Beware the East Wind (The Mah Jongg Mysteries) by Barbara Barrett
Author Guest Post
The Mysteries of Mah Jongg
I decided to use the game of Mah Jongg as the focus of my first mystery series for two reasons. First, it was a subject with which I had some familiarity since I’d been playing it for over a decade and could, therefore, write with a certain degree of credibility. And second, it was a relatively unknown niche in the cozy mystery market which promised a whole new group of potential readers.
I soon learned that decision came with challenges of its own. The people I’d been playing with over the years offered a rich panorama of personalities to include as either main or secondary characters. However, to keep myself out of legal trouble, and avoid offending anyone, I didn’t feel I could base any one character on a specific person. I had to either use certain traits of one person and mix them with others’ characteristics or use them solely as inspirations of totally original characters. Though I managed to steer clear of legal issues by creating my characters under those restrictions, I also discovered I had some disappointed readers who bought the first book hoping they’d find themselves somewhere on its pages. Go figure.
Another challenge was the subject itself. Mah Jongg has a large and growing base of players. They had been my target when I selected this hook for the series. However, not all Mah Jongg players read mysteries. I had to tap the pocket of cozy mystery fans for sales. But the subject matter didn’t necessarily appeal. Reference to Mah Jongg comes with its own connotations, primarily, the perception it is played mainly by little old ladies and also that it was hard to understand let alone learn how to play. While there’s some truth to both—I could be seen as a little old lady, although I prefer to characterize myself as in my late middle age, and it does take a little time to learn the terms and rules—I didn’t see either as being a huge problem as long as I approached my stories with those in mind.
Admittedly, since my four protagonists are all retired, which could conceivably reinforce the “little old lady” notion, I’ve made all four active seniors, each with her own strengths and foibles. I keep mention of the technicalities of the game to a minimum, usually as simply the backdrop of the opening or closing chapter. The rest of the Mah Jongg theme is setting, and it also has served as the connection to someone involved with the murder. Oh, yes, each title contains a Mah Jongg term.
I spent the first four books in the series “settling into” the format. This summer, I had a chance to expand my horizons when it comes to characterization. The group I usually play with during the summer months decided to decrease from weekly sessions to two a month. With that in mind, I looked for other groups and found two contenders. (I actually found a couple more, but I needed to spend time actually writing, so I limited it to two.)
The first was a group who met at their church. The church actually supported them as one of their outreach activities. Given the surroundings, they didn’t play for money, simply the joy of learning the game and winning. That was a bit of a mental switch for me, although not unheard of as I’d also played for a time with a group that met at the local Y. The church-based group also played for only two hours each session; I was more accustomed to three or more hours. With the shortened time frame and no-money approach, I found I was mainly playing to enjoy the game itself. There’s a lot to be said for that. The competitive urge had to be curbed.
I was most impressed by their friendliness. They were very welcoming, which in my experience, hasn’t always been the case with some groups. They had also worked out a way to determine who played at which table at each session, which prevented factions from forming, although, from my writer’s perspective, that may have reduced my chances of tapping some juicy confrontations.
The second group played in the food court of a local mall. (The way seniors have taken over the malls during daytime hours is a whole article in itself for some future blog.) The setting alone offered potential new aspects for my stories, due to the number of other people in the mall who’d stop by. This group, too, didn’t play for money. They did tend to play a little longer, two and a half to three hours. Unlike the church group, there was no method of picking tablemates; people just sat at place that had openings, although they did attempt to move around whenever there was a winner, who was supposed to move to another table. That happened sometimes but not always.
This group played another version of Mah Jongg, which was why I selected them, so that I could continue playing this version over the summer. However, they radically changed the way the game was played by using Jokers (the wild tiles), which are not typically used in this version of the game. It took me a few weeks to adapt to this style, because it totally changed the strategy. I hope I can devise a way to introduce these features in a future story without getting overly complicated, because they offer rich back story.
How will these two experiences contribute to future stories otherwise? Those threads are still coming together. The main realization I’ve had is not to let my four Mah Jongg-playing protagonists get too comfortable with the game. I need to throw in some curves from time to time to keep it interesting and evolving.
How about you, reader? Have you encountered any new situations with the game that have sharpened your playing ability?
Beware the east wind! It’s hurricane season in Florida, and everyone’s attention is focused on preparing for the latest tempest. But in Serendipity Springs, mah jongg pals Marianne, Sydney, Micki and Kat are caught in a different kind of whirlwind—a mesmerizing murder case involving a slain hypnotist/chef and the woman police suspect of doing her in, her embittered catering partner, Portia.
About the Author
Barbara Barrett started reading mysteries when she was pregnant with her first child to keep her mind off things like her changing body and food cravings. When she’d devoured as many Agatha Christies as she could find, she branched out to English village cozies and Ellery Queen.
Later, to avoid a midlife crisis, she began writing fiction at night when she wasn’t at her day job as a human resources analyst for Iowa State Government. After releasing eleven full-length romance novels and one novella, she returned to the cozy mystery genre, using one of her retirement pastimes, the game of mah jongg, as her inspiration. Not only has it been a great social outlet, it has also helped keep her mind active when not writing.
Bamboozled, the second book in her “Mah Jongg Mystery” series, features four friends who play mah jongg together and share otherwise in each other’s lives. None of the four is based on an actual person. Each is an amalgamation of several mah jongg friends with a lot of Barbara’s imagination thrown in for good measure. The four will continue to appear in future books in the series.
Anticipating the day when she would write her first mystery, she has been a member of the Mystery/Romantic Suspense chapter of Romance Writers of America for over a decade. She credits them with helping her hone her craft.
Barbara is married to the man she met her senior year of college. They have two grown children and eight grandchildren.