Join Me On A Trip to the Caribbean

Recently I had the pleasure of chatting with fellow mystery/suspense author C. Michele Dorsey who shares my love of the Virgin Islands. She posted this on a blog she contributes to called Miss Demeanors where she is giving away a signed copy of my mystery The Empty Chair: Murder in the Caribbean. See below for instructions on how to enter.

Michele: I don’t know about you, Penny, but between a long winter and even longer time under house arrest with Covid restrictions, I sure would love a field trip to a Caribbean island where we both have set a few of our novels.

Penny: I know what you mean about wanting a getaway. And what better place, in the middle of winter, than the Caribbean with its warm, seductive breezes and alluring, white sand beaches?

Michele: What was it that first drew you to the islands and when did you know you wanted to set a novel there? Is your island real or imagined?

The islands in The Empty Chair and its sequel Over the Edge are the U.S. Virgin Islands, St. Thomas in particular. And what drew me to them and continues to draw me is the stunning turquoise water. It just never gets old.  Neither does year-round summer, balmy tropical breezes, or spending most of the time outside.

The inspiration to write The Empty Chair came during one of my trips to St. Thomas. At the time, I was working on the second book in my Precipice Series which is set on the coast of Maine. I have to admit, it was tough to concentrate on my New England setting with cooler temps and a rocky coastline while soaking up the warm sun, with my toes in crystal clear water that’s warm enough for a bath. It didn’t take long for the storyline for The Empty Chair to pop into my head and demand to be written. And I think the best part about setting a story in such an idyllic place is you get to feel like you’re there while you’re writing—even though you may be back home again, and you’re dragging your protagonist through a bit of hell.

Michele: How did your protagonist end up on a Caribbean island and involved in some scary stuff instead of on a lounge chair on a beach sipping a frozen drink?

Penny: In The Empty Chair, Olivia’s trek to the islands had never had beach lounging or tropical drinks on the itinerary. She has to make the trip to St. Thomas after receiving word her mother, a photographer on the island, has passed away unexpectedly in a boating accident. Her journey begins as a somber obligatory excursion to settle her mother’s affairs and put her Caribbean bungalow overlooking Magens Bay on the market. However, when she arrives, she learns the police have no record of a boating accident, much less her mother’s death. So, with this glimmer of hope her mother’s still alive, Olivia makes it her mission to search to the ends of the island for her. But in the process, she gets tangled in the same criminal element that may have cost her mother her life.

Michele: I love Magens Bay, Penny. Everyone thinks it’s easy to write a story set in such an idyllic setting. What did you find challenging about it?

Penny: Even though both books are works of fiction, it’s a real location. So, readers who have been to St. Thomas will recognize several places in the stories. I needed to describe them accurately. It also needs to make sense how long it takes to drive or walk from point A to point B. In Over the Edge, in particular, I needed to understand the currents around Peterborg Peninsula. I consulted with a local boat captain who is well versed in navigating the crystal clear and, at times, treacherous waters around the islands.

I also think there’s a fine line between setting the scene for a murder mystery and going too far and scaring readers away from visiting the islands. As a writer who loves the Caribbean, I strive to strike a delicate balance.

Michele: If Over the Edge is the sequel to The Empty Chair, how important is it for a reader to pick up The Empty Chair first? And can you give us a peek into the storyline for the sequel?

Penny: The ending of The Empty Chair is a bit of a tease. I’ve gotten more feedback on it than any of my other books because I leave the reader hanging. (Sorry, not sorry? 😉) Over the Edge picks up where we left Olivia in The Empty Chair. She returns after a Category 5 hurricane has pummeled the islands to rebuild her mother’s bungalow and hopes to reconnect with her on again/off again lover from her previous visit. When he turns up missing, she has no place to stay and no other options, so she accepts the offer from a wealthy, older man to housesit his spacious villa. But before she can unpack her suitcase, she stumbles onto his lifeless body in his own home and becomes the prime suspect.

Michele: They say there’s a part of the author in every character. How much of that do you think is true and do you borrow your characters from real life, Penny?

Penny: I do think that’s true about a part of us in each character, although when you’re writing a character that’s a murderer, that thought can be rather unsettling! As writers, we definitely mold our characters based on people we know or are familiar with—sometimes without realizing it. My first book Murder on the Precipice, has a sweet grandmother named Amelia and it didn’t occur to me that I’d modeled her after my own grandmother who I adored until probably the second book in the series. Amelia’s description could easily fit my grandmother, but I was too close to it to realize it was her!

On occasion, I’ve named characters after friends of mine just for fun. But it becomes problematic when the character turns out to be a villain or I kill them off!

Michele: Do you ever write outside your genre or would you consider it?

Penny: As of yet, I have not strayed too far from mystery/suspense. Lately I’ve been writing more short stories, which has been fun, some of which are more suspense than murder mystery. I describe myself as a productive procrastinator. I’m writing those short stories even though I really should be working on my current novel, but the stories demand to be written, so I oblige. Writing is funny sometimes. It can take you in interesting directions and to unexpected places.

Michele: So what’s next? Another mystery set in the Caribbean?

Penny: Not yet. I’m sure I will get back to the Virgin Islands again soon in my writing. There’s so much more to explore with Olivia, now that she’s back on the islands and I love being there. But the manuscript I’m working on now is set in Connecticut at a private, all-boys boarding school and one of the boys goes missing.

Michele: Where can we get more information about and copies of your books?

Penny: Thank you for asking. You can check out my website at www.pennygoetjen.com for more info.

All of my books are in both print and eBook formats and are available at the major online retailers like Amazon and Barnes & Noble, but I would also encourage readers to check out their local, independent bookstores. If they don’t have the books on the shelf, they can easily be ordered.

Click this link to find an independent bookseller:

To be entered for a change to win a signed copy of my mystery The Empty Chair: Murder in the Caribbean, comment at Michele’s blog at: https://www.missdemeanors.com/a-trip-to-the-caribbean-with-penny-goetjen/

Bio: National award-winning author of five mystery novels, Penny Goetjen is a self-proclaimed eccentric, known for writing late into the night, transfixed by the allure of flickering candlelight. Fascinated with the paranormal, she usually weaves a subtle, unexpected twist into her stories. When her husband is asked how he feels about his wife writing murder mysteries, he answers with a wink, “I sleep with one eye open.”

What’s Up With Olivia Benning

After bearing witness to Olivia Benning’s harrowing experiences in THE EMPTY CHAIR: Murder in the Caribbean, I was anxious to catch up with her before she returns to the Virgin Islands to pick up the pieces in OVER THE EDGE: Murder Returns to the Caribbean (to be released 11/10/20). In spite of all of her packing and preparations to take care of before she can go wheels-up on a southbound 737 and leave Boston behind, Olivia was generous to take a few minutes and sit down with me. Here is our chat.

Penny Goetjen: Olivia, first off, congratulations on completing your apprenticeship with Abigail Adams Studios in Boston. That was quite an accomplishment just to land such a highly coveted position and even more so to complete it.

Olivia Benning: Yeah, thanks. It was a lot harder than I expected but a great experience, for sure. I’m grateful to have had it. I learned a lot.

PG: And I was sorry to hear of your father’s passing. Even though, to a certain extent, it was expected, that must have been hard for you. Do you struggle with conflicting emotions about it? Sadness, certainly, but are there any lingering anger issues?

OB: It was hard. Still is. And even though I knew it would be coming down the pike sooner or later, it happened much faster than I expected. My time with him just seemed to evaporate at the end…. And anger? Yeah, definitely. I can’t stop thinking it didn’t have to turn out the way it did—if he’d made some different choices.

PG: And speaking of choices, you didn’t really have one when it came to who you were to live with when your parents separated years ago, did you?

OB: No. That really sucked. My father insisted I stay with him in Boston. He said the schools are better there. But I missed out on so much with my mother. And living with him was nothing short of miserable.

PG: You would have preferred to be with your mother on St. Thomas.

OB: Absolutely! She and I were very close—closer than most mothers and daughters. We didn’t get enough time together. I spent my school breaks with her, but it was never enough. Kayaking was one of our favorite things to do. We took our cameras everywhere we went. She taught me how to actually see what I was looking at through the camera lens. The art she created was amazing. She was amazing. I cried like a baby every time I left. I just wanted to stay and live with her, learn more about photography from her. I wanted to be like her.

PG: And you were hoping to join her in her photography business one day?

OB: Yeah, that was the plan in my head. I’m sure my mother would have gone along with it. My dad probably would have opposed it.

PG: But surely at some point—at a certain age—you would have been allowed to make your own life-altering decisions.

OB: (She laughs.) You would think, wouldn’t you? Maybe I should have stood my ground better, but now it doesn’t really matter. What’s done is done.

PG: Again, different choices would have had very different results.

OB: Yes. . . I feel like my time with my mother was taken from me. I miss her.

PG: So now you’re heading back to St. Thomas, your first visit since the powerful hurricane rocked the islands. What condition do you expect to find them in?

OB: I’m not too optimistic. The photos and videos I’ve seen online are so heartbreaking. Some of the images are upsetting to look at. So much devastation. It will take years to rebuild. But the people of the Virgin Islands are a tenacious bunch. Resilient. They get knocked down by these hurricanes but they don’t stay down long. They’re very quick to look to the future and talk about rebuilding and better days ahead.

PG: I understand you plan to rebuild your mother’s bungalow. What do you envision it looking like? Will you keep the same design as it was before or start from scratch and create something new?

OB: I’d like to rebuild it just the way it was—including the funky colors on the outside. It just makes sense from a budget standpoint if I keep the same footprint. But I’d like to add a half bath. I’d also like to build a garage with some storage for kayaks. We’ll see how it all works out. If I can only afford to rebuild it exactly the way it was, I’ll make it work.

PG: Are you hoping to catch up with Colton? Have you been in touch with him since you’ve been gone?

OB: (She pauses and grins. I detect slight blushing.) Yeah, I’m hoping to catch up with Colton. That’s the plan.

PG: What else is in the plan? (Do I have to pull it out of her?)

OB: Well, I’m planning to twist his arm to get him to let me stay at his place while I rebuild. I think he’d be willing to make room for me.

PG: So, he’s not aware of his involvement in your plan? You two haven’t talked while you were away?

OB: No, we haven’t.

PG: Why not? And that doesn’t concern you?

OB: Even when I’m on the island, he’s not very easy to get in touch with. He tends to live off the grid.

PG: So, you’re not concerned what that might mean. That maybe he’s lost interest. Or there’s someone else.

OB: If that’s the case, fine. I’ll deal with it. But I can tell you, the way things were between us when I left, I think he’ll be happy to see me.

PG: Or perhaps the reason he hasn’t been in touch is because it’s something else entirely—

OB: Like I said, I’ll deal with it when I get there. I’m going, no matter what. I’m going there to rebuild my mother’s bungalow. That’s all there is to it.

PG: All right then. I wish you the best of luck back on the island. We look forward to seeing how it all turns out for you. Safe travels.

OB: Thanks.

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Pennington Point Inn to Reopen?

ELIZABETH PENNINGTON FROM THE PRECIPICE MYSTERY SERIES:

Another peak into Elizabeth’s diary as she shares her frustration, unexpected loss, and glimmer of hope during the Covid19 Pandemic.

June 15, 2020

Technically, the inn is open for guests, but we don’t have any yet—not that I thought people would come flooding through the doors now that Phase 2 permits us to be open. I just thought we’d have a few to welcome back. But I guess I shouldn’t wonder.

Allowing hotels and inns in Maine to reopen as of under Phase 2, while requiring out-of-state guests to self-quarantine for 14 days in a private residence before checking in, is ludicrous. And the only way around it is to provide a negative Covid19 test result that was done within 3 days of arrival—a test that, from what I understand, is extremely uncomfortable as it requires the person administering it to jab a cotton swab so far up your nose you want to take their head off. I fear we’ll never survive. The vast majority of our guests come from out-of-state, and they’re not going to be willing to follow the quarantine protocol. It’s just not practical. And I can’t imagine them lining up to have their nasal cavities violated so they can stay in our humble inn. I know our governor is just trying to keep her constituents safe, but this may very well sink us. Our registrations are just dribbling in, and most of our calls are just inquiries with no commitments. I’ve brought back half of our staff, but it may have been premature.

As a result, I’ve redirected my marketing dollars to in-state advertising, hoping to lure Mainers who would otherwise go out-of-state for their vacations. Fortunately, I can tout all the renovations we’ve completed and all the added amenities that they might not expect if they’d visited the inn years earlier. I’ve also been sending out emails and letters to our previous out-of-state guests to keep them informed of the requirements of the Phase 2 reopening and what comes next. I’ve been trying to sound hopeful without making any promises. In the process I’ve been delighted to hear back from a few.

Past Guests Check In

One guest to respond made me blush. Charismatic and charming Eli Hunter, the country singer who came with his band at the end of their concert tour to take a break before heading back into the studio. Of course, it could have been his publicist who did the writing, but just the same. I would think he would have had to approve of someone answering for him and the thought that he got back to me gave me a tickle in my abdomen. Although he said (or whoever actually did the writing) he and his band were going to pass on coming to Maine this year, he wouldn’t rule out next year. Evidently, they enjoyed themselves immensely. I mean, what’s not to love?

The rugged beauty of the coast of Maine is like nothing else: feeling the mist on your face on a stroll along the beach at dawn, taking a hike down to the breakwater and out to the lighthouse for some afternoon alone time, watching a spectacular sunset with a glass of chardonnay in an Adirondack chair on the precipice. One can find solace here in many ways. And in these uncertain times, what better place to find it? Hey, I should use that in the marketing!

Unexpected Loss

One response to my emails that I didn’t see coming was from Mrs. Leibowitz’s daughter. She wrote back to inform me that her mother had passed away not long after returning from her last trip to Pennington Point Inn. I’ll admit I was shocked at the sadness that weighed heavy on me at the news. Mrs. L had always been such a crotchety old woman—an absolute pain in the neck—that I dreaded bumping into her when she stayed with us, and she came EVERY summer. She was exhausting. Very loud. Demanding. I hate to admit it, but I left her off the invite list for the grand reopening of the inn after we repaired the hurricane damage. As it turned out, I think I felt worse for not inviting her than I would have enduring her presence. It was a mistake—a decision made too abruptly to be sound, and there may have been some Pinot Grigio influence as well. But it was the best I could manage at the time. I never understood how Nana could handle her so well. But now that Mrs. Leibowitz is gone, it’s hard to imagine the inn without her. It will be so different. Then again, a lot of things will be.

Friends as Adversaries

Interview with Rashelle Harper

One of only a few characters who appear in all the Precipice Series books to date, Harper graciously granted me a few minutes so I could get her perspective on the goings-on at  Pennington Point Inn. She is a long-time and, at times, belligerent—even reluctant—friend of Elizabeth Pennington who has found herself in a position adversarial to Elizabeth more than once. But let’s hear her side of the story.

Penny Goetjen: Rachel, thank you for taking the time to chat with me. Let’s go back to the day you met Elizabeth. You were both freshmen at NYU. Is that correct? And how did your meet? Did you become friends right away?

Rashelle Harper: Hey, thanks for having me. And yeah, Lizzi and I met freshman year. We were roommates. Couldn’t have been more different. (She chuckles.)

PG: How so?

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RH: Well, even just our outward appearances. Lizzi has always been this attractive, demure woman—I mean you wanted to hate her because of it, but she’s too sweet. And unassuming. She can slip into a room with no one noticing. Me, I’m more like a wrecking ball when I walk in. No mistaking my arrival. She’s got that Ali-MacGraw-in-Love-Story look, and I’m more like Joan Jett of the The Blackhearts. Some might say I have an in-your-face type of personality. I’ll admit it. But it went beyond looks. Neither one of us had a very positive childhood: She lost both her parents when she was little. I had my mother, but she never would have won a mother-of-the-year award. She had her problems—drugs—and never really figured out how to be a mom. Because of it, I had to grow up quick . . . got street savvy in order to survive. But Lizzi grew up pretty sheltered. In a small town on the coast of Maine. So, when she showed up for college—and in New York City for God’s sake—she didn’t have a clue what she was in for. I don’t know if she would have survived that first year if we weren’t roommates. I showed her the ropes, saved her ass a few times along the way.

PG: But after graduation, you two took very different paths. How did it that work out like that?

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RH: Well, it wasn’t intentional. Lizzi landed a great job in the city—one of the leading design firms—so there was no need for her to leave.  And I don’t think she wanted to. I was having trouble finding a decent job in the hospitality industry in the city—one that would actually pay the bills—and I started to think I’d have to live out of my car. But then Lizzi and her grandmother came through for me. Amelia took me on at the inn.

PG: You both landed in locations that seemed diametrically opposed to your personalities. The bustling, bristling city seems more fitting to you more than Elizabeth and the opposite could be said for a quiet, small town like Pennington Point for you.

RH: Some people might say I needed to soften my personality, and a small town in Maine was a good place to do that. And maybe it was what I needed at that point in my life, to turn down the noise—around me and in my head. But I think Lizzi liked the anonymity of being in the city. She could get lost easily. She likes being able to do that.

PG: Did you find it difficult to blend in at the inn with your, as you said, in-your-face-personality and your heavy Brooklyn accent?

RH: (She smirks, as if recalling a particular incident.) Yeah, I think guests checking in were kinda shocked. I think they were expecting me to say “ayuh” and have a Mainer’s accent, which I just can’t fake. I think some were actually disappointed. I could see that, though. If you’ve traveled quite a distance and you’re looking forward to experiencing everything that is quintessential Maine, that would include the quaint accent as well.

PG: Was there one guest in particular that reacted to hearing your—

RH: Mrs. Leibowitz. Everyone just called her Mrs. L, but she was one of the first guests to react to my accent. She’s a pain in the rear but she’s one of the regulars. Comes every summer. That first time I met her I remember . . . she took a step back, jerked her head back, and had this look on her face like I’d slapped her. You know how short she is. She can barely see over the counter. That made it look even more comical. When I asked her if everything was okay, she said she hadn’t heard a Brooklyn accent that thick since her mother died. She finally came around, and we were able to get her checked in, but not before her mumbling something about Amelia farming out the work and losing touch with her guests.

PG: Was there any particular part of your job that you didn’t care for while you were working at the inn? Any ritual or amenity offered to the guests that you didn’t like?

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RH: The damn clambakes on the beach.

PG: How did that affect you? I thought you manned the front desk and took care of reservations.

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RH: The clambakes were so labor intensive, everyone had to help out. All the food and cooking supplies had to be hauled down to the beach. Not to mention chairs and folding tables. And afterwards, it all had to be lugged back up again. It was a logistical nightmare, but Chef Tony pulled it off every time without a snag. He just needed an army of schleppers to make it happen. The guests loved the clam bakes though, so no one dared complain out loud. Tony’s an amazing chef. What he does within the confines of the kitchen is nothing short of four-star, but the meal he prepares in a pit in the sand is incredible. Lobsters, clams, baked potatoes, corn on the cob, followed up with his homemade raspberry pie or blueberry cobbler. Almost makes all the work worth it. Thank God they were only once a month.

PG: And how about outside of the inn? Did you find the transition to a small town difficult?

RH: Hell yeah. If I wasn’t so desperate for work, I doubt I would have stayed past the first week. It was awful. And I didn’t have Liz around to commiserate with or just hang out with—not that there were many places to do that, but it would have been nice to have her there. I really missed her.

PG: Did it bother you that Elizabeth was doing exactly what she’d set out to do after college? An inn in a sleepy seaside town in Maine couldn’t have been what you were going for.

RH: Now don’t put words in my mouth. I was happy for her. She’d worked hard to land that job, and she was working her ass off to forge a career for herself. Pennington Point Inn may not have been on my radar, but I was grateful Amelia was willing to give me a chance. Figured it was at least a resumé builder. After a while, though, I thought I was going to lose it. It’s just too quiet at night, during the day, too. It took some getting used to.

PG: When Elizabeth returned to take over running the inn, how did that transition go?

RH: (She pauses for a moment and glares at me. I was thankful to be across the table.) It sucked. No two ways about it.

PG: Because she didn’t have a background in hospitality, and suddenly she was stepping in and becoming your boss?

RH: I know, right? Exactly. That’s what I mean. It pissed me off. I knew that inn better than she did.

PG: Really? She did grow up there. Can you completely discount that?

RH: Well yeah, but she didn’t understand the flow in the kitchen or managing reservations or handling guests.

PG: But she had Chef Tony in the kitchen who she could depend on. He’d been at the inn for many years. With the reservations, she could depend on you to handle that area. As for the guests, I would imagine Elizabeth would have picked up on how her grandmother handled them over the years. I could see her being compassionate and professional in how she interacted with them.

RH: Yeah, okay. Yeah, she always did have a knack for handling people. And if I’m being completely honest, I learned a thing or two from her. But the rest of it, she didn’t have any inside knowledge.

PG: And if you’re being honest, the friction between you two . . . you brought on yourself. Didn’t you?

RH:  I don’t know. I think it was a combination of things.

PG: Did it bother you that you lost your drinking buddy?

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RH: You could say that. We had a lot of fun drinking together over the years. We could polish of a magnum in an evening—no sweat.

PG: But once she came back the rules changed, didn’t they?

RH: Yeah, out of the blue. Suddenly she said it was affecting my job.

PG: Was it?

RH: According to her, yes.

PG: But you didn’t agree?

RH: I just think her reaction was a little over the top.

PG: But things got better for you across the board once you started going to AA. Isn’t that right?

RH: (Another pause, this time with her eyes averted to the floor.) Yeah, you could say that. I guess I have her to thank for giving me my life back. I hated that she insisted I go. I mean, we used to have so much fun drinking together. But now I’m grateful. She made it a prerequisite for keeping my job.

PG: So, could you say she saved your life?

RH: Yes, you could say that.

PG: Can you say that?

RH: (Another pause) Yes, Lizzi saved my life, and I’ll be forever grateful.

PG: I’m sure she’ll be happy to know that. Thank you for your time.

RH: Thank you.