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.


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.


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.

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.