Note: Please see below for a chance to win a signed copy of Penny Goetjen’s mystery The Empty Chair: Murder in the Caribbean
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:
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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.”