Motive

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Why do the murder victims in the Nautical Namaste series (or any book) get killed?

The strongest reasons are often money, sex, love, greed, anger, fear.

I’m not talking about serial killers or thrill killers, who have other reasons. I’m talking about murderers who strike out for specific reasons.

In SAVASANA AT SEA, the first murder victim, the catalyst to the chain of events into which Sophie is embroiled, well, let’s just say it’s not a surprise that individual was murdered. The person kept a whole group of people in fear and unhappiness. Sooner or later, someone was bound to lash out. The next two murders are more tragic, at least in my opinion, because they were done out of escalation. Instead of the first murder ending the murderer’s fear and frustration, it increased.

There are studies (and it’s a trope in mysteries) that the first murder is the hardest, and each one gets easier. SAVASANA AT SEA’S first murder is not the murderer’s first kill; but that will be different in other books in the series.

How each murder changes the murderer’s personality, frame of reference, and justifications is one of the things that interests me in the books. What makes someone choose to end another’s life instead of finding another way to alleviate the threat posed by the murder victim is interesting, and, hopefully, in each case, different. If it was the same reason over and over and over again, that would get dull.

People are different, and how they react to stressful and frightening stimuli is different. That difference and complexity is interesting.

There’s also a difference in a murder committed in a fit of anger, and one that’s planned.

What drives the various murderers in the series to make the choices they make is as interesting to me as what drives Sophie to unravel them.

While her motive, at times, is about saving her own life, it also runs deeper. It goes back to Sophie being someone who walks her talk. She’s trying to live a life of compassion and humanity. The situation of living and working on the ship offer multiple challenges to this every day. Add murder to the mix, and it raises the stakes for her.

Plenty of people would be intimidated into not following through the investigation until the murderer (or murderers) are discovered and brought to justice. Sophie couldn’t live with herself if she let that fear allow a murderer victory. It’s one of the reasons that mysteries speak to us so strongly. A good protagonist is always smarter, more resourceful, and more determined than we are.

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Interested in the Nautical Namaste series? You can find out more here.

Joy

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There are many things I love about writing about Sophie and her adventures in the Nautical Namaste Mysteries.

One of my favorite of her traits is her joy. She genuinely takes joy in life, even when things are difficult.

Yes, she gets sad or upset or frightened or angry.

And then she DOES something about it. She takes ACTION.

She’s not a whiner, although she’ll talk things through with her two best friends on the ship, Roz and Harmonia, or her roommates back in Brooklyn, Fawn and Bianca.

The fact that she loves life also drives her to seek justice for the murder victims she encounters. She’s not in law enforcement. But she has a strong sense of justice, and the principles by which she wants to live her life. She has strong principles because she loves life. She loves all the complexity and beauty and passion and challenge of it.

Sophie is an active protagonist. To keep my interest as a reader, that’s vital, especially in a mystery. Passive characters or characters who don’t learn from mistakes and keep repeating them throughout a book and a series lose my interest. They lose my respect.

As a writer, then, it was vitally important to me to have a character who was active, curious, passionate, smart, and kind.  

Bianca mentions, early in SAVASANA AT SEA, that people often underestimate Sophie by mistaking kindness for weakness.

Sophie’s yoga practice helps her to connect to the joy in life. As a teacher, it allows her to encourage others to find joy, peace, and a better quality of life. That then feeds back into her own joy.

Some mystery series focus on the protagonist’s search to find their path. Sophie has already found hers, at the top of the series, in spite of the challenges living it presents (which I’ve discussed in previous posts).

What I want to explore is how she overcomes the challenges to living her path and finding the joy in it. Murder dampens and threatens the joy, and having a murderer on board is a threat, both in a physical sense, and in a psychological sense.

In every book, Sophie’s sense of joy, of passion, of justice, of living her path will be challenged. I want her to find different ways to deal with those challenges each time, and build on her “self.”

She won’t always succeed in living her path, in being her best self. She will fall short, especially in her own expectations. How she deals with that and keeps trying, how she remains determined to live with joy is, to me, essential for the series.

Visit the Nautical Namaste site here.

We’re All Kids Who Want To Find Lost Treasure

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

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

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

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

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

What is this fascination with treasure and treasure hunts?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Second Book Syndrome

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

Silly me.

I suffer from it with each series.

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

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

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

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

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

It suffered from Second Book Syndrome.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Namaste.

What They Miss

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

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

The passengers go to get away from their regular lives.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It will ebb and flow (pun intended).

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

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

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

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.