Today Barbara Barrrett is visiting Ascroft, eh? to tell us about Beware the a Wind, her latest novel in the Mah Jongg mystery series.
Welcome, Barbara. Let’s get started, shall we?
Tell us about your novel. Is it part of a series? If so, please tell us about the series too.
BB: Beware the East Wind is the fourth book in the Mah Jongg Mystery series about four retired women friends—Sydney Bonner, Marianne Putnam, Katrina “Kat” Faulkner and Micki Demetrius—who met while playing Mah Jongg in the small community of Serendipity Springs in central Florida. Though they don’t set out to investigate homicides, after being asked by a friend to investigate her husband’s murder in the first book, others start looking to them to help investigate subsequent homicides and questionable accidents. This series features four protagonists; one takes the lead in each book. Two are married, one is divorced and the fourth, who has been single all her life while she tended to her ailing mother, now finds herself the object of the sheriff’s romantic attention. Even in the midst of their investigations, life goes on in their community in such activities as a women’s club, a social group for those over 50, real estate transactions, numerous stops at the local coffeehouse and various shopping trips. Sydney’s husband, Trip, and Marianne’s, Beau, are golf buddies who spend many a day on the course. When not there, Trip is busy seeking to build a new post retirement life, and Beau is often prevailed upon to join in Trip’s latest activity. Worried about the danger involved in investigating murders, they also worm their way into their wives’ sleuthing activities. Kat has lived a frugal life until winning big in a lottery shortly after her mother’s death; suddenly, Kat has money and doesn’t know how to spend it. But her divorced friend and freelance writer, Micki, does, even if it’s to guide Kat through a makeover and wardrobe change for her lounge act.
Where did the idea for the mystery that is central to the story come from?
BB: The initial idea for Beware the East Wind started when my Sisters in Crime chapter in Iowa invited a hypnotist to be their guest speaker. She became interested in hypnotism in her middle years, and after taking several courses and receiving certification, leveraged her new interest into entertaining at various functions like high school graduation parties. She later expanded into offering personal counselling services featuring hypno-therapy. The idea stuck around in the back of my brain until this year when I needed a victim for this fourth book. Let me be clear, the victim in this book is purely fictional; nothing about her is based on the real-life hypnotist that was our speaker.
Each title in this series features a Mah Jongg term. The first three titles are based on the suits of tiles used in the game, Craks, Bams and Dots. This fourth book comes from the Wind tiles. Once I decided on the hypnotism angle, I needed to find a way to tie it in with “Wind.” That wasn’t difficult, since the series is set in central Florida, what more dramatic wind is there than the one that causes the hurricane. Central Florida is somewhat less vulnerable to these storms but not impervious to the possibility. Ironically, no sooner was the book published than hurricane season was upon us and a mandatory evacuation order was issued for the parts of the Atlantic coast.
Is there a theme or subject that underlies the story? If so, what prompted you to write about it?
BB: Starting with the four friends and their significant others, community and friendship underlie each of the stories in this series. This was a deliberate decision so I could portray one of the positive aspects of retirement. Serendipity Springs is a relatively new intergenerational residential development. Most of the residents have come from other parts of the country and have chosen to live there because of the climate. To adapt, they’ve had to find new connections and relationships, just as has been my experience in making Florida my home half the year. By no means is retirement rosy for everyone, and I will deal with that aspect in future stories.
How do you create your characters? Do you have favourite ones? If so, why are you partial to them?
BB: My four protagonists were created using the DISC Inventory. It is a tool that helps people analyse their personalities according to four distinct categories: Dominance, Influence, Steadiness and Compliance. The personality of each character is based on one of these descriptors. I’ve taken this tool a few times in my employment history. It tends to be a fairly accurate measure, although it varies depending on whatever is happening in your life at the time, because that affects your answers to the numerous questions. I pegged Sydney as the main dominant character. She takes the lead role in the first two books. Micki is Influential; she’s the lead in the third book, Connect the Dots. In this fourth book, Marianne, the Steady one, is in charge. Kat takes over in Book 5, currently in development. As much as I would like to see myself as a Dominant personality, I keep coming out as a mix of Compliance and Steady, so I tend to see myself the most in Marianne and Kat, but I have the most fun writing Syd and Micki, because they go places in their brains and actions where I don’t always go or feel I can go.
With the ongoing secondary characters and characters that appear only in one book I can delve into other personality characteristics than those exhibited by my four protagonists.
How do you bring to life the place you are writing about?
BB: This series is not about my community, but it is inspired by it. I use local setting, traditions, activities and climate to bring life to Serendipity Springs. For instance, I try to describe the type of homes and parts of town found here. My covers immediately set the tone with the green foliage and flowers in the background. I also include different activities that occur within the community like the follies that Trip plans as a fundraiser in Book 1 or the class Marianne takes in writing one-act plays in Book 3. Many of these, including the weekly Mah Jongg game, take place in the community center. The coffee shop, yet to be named, has appeared in each book so far because the women hold their war councils there as they discuss their investigations. As far as the climate is concerned, I don’t dwell on the heat, humidity or sudden rain showers much, although I probably will in the future, but this fourth book reflects the impending threat of the approaching hurricane, and I play up the dark skies and wind.
What research do you do to provide background information to help you write the novel?
BB: I like to start with personal contacts, if such exist. For instance, in Book 2, Bamboozled, the victim is the local distributor of essential oils. I interviewed a fellow Mah Jongg player who also sells these oils to learn more about the business. I already mentioned the presentation of the hypnotist, but she also provided source materials, which I turned to for more authenticity in this book. One of the suspects in this book owns a cleaning service. Since we don’t use one, I depended on friends’ experiences. I, do, fall back on my own experience when I can, like Beau’s examination by an orthopaedic surgeon for his knee problem in this book. When personal contacts, friends and my own knowledge aren’t enough, I’m on the internet doing research, like I did with dog grooming services, which are also included in Book 4.
Is there anything else you’d like to tell readers about the book?
BB: Although the murder occurs early in the story, like they all do, I took my time getting the investigation off the ground because the two husbands attempted to discourage their wives from getting involved. Their reticence has been building since the first case, where neither knew what was going on until the end. In Book 2, when they became more involved, Trip tried to take over, although he should have known better with his wife being such a strong personality. I wanted their hesitancy to come to the fore in this book and sort of be dealt with. Their feelings about their wives’ life of amateur sleuthing will continue to pop up different ways in subsequent stories and will be addressed according to the circumstances of a particular case.
The local sheriff, Rick Formero, takes a shine to Kat in Book 1. That relationship grows and bumps into various roadblocks in the next books. Although I also write contemporary romance novels, this love story takes a back seat to solving the murders, but it’s here to add depth to Kat’s character. Rick’s feelings about Kat and her friends’ investigations also have an arc, although basically he’d prefer these untrained civilians not mess with his cases. Still, he can’t deny how well they do at solving crimes. How he handles that realization will evolve. I’m barely into writing Book 5, but my plans at this point are to involve him in a way in which he hasn’t previously participated.
Micki, the single divorcee, is the only one at this point who doesn’t have a man in her life. She says she likes it that way after a ten-year difficult marriage to a gambler. Time will tell.
If you’re read this far, I hope you’ll check into the Mah Jongg Mystery series. You don’t need to know anything about the game to enjoy and understand it.
Thanks for answering my questions, Barbara, and good luck with Beware the East Wind, the latest book in the Mah Jongg Mystery series.
The novel is available at the following online retailers:
About Barbara Barrett: She started reading mysteries when she was pregnant with her first child to keep her mind off things like her changing body and food cravings. When she’d devoured as many Agatha Christies as she could find, she branched out to English village cozies and Ellery Queen. Later, to avoid a midlife crisis, she began writing fiction at night when she wasn’t at her day job as a human resources analyst for Iowa State Government. After releasing eleven full-length romance novels and one novella, she returned to the cozy mystery genre, using one of her retirement pastimes, the game of mah jongg, as her inspiration. Not only has it been a great social outlet, it has also helped keep her mind active when not writing. Anticipating the day when she would write her first mystery, she has been a member of the Mystery/Romantic Suspense chapter of Romance Writers of America for over a decade. She credits them with helping her hone her craft. Barbara is married to the man she met her senior year of college. They have two grown children and eight grandchildren.