Diana Renn is the Fiction Editor at YARN (Young Adult Review Network), an award-winning online magazine featuring short-form writing for teens. She's also the author of a new YA mystery called Blue Voyage, which School Library Journal called "witty and engaging, this book hearkens back to works by Agatha Christie. A great addition to any library that has a teen fan base for thrilling mysteries."
Blue Voyage centers on Zan, a politician’s daughter and an adrenaline junkie who 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. 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.
Diana Renn stopped by In Reference to Murder today to talk about the book and her writing and researching process:
Blue Voyage: The Short Story that Wanted to Be a Book
Once upon a time there was a short story that really, really wanted to be a novel. It was called “Blue Voyage.”
It was long – nearly thirty pages, and therefore unmarketable to most literary journals or commercial magazines. It was set on a boat off the coast of Turkey, and that boat contained a cast so large it nearly sunk the ship: two families, each with three similarly-aged children (and thus great potential for confusion of characters), six older passengers of various nationalities, and a crew of three: a captain, a cook, and a first mate.
In this story, very little happened. The children squabbled. The adults in the two families talked in hushed voices about things the kids could only guess at. A shore expedition resulted in somebody going missing for awhile. A vendor pulled up to the boat and sold them some baklava. A British mystery writer on board seemed to be plotting a new novel based on the characters, and added a vague air of menace to the setting. And through it all, the main character, a teenage girl with a chip on her shoulder, resolved that she was not going to travel with these people anymore as soon as she turned eighteen.
This story was unmarketable not only because of its length, but also because it was supremely boring. After years of revising it, I set it aside in resignation.
It haunted me, though. I had become inspired to write it after a “Blue Voyage” cruise I took with my husband off the coast of Turkey. We had booked last-minute tickets on a boat that happened to have – this will shock you, I know – two traveling families with three children each, six older passengers of various nationalities, and yes, a crew of three. I thought I was clever in changing those nationalities and fictionalizing the real families we met on the cruise (who were actually perfectly nice, and never squabbled). I had loved writing about Turkey most of all. And maybe that was the problem. Was it possible I had the right setting but the wrong characters? Was it possible too that the story wanted to ramble and explore a terrain far bigger than a short story?
Years after that first draft, I looked at the story again in the cold light of day. I poked at it with a stick. I still liked parts of that story. The parts about Turkey. The boat. The baklava vendor who pulled up on a boat. The teenaged girl with a chip on her shoulder. But it didn’t feel like a story.
I began to experiment, writing some false starts in new directions. I cut the big families and pared down to a mother-daughter duo. I attempted a sibling, but cut her out too. Then I added an aunt. Suddenly the tensions and dynamics felt sharper, without all those extra people clamoring for attention. Still, I kept the boat so I did need some passengers, and some eventual suspects for a crime. So the older passengers of various nationalities packed their bags and trotted over from the long short story to what was now, quite clearly, becoming a novel. And that British mystery writer from the story? That, I realized was me (though not British) just trying to make sense of the characters. I didn’t need to be a character. I would stay behind the scenes.
I did keep the baklava vendor, a minor yet important character. When I realized he wasn’t just selling baklava, my page count started to rise and rise. I had the crux of my mystery.
Sometimes a story is just a story. The character arcs may be smaller, the plot points fewer or even scarce if one is writing a slice of life or flash fiction. Maybe the story is building toward a shift in a character’s perception, or a deeper understanding of something, and that is satisfying in itself.
But sometimes a story wants to be a novel if it is resisting the structure and word count imposed on it. A character prone to reflection about the past might be happier in a novel with more room to ruminate – if those reflections or flashbacks do in fact serve a purpose. Complex families and multi-generational issues can, in general, be more fully explored in a novel. Complex mystery plots almost always belong in a novel—and that, I realized, is what my story really wanted to have. That missing person story line turned out to be a key ingredient of the novel Blue Voyage, as well as a missing object.
My short story that wanted to be a novel now has a publication date, a pretty cover, and a rather hefty page count, clocking in at over 400 pages – a far cry from its original 30. I’m glad I didn’t give up on that story, and maybe it required an embryonic stage of several years so that I could figure it out. For me, that’s a happy ending.