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