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.

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.

Shipboard Activities

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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 passengers!

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 own post.

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 agree.

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 learn more about the Nautical Namaste mysteries, visit the website. You can read about SAVASANA AT SEA and find the buy links.

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

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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.