakes around the plot of a particular book. There are times when the tension will ease up as the characters use their coping skills.

It will ebb and flow (pun intended).

I’ll be exploring that more in the series, and I’m sure Sophie, and other characters will find things they miss.  Driving is something that comes to mind. On the few hours of shore leave they have here and there, they can rent a car. But that’s not the same as being able to jump in the car and drive somewhere on impulse.

What puts pressure on specific characters and how they respond under stress is something that intrigues me.

You can read more about the Nautical Namaste Mysteries here, and, specifically, Savasana at Sea, here.

Just Jump in and Fly — A Piece of My Heart

Today, I’m going to talk about one of my favorite holiday stories. It’s a fantasy/mystery/comic romance called “Just Jump in and Fly” which plays with a lot of the myths and legends around Christmas and Santa.

Blurb:

Samantha Wright has a problem. The attractive Kris Teague crash- landed his sleigh and eight not-so-tiny reindeer in her driveway. His uncle Nick happens to be THAT Nick – as in Claus – and they need Samantha Wright’s help to turn back the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse at one of the Universal Gates not only to save Christmas, but keep Earth turning. A fresh, romantic comedy turn on Yuletide myths and traditions!

I loved writing this, however many years ago it was, now, that I wrote it. I love revisiting it every year.

I love mixing traditional myths of the season and expanding them. I love adding the romantic elements. I loved using the myth of animals being able to talk on Christmas Eve.

With this piece, I wrote the comedy/fantasy/romance for the holidays that I always wanted to read.

Excerpt:

“Are you mad that I told Dad I had a stomach bug when I really didn’t, just so I could come home?”

“It would have been nice if you hadn’t waited until you were at the airport on Christmas Eve in the middle of a snowstorm. If they weren’t on a private plane, they’d never get out of here tonight. Driving to and from Logan on a lovely summer’s day is hardly my idea of a good time, but in this weather. . .”

“I was desperate.”

“I understand why you did it. In a perfect world, you could have told him you were uncomfortable and why and made arrangements, but in this case, yeah, I see why you did it. If you hadn’t said you were sick and grossed out Alyssa, he would have made you do whatever felt wrong so you’d learn to do his version of manning up. I don’t want this to become a pattern, faking illness to get out of doing stuff you don’t want to do, but in this case, I do understand, and I’ll let it go.”

“I promise it won’t be a habit, and I promise I won’t ever do it with you. I’ll just tell you when something bugs me.”

“Okay, we have a deal.”

“Hey, what’s happened at the foot of our driveway?” Liam leaned forward. “It looks like an accident.”

I pulled into the lip of the driveway to the red Colonial I’d bought in the summer. Snow was stacked up against the fence. In the snowbank was what looked like an overturned sleigh and a bunch of livestock. I pulled out my phone to call 9-1-1. Nothing. No signal.

“Are those reindeer?” Liam’s mouth dropped open.

“I’m not sure.” I got out of the car on my side. Liam got out on his side, and Simon shouldered his way over the seats and out of Liam’s door. As we got closer to the livestock, I saw they had antlers and large, liquid brown eyes. Some of the harnesses broke, and they stepped through the snow, the bells on the remaining strips jingling. None of them looked as though they were hurt, thank goodness.

I turned to Liam. “I think they are reindeer.”

“Cool,” Liam responded.

I wasn’t so sure it was cool. Yes, I had a barn. I even had a trio of rescued horses in it and supplies. I counted — eight — where the heck could I put EIGHT reindeer?

Eight. Reindeer. I was getting a really bad feeling about this.

***

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The Fun of The Holiday Romance

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I’m not actually focusing specifically on my own work today, but I’m talking about how much I Iove a good holiday romance, especially one set around the winter holidays.

I love to see the novellas or anthologies appear on the holiday tables in bookstores and gift shops. Or in displays in the library. I gobble them up, even in the years where I’ve sworn off romance (either reading it or living it). I don’t watch a lot of holiday romance movies — I often get too far ahead of the plot and get impatient waiting for the characters to catch up. A good one will get me (I love WHILE YOU WERE SLEEPING).

Yes, it’s often an unsustainable ideal. But I don’t care. I love snowy holiday romances, where people discover that love and hope still exists, and that there’s still good in the world. I don’t care that they’re unrealistic. I want the fantasy.

I do have criteria. The protagonists need to be smart and have a sense of humor — or at least grow into their senses of humor. They need to have kindness at their core, even if they cover it up at first. One partner too alpha and overbearing? Turns me off completely. If the only measure of a woman’s worth is child-bearing — goodbye, you’re not the story for me. Romance demands an HEA, and I want that even more during the holidays. But if one character demeans the other, or the ONLY goal is to land a partner in order to have kids, it’s a turnoff.

I also don’t want a lot of religion in the books. I realize that Christmas is a religious holiday, and a great time for religious inspiration in stories. For people who love them, good for them. I’m not trashing those storylines; I’m saying they’re not for me.  But there are more holidays in the winter season that Christmas. I enjoy Christmas-based romance, but I’m always happy to find books with other winter holidays, too, especially the Solstice.

I love a sense of magic, of possibility. That the season can inspire a moment of inspiration that is the catalyst for the protagonists to take actions that will lead to a happier life.

Holiday romances don’t have to be around the winter holidays: Solstice, Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, or any of the others. But that’s when I like to curl up in my chair by the lighted tree, bundled in my plushy throw, with a glass of wine, a good book, and a cat or three on my lap. Yes, the beasts can make reading difficult, but they’re worth it.

One of the plans for the Twinkle Tavern Mysteries (which have stronger romantic elements than a lot of my other work) is to use holidays that aren’t always used. Which is why “Plot Bunnies” focuses on Easter, and “Labor Intensive” focuses on Labor Day.  (Yes, I did some shameless self-promotion there).

I often write a short holiday piece in the newsletter (Devon’s Random Newsletter, which covers all the noms de plume). They are early-draft pieces, usually second or third draft, not yet ready for further publication. But there are a couple that I want to expand, especially one I wrote a few years ago that took place in a snowed-in diner. That will, eventually, be a book.

When it comes to writing, I write best about the winter holidays in the midst of them. Since submissions need to be made a good eight months ahead of a holiday, that means I submit a holiday piece usually two or three years after I’ve actually written it, so I have time to work on it. I sometimes thoroughly enjoy EDITING a winter holiday piece in the middle of a hot summer, but I prefer to WRITE it when I’m in the midst of the decorating and baking and card writing.

I’m first-drafting a new winter holiday romance this year. A genuine romance, not just a novel “with romantic elements” — although that could change, and it could switch back. I’m creating one of my fantasies of a perfect stretch from Solstice through the New Year — but not without sadness and conflicts.

One of my favorite parts of writing these stories is that I can build and decorate houses and create meals and party menus. I don’t necessarily use all of it in the final draft, but I love creating them.

Do you love holiday romances? What draws you to them? What’s your favorite?

One of my favorites is Rosamunde Pilcher’s WINTER SOLSTICE. My mother has all her books, and is the one who encouraged me to read it. I love the way the relationships grow in the book.

The journey is what I enjoy with these holiday romances. I like the security of knowing there will be a happy ending. I like to take the journey with them, and see how the characters make choices so they can CHOOSE to be together and create an optimistic future.

Next week, I’ll be talking about one of my favorite pieces I’ve ever written, “Just Jump in and Fly.” Which is set on Christmas.

Have a joyful season!