Writing Deep Blue by Kristy McCaffrey

August 15, 2020

All this week I’ve been sharing background info on the creation of my romantic suspense novel DEEP BLUE on Facebook, so I thought I’d group it all into a blog post in case any of you missed it and might be interested in my thought process while writing it. 

I began my writing career with historical western romances, but I’d always been fascinated by sharks so had long entertained story ideas around them. About 3 years ago, I decided to finally write the book I had been thinking of. Initially, I saw it as more of a thriller (going back to an outline I’d written over 15 years prior), but in light of the devastation to the shark population due to overfishing and shark finning, I knew I wanted to write a story that showed more love to the shark than was usually the case in shark books and movies. I’m a great fan of the movie JAWS, but I wanted to explore the subject deeper than simply the abject fear that people experience when it comes to these often misunderstood fish.

Enter Dr. Grace Mann, my main character. It took a few drafts to smooth her out because at first she was smart but aloof and all business. A bit too cold, unfortunately. When I backtracked and built up her childhood, that’s when I found her overwhelming love for sharks, and the story began to click. (She accompanied her shark researcher father to the Farallon Islands as a child, bringing out her wild nature, an aspect I find really important when excavating a character.) She’s also a computer geek and that played into her rather obsessive nature regarding her work and the underwater sonar array she’s trying to develop.

Part of the backstory for my underwater filmmaker hero Alec Galloway is related to surfing. I read up on big wave surfing (THE WAVE by Susan Casey is an amazing book about giant waves, rogue waves, ship-crushing waves, and she includes chapters about the men who try to surf them – Jaws in Maui, Mavericks in Northern California, and Teahupoo in Tahiti)

I was so intrigued by this that I decided the Galloway family, led by Alec’s dad, Big Jim Galloway, would not only be a surfing family, but Big Wave surfers to boot. This includes Alec’s younger siblings, Tyler (who stars in Book 2, COLD HORIZON) and Brynn (star of upcoming Book 3, ANCIENT WINDS).

While they no longer do this in the present time of their stories, it was a piece of their backstory that showcased the drive and nerve that each of them possessed. It also informs Alec’s character in that he’s a fairly cautious guy because of some of the crazy stuff he’s seen and done. This created some clashes with Grace in DEEP BLUE, since he believes her actions are reckless at times. Grace, of course, doesn’t see it that way.

Photo by Juan Oliphant

How do you feel about this picture? This is Ocean Ramsey, a biologist and shark conservation advocate who spends nearly every day in the water with sharks. She is also the target of much criticism due to her interactions with sharks, especially great whites. I state at the end of DEEP BLUE that my character Dr. Grace Mann was inspired by Ms. Ramsey, and this is true. Ramsey’s interactions and knowledge of marine life, and especially sharks, shows us what’s possible when it comes to human/fish interactions. I find her work fascinating, and it informed Grace in the sense that I knew these types of encounters were possible. I write fiction, and I certainly take poetic license at times, but I do try to couch my storylines in a thread of truth. There’s no easy answers as to whether interacting with wildlife – and in the case of great white sharks, very dangerous wildlife – should or shouldn’t happen. I did explore this further with Grace and another marine scientist in DEEP BLUE: COCOS ISLAND, a follow-up short story. It’s an interesting discussion that I will continue to follow, both in the real world and in my work.

One reason I enjoy writing romances is the fun in creating a scenario for two people to fall in love and following along on that journey. DEEP BLUE, and the second book COLD HORIZON, aren’t strictly romances—these books are more action oriented and I made an effort to make them more readable to a broader audience by not following the standard romance plot, which is generally filled with more internal character musings and structure. Still, at the center of these stories are two people finding their way to each other.

The key to a good romance is finding the inherent obstacle between the couple. For Alec and Grace, it boiled down to a clash between Grace’s love and confidence in the water with sharks and Alec’s caution around such dangerous creatures. I built up these viewpoints by giving each of them specific experiences from their past. For Grace, it was growing up at the feet of her shark researcher dad and absorbing his obsession and respect for great white sharks; for Alec, it was having a healthy respect for the ocean, whether it be via big wave surfing or the loss of a close friend to a great white attack that has continued to haunt him. 

From there, it became great fun to write their scenes and let the sparks fly.

During early drafts of DEEP BLUE, I was swamped with shark info that I’d been collecting. I usually take different passes on a manuscript – one to lay out the general outline and pacing, one to add layers to the characters, one to beef up the romantic tension between the hero and heroine, one to add descriptive details. It didn’t really occur to me that I should have a shark main character (as I said, brain overload) but near the end of one of the drafts Bonnie showed up, and it stopped me cold in my writing tracks. She was a very large and very mature female great white shark. An alpha. A true alpha of any creature on earth. I immediately began moving around scenes and rewriting the beginning of the book because Bonnie needed to be present throughout the story. There’s also a secondary shark named Felix, a randy youngin’ who causes all sorts of trouble. If you’ve ever met a teenage boy, then you know what I’m talking about.

While the gist of the story of DEEP BLUE is Grace freediving with great sharks in an effort to observe their behavior without the impediment and noise of scuba equipment, a side story is the testing of a prototype shark sonar array she designed in an effort to detect sharks in a specified grid area. Her goal is to have such an apparatus installed at ‘sharky’ beaches around the world as an early warning system to swimmers and surfers. So, is this a real thing? 

I studied shark deterrents already in use and their effectiveness varied. It included such things as repellants (sonar, chemical), underwater nets (as you can imagine, these devastate more than sharks by trapping and killing everything else), and aerial spotters. The sonar array that Grace builds using artificial intelligence was a work of wishful fiction on my part. The idea is that there are multiple layers of code identifying creatures as they enter the grid area. This type of neural network is a “deep learning” program that becomes better over time as it acquires more and more data points. My son Sam, a data engineer, was a huge help as I developed this for the story, explaining to me how this would work. One exciting development was that after the book was published, I came across scientists working on a similar apparatus. So maybe one day you’ll go to the beach and pull up an app on your phone that tells you immediately what’s in the ocean you’re about to step into.

How did I research Guadalupe Island?

DEEP BLUE opens in Monterey, California, but the bulk of the story takes place on a boat off the coast of Guadalupe Island, located on the Pacific Ocean side of Baja California. It’s a fairly uninhabited island, with a handful of fisherman and scientists in residence, and from August until about January, it’s a hotspot of great white shark activity. The males arrive first, and then in October the very large females make an appearance. It’s unknown why the sharks congregate here, but it’s thought that they mate and feed, since there’s a large seal population. (And for the record, no one has ever seen or filmed white sharks mating or giving birth.) There are several companies that ferry customers on live-aboard boats to cage-dive with the sharks, with departures from San Diego, and if you’ve ever watched Shark Week on Discovery Channel, many of the shows have been filmed here.

Still, I found it a challenge to find information about the area so that I could realistically write about it (and since I was unable to go myself). Internet searches turned up general info, but I’m always in search of smaller, more interesting tidbits, the kind of stuff that isn’t on a Wikipedia page. It took me a while, but I finally located several blogs written by people who had visited the area, offering raw first impressions that made the writer in me squeal with delight.

I’ve envisioned the Pathway series as loosely connected standalones, which has been both a pro and a con when it comes to marketing. Because the series isn’t deep, meaning I only have two books currently available, advertising them has been a challenge. Eventually when I have the planned 6-8 books published, it will be easier to do more extensive marketing.

The main reason I wrote DEEP BLUE: AUSTRALIA was to offer a free but exclusive read to my newsletter subscribers, giving them another chance to hang out with Grace and Alec. An author’s newsletter list is a beloved holy grail because it offers us the chance to reach our readers directly (Amazon and Facebook greatly throttle that ability). But … if readers are signed up for too many newsletters, they can be rightly overwhelmed by the email volume in their inbox. It was my hope to sweeten the pot by offering something they couldn’t get anywhere else in exchange for their valuable time.

Last year, I managed to get a coveted BookBub Feature Deal for Deep Blue, but I had to make the book free. The key to making this type of advertising work is to have follow-up books in which to recoup your losses. BookBub deals aren’t cheap and generally run in the hundreds of dollars. I had COLD HORIZON out, but with its mountain climbing theme it was a very different book than DEEP BLUE, so in an effort to compensate for a low read-through rate, I decided to publish AUSTRALIA and charge $2.99 for digital downloads. This is an aggressive price for this type of short, and while other authors do use this price point successfully, I didn’t have the name recognition to pull it off. The result was reader backlash. Being an indie author means I’m able to pivot and switch gears quickly, so I did. I wrote two more short adventures – REUNION ISLAND and COCOS ISLAND – so that I could package all three together for $2.99, giving readers a little more bang for their buck. While I must always consider the economics of creating and pricing my projects, I strive to balance that with reader expectations.

Some people have asked for another novel starring Grace and Alec, but since that can take me upwards of a year to write, these shorts were a way to continue their story while I work on other books in the Pathway universe. I sure hope you enjoy them!

Did you know there’s a bonus scene of Alec’s first impression of Grace over at Book+Main Bites? You can read it here.

To learn more about DEEP BLUE, visit my website.

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