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.
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.
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:
killed the Easter Bunny – so who’s dancing around the Village Green in his
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
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).
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.