The Idealized Town Full of Eccentrics

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We’re still in Twinkle, Vermont this week, talking about the Twinkle Tavern Mysteries.

These stories adhere more closely to the typical cozy formula than the Nautical Namaste Mysteries. They will still intentionally break the rules here and there, but, overall, they are closer to the formula.

I started “Plot Bunnies” when I still lived in New York, so it’s been around for awhile. It’s a pretty straight shot up through Albany, a little higher, and then a bit east to get to Vermont, and I enjoyed time spent in the small towns.

I liked the trope of a small town full of eccentrics, and that’s what I decided to create — and keep.

When I started reading and enjoying and analyzing cozy mysteries back in the mid-90’s, one of the things I loved was that a misfit comes in and solves the mystery. Her intelligence and resourcefulness are appreciated, and she is accepted in this community for who she is, and can continue her growth from there.

What’s saddened and upset me in too many cozies over the last few years (in addition to the heroines getting dumber, more passive, and celibate) is that the misfit solves the mystery and then CONFORMS to the community, because she wants acceptance. Even though she’s smarter and saves the day, she has to compromise her integrity in order to become part of the community. As the books go on, she gets duller, blander, and more passive.

Yuck.

I’ve put down several dozen mysteries for just that reason, and crossed those authors off my list. I want to read (and write) books that celebrate individuality, not encourage conformity.

Gloria Dunkirk, my protagonist, has never fit in anywhere. Her son, Max, is also a non-conformist, at an age where it hurts to be just that. But she hopes that her example and her belief in him makes the journey just a bit easier. It helps that her mother-in-law, Violet, is also a non-conformist, and always has been. Violet was born and raised in the town, and her family has a strong history there, so she is one of the people who sets the tone there.

It’s not always an easy journey for them, especially since people grow, change, move, die, and there’s always someone around looking to change things in order to make personal profit. 

Greed, be it monetary or sexual, is the foundation of most murders, so I guess one of the things I’m dissecting in this series is greed.

At the same time, I want it to be a bit more light-hearted than some of the other pieces I write (especially those under the Devon Ellington name), have more of a wry comic tone, and more of a sense of fun.

I drew a map of the town when I first wrote the story, and I’ve added to it as I kept working. It has the central green common in the middle of town, with the small businesses and services all built around it, and the streets in the village radiating from there. Twinkle Tavern and the Inn attached to it are perfectly situated to please tourists and still be a local hangout.

The characters are all different in their unique ways, and have found their way to Twinkle or stayed there after growing up there for a variety of reasons. Monica Dufresne, Gloria’s friend in town, is an aging ex-stripper married to a successful businessman. She’s not worried about fitting in; she’d rather be herself. Her insights provide vital clues to the murderer. Even Dean Eastlake, the sexy, hometown detective on whom Gloria has a crush, has his own eccentricities. So do his friends, and so does Chloe Rendell, the kickass female private eye in town following up on a theory about the murdered man who everyone thought was sweet and harmless.

One of the reasons the second story, “Labor Intensive” is still in revisions is because it took such a dark tone that it didn’t fit as a partner for “Plot Bunnies.”

“Plot Bunnies” is set around Easter; “Labor Intensive” is set over Labor Day weekend. Although I want to focus on minor holidays earlier in the series, I’m considering the third story set around Thanksgiving, which is certainly anything BUT minor in my life.

I have to let the characters tell me tales, and then say “what if?” and then write my way into it for a bit until I figure out the plot. Then I sit down and outline. Then, I go back and write.

For me, that process melds the best of planning with blank-paging. Besides, as far as I’m concerned, an outline is a road map, not a prison. I’m allowed to take an unexpected exit and explore if I choose.

If you’d like to read “Plot Bunnies” it’s available here on Smashwords, Kobo, and Nook for 99 cents. It is a short piece, not a novel or novella.

There will not be a post here next Friday; it’s part of the holiday weekend. But I’ll be back in December, talking about Winter Holiday pieces.

Welcome to Twinkle, Vermont!

For the last few weeks, I’ve talked about the process of writing SAVASANA AT SEA, the firs Nautical Namaste Mystery. I’ve talked about choices, decisions involved in character, setting, location, plot, ensemble, where I chose to break rules.

This week, I switch to a few weeks of talking about some of the shorter pieces I write under the Delectable Digital Delights banner.

The first of these is “Plot Bunnies.” It’s a comic, romantic, short mystery set in the fictional Twinkle, Vermont. It’s the start of the Twinkle Tavern Mysteries.

Here’s the blurb:

Someone killed the Easter Bunny – so who’s dancing around the Village Green in his suit? 

Welcome to Twinkle, Vermont.  When her husband is killed in a car crash after a rendezvous with his mistress, Gloria Dunkirk and her teenaged son move in with her mother-in-law. Gloria goes to work at the historical Twinkle Tavern & Green Gate Inn. When her son and his friend discover the body of the man who dresses up for holiday events, they wonder who’s impersonating him at the town’s Easter Egg event at that very moment? The upside is that Gloria gets to spend time with the sexy Dean Eastlake, Twinkle’s favorite detective. The downside is stopping the killer before he strikes again – in minutes.

It was originally written for a contest, several years ago, using a twist on a typical holiday. I wanted to do something wacky with an Easter Bunny. The story was deemed too “cute”  with too much romance for the contest, but I liked the story and characters. I hadn’t read Donna Andrews’s mysteries at the time, but re-reading this now, the tone reminds me of her work.  I don’t classify it as a romance, but as having romantic elements. There’s hope for Gloria and the man she’s attracted to by the end of the story, but no promises.

As much as I loved the stories and the characters, trying to expand it into a book hurt the pace and the sense of fun in the piece. So I chose to keep it as a short. It’s gotten a positive response, and I’m working on more shorts to explore different relationships between Gloria and other characters, and the town. The plan is to set them around different holidays, starting with holidays used less often in fiction, and then moving toward more commonly-used ones as plot ideas present themselves. There’s no set timetable for these pieces.

One of the elements I want to explore in the stories is Gloria’s relationship with her mother-in-law, Violet. Gloria is a widow. Her husband died returning from an illicit rendezvous; the mistress produced a forged will, leaving her everything. Gloria and Violet don’t intend on letting her get away with it. In this story, it’s hinted that Violet gets along better with Gloria than she did with her own son. I plan to explore that in future stories, although they won’t always have an easy time of it.

Violet, Dean Eastlake’s mother, and the mother of another character, Parker Sullivan, were all friends growing up. They were smart, independent, hell-raising women in a small New England town. They’re not going to roll over and submit to anyone. Their friendship will be explored, both in contemporary times, and earlier in their friendship, in future stories. Dean’s mother died when he was a teenager, so in contemporary times, only Violet and Rose are left.

The mother-in-law relationship isn’t easy, and it will be fun to explore how Gloria and Violet work together, and, sometimes, how they disagree. Instead of clichés, I want to explore how they build their relationship, especially since so much is at stake with Gloria’s son/Violet’s grandson, Max.

If you’d like to learn more about “Plot Bunnies” you can visit the Delectable Digital Delights page on my website or direct purchase on Smashwords, Kobo, and Nook.

Writing The Book I Wanted to Read

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Over the past few weeks, I’ve talked about different aspects of writing SAVASANA AT SEA, the first Nautical Namaste Mystery. I’ve talked about why I made choices I made for the book, and how it differs from a typical cozy mystery to earn the label I call “Not Quite Cozy.”

What does all that add up to?

It adds up to me writing the book I wanted to read and couldn’t find. I wanted a book with a smart, fun, ethical protagonist struggling to live her path. I was tired of the clichéd depiction of yoga practitioners, especially in cozy mysteries (even, though, in some cases, I suspect it was the editor or publisher pushing the cliché and dumbing down the protagonist).

I wanted a large, international ensemble cast.  The staff, crew, and passengers on a cruise ship are perfect for that. I wanted to contain the characters, yet also mix in gorgeous locations. A cruise ship fit that.

I wanted my character to have a healthy love life, but not necessarily be monogamous. At the same time, I wasn’t going to tolerate slut shaming. We’ll see how successful I am over the course of the series about that.

I wanted it to be both realistic and imaginative. I wanted to spend time with characters I loved in interesting situations and beautiful locales. I wanted to grow the ensemble of characters through the series, not just bring in a totally new cast for every book.

I started by challenging myself to write a traditional cozy mystery. As I worked on draft after draft after draft, I realized that wasn’t really want I wanted. So I trusted my instincts, and also the advice of professionals around me. I didn’t take all the advice, but there were elements that made sense, that made it possible to make the book better and yet keep its heart and soul.

I love Sophie and the ensemble. I’m lucky that my editor does, too, and yet knows when to guide me when I go too far off the scope (as I did with the next book, DAVY JONES DHARMA, which is in serious, plot-changing revisions).

I hope you’ll come on the journey with us.

Visit the Nautical Namaste website, and learn more about SAVASANA AT SEA.

Walking The Talk

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I’ve mentioned, several times, how one of the reasons I wanted Sophie to be a yoga instructor is that I’m tired of the flaky, clichéd way that profession is often portrayed, especially in cozy mysteries.

The yoga instructors under whom I’ve studied are smart, dedicated, well-trained over a wide variety of topics, sensitive, compassionate, and work to live their practice off the mat, not just during class.

Have I ever taken a class from a flake? Or a hypocrite? Yes. But those experiences have been few and far between. I’ve pegged them for who they really are pretty fast, and not continued my study with them. There are also a couple of well-known names whose behavior I disagree with. I don’t take class with them. I don’t bad mouth them, but I don’t engage, either.

In the Nautical Namaste series, it was important to me that my protagonist be bright, curious, compassionate. I wanted her to do her best to live her path. Because she is human, she fails sometimes.

Jelena, who owns the yoga studio in New York and fires Sophie at the top of SAVASANA, is also flawed. She is a business woman. She wants her studio to succeed in the competitive New York City health and wellness market. She worries about branding and marketing, as she must. She underestimates Sophie’s value, because Sophie doesn’t push herself into the spotlight or blow her own horn.

Alyssa, a colleague at the yoga studio, is ambitious. She is not a flaky cliché, either. But her ambition means she handles Sophie as competition rather than colleague. She is willing to cross lines Sophie is not. She is an example of someone who does not live the teachings off the mat — or, at least, not to the extent Sophie tries to live them.

(Note: Every time Alyssa comes up in the series, I always feel I should apologize to my friend and colleague, author Alyssa Maxwell. The Alyssa in the book was created and named before I met Alyssa Maxwell, and was not in the least inspired by the author. The character, who will be Sophie’s antagonist in more than one book, named herself, and is determined to keep that name. By the way, if you haven’t read Alyssa’s books, I recommend them. She’s a wonderful writer).

Sophie is also aware of her flaws. She realizes it when she gives in to a moment of pettiness or snarkiness. People underestimate her because she is kind. That’s THEIR character flaw, not hers.

She reminds herself to walk her talk. She reminds herself, when necessary, to be her best self. She doesn’t pretend not to live up to her own expectations sometimes. But she tries to learn from each situation and to do better.

Isn’t that part of the reason why we choose this practice?

One of the things I love about studying at Kripalu is that we are encouraged to know that we are fine wherever we are, wherever we start in the moment. We are not awful or failures or worthless. We have basic worth because we are who we are.

That doesn’t mean we don’t try to be better. We practice. We improve. We plateau. We regress.

Sophie is kind. She tries to give everyone room to be who they are. She tries not to judge. However, when someone is cruel to her or to someone else, she takes action. She is not fond of the person who is murdered early in SAVASANA AT SEA. It turns out that few people on the ship were fond of the murder victim. That saddens Sophie. It also contributes to her determination that the victim gets justice. The murder can’t be ignored; the murderer can’t get away.

Yes, the stakes rise when certain assumptions are made about Sophie’s connection to the victim, and the assumptions about what Sophie will do next. But her basic belief in justice fuel her actions over the course of the book.

Sophie is a person who walks her talk. She lives her yoga practice on and off the mat. She is not sanctimonious or judgmental. She doesn’t expect everyone to live or think the way she does. But she demands basic human dignity, even for those with whom she disagrees. She’s in a high-stress situation, and has to make quick decisions, thinking on her feet. In most cases, she chooses to err on the side of kindness. In some cases, she responds out of anger or hurt. In other cases, she has to make a different decision to save her life or the life of someone about whom she cares.

This dynamic, this friction, between being who she is and who she wants to be, how she wants to improve, is fertile ground for a writer. I’m looking forward to exploring her progress, and, sometimes, her regressions, throughout the series.

If you’d like to learn more about the Nautical Namaste mysteries, visit the website. You can get more information on SAVASANA AT SEA here.

Shipboard Activities

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A cruise ship is a combination of floating resort and floating city. There’s a lot going on at any given time.

There are shore excursions at stops on the way. But there’s also plenty to do when the ship is in between ports.

Sophie is the ship’s only yoga instructor. They have her on a difficult schedule. She has classes all day, from early in the morning until just before dinner.  She does have breaks, but they often are filled with private clients.

Even though she is in top physical condition, she has to pace herself. If she did that many hours of yoga a day full out, she couldn’t keep up the pace.

Working on a cruise ship is flat out, shifts are long, and there’s little time off. Keeping passengers happy isn’t easy. Especially when those passengers are determined to be miserable, as some are. That’s the reality. Turnaround day, when one set of passengers disembarks, and the new ones arrive, are even busier. Staff and crew work flat out during the voyage, without days off. They might have a meal break or a few hours off to sleep, but no days off.

Depending on the line, employees are rotated off after months (six, eight, or ten months, usually) for about six to eight weeks off.

On the Charisma, there are all kinds of activities. Yoga. Sophie sets up a meditation room. There’s a complete fitness center, with everything a high-end health club would have. A spa, with all of those amenities.

There’s a Youth Director to oversee activities for kids and teens (which gives the kids and their parents a break ). There’s a rock-climbing wall. There are all kinds of games, like shuffleboard, ping-pong, etc. I haven’t explored everything yet, but different aspects of activities will feature in different books, as serves the plot of a particular book.

The pool is a favorite spot, for both plot points and passengers!

The crew has their own pool, which is normal. On their few off hours, if they’re not sleeping, they can hang out by their own pool. Not with the passengers, but on their own. In fact, interaction between passengers and crew is not encouraged outside of activities. It is against regulations.

One of the running jokes in SAVASANA is how Sophie has to learn to call passengers “guests” as she settles in to her new job.

The casino is a big deal, although it’s only open when the ship is in international waters. The shows are a big part of the night’s activities, as is dancing in the Supper Club.

Passengers can shop at a variety of stores. There’s a library. Quite a few encounters in the books happen and will happen in the library. Because I am partial to libraries!

Food is a big deal on a cruise ship, but that’s getting its own post.

The ship has its own lecturer on arts and culture; there will also be guest lecturers, especially when there are cruises built around a specific theme. For instance, DAVY JONES DHARMA is built around the premise of a rich man buying out the ship for a floating party connected to a treasure hunt off the coast of Bermuda. The third book is built around a writer’s conference on board between New York and Southampton, England.

In other words, there’s a lot to do.

Yet people still get bored.

I’ve never understood boredom. The world is such an interesting place, and there’s so much going on. How can anyone be bored? My father (a chemist), always said, “Only boring people are bored.” I agree.

But boredom works to drive plot. Which sounds like a paradox. But bored people often make poor decisions. In context of a mystery, that gives me room to get them into trouble.

Sophie and I share the character trait of finding the world interesting, and, therefore, not getting bored. In fact, Sophie’s run ragged most of the time. As the series continues, she will go through periods of living in a state of perpetual exhaustion, and then leveling out for awhile, and then exhaustion.

She will be more than ready for her break.

Also, as a person who does not experience boredom, it’s interesting for me, as a writer, to explore it. How does it feel? What kind of sensations does it take in the body, and how are those communicated?

Because the books are in first person and Sophie doesn’t get bored, the reader can’t experience it through Sophie. But as Sophie helps people tackle various issues — including boredom — she will help them learn to communicate these sensations, even while they find solutions.

The variety of activities on the ship gives me all kinds of fun stuff to use, as a writer, as plot devices, red herrings, comic relief, and to communicate the busy daily-ness of shipboard life.

Some books will have more about certain activities than others. Because Sophie is the yoga instructor, all of the books will have a lot to do with her experience as both yoga teacher and practitioner, and how she walks her talk (that’s a post all on its own).

Cruise ships are busy places, teeming with life, love, and conflict — even as people try to “relax.” I hope you enjoy going on our various journeys.

To learn more about the Nautical Namaste mysteries, visit the website. You can read about SAVASANA AT SEA and find the buy links.

Location

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To me, setting is an additional character in a book. I often talk about emotional geography, which is the physical geography layered over with the history of place layered over with how the characters respond and interact with the setting.

If I read one more book set in Ye Old Fake Scotland by someone who’s never been to Scotland, I will hurl.  Or having someone in Harlem walk a block or two and end up in Greenwich Village, without teleportation. Or thinking you can have a one-story garage along Central Park anywhere.

I do something called “stretched geography” where I add fictional places anchored by real locations. For instance, if I need a restaurant on Bleecker Street, I might add a fictional one, and place it on a block where it makes sense. Where such a restaurant might actually work. As writers, yes, we create fiction and expect readers to use imagination. At the same time, if we’re setting something in a real place, we need at least a few realistic anchors. Roots in the believable create a solid foundation for the imagination.

A character is going to interact with New Orleans differently than New York or Edinburgh or Vancouver. Setting and the effect on characters is vital, for me, in creating a believable context for character and plot.

And yes, I need things named. If places, towns, etc. are not named in the work, I suspect the writer is either lazy or is trying to pull off one of those “this could be anywhere.”

Honey, I’m not doing a “Play Your Own Adventure.” You’re asking me to give up MY time to enter YOUR world. Make it worthwhile.

See the paragraph about interacting differently with different locations.

It CAN’T be “anywhere.”

I created the Diamond Line Cruise ships after researching several different lines, and taking what I thought would work best for the series. I wanted it to be logical, and yet not exactly like other lines. I sketched different decks. I did a boatload (pun intended) of research. And then, I basically built my own cruise ship.

This location give something stable in the environment that changes from book-to-book. I get the best of both worlds, because the ship travels, and each book has them on a different route.

The series, and SAVASANA AT SEA, starts in New York City, a city I know well. Sophie and her housemates live in Brooklyn, in  a townhouse a friend of mine used to own.

SAVASANA travels to the Bahamas. It’s been quite awhile since I’ve been to the Bahamas. Years ago, I worked on a Broadway show that had Sunday as its dark day, instead of Monday. At that time, Jet Blue had a $99 roundtrip to the Bahamas, leaving early on Sunday morning, you spent the day on the beach, and flew home that night.

As I said, that happened years before I started working on the book. So I made sure I researched and updated my notes and memories. I also watched a lot of videos people posted of wandering the city, to get the feel of the streets again.

This was all before Hurricane Dorian caused such devastation earlier this year. The book takes place pre-Dorian, although I plan to donate 50% of the royalties from SAVASANA to organizations helping rebuild the Bahamas for at least a year.

Sophie is not a resident of any of these locations. She is a tourist, even though she makes more than one visit (in the series, the ship changes route once a month). That means she experiences these locations for the first time.  Every location is a fresh, exciting adventure for her. She’ll learn some of the history and other unusual aspects of the places.

The private island is fictional, inspired by private islands some cruise lines have purchased and turned into resorts. I got to design it the way that worked best for the book, which is always fun!

DAVY JONES DHARMA, the second book in the series, takes place on the route to Bermuda. Bermuda and the Bahamas are both islands in the Atlantic ocean. But the vibe of each are unique. That’s one of the exciting things about all those islands and down into the Caribbean. Each island has a unique personality.

I love sensory details. Smells, textures, sounds, tastes. I think they add a lot to a book. I love food in books.  I love how a location shapes interaction. All of these things matter to me as a reader. I love exploring them as a writer.

What are your favorite uses of locations in books? Either real or world-built?

Want to read the book? Visit the Nautical Namaste website, SAVASANA AT SEA, and the buylinks page.

Friendship

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Friendship

One of my favorite parts of a cozy (or, in this case, not-quite-cozy) series is the friendships built along the way, and how they grow and change. The protagonist builds her tribe along the course of the series.  In the best of them, they grow and change.

Many series start with the protagonist relocating to make a fresh start. Unfortunately, it often means ignoring the friendships left behind. As someone who is good at maintaining connections through years and across miles, that didn’t feel realistic to me.

I’m willing to suspend my disbelief when I read (and hope the same happens in my writing) at quick connections in some cases, which then have room to grow (and, hopefully, don’t stagnate). Genuine friendship needs time and shared experience in order to thrive.

As transient as theatre is, moving from show-to-show, the friendships tend to sustain beyond closing dates. Many romantic relationships don’t, but friendships do. I found it much easier to make friends in theatre than outside of it. Where I live now, people go to work and go home; they don’t put much effort into friendship, unless it’s they knew since they were toddlers.

Sophie has her tribe in New York – her housemates are also her closest friends. While they will not be central to many of the books (although I plan to bring one or more of them onboard during the series), they will remain connected.

Her two closest friends on the ship are Roz (a dancer) and Harmonia (the tarot reader). These two friendships will go through a lot of tests and changes. But the time they spend together, the connections they form through being together in a small space, sharing time and experience together, will be a throughline. Sophie will make other friends on the ship, too. She’s a kind person and people are drawn to that kindness. I hesitate to say “positive energy” because it makes her sound flaky, but that’s what she has. Even during tough times, she tries to find the best in a situation, and the best in the people she meets. She is an optimist, even when hit with pessimistic issues.

Things won’t always run smoothly with Roz and Harmonia. All three of them are too dynamic to fall into the tropes of The Pretty One, The Funny One, The Sexy One and stay here. Things will shift. There will be challenges. There will be arguments.

What I don’t want is one of those fake arguments that supposedly drive the plot, but, in reality, feel false and wrong and cause the reader impatience until the characters make up. I want things to be deeper and not that petty.

Some friends will be short term – cruise ships are notorious for having a turnover in staff and crew. Some will be short term because of a hidden agenda that is revealed during the plot and changes how they relate. Some will be short term because they leave.

She makes friends with men, too. Sophie and Sebastian are friends first, which sets a good foundation as their relationship grows and shifts. Bassio (a ship’s host), Tobias (the ship’s wardrobe supervisor), London (entertainment staff) are all platonic friends. There are other men on the ship with whom Sophie may flirt, but also remain platonic friends. Too often, genuinely platonic male-female friendships (as opposed to failed romances that “settle” for friendship) are ignored in fiction, especially mysteries. It’s something I’d like to read more about. Therefore, it is something I will write more about.

One of the reasons the ship as backdrop intrigues me is the possibilities in the exploration of different layers of friendship.

How do you like to see friendships develop and evolve over the course of a series?

Want to know more about this book? Visit the Nautical Namaste website, learn about Savasana at Sea and buy it.

The Question of Romance

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In the first chapter of SAVASANA AT SEA, Sophie’s fiancé Jack, dumps her. He has decided she is a detriment to his career. The parts of her personality that initially attracted him to her are things he’s decided he can’t live with.

Sophie is in her late twenties (Harmonia warns her she’s hitting her Saturn Return — we’ll discuss that in a future post). She’s a healthy, active woman. I wanted her to have a healthy, active love life.

Romantic triangles are often set up in cozy mysteries. Every author handles them differently, but most protagonists in cozies are monogamous. They might break up and then fall for someone else, but they are monogamous.

One of the reasons this series is marked “Not Quite Cozy” is that I wanted to break some of the romance rules that are often associated with the genre. I wanted the books to have romantic elements, while not promising romance. I also didn’t want readers to feel cheated if they expected or demanded romance rather than romantic elements in their mysteries.

I wanted to give Sophie more options than are traditionally available in this formula. Sebastian was always going to be her primary romantic relationship on the ship, since early outlines and development. His character appeared early in the planning, along with his backstory (which also gives him some additional options).

Sophie mentions, in one of her conversations, that she’s always been a serial monogamist. I wanted to give her a chance to go beyond that, should it serve any of the individual plots and her character. Too often, the male characters are allowed to play the field, while the female characters are supposed to wait patiently or get slut-shamed. I wanted it to be different here.

Sex is a major pastime on cruise ships. That is a reality. I’ve read too many stories set on ships where that facet is either ignored or the characters are branded as sluts and then punished for actively pursing sex. Again, this is something I wanted to avoid in this series.

Sophie has come out of a painful breakup. She is a single young woman tossed in with a large group of attractive people (yes, hiring calls on cruise ships are akin to casting calls — looks matter in many of the staff positions). There are going to be attractions and flirtations. Some will just be in fun. Some may lead to something else at a point in the series.

In SAVASANA AT SEA, Sophie is attracted to Sebastian early, while also annoyed by him. She responds to Andrew’s kindness, and there’s attraction between them. She and Duncan Cooke, the NYPD detective, have immediate sparks. She and Dhruv, the head of security, also have an attraction that moves between flirtation, friendship, and attraction. Dhruv entered the mix far later than many of the other characters, so it’s been interesting to develop his relationship to Sophie.

She flirts with Ewan Drummond, but it’s all in fun, at least at this stage of the game. Then, of course, there’s Dean. Dean is one of the entertainers on the ship. Extremely talented. Pansexual. The rest of the staff often joke about how sex with Dean is an initiation into cruise life. Sex is a tool of communication for Dean. He doesn’t use and then drop people. His view is that it’s another way of connection. He’s capable of being a genuine friend. There’s even a point, in SAVASANA, where he saves Sophie’s life.

There’s a part of Sophie that feels left out because she hasn’t had sex with Dean. Yet. Will she in future books? There’s always a possibility. I’ve mapped out a few different scenarios where it would serve her character and plots of future books.

The destruction of her engagement and the loss of her job in New York left her feeling undesirable. I want her to have options. I want her to be able to explore them in a positive way without being punished for so doing.

The tone of the books also calls for a delicate balance within the love scenes (and the sex scenes). I don’t give every detail, and not every detail in every encounter. I hope I strike the right balance between the romance, the desire, the exploration, the acts, and the rest of the tone of the book. Some of it is on the page. Some of it is off the page.

Sophie won’t always make the right choices. Even when she makes the right choice in the moment, relationships don’t always work out. Especially under the tensions of working on a ship: a lot of attractive people in a contained space, a high-stress environment, life-and-death situations, and lots of alcohol. There will be consequences for those choices, but not the oft-depicted punishments because she chose to have a healthy, active sex life. AND a healthy, active love life. She wants them to coincide, but it might not always happen that way.

Her best friends have their own romantic struggles. Roz McIntyre broke the rules and had a relationship with one of the ship’s officers. He left the Charisma to captain a yacht, and their relationship ended. The Diamond line could have chosen to fire them – although it’s more likely Roz would have paid the price and either been moved to another ship in the line or fired outright. Now, she’s got a crush on the ship’s purser. Someone else with whom she shouldn’t get involved. Again, I’ve mapped out several possibilities for Roz’s relationships, and I will choose which works the best in the overall arcs of the book and keeps Roz true to her integrity and character growth.

Harmonia has her share of romantic entanglements. As the ship’s tarot reader, she has more leeway between passengers, staff, and crew than many of the other employees. An ex-boyfriend of hers (from her life on land, pre-Charisma now works in one of the restaurants. She’s also involved with a fellow staff member. Then there’s Xerses, the ship’s illusionist, her friend, and often partner for shipboard events. They have a history together. Harmonia is the most likely to take risks and suffer consequences. Without giving too much away, I can let you know that she takes an enormous risk in the second book, DAVY JONES DHARMA.

As a reader, I enjoy watching relationships, especially romantic ones, grow and change between the characters over the course of a series. It’s more interesting to me if it’s not set in stone in the first book, or if it’s so obvious in the first book but unbelievable/annoying obstacles are thrown into the paths of the star-crossed lovers. People grow and change. So do their relationships.

Of course, they are not the only ones who experience love and romance. Supporting characters and passengers have their own love stories. Or sex stories. Nor are all the relationships heterosexual. The characters will fall in love as they fall in love, as works with their character growth and helps drive the mystery plots. But not everything can fit into every book. And not every relationship will be successful.

I’m enjoying the growth and change of the relationships as I write the books, and I hope you will, too.

Visit the Nautical Namaste website, learn about SAVASANA AT SEA, read an excerpt, and find the buy links.

Fri. Sept. 20, 2019: Building the Ensemble Part 3: Passengers

image courtesy of cocoparisienne via pixabay.com

I’ve discussed how I built the land-based ensemble and the staff/crew of the Charisma around Sophie for Savasana at Sea. This week, I talk about the passengers.

Plenty of cruise ships have three thousand to six thousand passengers. That was too much for me to deal with, even theoretically. It would lose the sense of a locked room mystery if it was too much of a floating city.

I decided that the Diamond Line cruise company would have three ships, named after owner Cosimo Allegheny’s daughters: the Charisma, the Chantal,  and the Heather. They would be high-end luxury ships, with smaller passenger capacity, around a thousand.

Obviously, I can’t introduce a thousand new passengers on every voyage. At the same time, there can’t be only three people every mentioned, because then it feels like the balance.

Changing passenger rosters are great to support the main plot and also have subplots. Some of them, as the series grows, will be comic; others will be more serious.

I have a Meet the Passengers page on the Nautical Namaste web site, where I will post the cast of passengers relevant to each voyage, and a little background on them. They will be sorted by voyage, rather than by department, the way the Staff/Crew page is sorted.

Detective Duncan Cooke, and, later, the FBI agents Anna Vallejo and Burt Madigan are essential to the primary plot, and, therefore to both Sophie and Sebastian. Duncan was in the book from the second or third draft, there by accident, but makes himself central to the murder investigation. The FBI agents were necessary, because they’d be called in for a cruise ship suspicious death in international waters. For many drafts, I didn’t have ship security involved at all; my Trusted Readers didn’t notice, but the more research I did in how a shipboard murder would be handled ethically by a cruise line, the more it bothered me. Dhruv, the head of security, showed up in about Draft 7. I talk more about him in last week’s post about the Staff/Crew. I was as surprised as anyone at the chemistry between Dhruv and Sophie.

I always intended for Sophie to be involved in a romantic triangle, but in initial planning stages for the book and the series, it was going to be Sebastian and someone on the entertainment staff.  Only none of them sparked with her. I considered having Ewan Drummond as part of the triangle, because they flirt together well, but again, it wasn’t quite right. There’s a lot of chemistry with Andrew, the nurse. He’s interested, and he definitely steps up when she’s vulnerable. But that relationship has some surprises in store, too (I don’t want to give away too many spoilers).

Sophie is too much of a professional to cross the line with passengers. She’d be fired, and it’s not like she could keep it a secret. I also didn’t want to fall into the trap of having her fall for a different person in every book. That’s not true to who she is. She talks about always being a serial monogamist in her relationships. She doesn’t want to get tied down again to one person right away, after her engagement breaks off, at  least right away. While I want her to have a healthy sex life (thereby breaking some of the cozy rules), I don’t want to send her off into promiscuity, because that would make her unhappy.

The way her attraction with Duncan grows makes sense. Technically, he’s a passenger at the beginning of the book, but he takes on a very different role when he starts investigating the murders, and working with the FBI agents. She knows, pretty early on, that Duncan is completely wrong for her. Yet the pull of attraction is undeniable. How far they took it changed in the different drafts, but I’m happy with where it wound up here, and it makes sense in her growth for the series.

It’s highly likely that Anna and Burt will be back again, because this is a mystery series, and there will be bodies dropped in every book. Whether it will always be this pair or I’ll bring in different agents or mix and match is still up in the air, and I’ll make that decision per the needs of each individual book. Also, Anna’s history with Sebastian adds an interesting dynamic to the Sophie-Sebastian relationship.

Most of the passengers with whom Sophie interacts are through the yoga classes. That makes sense, as she’s the yoga instructor and most of her day is filled with teaching class. Many of the students are unnamed, and they’re mentioned in passing.

Bachelor and bachelorette parties are often held on cruise ships. So the Josh-Melodie subplot, each in a different wedding party, set up some fun comic relief. The elderly yoga practioner Bridey, travelling with a group of mature women, also provided fun subplots. She takes the shy, lonely teenager Lydia under her wing, and has a flirtation with a mature man in the yoga class. Lydia blossoming through gaining self-esteem in class and then making friends was also fun to work with.

Studies have proven how much yoga can help those struggling with PTSD. I could have written an entire book about Luke’s journey home; it’s a subplot here, although it feeds into the main plot line near the climax. I wanted to touch on it without either trivializing it or bringing it to the center of this particular book.

VIP passengers can book private sessions, and that’s where the Kristina Murray storyline comes in. Kristina is a movie star, here on a break with her husband, fellow star Orrin Flaherty. Kristina’s storyline feeds into both the main murder plot with Sophie, and a subplot about jewel thieves. Sophie’s put in the position of being part confidant, part trainer, and yet always employee. That’s an important part of the cruise line life.

Stella and Bartholomew Orsini are both plot drivers and comic relief. They seem like an elegant Nick and Nora Charles type of couple, but there are far more layers to them than that. They come to Sophie’s aid in surprising ways, and put her in a difficult position by the end of the book. The choices she makes here will have a ripple effect in further books. I’m not giving away too much when I reveal that yes, Stella and Bartholomew will be back in future books.

Stella and Bartholomew were enormous fun to develop. As they got more and more layered in each draft, I became fonder and fonder of them, in spite of their flaws. Believe me, they have plenty of flaws!

The other passenger who returns is Neil Wallace. He’s technically a passenger, but he’s on the ship so often he’s almost staff. As the series grows, and Sophie learns more about him, she’ll be a little surprised at his line of work, so to speak.

There’s a lot going on in any given day, between passengers, crew, and staff. Dozens of shifting dynamics. I hope I’ve highlighted some of the interesting ones, and used them to drive plot and reveal character.

If you’d like to read Savasana at Sea, you can read about it here, read an excerpt here, and buy it in various digital formats here.

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.