X Dames and Sayulita

The first time we went to Sayulita was in the late 1990s when it was still relatively small and quiet, although even then the surfing wave had begun to get crowded, and more than a few dozen gringos had built their trophy homes on the waterfront or on the hills above.

Fast forward. Sayulita is a boom town. It has been for fifteen years now. More houses, more tourists, more hotels, more surfers, restaurants, real estate offices, and fancy stores selling jewels, clothes, arts and crafts, and everything else. For Americans in search of a warm, sunny and semi-exotic place where they can misbehave safely, get drunk in public, and generally act out, Sayulita is ideal.  Sayulita is also a breathtakingly beautiful place, a jewel of a town set on a long beach in a shallow bay with hills and a valley behind it, streams flowing through, mango and papaya and coconut trees growing everywhere, fish for the taking from the sea, waves to ride, sands to loll on—a perfect paradise, it seems. In spite of Mexico’s scary rep for violence, most of the country is safe, and aside from some burglaries and robberies every high season, there is little crime in Sayulita.

Sayulita is not unlike the Puerto Vallarta of 40 or 50 years ago. Sadly enough, it may end up like Vallarta—a small city instead of a small town—but only time will tell. At the moment, the zoning codes, at least, are keeping buildings mostly low-rise, but it is getting more dense every year. One of these days some jackass developer with enough money to pay off the right officials will probably blow the zoning code and stick a high rise on the beach, and that will be the end of Sayulita as we know it.

X DAMES (free on Amazon) is set, timewise, in the middle of the boom, as is evident in the real estate scamming that drives part of the plot. There is no need to further describe the town—everything you need to know about it is in the book or you can find it on the web. By all means, pay Sayulita a visit if you want to experience a Mexican town that is not quite Mexican but more a hybrid, being half American and half Mexican, a hippie town, a surfer town, a great town to party but not so great to learn Spanish because all the Mexicans there, or many of them, speak English. The beach is lovely if crowded, and sometimes the surf is really good.  Get there soon if you plan to go. Things are changing fast.

My partner and I are surfers and have been for many years, so this turned out to be a great spot for us, and because of the nature of the town, the infrastructure, the lovely and lively youth-oriented population, and everything else, it is a perfect spot to throw a surfing contest/reality tv show. Hence the X Dames. In “real” life there have been several surfing contests held in Sayulita in recent years, and even more interesting, a Mexican reality TV show about a bunch of young people living it up in Sayulita, MI VIDA SAYULITA, has been wowing TV audiences south of the border for several years now. This has had the effect of making Sayulita not only ultra-desirable for American tourists but also for young Mexican tourists, who flock there by the hundreds—thousands!—for Spring Break (called Semana Santa or Saints Week in Mexico) and other holidays, transforming the town into party central.

We lived in Sayulita for five warm and sunny years, from 2009 to 2014, and though I had written the  X Dames book before that period, after having vacationed there, most of what I wrote held true even after having experienced the town more up close and personal for half a decade. I got it pretty much right, at least for purposes of this particular story.

During that five year time I wrote several guidebooks to various parts of Mexico, worked on tourism websites, and in many ways fell in love with Mexico—and then out of love with Mexico. It is a hard place to live after while, even living in a small town on the beach.  Foreign countries are so complicated!

But we will be going back, one way or another, for vacations or possibly even to live if things continue to degrade here at home, politically speaking. Time will tell. Mexico is a great escape hatch but like all such hatches, when you go through them you don’t really leave all your troubles behind, you just bring them along in another form. Some of them anyway. So it goes. Living the itinerant life that my partner and I have lived, we have learned to roll with the punches.

I do have a friend in Los Angeles who has been writing a biography of an artist not unlike the one I describe in the book, although the other artist, he who paints the private parts of ladies, is completely fictional, although the feminist artist Judy Chicago, with whom he is compared, is a real historical artist and her Dinner Party plate series is as described. There is a house that looks like the one I wrote about, up in the Malibu hills, but it does not belong to said artist or his family. It is an LA landmark of an offbeat sort.

My take on the “reality” TV biz in LA, and how a show might progress from concept to execution to completed product, is what it is. I know people in “the industry” and they gave me a few tips. Probably not exactly right, but close enough to ring true enough. In the land of make believe, that is more than enough.

Some of these characters were inspired by real people. Others I invented. That’s the way it works for me. With this book I really had no idea how I was going to resolve the unresolved plot until I got to the end and came up with the idea of having the cops see the show and then go after the crooks. As is so often the case, the bad guys get away with a lot of bad stuff here, and the victory of good over evil is a partial one, at best. Lucy lives in a world of moral relativity, a world composed of shades of gray, and though she usually makes the right choices, morally and ethically speaking, her convictions are constantly being tested and tried by circumstance. Hey, that’s life in the big city.


Puerto Vallarta and X Dames

With the next few entries I want to talk about the real people and tell the stories behind the third volume in the series, called X DAMES. This was written not too long after “reality” TV shows started taking over the airwaves, and was obviously inspired, in part, by such shows.

More importantly, not long before I began this book we had discovered Sayulita, a wonderful little town on the west coast of Mexico a few miles north of Puerto Vallarta and its international airport.

First, Vallarta: As anyone familiar with the recent history of this part of Mexico will tell you, Puerto Vallarta was a sleepy little beach town tucked between coastal mountains and a deep, beautiful bay that filled with migrating whales every winter (and still does), until that fateful year of 1964 when Mexi-phile film director John Huston decamped to Vallarta with the cast and crew of NIGHT OF THE IGUANA, a film based on the play by Tennessee Williams. Williams went down to write the screen version, and a cast including A-list movie stars Ava Gardner, Sue Lyon, Deborah Kerr and Richard Burton also went down, Burton accompanied by his paramour, the ravishing Elizabeth Taylor, who was not in the movie but provided plenty of drama nonetheless. At the time, she and Burton—Liz and Dick—were the most famous unmarried couple in the world.

These movie stars were followed by a small army of paparazzi, of course. Though social media didn’t exist in the ubiquitous way it does today, the press did like a scandal, and the doings of Burton and Taylor were scandalously big news.

Long story short, a memorable movie got made—Williams is a brilliant if occasionally melodramatic dramatist—but more to the point here, all those photographers and reporters sent back piles of words and pictures extolling the wonders of Puerto Vallarta, with its perfect climate and endless beaches backed by lush, jungled hills. Bring on the developers!

Puerto Vallarta has been a major winter escape ever since. Along with a couple of hundred thousand full-time residents, the town is now home to hundreds of hotels, restaurants, and tourist attractions. The weather is perfect 75 per cent of the time, the food can be fabulous, the people are mostly friendly, and it takes three hours to fly there from LA.

Sayulita was lucky, for a while. Though less than an hour away from Vallarta by bus or car, Americans tend not to be all that adventurous when traveling in “scary” foreign countries like Mexico, and so, aside from the more risk-taking types—mostly surfers!—not all that many people headed up to Sayulita in spite of its proximity to PV.  It did not get overrun for several decades.

Truth to Fiction: The Writing of Mexican Booty

So on to the second Lucy Ripken book, MEXICAN BOOTY, set in New York, Santa Fe, and several locations on the Yucatan Peninsula on Mexico’s Caribbean side.

I started this book after having a conversation about pre-Colombian art forgery with a couple of friends who worked in the Museum of the American Indian, which at that time was on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. It has since moved downtown, I believe. But no matter, these friends–married, with two daughters, very much the “real” people basis for the couple in the book who advise Lucy on matters pre-Colombian—got me going. As did a friend’s meeting of a guy in Santa Fe—a single guy, a lawyer from California—with whom she fell in love. I lived in Santa Fe for a short time many years ago, and have passed through the area enough times to sort of know my way around. Throw all that into the mix with a trip we took to Isla Mujeres, off Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, from Manhattan, with side trips to Chichen Itza, of course, and you have the basis for the book. Everything else I made up, including the two unusual residential locations—the house in the mountain and the house on the beach. The other characters including the peyote-eating heiress and her no-good sax playing brother, his sleazy part-time girlfriend, the bad guys, and the gallery owner, are all invented, based of course on types or individuals I have met along the way.

Lucy’s skill as a windsurfer reflects the skill one of us possess in real life, so I was able to write about it knowledgeably, although windsurfing, or boardsailing as it is really called, has been supplanted by kite-sailing as the main way to ride the wind on a board. So I guess that dates me, along with some of the techy stuff that has obviously changed drastically even in the few short years since I wrote the book.

As for the plot, with its double and triple crosses and “fake” fakes and so on…well, once again, this is all invention. I know there is a huge market for smuggled pre-Colombian artifacts, and that there are expert forgers out there. That’s all you need, sometimes, to make up a story.

The last time I visited Isla Mujeres there was only one large hotel, abandoned on the shore at the north end of the island, abutting the long sandy main beach that is the primary hang-out for all the low-budget hippie travelers that used to congregate there, since it was beautiful Mexican beachfront and cheap rooms and hotels abounded nearby. It wasn’t quite Ibiza or Phuket or one of those more renowned spots on the vagabond circuit that drew a larger crowd of those in search of the cool place to be, but it was definitely on that circuit.

Also on that hipster vagabond circuit was the lively and beautiful beach town of Playa del Carmen, down the coast not so many miles. Playa del Carmen has since turned into another Cancun only with a little more class—crowded, expensive, and not even remotely off the beaten track. As for Isla Mujeres—well, you’ll have to go and see for yourselves what time has wrought. It is a great spot, and the wonderful ruins of Chichen Itza and the magical coastal parks with their cenotes, wild beaches, and lush jungles are all nearby.

Caribbean and Pacific Mexico are two different worlds, with different cultures, histories, and climates. Don’t be afraid to visit Mexico. This is an amazing country with profound cultural riches, natural beauty of all kinds ranging from volcanoes to rain forests and jungles to beaches with waves, reefs, and endless, empty stretches of sand; great food with myriad regional variations, and generally friendly, engaging people. Two of my stories take place, in part, in Mexico, for a reason: I like it down there very much.


Truth to Fiction: The Writing of Murder on Naked Beach

As Hospitality Editor at INTERIORS Magazine I wrote about the architecture and design of hotels and restaurants. On one hand, architects and designers love to have their projects published, as it enhances their status which in turn helps them get more work. On the other hand, having a restaurant or hotel publishing in a design magazine adds value to the property. So, having the power to praise these projects in print, I got the royal treatment from both ends, and as a result I ate in a lot of great restaurants on the house, and I stayed for free in some posh hotels, the kind I could never in a million years afford on my Associate Editor salary. I visited multiple Caribbean Islands, Bali, Hawaii, Costa Rica, Mexico, Moscow, Hong Kong, and dozens of U.S. states and cities, and I rarely if ever paid for the travel or the hotel room. At the magazine, we avoided the ethical trade-off implicit in all this free stuff—to some extent anyway—by only visiting and publishing projects that we really liked.

While a few of these were private trips just for the two of us, many were press “junkets,” where a hotel’s PR people would invite a bunch of writers and photographers and whoever else they thought might help their hotel publicity cause. On one of the very first press junkets I went on, my partner and I and about 25 or 30 other reporters, editors, writers, etc., went down for a five day weekend at the Grand Lido, a high-end all-inclusive resort that had just opened on Jamaica’s northern coast, not far from Ocho Rios. Believe me, a Caribbean trip out of New York City in February is a gift from whatever gods you believe in. From 8 degrees to 80 degrees in six hours.

This was the junket that inspired MURDER ON NAKED BEACH, my first mystery. Every character in that book is based on someone who either went on the press trip or worked at the hotel or in the Jamaican tourist industry. One of these characters was a pompous, obnoxious late middle-aged magazine writer, a jerk who spent the entire trip being rude to not only the hotel staff and the PR people but half the writers and other junketeers as well.  A truly obnoxious character.

So I killed him off!! Ha! Only in the book, and it wasn’t me that done it.

No, nobody killed him off in real life, although plenty of us wanted to.

Yes, the prime minister of Jamaica did come to the hotel and make an opening day speech, a bit less challenging to the hotel management than the one I wrote for him in the book. And I did eat a magic mushroom omelet and attempt to go waterskiing afterwards. Right past the dedicated nudist island that lay a hundred yards offshore of the hotel.

So: nobody went crazy, there was no murder and there were no drug deals, none of that, but plenty of strange, reality-based characters and colorful scenery and everything else that brings a story to life. I had a lot of fun re-inventing many real people I met–and either liked or found contemptible–as characters in the book, then letting them loose. One thing you discover with fictional characters, whether based on real people or not, is that they often take matters into their own hands and start behaving in ways you really don’t expect. For me, this is when things get really interesting: when the book starts to write itself.

Jamaica, where I set Murder on Naked Beach, is a strange island. In spite of some environmental degradation it is like every Caribbean island exquisitely beautiful in the way of mountainous tropical islands ringed with gorgeous beaches. There is a secret tribe of runaway slaves in the mountains called the Maroons, who’ve run their own little country up there for over a century.

Very few white people ever travel up into those mountains or over to the island’s main city, Kingston, on the south coast, but rather stay on the north site, cruising between the tourist destinations of Negril, Ocho Rios, Montego Bay, and Port Antonio at the far end. Negril is Jamaica’s original hippie outpost, and the scene there remains more Rastafarian peaceful than violent, the way it can get down Kingston way. The restaurants, tourist attractions, and other stuff I used as backdrops in the book remain in place, as far as I know and can tell from reading the travel advertisements in the New York Times.

If you should happen to go to Jamaica, most likely you’ll end up on the northern coast. If Kingston today is anything at all like the Kingston described in a scarily violent novel I just finished reading, you’ll want to stay out of Kingston. The book is called A Brief History of Seven Killings, by Marlon James, and it is raw, nasty and dangerous. If you want to visit Jamaica, don’t read this book, read my merry little mystery instead, stay on the north coast, and don’t get sunburned.

Mexico resembles Jamaica in that it has gotten a lot of bad press—in Mexico’s case more than is deserves coming from the gun-crazed United States–yet Mexico does have huge and seemingly intractable problems with drug-cartel-driven violence as well as corruption at nearly every level of government.

However, since I have set two of my books partly in Mexico,  and I have spent a fair amount of time there, I want to rise to that lovely country’s defense even before I get into the books I set there. Mexico has its danger zones, mostly along the border and a few select cities and provinces, but as a tourist flying in or even driving in, if you travel by day and stick to the main roads, chances are you will encounter no trouble as long as you don’t go over the speed limit when traveling on surface roads. Safest of all is to stick to the Cuota, or toll road. This pricey highway is by far the easiest way to get around in Mexico, if you’re driving, and also the fastest and safest—there are small but undeniable odds that on a regular road or highway you might get pulled over or roadblocked by a real cop looking for his daily mordida (bribe) or a fake cop or fake army unit looking to steal everything you own.

Don’t be alarmed—such events rarely happen during the day and usually only in areas that have been labeled as no travel zones by the State Department. Other than that, well, every country has its petty criminals, robbers, burglars, car thieves, and so on—but unlike the United States, in Mexico 99 per cent of the general public would not dream of owning a gun or using one. It’s that cartel one per cent you want to watch out for, and they generally keep to their own territory and murder each other rather than innocent citizens or tourists. Unless those citizens are political radicals or those tourists are looking for, say hard drugs or loose women in the middle of the night. But where is that not dangerous?

If any readers or would-be travelers have any questions to ask me about what I know of Jamaica—a little—or Mexico—a fair amount, feel free to do so on the Lucy Ripken Facebook page. Any critiques or questions about the books are also welcome as are, above all, good reviews! If you read one and liked it, take five minutes to tell the world why. Please.


Truth to Fiction

This is author JJ Henderson checking in. I wrote the Lucy Ripken Books, and I have started this blog to share with you some of the experiences I had writing the books. What I plan to do is explain how things in my “real life” find their way into my fictional books. And throw in some other stuff along the way.

First we need to step back a few years. I lived with my spouse in New York City, and worked for a design magazine called INTERIORS. This was back in the day when there were probably 8 or 10 successful print magazines devoted to architecture and interior design in New York City alone. All of them fat with advertising. Then along came the internet and now INTERIORS and all those magazines are gone or reduced to skinny little rags. The internet changed publishing, undermining and then destroying a money-making industry that had worked for over a century.

But for several years I did work at this magazine along with a crew of other writers, many of whom became my friends. At one point six of us INTERIORS editors got bored with the routine and decided to write a book together. A murder mystery, to be written by an entity called GROUP SIX. I wrote the first chapter and handed it along. It was called DEATH BY DESIGN.

It never got finished, since we all had different writing styles and we were working without an outline or a plan. It fell apart fast. But I did find, in writing the first chapter, that I had a knack for making a mystery narrative—for setting a plot in motion—and also for writing the kind of dialogue, social satire and commentary that makes certain kinds of mysteries fun to read.

I had written fiction before—two long-winded novels—but I couldn’t find a publisher and I began to feel that I didn’t have the “serious writer” gene in my DNA. Or maybe I was just unlucky and had I found a good editor he or she might have whipped either or both of those novels into shape and made me rich and famous. But it didn’t happen. And then, DEATH BY DESIGN came along and I found writing that first chapter was FUN!

The Lucy Ripken Books began to stir in my brain.

A word about Lucy Ripken: I have been in a very good, strong relationship and marriage for several decades.  My spouse and I were married at the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence, Italy many years ago, and still have the Certificato di Matrimonio to prove it.  We remain deeply committed to each other and to our relationship, which has been great from the get go. We still have a lot of fun together (I believe it was Lawrence Durrell who wrote, “after passion, women love laughter the most,”) but more importantly, we respect each other. We are equals in the game. One a writer, one a photographer, the two of us together traveled the world for years, writing and shooting for books and magazines.

Lucy Ripken is my blend of the two of us. She’s both writer and photographer. Unlike us, she is alone, and a little lonely. But then, the search for romance only adds spice to the story. It keeps Lucy moving.

The use of the JJ instead of a real name is intended to obscure the gender of the writer. Do you think JJ is a man or a woman?