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

image courtesy of cocoparisienne via

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.