Cocktail Conversations

Cocktail Conversations with Toby Neal – #fanfun

I am super-excited to have Toby Neal as my Cocktail Conversations partner today. Toby, as many of you already know is the author of the fabulous Lei Crime Series and recently I joined her Kindle World with a novella titled “Esther’s Gift”. It was a true delight getting to know Toby and working with her. Thanks to her feedback and help…yes, much help… my novella is rich with Hawaiian feel and folklore.
esthers gift
Toby’s favorite drink was a mai-tai but after recently discovering an allergy to pineapple juice, she has switched to mojitos, so that will be today’s drink. With it I think I’ll serve chicken chunks skewered with sweet red onion, green pepper and cherry tomatoes – cooked over an open grill of course.

Bette: Welcome Toby, I am so excited to have you here. ~Sets mojito in front of Toby~ Hope this is not too heavy on the mint.

Toby: ~Takes a sip and smiles~ Perfect. I love it.

Bette: ~Sniffs palm of hand~ I love having the smell of mint on my hands. Before our friends start asking, I’m going to post the recipe for this mojito right here. I snagged it off of the Bacardi Rum website.

Depending on who you believe, the mojito either came from the Spanish word ‘mojar’, which means to wet, or the African word ‘mojo’, which means to cast a spell. Anybody who’s ever tasted one will agree that it’s thirst quenching and spellbinding in equal measures.

Mojito cocktail on white background

Mojito cocktail on white background

2 parts BACARDÍ Superior rum
4 lime wedges
12 fresh mint leaves
2 heaped tsp caster sugar
1 part soda water/club soda
Sprig fresh mint to garnish
Gently press together the limes & sugar. Bruise the mint leaves by clapping them between your palms, rub them on the rim of the glass and drop them in. Next, half fill the glass with crushed ice, add the BACARDÍ Superior rum & stir. Top up with crushed ice, a splash of soda and a sprig of mint.

Bette: Okay, I am going to start off by saying how much I’ve enjoyed working with you and how much I enjoyed getting to know Detective Lei Texeria in your novels. After you invited me to join your Kindle World, I started reading the Lei Crime Series and whizzed through five or six of the books, which for me is a record because I seldom read the same author’s books one after another.
Toby: ~laughs~ I hope that was because you became attached to the characters.

Bette: Absolutely. Although each story had a satisfying ending, as opposed to a cliff-hanger, I got caught up in the stories and wanted more each time. Lei is a very likeable character, flawed enough to have readers rooting for her and tough enough to keep going even when the odds are against her. Did you have her complete profile before you started writing the series or did she grow as you moved from one book to the next?

Toby: Well, the whole series actually started as a short story on my anonymous blog on a writing site, LiveJournal. It was sparked by my real-life experience working as a school counselor and doing emergency grief counseling at our local high school, when two young girls were drowned. The tragedy was later ruled an accident, but at the time we thought it was a homicide and I felt so frustrated that I couldn’t help find the answers that I went home and wrote this story. Readers liked it and said, “What next?” and Lei emerged on the page, brave, damaged… and relentless in finding answers.

Bette: Wow, that is an awesome story. When you come across characters that way they become so genuine. I think that is why readers have really gravitated to Lei. And you have really brought her full circle. Readers not only get a good detective story but they become involved in her life.

It’s kind of the same with me. I know my character at the start but as I write I move deeper into their soul. In several books, I have finished my first draft and then gone back and totally re-written the beginning because I was so much more in touch with the character by then and could speak more in their voice.
Toby: Blood Orchids was rewritten at least three full times from its beginning as a short story on a blog. I spent thousands on editing; I wanted it to be a great book! I became much more efficient as I kept writing; I learned to develop “character bios’ before a story, which my mental health background really helps with. As a clinical social worker, I assess and diagnose people as well as do therapy, so I began doing “assessments” of my characters, and learned to outline. Now I can write a full length novel in about three months if I stay focused and work every day.

Bette: I have to say I am so impressed, twenty books in six years- plus having a Kindle World of your own. I know how much work goes into a book, so when I say I am impressed, I am REALLY IMPRESSED!

Toby: ~Laughs~ If seven years ago someone would have told me I’d be here at this point I’d have called them crazy. I was able to write that many books because I backed away from pressuring myself to do something huge and be all things to all people.

Bette: I know, I recently read your blog post about “embracing mediocrity,” but I would hardly call what you do mediocrity. I am a ridiculously picky reader and I found myself very wrapped up in your stories; writing like that is hardly mediocre.

Toby: As I said in my post, I suffered from “first child syndrome” and always had high expectations of myself, delusions of grandeur if you will, which were, to be fair, rooted in some talent. Having talent has never been, or ever will be, enough. You must PERSEVERE to be excellent, and put in your ten thousand hours (per Malcolm Gladwell’s groundbreaking Outliers book.) I had enough talent to get paralyzed by my own expectations, and it crippled me from writing (along with wanting a “real job” to provide for my family.) “Embracing mediocrity” simply meant that I allowed myself to be mediocre…enough to get past that perfectionism and keep writing.

I’m happy to report that this little “mind hack” got me past self sabotage, (along with launching my children) and I’m thrilled to be improving in my writing with every book. I DO wish I’d believed in myself from the beginning enough to keep writing… I won several contests in high school and planned to major in journalism, then went into mental health because I was interested in it and there was more, better work. I always wrote, but just in my journals until I was approaching forty. It feels like a lot of lost time, but I’ve chosen to see it as seasoning with life experience.

Bette: That blog post you wrote gave me some serious food for thought. It seems that we are alike in many ways. Like you I am a first child and also always trying to be everything to everybody – and do it perfectly and with grace. With every new book I start I worry that it won’t be as good as the last one. This sounds strange to say, but I almost feel intimidated by myself. Or maybe it’s the me of today that’s intimated by the me of last year, or last month. ~laughs~ Writing novels is a lonely endeavor, we work for months on end without knowing whether or not readers will like the book. We don’t get to find out the answer until the book is finished and sent out to our Advance Readers.

Toby: OMG, Bette, I’m so glad to find a kindred spirit. Let’s toast to that! *clinks glasses* When you are really growing, stretching, taking chances and doing excellent work, you DO worry about topping yourself! I’m so glad I’m not alone in that. I was on fire with Red Rain and I think it’s my best Lei Crime book yet, but it was an action packed roller coaster ride. I feel the same worry about Bitter Feast, the next book, now. Is it exciting enough? It’s a whole different kind of story, told from multiple points of view, character more than plot driven, and focused on the mystery. Will readers like it? I hope so, but there’s no guarantee.
RED RAIN.selectsm
One of the delights of a long-running series is the variety of kinds of reading experiences I’ve provided, from thrill rides to carefully constructed puzzles…but with every book, some won’t like it. And that has to be okay too. I’ve got some stinging reviews on Red Rain, people who didn’t like the way I designed the story, and that is their right. I just have to keep writing the stories that are in me to tell, and stay fresh and passionate doing it.

Bette: I know exactly what you mean. Passing through Perfect is what I consider my very best work – and it gets great accolades from some people and a thumbs down from others – basically because it is too painful a subject for them to deal with. (discrimination)

Moving on to what I’m certain many readers would like to know and that is… what goes on behind the scenes in creating a “World”. When I first joined the writer’s group doing the Lei Crime Kindle World books, I was extremely impressed with the camaraderie in the group and how they bounce ideas off of each other and jump in to help with suggestions. You know a good working group always filters down from the top, so this says volumes about your excellent leadership skills.

Toby: Early in one of my psychology classes we did personality profiles, and I came up as someone with high leadership potential and the profile of an “influencer.” I like to build concensus, and have everyone happily working together, but I am not afraid to make decisions and step out in front. In my job as a school based therapist I rose to a supervisory role and eventually, became the primary trainer of new therapists in the position on our island as well as a supervisor. I always like to figure out how to do things better, more efficiently, and have more fun while working! I applied those skills to my writing and entrepreneurial authoring. I truly believe there is no reason not to share and support other authors and their work. Kindle Worlds is a perfect fit for my belief system!

Bette: Oh I see the chicken is done ~removes skewer kabobs from the grill, puts them on a plate and serves~ Careful, they’re hot. ~Mixes up two more mojitos and hand one to Toby~
chicken kabobs
Toby: ~Sips drink and nibbles on a blackened piece of sweet onion~ Delicious. Chicken is used in many of the traditional Hawaiian dishes. On Kauai, chickens are protected as “native jungle fowl” which has led to them roosting everywhere and crowing their silly heads off! I prefer those native chickens cooked imu-style, as laulau, which is baked in ti leaves in an underground oven.

Bette: Dick and I have been to Hawaii twice. The first time was on our honeymoon. It truly is like no place else I know of. When we were there we did all the traditionally tourist things – a luau, watching native dancers, playing in the surf and even a few catamaran sails, but it wasn’t until I started reading your books that I got a great feel for the underbelly side of the islands.

Toby: Yeah, it really is paradise—but it’s also an island nation that was stolen from its native people, and then populated by waves of agricultural labor from other countries… So you have a very complex society. I don’t think most tourists visiting on vacation have a clue about all the layers there are to it. I wanted to write a series that showed the “real Hawaii” but was the kind of entertaining story I like to read personally.

Bette: No question you have done that. I love the sunset pictures you post. Is your home actually close to the ocean?

Toby: I’m about twenty minutes from the ocean, up on the side of a volcano which is how I get those great views. You’re in Florida, which is somewhat of a paradise itself. Do you ever use this locale in your books?
What Matters Most MHC
Bette: I’ve only used it in one book – What Matters Most. I come from a family of Southerners so most of my novels are set in the south – Virginia, West Virginia, Alabama. Florida is definitely a southernmost state, but it’s not really southern at all. Most of the people living in Florida came here from somewhere else. We’re on the East Coast so most of those in this area came from New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and so on.

Toby: You have a book coming out in March, don’t you? What’s the name of it and where does it take place?
baby girl
Bette: Baby Girl is the title and the story is set in Virginia. This book is based on a true story of an unwed mother and the baby she gave up for adoption. We so often hear stories of a child searching for a birth mother, this is the story told from the birth mother’s perspective.

Toby: Bette, your skill as a writer really shone through in Esther’s Gift. I admit I was a little worried that you wanted to take on the most culturally sensitive of all my characters, Esther Ka`awai, the Hawaiian wisewoman, kupuna and kumu hula (teacher.) And you did it, with only a few corrections, painting a moving and well rounded portrait and fully inhabiting the world Esther occupies in Wainiha. Thanks so much for the gift of writing this book in the Lei Crime Kindle World! You are clearly a master at character-driven story.

Bette: Thanks Toby, coming from you that’s quite a compliment. I know you have a new book out now also – Red Rain – I already have it on my kindle and am anxious to get started reading it. I loved the intro where it says in Hawaii red rain means the death, change or birth of a chieftain… already we know this book is going to be an emotionally charged suspense story. I think that’s one of the things I love about your books- the fact that the powerful narrative draws you into the story so quickly. ~gives a gleeful smile~ and our readers are going to be super-thrilled when I tell them that today one lucky blog visitor is going to win a copy of Red Rain. Thank you for doing that.

Toby: It’s my pleasure. I think one of the reasons for the loyalty of the Lei Crime Series fans is how available I am to them. I’m active on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, Goodreads, and I blog regularly about life in Hawaii. It helps that I enjoy social media as a way to really connect with readers.

Bette: So true. I feel the same. Actually, I say all the time, hanging out on Goodreads and Facebook is my guilty pleasure. It seems that no matter what time of day or night it is, you can find a friend ready and willing to chat on Facebook. If I’ve had a long tough day, I go there and chat with friends. And the beauty of it is, I can do it in my pajamas.

I know you are busy as can be and will have to run, but before you dash off, take a moment and tell our readers one secret thing that no one probably knows about you.

Toby: I have a dramatic scar on my wrist. Interestingly, that’s one of the things Lei has—she struggles, in the beginning of the series, with some self harm behaviors due to abuse in her past. My scar looks like it could be from that—but it’s a weird one. I was fishing on the reef on Kauai when I was a teenager, slipped and fell, and impaled my wrist on a sea urchin. It ended up superficial, thank God, but was pretty gruesome at the time. That’s a case of truth being stranger than fiction!

Bette: Well as much as I hate to see this end, I know you’ve got to run. I’ve had a ton of fun getting together with you, let’s do it again.
toby neal
Toby: *raises empty mojito glass* This was amazing! I loved the deeper discussion we got going with your excellent questions. Mahalo for having me and lots of aloha! If you’re curious about my books, Blood Orchids, the first in the series, is free on all platforms, so check out the story that started it all!

I know you all have enjoyed this visit with Toby and I’d highly recommend you sashay over to her blog and sign up for her newsletter. It will keep you posted on all the new things she is doing and the new books coming out.
To buy Toby Neal’s books on Amazon CLICK HERE
Don’t forget to enter the giveaway for a copy of Toby’s newest release Red Rain! Just leave a comment!