I was one lucky duck when two springs ago my publisher fell in love with the idea of combining two things that make me happy: mystery novels and chocolate. Actually several publishers were excited about the idea of this mystery series. And when you have more than one publisher interested in buying a proposal, it goes to what’s called an auction. It was an exciting week, having several publishers bidding on the right to publish the chocolate series. And my publisher, a new publisher, Crooked Lane Books, came in with not only the strongest bid, but my editor there had actually called and talked with me about her vision for the series before ever putting in the bid.
But let me back up a bit. While book proposals and auctions and contracts are interesting, that’s not where this book series began.
The Southern Chocolate Shop Mystery series has been a long time in the making. When I was writing Flowerbed of State (the first book in the White House Gardener Mystery Series) way, way back in 2010, the idea for a mystery series set in a chocolate shop started dancing around in the back of my mind.
The White House Gardener Mystery Series was proving challenging to write. I don’t know if it’s my scientist background, but no matter what the novel I’m writing is about, I have to do extensive research. And researching about murders that take place in the White House? Let’s just say, the people I was calling for insider information weren’t really all that interested in talking with me about how to kill someone on White House grounds. (I can’t imagine why.) So I took many trips to Washington, D.C. and stalked secret service agents on patrol around the White House, visited Lafayette park located in front of the White House in the middle of the night so I could see where I could stuff a body into a trash can without anyone noticing. (It can be done.) While all this research was…fascinating, I started thinking about those lucky authors who got to write cozy mysteries about food. And all the delicious food they got to eat while calling it research. Dang, I wanted to do that!
And I luuuv chocolate and, you know, I can’t write a book without research!
I knew there were already several popular bakeshop and chocolate shop mystery novels being published, so I wanted to make sure mine was a new and different twist on the theme. So I did some research—yummy research.
Did you know that if a chocolate bar doesn’t state the percent chocolate it contains, it’s not really considered chocolate? Chocolate is a bean. The pods form on the stalk of the tropical, shade-loving evergreen tree called the cacao tree, which is Greek for “Food for the gods.” In my mind these beans are very similar to coffee beans. Once they are picked, they’re dried and fermented on the plantations where they’re grown. They’re then shipped to factories and small bean-to-bar establishments for them to be toasted, ground, and made into the chocolate we love today.
Another thing I learned in the course of my research is that there are three main varieties of chocolate beans being commercially grown, but the most flavorful variety of bean is hard to grow and even harder to find in the stores.
And then I learned that even though the cacao bean originates in South America, most of the world’s chocolate production occurs in Africa under some questionable labor practices. Claims of child labor and slave labor at the plantations have persisted for decades. Many of the plantations who have said they’ve corrected the situation still refuse to allow watchdog organizations to come in and take a look for themselves. This is one reason why we should all strive to buy fair-trade chocolates.
Chocolate, I learned, is big business with a $150 Billion annual market. Where there’s that much money to be made, there’s bound to be murder and intrigue. Here, I was starting to think, I could work with that. Ideas for plots started to take shape in my mind.
But I needed more information, so I went to Michael Hoffman a local bean-to-bar chocolatier behind, Bitte Chocolate in Charleston, South Carolina. He makes handcrafted chocolate bars and sells them in small shops in downtown Charleston. He explained the steps for crafting chocolate.
First you roast the beans. Then you remove the outside hulls. Next you grind them in a machine called a conch, which consists of two marble rollers that grind up the beans, changing their molecular composition into sometime smooth and creamy. After that, you temper the chocolate, which involves heating and cooling to making it shiny. And you pour the melted chocolate into molds. Finally, you wait for the flavors to mature. This can take 2 weeks. Chocolate lasts for about 12 months and the flavors start to fade after 6 months.
Take away from this: hoarding your chocolate isn’t a good idea.
This research gave me the basis for my new series. My fictional chocolate shop wouldn’t simply create truffles and bonbons. It would be what is called a bean-to-bar chocolate shop. And it would use the most flavorful and rarest cacao bean in the world to create a chocolate that few in the world have ever tasted.
Think of it this way, the chocolate you can buy in the stores could be compared with the perfectly round, watery tomatoes grown on large farms. The rare chocolates sold in the Southern Chocolate Shop Mystery Series are like heirloom tomatoes that are bursting with so many flavors it makes your tongue happy.
So I took my special chocolate, added a cool beach location where I’d lived for twenty years, and a cute dog based on my own dog. And that was how a new series was born.
Book three in the series, IN COLD CHOCOLATE, is now available. The Chocolate Box with its amazing bean-to-bar chocolates is still a hotbed of excitement in Camellia Beach, South Carolina. Its owner, Charity Penn, is still finding herself immersed in trouble. This time it’s a mystery surrounding sea turtles and chocolate turtles and the murder of a local Casanova that chill the eccentric residents of Camellia Beach. Can Penn figure things out before it’s too late?