Research becomes second nature to writers. That little voice inside that says never miss out on an opportunity because you never know when the experience will come in useful is a good excuse for taking time out from the actual writing. That’s my excuse for spending the last six months totally immersed in the world of port lecturing – telling cruise passengers about the ports we were about to visit. I’ve been a cruise lecturer for several years. I began running fun writing workshops on board ship and then developed a series of talks about writing and what attracts me about writing crime.
My main inspiration is travel – each of my Fiona Mason Mysteries is set in a different country. Fiona is a tour manager for a coach company so the opportunity to visit new places as a cruise lecturer might provide some good research opportunities.
My talks always seem to go down well but I wasn’t getting too many cruise offers with my agency so I decided to branch out. Last spring, I did a port lecturing course learning how to put together a presentation including a little about the geography and history of each port we were due to visit, the things passengers might like to see and do independently and about the shore excursions offered by the ship. Just the sort of thing Fiona has to do as a tour manager when she takes her party on their adventures. It’s also a test of my writings skills – port lecturing needs to be entertaining and the information must be appealing.
There were eight of us on the course. It was an intensive three days and having passed stage one, we were all invited back a month later to give a presentation on a port of our choosing.
I received an offer at the end of November for a cruise in Central America leaving in late January and visiting eight ports. A tall order given that it takes 50 hours to research and put together each presentation and that’s without practice time! Life was put on hold. ‘Blood Hits the Wall’, my latest Fiona Mason mystery had all been set to publish at the end of the year but all that had to be shelved.
As soon as I returned from Acapulco, I had to set to and research the six ports on my ‘Land’s End to John O’Groats’ cruise at the end of April stretching into May. Book publishing on hold again! One of the ports we visited was Belfast and as Northern Ireland’s capital city is going to be the base for Fiona’s next coach Tour, the amount of time I spent researching for the port talk – never mind the chance to visit this beautiful city again – is essential research for the book. The ship offered six shore excursions including panoramic tours of the city, a visit to Titanic Belfast, one to the Giant’s Causeway, a scenic coastal drive to the Antrim Glens, a visit to Mount Stewart House and a tour of the various sites used in the filming of the Game of Thrones. Researching each of these in detail plus my return to the city means I now have plenty of material for an exciting itinerary for Fiona to keep her coach passengers happy.
Our little group of fellow course members have remained very close. We may live scattered throughout the country but most of us would have given up long ago if it were not for the support of the others. Port lecturing is no doddle. Research is very time consuming – at least a week per port. It’s hard work even when you’re on board – things get changed at the last minute; tours get cancelled and bad weather may mean the ship cannot get into port. On my Central American cruise, during the first week, my husband and I occasionally had breakfast together and then didn’t see each other again until dinner!
One of the worst things is that passengers who tell you they loved your talks never seem to bother to give written reports (and this is how we’re rated) and complainers will find any excuse to have a moan. I was taken to task at the end of my Central American tour for reminding passengers not to forget to take water with them when they went ashore and to take sensible precautions against pickpockets which was deemed patronising! You can even end up with a bad score if you happen to be escorting a tour where they don’t like the packed lunch! I know that reflects life in general – people are slow to praise and quick to find fault but ratings are important so if you go on a cruise, please do bother to fill in those forms we all hate so much handed out at the end. If only the complainers fill them in, we lecturers won’t be asked back!
One of the great things about cruises is meeting new people. What better way for a writer to get ideas? As a lecturer, you also get the chance to escort tours. If all goes well, it can be an enjoyable experience, but it can be a mixed blessing. I recounted one dire trip in a previous blog, ‘The Ups and Downs of Being a Cruise Lecturer’ posted in May 2014 when one passenger fell back at the top of an escalator in Monte Carlo resulting in a pile up at the bottom and two people being taken to hospital. Falls are common and can be serious, passengers dive off into shops or to take photos, get lost in the general crowd and frequently fail to turn up at the designated meeting place on time. I can laugh about such incidents now but believe me it’s no fun at the time. Does it give me ideas for what happens on Fiona’s tours? You betcha!
I’m keeping my fingers crossed that I receive a good report from my last cruise as I’d love to do another.
It’s going to be hard to get back into novel writing mode after such a long break but I’m looking forward to getting back into Fiona’s mind-set. I still need a subplot for Peter Montgomery-Jones which is eluding me but that’s why I love writing – I want to find out what happens.