Fri. Sept. 13, 2019: Building the Ensemble Part 2: Shipboard Colleagues

Happy Friday the 13th, everyone! One of my favorite days.

Last week, I talked about building Sophie’s land-based ensemble: her closest friends, her family.

This week, I’m talking about the staff and crew on the ship.

One of the reasons I wanted to set a series on a cruise ship is because the staff and crew are so international. There’s a lot of talk about the need for more diversity in books. The staff and crew of a ship are naturally diverse. People from all over the world apply and are hired to work on the ships.

I had a little bit of experience with this when I worked for a cruise line, way back a long time ago. When I decided to write this series, I also did research. I interviewed over 160 cruise ship and ex-cruise ship employees. I contacted theatre colleagues who’d worked on cruise ships to remind me of their stories. I researched staff and crews on ships, and job listings. I read memoirs and blogs by employees and ex-employees. Many of my sources had to remain anonymous, because talking to me honestly would put their jobs in jeopardy.

I had not realized how the different jobs tended to be filled by individuals from particular countries or areas. Captains tend to be Scandinavian; the officers immediately under them are often from Greece or Eastern Europe. Security is handled by specialists from India. VIP Stewards are often from Eastern Europe, while those who clean the crew cabins hail from Thailand or Indonesia. The restaurant may be managed by someone from India, but staffed by Europeans, with a few Americans tossed in here and there. Americans often make up the bulk of the Entertainment Staff, but are looked down on if they work in one of the restaurants, because they’re considered lazier than many of the other nationalities. These patterns repeated over and over and over again, and I kept hearing the same stories and assumptions. Which was both interesting and disturbing.

On the one hand, it’s a melting pot and in the crew dining room and bar and pool area, people hang out. On the other hand, at certain times, lines are drawn by nationality. It was a great opportunity to explore the tensions that arise not only when you have a lot of people trapped on a limited floating hotel space, but when their cultures clash, and when their dignity as human beings is compromised when they are caught between ugly passengers and the demands of the cruise line.

It takes a lot of people to staff a cruise ship. Even though I created the Diamond Line to carry fewer crew and fewer passengers, there are still a lot of people. Not all of them can be included in every book. At the same time, because they are thrown together in this small space, Sophie deals with a lot of people every day. There’s a lack of privacy. There’s no physical space, so how do these people achieve emotional space? They work hard and play hard.

Finding the balance, book-to-book, is a constant challenge. If she encounters too few people and they’re not in the right positions, it’s unrealistic and feels hollow. Too many, and it gets confusing. As it is, it can get confusing, which is why there’s a page of staff and crew bios on the website. I had a “Cast of Characters” at the beginning of SAVASANA, but I may remove it, and I won’t include one in the next books (unless readers send up howls of protest).

The “Meet the Crew” page on the website is written in the voice of cruise copy, as though it was introducing passengers to the crew and staff they encounter on the ship in the Welcome packet found in the cabins. This page will grow and change as the series grows.

Alliances will shift over the course of the series, in the same way as they would in life.

I wanted Sophie to have, again, two close friends that are a main source of support. Because I am a theatre person, and have spent decades in theatre, I’m most comfortable with a lot of her interactions being with the entertainment staff. Roz McIntyre, the dancer with whom Sophie becomes close friends, was inspired by a couple of chorus dancers with whom I worked on Broadway. They were tall, gorgeous, irreverent, funny, and smart as hell. Talented beyond belief.

Harmonia Ocean, the tarot reader, is a good contrast to Roz. Again, I wanted to move away from the cliché of “the tarot reader must be flaky and unreliable” the same way I wanted to move away from the cliché of the yoga instructor must by ditzy and flaky and woo-woo. Harmonia is very good at what she does, and she’s also practical — most of the time.

Roz and Harmonia are very different from Sophie’s friends back in New York, Fawn and Bianca, but the bonds they’re building are still strong.

Because this is a series, and Sophie will be working with the same people from trip to trip, I wanted to create a variety of interesting individuals with whom we could all live for a long time. I didn’t want to introduce a new set of crewmembers we’d never met before in every book. Crewmembers will come and go, as they do in real life, but we’re not starting over in every book.

Plenty of them are more peripheral, but there is an ensemble and Sophie’s relationships with them will grow and change over the series. Bassio, one of the ship’s “hosts” is important, as is London, also on the entertainment staff. There’s Lorna, on the entertainment staff, who gets along with everybody, and Nicolette, who is Roz’s nemesis. Sophie would love to get to be closer friends with her roommate, Angie, who hails from the Philippines. Only their schedules are opposite. Angie is the night bartender. Angie and Sophie share a bathroom with Becky Cheung, a blackjack dealer hailing from Hong Kong, and Hillary Gaffney, a lifeguard originally from South Africa, who came onto the cruise ship from her sister ship, the Chantal.

Veronika is Sophie’s main antagonist at the start of the series — although Sophie’s boss Geri gives her a run for the money, too. Veronika is gorgeous, Russian, and the ex of the sexy engineer on board, Sebastian. Veronika still considers Sebastian hers.

Another antagonist of Sophie’s on the ship is the restaurant manager, Ajeet, who loves rules and hates the way the Americans on the ship think they can break them without consequence. An even more malignant antagonist for Sophie is Jacques, the spa director. He’s not Sophie’s direct boss (Geri is, when Sophie first gets on the ship, and then Hans). But he does have a say in how she spends her time, and he is not a fan of her or her work.

She deals with Amy quite a bit, the cruise director, and has a complicated relationship with her.

Dhruv Bakshi was a late addition to the book. In most of the drafts, Sophie didn’t interact much with the ship’s security staff. Murali was in the book from the first or second draft, but no one higher up in the security staff.

This bothered my sense of logic. I knew that the FBI got involved in serious shipboard crime in international waters. Duncan Cooke, the NYPD homicide detective who happened to be on the ship when the murder happens, was in from the first draft, building the potential romantic triangle with Sophie and Sebastian.

But it didn’t make sense that a ship with the stellar reputation of the Charisma wouldn’t have good security, and that they wouldn’t get involved. So Dhruv Bakshi was created, to fill the void and to smooth out logistics.

I was completely shocked at the chemistry between Sophie and Dhruv. But I liked it, and decided to go with it.

This breaks a typical rule in a cozy mystery, and is one of the things that moves it into the not-quite-cozy category — more than two potential romantic interests. There will be an entire post about that down the line.

Both Roz and Dhruv (and, starting in the second book in the series, Minerva) also call Sophie’s attention to her reflexive attitude toward her white privilege. Sophie is a white woman. She doesn’t have to deal with certain things that Roz and Dhruv and Minerva and plenty of others on the ship do because of her skin color. Her relationships with them and their discussions about what they face prevent her from being complacent or sanctimonious.

When I worked on Broadway on the original production of MISS SAIGON, we were very, very lucky. It was an international, diverse cast. One of the things we did, once a month on Saturdays between shows for the last few years of the run was to have a potluck. We’d bring in our favorite foods from our growing up years, share it, and talk about everything. We could have actual discussions about things like race and class and privilege and opportunity and what each of us faced and how it was different for each of us because of skin color or ethnicity or religion or economic status. It wasn’t about arguing or blaming — it was about sharing experience and learning to understand each other’s experiences. It made for a richer community among us, both on and off the stage.

I’ve tried to communicate some of that in the discussions Sophie has with friends and colleagues on the ship. It’s also a big part of discussions in the Gambit Colony series (which will release in a year or two under the Devon Ellington byline), and part of the ELLA BY THE BAY trilogy, set in the Caribbean (which is in first draft form, so it’ll be several years before it’s ready for readers).

The shipboard ensemble will grow and change as the series grows. In some books, certain characters will move forward and have more time; in other books, they will be farther back and have less to do. But I hope that I give a sense of teeming activity and energy.

For those who work on a ship, there’s little, if any, downtime. When there is, they tend to play as hard as they work.

Next week, I’ll talk a bit about developing the passengers for this particular voyage.

Want to learn more about the Nautical Namaste Mysteries and Savasana at Sea? Visit the website.


Sept. 6, 2019: Building The Ensemble Part 1 — Friends From Home

image courtesy of

Building the ensemble around Sophie for the Nautical Namaste Mysteries was an interesting challenge.

There were three sets of ensemble characters I needed to create.

The first consists of her friends on land, the friends that stick by her no matter what happens. Because we all need that support system, and that’s one reason why we read this type of book — because the friends support each other.

The second set consists of her colleagues on the ship, the fellow cruise ship employees. Some will become friends. Some will become lovers. Some will become antagonists. Some will shift alliances. Cruise ship staffs are an incredibly international bunch, and I will talk about that in depth next week.

The third set consists of the passengers. Each book in the series covers a different cruise. I change both the cruise route AND the passengers.

On the Nautical Namaste Website, I have pages to introduce the crew and the passengers with little bios. The bios also list which book each character appears in, but I try not to give out spoilers.

Yes, there are a lot of characters. That was intentional. I get annoyed when a book is set someplace that’s supposed to be busy and there are only five or six characters. If it’s a busy setting, I need the sense of motion, teeming life, people.

But today’s post focuses on Sophie’s family and friends on land. The support system she has as she makes the transition into cruise ship life.

She lives in a Brooklyn brownstone with two roommates. The brownstone is based on the one a Broadway pal of mine used to own, in the Fort Greene section. It’s been featured in plenty of film and television shows. When I moved from NY to the Cape, I used to stay there when I visited New York. The photo at the top is NOT my friend’s brownstone — his is much larger, a sandy color, with a high flight of steps leading to the front door. The photo here is a stock photo.

Sophie doesn’t own the brownstone. Her friend Fawn Lassiter, owns it. She’s the Communications Director for a philanthropic foundation in Manhattan. Bianca Suede is their third roommate, a performance artist, tarot reader, and herbalist. Their friend Freddie Diaz might as well be a roommate, for all the time he spends there. He’s a nomadic artist, moving from art colony to residency to crashing on friends’ couches.

These three are the people Sophie depends on most. They tell her the truth, whether she wants to hear it or not. When her fiancé dumps her, partially because she’s involved in too many progressive causes which are at odds with his high-paid corporate job, they support her while still being honest with her.  When she’s fired at the yoga studio where she works because she’s not enough of a “brand” — and then finds out that her nemesis at the studio is behind more than just her firing — Fawn, Bianca, and Freddie are there.

Fawn, Bianca, and Freddie will continue to be a presence in the books, and I hope to bring them on board the Charisma in a future book. I think it would be interesting to see how they interact on the ship, which is now Sophie’s territory. The dynamics of the relationships are bound to change, and that exploration interests me.

Sophie’s family is mentioned, but in SAVASANA AT SEA, most of them are not directly involved with the plot. The exception is Gamma Batchelder, Sophie’s paternal grandmother, who lives in Florida. Sophie is closer to her grandmother than anyone else in her family, and she can hear her grandmother’s sayings as she navigates her life.

 Her mother is barely mentioned, and lives out of state. Her sister Victoria lives in London. Her sister Edwina is more of a presence in the book, due to their difficult relationship. Her brother Rick works in the intelligence community in Washington, DC. Fawn has a crush on him.

But she’s closer to her friends than her family. That’s not unusual for single people in New York City. They’re caught up in their city lives. Their families live far away. Their friends become their family.

Sophie is kind. She cares about people, and makes friends. Establishing a solid base of friendships on land sets the foundation for her ability to make friends on the cruise ship, beyond the old “you’re thrown together and have no choice.”

One of Sophie’s strengths is her capacity for friendship.

Her family is peripheral to this book, but they have an impact on future books. In fact, Edwina will be an important character a few books down the line when she attends a shipboard conference on the Charisma, where Sophie works.

Other peripheral characters include colleagues at the yoga studio, and her students. There’s also a homeless woman, Carmen, for whom Sophie buys a meal and encourages to go to a shelter. Sophie cares. She is involved with the people around her. It’s a shame that one of her greatest strength is something her fiancé sees as a weakness.

Rowena is a character with a foot in both worlds. Rowena is one of Sophie’s yoga students, and supports her when she’s fired. She also works for the cruise line

In earlier drafts, establishing Sophie on land and getting her into her new life on the cruise ship took four chapters. Along the way, professionals in the business suggested cutting it all out and starting the book on the ship. I tried this for a draft, and then salting in her previous relationships. But losing the catalyst for her journey hurt the way her character was established.  It made her feel more shallow and less substantial to me.

However, the advice of needing to be on the cruise ship earlier was valuable. I cut A LOT of material from the early chapters. I now have the firing, the breakup, get her on the cruise ship, and the catalyst for her sleuthing on the ship in the first chapter. It keeps the story moving; it gives the reader enough background on Sophie and why she’s worth the time spent on this journey.

It was good advice, even if I didn’t follow it to the letter. I took the heart of the advice and adapted it in a way that supported my story and characters better.

It took eight drafts to get it where I wanted it to be. And every draft was worth the time and energy.

Next week, I’ll talk about building the ensemble of the cruise ship staff.

Visit the Nautical Namaste website. You can read excerpts from SAVASANA AT SEA and find buy links.

Fri. Aug. 30, 2019: How I Decided to Write SAVASANA AT SEA

image courtesy of skeeze via pixabay

First of all, hi! I’m glad you’re here. I created this blog to help walk a friend of mine through blog creation on WordPress. I don’t like the way this is set up, especially the way it’s spaced. I’m more comfortable with the templates that let me write and set it up the way I want..

In any case, since I have it, I thought I should utilize this tool to talk about the Nautical Namaste Mysteries and the other work that I create under the Ava Dunne name. The plan is to blog most Fridays.

Many of you know me as Devon Ellington, and read my Coventina Circle paranormal romantic suspense novels, my Gwen Finnegan Mysteries, the currently out-of-print Jain Lazarus urban fantasies (don’t worry, they’ll be back), and more. You read Ink in My Coffee, the almost-daily blog about the intersection of writing and life, and the other blogs that feed off that one.

So why another blog?

The Ava Dunne voice is a little different. It’s a little lighter, more comedic, more slanted toward romantic elements, although it wouldn’t be fair to romance readers to call them “romance.”

With the Nautical Namaste series, I wanted to write something that was closer to the cozy subgenre. Okay, I’ll be honest, I wanted to write a cozy. Only some of the expectations of the way the cozies evolved didn’t work for the story and the characters. The compromises I would have to make to keep it strictly within the cozy negated what I hoped to achieve with the book. I understand the expectations; I chose not to follow some of them. So this series is billed as “Not Quite Cozy.” I’ll do an entire post on how I strayed from the expectations of a typical cozy.

Most of you know that I spent the bulk of my career working professionally in the theatre, a good chunk of it on Broadway. As I worked my way up to Broadway, I worked in smaller venues, and I did whatever temp jobs I needed to in order to keep a roof over my head. I’ve worked in all kinds of company situations until I landed theatre work that paid enough to survive.

In the mid-1980’s, I lived in San Francisco for two years. There are tons of stories about my time there, but most of them aren’t relevant to the series. One of my favorite temp jobs in and around my theatre work was an eight-month stint in the office of a cruise line. I worked for one of the Vice Presidents, one of the few executives over the years with whom I worked that I liked, respected, and trusted. He was a decent, ethical, kind man.

My colleagues at the Cruise line were terrific. I absolutely adored them. Four of us had our desk together, and we had a blast. In fact, I dedicated SAVASANA AT SEA to Sonia, one of them. We’ve lost touch over the years, but I’ve never forgotten her.

There was a huge problem in the corporate whatevers during my tenure, and my boss, the kind, ethical man, was the fall guy. I was asked to stay on when he was fired. I refused, because I disagreed with why he’d been fired and the guy who replaced him was an A-1 asshole, not to mention way to “handy” with the women in the office. So I left.

But I was always interested in the idea of a mystery on a cruise ship. To me, it’s like a locked room mystery. You’re all stuck on a floating resort for the length of your cruise. Yes, you can do excursions, but plenty can happen.

When I was twelve, my mother and I took one of those tours that inspired the movie IF IT’S TUESDAY, THIS MUST BE BELGUIM. Even at twelve, I was aware of quite a few of the undercurrents and drama between members of the tour group. Part of the tour was a week-long cruise up the Rhine River. Which was both fun and weird.

Working in theatre, many of my colleagues spent eight-to-ten month contracts on cruise ships. I heard a LOT of stories. All kinds of stories. Some were funny; some, not so much.

image by garyskirrow via pixabay

I have a daily yoga and meditation practice. I take class at the studio whenever I can. I go to Kripalu when I can. Yoga has become a vital part of my life. It helps both physically and mentally.

One of the things that has frustrated me in all genres of books is the depictions of yoga instructors as flaky or unreliable or out there. They were treated as jokes, instead of trained professionals. Too often, the author who creates yoga instructor candidates is downright patronizing and the characters don’t work.

Most of the yoga instructors I know are among the smartest, most reliable, most compassionate, most together people I’ve ever come across. They don’t pretend to be perfect; they’d not afraid to admit flaws. They know our flaws make us human. They work WITH us so we can all be our best selves.

I wanted to write about that kind of instructor.

I wanted to write about a cruise ship.

So why not combine them? So I did. My protagonist, Sophie Batchelder, is kind and smart and funny and determined to stay true to herself. Because she’s all of those things, her fiance breaks up with her – she’s a detriment to his career. As her housemate Bianca tells her, people underestimate her because she’s kind, and mistake kindness for weakeness.

Sophie’s not weak. She’s strong and smart and funny and flawed.

Once she started telling me her story, how could I resist?

Next Friday, I’ll tell you how I built the ensemble around her.

If you’d like to read more about The Nautical Namaste series, you can hop on over to the website here. You can read excerpts from the book (and even buy it, that would be great) here.

Just Jump in and Fly

“Just Jump in and Fly” is a short story, a fresh take on some of my favorite holiday myths (turning some of them inside out). mixed with comedy and a little romance.

Susanna 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 Susanna 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!

It’s only 99 cents on Smashwords here.

It’s a fun little piece. I’m fond of the characters, and thinking about doing more with them.

If you’d like to read an excerpt, you can hop over and read one here.