by Diana Renn
Published October 13th 2015 by Viking Books for Young Readers
Hardcover, 464 pages
An intricately crafted mystery set in the contemporary Middle East.
Zan is a politician’s daughter and an adrenaline junkie. Whether she’s rock climbing or shoplifting, she loves to live on the edge. But she gets more of a rush than she bargained for on a forced mother–daughter bonding trip to Turkey, where she finds herself in the crosshairs of an antiquities smuggling ring. These criminals believe that Zan can lead them to an ancient treasure that’s both priceless and cursed. Until she does so, she and her family are in grave danger. Zan’s quest to save the treasure—and the lives of people she cares about—leads her from the sparkling Mediterranean, to the bustle of Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar, to the eerie and crumbling caves of Cappadocia. But it seems that nowhere is safe, and there’s only so high she can climb before everything comes tumbling down.
The Phantom Siblings in Blue Voyage
When I first started writing Blue Voyage, my main character, then named Abby, had a sister. Since my previous two novels featured only children, and since I happen to have a sister in real life, I was excited to explore this dynamic in a story.
Abby and her first-draft sister, Lauren, were polar opposites. Abby was reserved and reclusive. She thought deeply about things, and explored her feelings and impressions in a travel journal. Lauren, in contrast, was outgoing, a risk-taker, sometimes reckless. Both were reacting in different ways to their parents’ impending divorce: Abby withdrawing into her thoughts and her journal, Lauren acting out.
Their differences led to tension-infused dialogue. My story opened with a fractured family on a pleasure cruise in the Turkish Riviera, and the siblings bickered endlessly. At one point the mother, in exasperation, pounced on them for being such self-entitled spoiled brats that all they could do on an expensive vacation was argue over petty things.
The mom’s words hit me hard as soon as I wrote them. She had spoken the truth. The girls were coming across as whiny and bratty. Mom couldn’t bear to spend a three-day cruise in their company; could I, or a reader, tolerate them for four hundred pages? Rereading their dialogue, I saw they were arguing in order to highlight their differences, as well as to establish some backstory, but their spats did not propel the plot forward. If anything, they obscured the mystery plot that I was trying to get to—and hadn’t yet gotten to by page fifty.
After a great deal of soul-searching and brainstorming, I made a difficult decision. I was going to lose one of the sisters. I was disappointed because I’d wanted to write about siblings, but maybe this was not the book for that. I already had a complex mystery plot in mind, and a rich setting. The family dynamic with the parents’ reasons for divorce was deep enough without adding a sibling into the mix. Besides, I have found that it is simply easier to write a mystery without a sibling to deal with, unless the two are going to team up and become sleuths—and these two girls didn’t seem likely to do that for some reason. Maybe they were too busy fighting.
First I tried to solve the problem by making one of the sisters missing. Maybe dead. But that missing sister still took up residence in my character’s brain, and she still had to be dealt with on the page – in memories, in speculations, in missing person searches, in investigations. I like missing person stories, but that wasn’t the kind of mystery I wanted to write. I knew I wanted a missing artifact too, and the two plotlines could complete for attention. After all, what could compare with the loss of a sibling?
Then there was the question of which sister to cut. I loved Abby’s introspection, her rich inner life. I also love Lauren’s spunk and sass.
I couldn’t decide. So I took a deep breath and I started from scratch. I just wrote in one character’s voice and didn’t give her a name.
After fifty pages, I stepped back and realized this new character had elements of both Abby and Lauren. The result? A more nuanced and complex character. She was a risk-taker – a chronic shoplifter, a partier, a rock climber – who was also afraid to reveal her real self to her peers and the world. She spoke back to her mother and her wit could be acerbic, but she also withdrew into herself and experienced moments of intense reflection. She was concerned with her public image, at times superficial, but felt very deeply.
I named this hybrid character Zan, short for Alexandra. A name that had nothing to do with either of the names I’d begun with because this was a brand new person. Yet the original sisters were a part of her still, like phantoms.
Interestingly, I did get to explore a sister dynamic in the end, just not in the way I had planned. Zan’s mother has a sister, Aunt Jackie, an expatriate widow who is living in Turkey. Zan’s mother and aunt are now the bickering duo, but their arguments are less frequent, and more purposeful for the plot. Zan also meets an alluring girl about her age on a cruise, and this girl, Sage, becomes a stand-in sister during Zan’s voyage—but without the years of drama I might have to delve into with a real sibling.
Creating and then abandoning these original siblings gave me an important new tool in my writing toolbox. Now if I see siblings emerging in a story draft (especially twins) I take a hard look at them. I wonder if they both really need to be there. Are they distinct individuals? If so, great, I’ll keep them both. If one feels like a drag to write about, or their scenes aren’t energized, or I’m straying from my main story too much, I can ask myself if these two people are really just two personality elements of one complex individual. If I’m genuinely interested in a tension between them, I can look at other character duos and see if that tension could be better played out with another pair.
They say you can’t choose your family, and I guess that’s true. But the great thing about writing is that you can. If anything, choosing and changing up family dynamics can enrich the story. And the best part? Nobody’s feelings get hurt.
Diana Renn is the author of the young adult mystery novels TOKYO HEIST, LATITUDE ZERO and BLUE VOYAGE all published by Viking/Penguin. She is also the Fiction Editor at YARN (Young Adult Review Network), an award-winning online magazine featuring short-form writing for teens. Diana grew up in Seattle and now lives outside of Boston with her husband and son.