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Struggling with a Synopsis

Posted by Nancy J. Cohen on February 19, 2012

Before I begin writing the story, I write my synopsis. This will act as my writing guideline. See my Feb. 6 blog on the plotting process. With each draft of the synopsis, I add more depth, consistency, and motivation. However, I’m now stuck on two points for my next mystery.

The Crime Scene: My working title is Hanging by a Hair. So I want my victim to be hanged. The problems are two-fold. He’s bigger and stronger than the killer. And where in a house can I hang him? I searched through my file of newspaper clippings and came up with one that tells of a woman hanged by a workman on a shower rod. A shower rod? Seems to me it would fall down if the victim is heavy. Where else in a house would this work? And wouldn’t the killer have to incapacitate the person first and then string him up? How would this be possible if the victim weighs a lot?

Once I figure out these details, I’ll have the killer write a confession scene. Then I will know, before I begin writing, what the outcome is of my story. When I get to the confrontation between killer and sleuth in the book, I’ll just slide in this dialogue. My next step is to research on the Internet to see if I can find any relevant news stories that may help spark ideas. If the killer incapacitates the victim first, how is this done? Hitting him on the head is easy, but it’s too obvious if you want the hanging to appear as a suicide. Say the killer poisons the vic. What type of poison? How do they get hold of it? Does it act immediately? Does vomiting/diarrhea occur before death, causing a messy scene?

See how you have to think things through. Then the writer has to figure out what clues are left at the scene.      detective

The Suspects: I’m pretty clear on most of my suspects, having worked through their motives a couple of times and with my critique partners’ input. But I am still having one problem. The victim discovers a secret. He tells Suspect A, who tells Suspect B. Meanwhile, the victim also tells Suspect C who pays him to keep quiet. But Suspect C is afraid Suspect A will talk to the authorities. So he threatens her to ensure her silence. Okay, he threatens her with what? What does she want to keep hidden?

She’s a professor at a local university. So I’ve come up with a list of possibilities: Plagiarism? Falsifying credentials? Seducing a younger student? Making up reference material to support a recent publication? Accepting bribes in return for good grades?

Whichever one I choose, how would Suspect C—a real estate developer—find out about it?

I decide Suspect A is a single mother with two college age kids. She needs to keep her job to put them through school. Suspect C threatens her with exposure in a manner that might get her fired. Which one of the above might she have done? Does Suspect C threaten her before or after she tells Suspect B? And why does she tell that person? Because she holds a grudge against the victim, and she knows Suspect C will act on her revelation without getting her involved. So basically, I have to determine what secret she’s hiding and how Suspect C finds out about it. Sound complicated? I’m confusing myself by even discussing it here.   thinker

Fortunately, I’m not on deadline, so I can take as long as necessary to work out these points. I’ll want my synopsis to read smoothly, follow in a logical manner, and include personal elements in the sleuth’s life. In a cozy mystery, the story is more about the sleuth than the victim, the aftermath of murder, and the criminal’s psyche, which may be the focus of a serious crime novel. In my stories, the personal relationships among the suspects and how they impact the sleuth are what matter, but still the details have to be accurate and plausible.


21 Responses to “Struggling with a Synopsis”

  1. Maureen said


    As usual a very insightful post. I really enjoy learning about your process and appreciate your honesty in telling us what works, what stumps you and how you go about creating your synopsis. Again, I think it is important for people to realize the work that goes into writing and you help us to see and appreciate the craft.

  2. Thanks, Maureen. It’s good to know someone appreciates my insights! Hey, my husband suggested the shower spigot instead of the shower rod in the scenario above. I can’t make the vic too tall either way.

  3. Your organization amazes me! I keep telling myself I need to lay it all out like that before I get too far into actually writing the book.
    Thanks for sharing!

  4. You’re welcome, J.A. I may need to fill out my character development sheets yet too, detailing these people’s physical descriptions, GMC, passions and hobbies, and favorite speech phrases. I’ll also find pictures of them, either on the web or in magazines.

  5. Kathleen pickering said

    A great explanation of your writing process, Nancy—and a great help! Thank you!

  6. Kathy, I hope this is helpful. I need the help myself at present!

  7. Nancy,
    I love your new title. As usual, I value your sharing your writing process.

  8. Nancy, you do the synopsis before you write the story?
    I am stuck in the middle of my book with where to go to get to where I want to be. (If that makes sense)
    I have the beginning and the end and I need to find some way to tie it all together. But you did give me some great
    ideas about where to look! Have you ever heard of past pluperfect tense?

  9. Marilyn, I’m glad you like the title.

    Mary, I do write the synopsis before my story. I’m not sure what you mean by past pluperfect tense. What’s an example? If you’re stuck in the middle, here’s my advice: If it’s a mystery, bring in a new character or kill someone off. If it’s a romance, and you don’t know how to get from Point A to Point B, look back to what you’ve built, including your GMCs, and see if you can deepen those conflicts or expand on a thread already in your story.

  10. Jacqueline Seewald said

    Hi, Nancy,

    You’re right about wanting to put together a full plot synopsis before you begin to write a mystery novel. And I also love your new title. What amazes me is how you keep your series fresh after so many novels. I know it can’t be easy.

  11. Mona Risk said

    Hi Nancy, Interesting post. I write an outline before starting a story, whethere it’s romance, romantic suspense or paranormal. So before I write my first line, I need to know the motivations of my protagonists. What in their pasts lead them to act the way they do? What do they want to accomplish? I sketch their characters and backgrounds, and then I outline my plot, and throw in conflicts.

  12. Maris said

    Nancy, I really like the idea of having the villain “write” a confession. I find if I know my villain’s motives, it makes everything else fit together nicely. I often have my protagonists give me “personal interviews” but I’d never thought of having the villain write a confession. Thanks for the tip.

  13. Jacqueline, keeping the series fresh is all about character growth. I believe continuing characters should grow and change like they would in real life. That keeps things interesting for me as my sleuth’s personal life progresses.

    Mona, I follow the same guidelines as you do.

    Maris, interviewing the main characters is another good way to get to know them and their “voice.”

  14. I agree with you Nancy that when all is said and done it’s character development that drives our stories and keeps them fresh. I appreciate your sharing your process, which differs from mine only in that no matter how many synopses I write, my characters tend to take over the story at some point – picking different paths to the chosen destination, ones I would never have thought of if I hadn’t taken the plunge into writing. Thanks so much for this informative, thought-provoking post.

  15. Joyce, my story takes on its own life about halfway through, too. That’s the exciting part of story magic.

    • I’m sure it does Nancy.

      Have you read “Write Away” by Elizabeth George? She creates detailed psychological profiles for all characters and develops ‘step-scenes’ based on their strengths and weaknesses,rather than a synopsis. I tried this and it’s worked well for my latest book. It’s fascinating how we all follow different paths to the same place isn’t it?

      A long time ago I read George Plimpton’s “Writer’s Chapbook” – in which he interviewed some successful writers about their methods. The one constant was that they were all completely different in their approach… Elmore Leonard writes 400 page outlines, while others sit down and start writing and never look back. This gave me a lot of confidence in attempting my first novel – I knew that whatever process I used would be okay, long as I kept writing! Ever since, from book to book I’ve tried out new ways of beginning – my way of staying fresh.

      Thanks again for starting this wonderful discussion.

  16. Have you considered one of those two-story tall foyers with staircases going up? There may be a balcony high enough and strong enough, and then she (he?) may only need to wiggle them over the edge to get them to drop. Maybe pretend to be straightening his tie while he’s reeling from whatever hit him (drugged tea?) Still, the murderer will want to make sure there’s no way for the victim to pull him/her over with him/her. Because of sizes, I’ve assumed female/male. Sorry. I think you can figure who’s who without my going back and being grammatically unisex. I got stuck on similar points as I started my novel (how did the murderer do it), and am now reading a couple of books on how to write a mystery novel (as well as how to write a novel in 90 days) and both stress the importance for beginners (like me) to follow the outline method, which is related to what you’re doing with the synopsis: don’t fly by the seat of my pants until I’m pretty good at this, lol. Particularly with a mystery, the books said, there is a necessity not to wander off, and an outline will keep the material relevant to the story.

  17. Jeanne Meeks - said

    How about hanging him from the railing in a two-story house? If you get a rope around someone’s neck fast enough and choke him, it wouldn’t matter if he’s bigger. Getting the noose over his neck will need thinking. Have the rope tied to the railing already, get the noose over his neck, cinch it fast, and flip him over the railing while he struggles.
    This is so much fun! Are we sick?

  18. Thanks; a two story railing is a great idea. Someone else mentioned to me about using an automatic garage door opener to hoist the fellow. These are all helpful ideas.

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