Nancy's Notes From Florida

Author Nancy J. Cohen discusses the writing process and life as a Florida resident.

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Archive for the ‘Fiction Writing’ Category

The One Page Synopsis

Posted by Nancy J. Cohen on November 30, 2017

Your publisher requests a one-page synopsis. How do you condense an entire story into a single page? My normal synopsis runs fifteen pages on average. Here’s what I do for a traditional mystery.

Synopsis OnePage

First offer a tag line that sums up the plot. Here’s an example from Shear Murder:

A wedding turns deadly when hairstylist Marla Shore discovers a dead body under the cake table.

The Setup

This initial paragraph presents the setup for the story.

Hairstylist Marla Shore is playing bridesmaid at her friend Jill’s wedding when she discovers the bride’s sister stabbed to death under the cake table. Torrie had plenty of people who might have wanted her dead, including her own sister who threatened her just before the ceremony.

The Personal Motive

Why does your sleuth get involved?

At Jill’s request, Marla agrees to help solve the case. With her own wedding four weeks away, her salon expanding into day spa services, and her relatives bickering over nuptial details, she has enough to do. But when Jill is arrested for Torrie’s murder, Marla has no choice except to unmask the killer.

The Suspects

Give a brief profile of the suspects along with possible motives.

Jill and Torrie owned a piece of commercial property together. Their cousin Kevin, a Realtor, has been trying to find them a new tenant. Meanwhile, Jill’s uncle Eddy, a shady attorney, has been urging them to sell. Now Torrie’s husband, Scott, will inherit his wife’s share. Scott has another motive besides greed. Torrie had announced her plan to leave him for another man, Griff Beasley. Griff was Torrie’s colleague at the magazine where she worked as well as the photographer at Jill’s wedding. Griff implicates Hally, another coworker. Hally and Torrie were competing for a promotion. Then [Suspect X] turns up dead.

The Big Reveal

The final paragraph is where the clues lead to the killer. If possible, include what insight the protagonist has gained. This last is important for emotional resonance so readers will be eager for the sequel to see what happens next to your heroine.

It appears Suspect Y did [Evil Deed]. Snooping into his background, Torrie learned that Suspect Alpha helped him [Do Something Bad]. Suspect Alpha murdered Torrie because she found out about [His Illegal Business], and then Suspect X because she’d discovered [fill in blank]. Marla reveals the killer and is free to enjoy her own wedding ceremony.

No, I’m not going to tell you who the killer is in Shear Murder. You’ll have to read the book to find out. But this gives you an idea how to write a one-page synopsis.

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15 Steps to Writing the Smart Synopsis

Posted by Nancy J. Cohen on November 28, 2017

Do you dread writing a synopsis? If so, get used to it, because this tool is essential to your career as a writer. Not only is a synopsis necessary for a book proposal, but the sales force at your publishing house may use it to design your cover or to plan marketing materials for your book.

Smart Synopsis

A synopsis is a complete narrative of your story told in present tense. A synopsis should include essential plot points plus your character’s emotional reactions. It can act as a writing guideline while not being so rigid that your story can’t change. When you finish the actual writing portion, you can return to the original synopsis and revise it to suit the finished storyline. So how should you proceed?

1. Consider adding a tag line (i.e. one liner story blurb) on your first page before the story begins.

2. Open with a hook.

3. Use action verbs. Your story should be engaging as you convey it to the reader.

4. Make sure the story flows in a logical manner from scene to scene. In a mystery, present the crime, the suspects, and their secrets. Then show how the sleuth uncovers their hidden agendas and unravels the clues.

5. Avoid backstory. Stick to present tense and keep moving the story forward. Enter background events in small doses via dialogue or interspersed with action, and only if it applies to the current situation. Less is better. And don’t reveal too much up front. It’s best to keep the reader guessing.

6. Leave out minor characters, physical descriptions unless applicable to the storyline, and subplots unless critical to the resolution of the main plot.

7. Avoid snippets of conversation, point-to-point description of your character’s every move, jumping from one place to another without any explanation, gratuitous sex, or threats on a character’s life unless they evolve from the story.

8. Include your character’s emotional reactions.

9. Stay in the protagonist’s viewpoint as you would in the story. Use transitions if you switch viewpoints. Be careful of too much head hopping in a synopsis.

10. Show your character’s internal struggle as well as her external conflict. What’s inhibiting her from making a commitment to the hero? What is causing her to doubt her abilities?

11. Include the emotional turning points. For any genre, tell us what’s at stake for the heroes. What will happen if they fail?

12. In a romance, make sure you cover the goals and motivation of your hero/heroine, how they first meet, their romantic conflict, what leads up to the first kiss, complications that keep them apart, what they admire in each other, the black moment, and the resolution. What makes these two people right for each other that no one else can provide?

13. If it’s the first book in a series, you might begin with a short profile of your main character(s). For a mystery, offer a few paragraphs about the sleuth. For a romance, write a paragraph each about your hero and heroine. What do they hope to accomplish? What is keeping them from reaching this goal? Why is it important to them?

14. Explain the ending. In a mystery, this means you tell whodunit and why. In a romance, it’ll be the resolution of the romantic conflict.

15. What lesson will your protagonist learn in this story? How will she grow and change?

MYSTERY EXAMPLE FROM FACIALS CAN BE FATAL (Bad Hair Day #13)

Salon owner Marla Vail’s new day spa hits a snag when a client dies during a facial.

Screams emanating from next door draw salon owner Marla Vail’s attention. She rushes into the adjacent day spa to see a crowd gathered in front of a treatment room. It appears Rosana Hernandez, an aesthetician, was doing a facial on her first morning client. She’d put on the woman’s chemical mask and left the room for ten minutes. Upon her return, Valerie Weston was dead.

Since the receptionist had enough presence of mind to call 911, Marla enters the treatment room to see if CPR will help. It’s too late. The woman has no pulse, and her skin is clammy. The greenish cream mask clings to her face.

The police arrive, along with Marla’s husband, Detective Dalton Vail. He takes charge of the scene and questions Rosana. The tearful beautician claims Val had been a long-time customer, and the only known problem she had was a latex allergy. Rosana was careful not to use latex gloves in her presence.

Marla, owner of the spa plus the salon, is upset about the negative publicity this incident will generate. She has applied to become an educator for Luxor Products, whom she’d worked for once at a beauty trade show. But there’s another person being considered for the job. A smear on Marla’s reputation would be detrimental. But she’s also concerned about Rosana and proving the aesthetician wasn’t at fault.

Marla has an additional problem during this December season, which should be full of happy holiday plans. One of her clients is suing her. The woman claims Marla left on her hair dye too long, and it burned her scalp. Marla contacts her insurance agent.

Doubts roil in her stomach, and they increase when lab tests confirm liquid latex had been added to Val’s face mask cream. Val died from anaphylactic shock. Rosana denies her involvement, and Marla believes her. So who else had access to the room, and why would someone target Val?

ROMANCE EXAMPLE FROM WARRIOR LORD (Drift Lords #3)

A fantasy wedding in Las Vegas turns into a nightmare when contest winner Erika Sherwood realizes she’s married an alien.

Erika has had one drink too many at the blackjack table in Las Vegas when a bearded man wearing a cape and sword drops into the seat next to her. While his strange garb doesn’t arouse her curiosity, his comment on her wristwatch does. A gift from her parents when she turned sixteen, the watch runs with no visible mechanism and no battery, and it has a peculiar symbol engraved on its face. Her nape prickles at the man’s interest but an announcement over the loudspeaker distracts her.

The casino is holding a contest for engaged couples to win fifty thousand dollars. The lucky winners will have a televised wedding and receive a new car, a stay in the honeymoon suite, and the cash.

Erika mutters how she could sure use those funds, and the mysterious stranger overhears. He leans toward her and makes a scandalous suggestion. Why not pretend they’re engaged and enter the contest? He needs a room in the Viking-themed resort, but the hotel is full.

Giddy from the free drinks offered by the staff, Erika accepts his proposition. She doesn’t think they’ll win, but hey, the competition will be fun and all contestants get bonus credits on their club cards.

When they actually win the contest, she goes through the rushed wedding ceremony in a mental fog. Magnor kisses her and something sparks between them. However, she balks when he suggests they stay together in the honeymoon suite. She already has a room at the resort. However, his rationale is valid. If the resort people discover their deception, she and Magnor might lose their prizes.

Soon she’s alone in a room with the tall stranger. She’s drawn to his brooding good looks and muscled form but is puzzled when he becomes taciturn at her attempts to draw him out.

Someone knocks on the door. It’s the official from the televised marriage. He wants Erika’s address so he can mail out the official marriage certificate. With a jolt of clarity, Erika realizes the ceremony was valid.

Quelling her panic, she considers that having an unexpected husband might suit her needs.

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I hope these examples make you curious to read on. How long should your synopsis be? Mine average around fifteen pages. Sometimes a publisher will ask for a one or two page synopsis which means you’ll have to encapsulate your story into a shorter form. Stay tuned for my next post on The One Page Synopsis.

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Stay in Viewpoint

Posted by Nancy J. Cohen on November 13, 2017

As a beginning writer, I didn’t understand what it meant to stay in viewpoint. I was guilty of bouncing heads, or switching viewpoints within the same scene. This confuses readers because they become unsure of who is the main character. You should stay within one person’s head or else use a space break to delineate a change.

Books in the thriller genre often use multiple viewpoints, a technique that can work as long as there’s one clearly identifiable hero. If not, your reader isn’t going to care about any of the characters. Sure, you can catch their interest using bait and switch tactics. This means, you leave off each scene with one person in jeopardy before switching viewpoints with a space or chapter break. But get inside too many different heads, and the reader will cease to care. Maybe this is why I like single third-person or first person viewpoint in the mysteries I read. In a romance, it’s standard to alternate the hero and heroine’s viewpoint and sometimes this includes the villain as well. That’s okay as long as the character switch is well marked.

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In revising Keeper of the Rings, one of my earlier romances that I wrote originally as Nancy Cane, I caught a perfect example of changing viewpoints in the same scene. Here’s an example:

[B’s viewpoint] Wellis, the village priest, had requested Bendyk’s presence. Now, as he sat across from the older man in the living room of his oceanfront bungalow, Bendyk fingered the medallion hanging from his neck.

“I fail to understand your meaning when you say people are straying from the Faith.” He squared his shoulders. “The turnout at the service this morning was phenomenal.”

“That’s because the villeins are putting on a pretense of piety for your benefit.” Wellis wagged his finger. “They’re afraid you’ll report to the Docent about their indiscretions.”

[W’s viewpoint] Pursing his lips, Wellis felt he should know his flock better than any representative from the central authority, such as Bendyk Worthington-Jax. He’d sent for help, realizing the situation could get out of control. After all, on whose head would the wrath of Lothar fall if he failed? His own, of course. But the golden-haired missionary, despite his zeal, had found nothing amiss.

It wasn’t Bendyk’s fault, considering how fearful the villeins were about retribution. The blasphemous talk circulating throughout the town was bound to bring dire repercussions. Wellis had hoped Bendyk would inspire a renewal of faith and, indeed, the service he’d conducted this morning had been exemplary. Perhaps his visit had done some good after all.

Bendyk faced him across a table laden with fresh fruit and nuts. The young man quirked an eyebrow. “Don’t forget it’s tithing time. The tax collector is here, even in the midst of Renewal celebrations. That’s enough cause for heightened tension.”

Wellis gave him a weary smile. “Not in this case. We’ve been fortunate to have the same agent each year. She counts in our favor and exacts a toll of ten percent on less the amount actually produced.”

Bendyk’s eyes darkened to a shade of indigo. “You mean this agent reports an inaccurate count? Why, that’s a criminal offense.”

Wellis leaned back in his chair, relishing the warm salty breeze blowing in from the open windows. His bungalow, a short distance from the ocean, stood on stilts like the rest of the houses by the shore. Further inland, other dwellings rose along a gentle slope that footed the Jerrise mountain range.

His congregation enjoyed a simple life living off the bounty of the sea and their industries of ropemaking and small boat construction. No one had enough revenue to fuel an investigation, so he didn’t see any harm in telling Bendyk of the tax agent’s favoritism.

“It appeases people,” he said with a shrug. “There’s enough grumbling about laws that don’t take into account the needs of individual districts.”

Bendyk scraped a hand through his short, wavy hair. “That’s not true. The Docents are responsible for making adjustments. If they rule unfairly, you can appeal to the Candor.”

“The Candors are concerned mainly with their own wealth. Things have gotten out of hand.”

Bendyk shot to his feet. “My father is a Candor. He’s always judged his people fairly and considered their needs.”

[B’s viewpoint – we can’t see if our own eyes look shrewd] Wellis regarded him with shrewd eyes. “Cranby is an exception. Do you deny that dissatisfaction with the Synod’s power is growing? Aren’t your services widely in demand in an attempt by local priests, like myself, to stem this tide of disloyalty?”

[W’s viewpoint] “It is the work of the Truthsayers.” Bendyk’s jaw clenched. “They seek to undermine the Faith and establish anarchy in its place.”

Footsteps sloshed outside, and Wellis held up a hand to silence his guest. “Hush, here comes the village council. I have summoned them to hear your advice. Go easy, young man. Your fiery tongue does you well in sermons but not in debate.”

I decided this scene should be told from Bendyk’s viewpoint since he’s a major player in the story. So here’s the new scene. See if it flows better and keeps your interest more.

Wellis, the village priest, had requested a private audience with him. Now, as he sat across from the older man in the living room of his oceanfront bungalow, Bendyk fingered the medallion hanging from his neck.

“I fail to understand your meaning when you say people are straying from the Faith,” he said. “The turnout at the service this morning was phenomenal.”

Wellis wagged his finger. “That’s because the villeins are putting on a pretense of piety for your benefit. They’re afraid you’ll report their indiscretions to the Docent.”

Bendyk tightened his lips. No doubt Wellis felt he knew his flock better than any representative from the central authority. But the priest had sent for help, realizing the situation there could get out of control. After all, on whose head would the wrath of Lothar fall if he failed? Yet the blasphemous talk circulating through town wasn’t evident during Bendyk’s inspection. He wasn’t surprised, considering how fearful the villeins were about retribution.

Wellis had hoped his arrival might inspire a renewal of faith. In truth, the service Bendyk had conducted this morning had been exemplary. Perhaps his visit had done some good after all.

He faced the priest across a table laden with fresh fruit and nuts. “Don’t forget it’s tithing time. The tax collector is here, even in the midst of Renewal celebrations. That’s enough cause for heightened tension.”

Wellis gave him a weary smile. “Not in this case. We’ve been fortunate to have the same agent each year. She counts in our favor and exacts a toll on ten percent less than the amount actually produced.”

“You mean, this agent reports an inaccurate count? Why, that’s a criminal offense.”

Wellis leaned back in his chair, while a warm salty breeze swept in through open windows. His bungalow, a short distance from the ocean, stood on stilts like the rest of the houses by the shore. Further inland, other dwellings rose along a gentle slope that footed the Jerrise mountain range.

“It appeases people,” Wellis said with a shrug. “I hear grumblings about laws that don’t take into account the needs of individual districts. My people enjoy a simple life. They live off the bounty of the sea, plus their industries of rope-making and small boat building. No one earns enough revenue to warrant an investigation.”

“That’s not true. The Docents are responsible for making adjustments. If they rule unfairly, you can appeal to the Candor.”

“The Candors are concerned mainly with their own wealth. Things have gotten out of hand.”

Bendyk shot to his feet. “My father is a Candor. He’s always judged people fairly and considered their needs.”

“Cranby is an exception.” Wellis regarded him with shrewd eyes. “Do you deny that dissatisfaction with the Synod’s power is growing? Aren’t your services widely in demand in an attempt by local priests, like myself, to stem this tide of disloyalty?”

“It is the work of Truthsayers. They want to undermine our Faith and establish anarchy in its place.”

Footsteps sloshed outside, and Wellis held up a hand to silence his guest. “Hush, here comes the village council. I have summoned them to hear your advice. Go easy, young man. Your fiery tongue does you well in sermons but not in debate.”

You may have noticed that I polished up the prose as well. So what do you think? Were you better able to identify with Bendyk in the second sample?

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FWA Conference Recap – Staging Fight Scenes

Posted by Nancy J. Cohen on November 6, 2017

Fight Scenes

Author L.E. Perez gave a good talk on fight scenes at the Florida Writers Association 2017 Conference . Here are the tips I garnered. Any errors are due to my misinterpretation.

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  • Focus on character emotions.
  • Defending yourself is not the same as being prepared to injure someone.
  • PTSD happens to anyone who experiences a violent event or is a crime victim. This also applies to domestic abuse since the characters are at war.
  • Consider words that reflect a fight: sudden clarity, adrenaline rush, freeze up, smashed, buffeted, rage, pain.
  • If your character punches someone, he may need to shake his hand out afterward. It hurts to throw a punch.
  • Allow for recovery time. Either use the recovery in the story, or skip ahead and have the character recount what happened during this interval.
  • In a knife fight, someone invariably gets cut. Or your hero might survive a knife fight and then cut himself chopping vegetables for a bit of humor.
  • Act out your action scenes to get a sense of motion. How is your character moving during the scene? How is he holding a weapon?
  • Kamas is a weapon with a scythe-like blade on one end and a pointed blade on the other end.
  • Not all knives are throwing knives. They have to be properly balanced.

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FWA Conference – Day 2

Posted by Nancy J. Cohen on October 30, 2017

Saturday morning at the Florida Writers Association annual conference found me starting off the workshops with a talk on “Book Promotion on a Budget.”

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Next I attended Penny Sansevieri’s presentation, “Help! My Book Isn’t Selling.”

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A buffet lunch followed with barbecue chicken and accompaniments. Awards were given to youth writers. After lunch, I had a booksigning and later a video interview.

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Then it was time to get ready for the Royal Palm Literary Awards banquet. My family came to support me as a finalist. It was interesting to see the blurbs about each author’s book on big screens as we ate. I didn’t win, so I’ll have to try again next year. I’m still thrilled to have made the finals.

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On Sunday, I attended a workshop “Bring that Action Scene to Life” by author L.E. Perez. I learned a few tips during her entertaining presentation.

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Then I checked out and packed up the car to meet our family for lunch.

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FWA Conference – Day 1

Posted by Nancy J. Cohen on October 27, 2017

This was my first time attending the Florida Writers Association annual conference. The theme was “What A Character.” I didn’t attend the Thursday all-day workshop with bestselling author David Morrell, but I did hear him speak later on. Instead, I checked into the hotel and went to faculty orientation followed by a general welcome for conference attendees.

Friday morning, things began in earnest with a breakfast buffet at 7am. Scrambled eggs, bacon, potatoes, bagels and pastries were on the menu. We sat at genre tables to speak to other writers in our specific categories. Here I am with true crime author Carla Norton.

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First on the agenda was my talk on “Writing the Cozy Mystery.”

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I put away my laptop and attended Carla’s workshop on “True Crime – Stranger than Fiction.”

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Then I wandered through the bookstore organized by Murder on the Beach and the silent auction rooms. Lunch was a bountiful buffet of Italian food.

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At 2pm, I was on a panel titled “Dredging Up Your Dark Side” moderated by Ken Pelham. Also on this panel were Carla Norton, Doug Dandridge, Micki Browning, and Dan Alatorre.

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Later that afternoon, I attended a panel on “Effective Book Marketing with POEM” by speaker Keith Ogorek.

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That evening was a welcome reception with superhero-costumed characters. The picture with a foursome has Carla Norton, Ken Pelham, Vic DiGenti, and literary agent Mark Gottlieb.

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A sit-down dinner was followed by a keynote address from bestselling author Steve Berry.

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Plot Twists

Posted by Nancy J. Cohen on October 23, 2017

I always thought I wasn’t clever enough to come up with good plot twists. Short story writers have the market on this writing technique. Especially in the mystery genre, short fiction often relies on an unexpected twist for its punchline at the end.

So how can cozy writers come up with enough surprises to keep the reader turning pages? Sometimes you can plan ahead. I’ll write a synopsis before I begin writing the actual story. But something happens along the way. The characters, setting, and story elements stew in my brain, and out pops a surprise I didn’t anticipate. This is what I call story magic.

How can you get it to work for you? Review what you’ve written, and note any plot threads that you’ve introduced but failed to resolve. How about that minor character who makes a brief appearance on stage but whose role might be significant? Or the connection between two characters you didn’t expect? Or maybe a new character arrives on scene who upsets the balance among your suspects or your recurrent cast. Who is this person and how do they relate to the plot? To the other people in your story? Why did this person arrive at this time and for what reason?

In other words, pick up on clues that you’ve left for yourself. You’ll be surprised at what you find. If you are taken by surprise, so will your readers be amazed at your plot twists.

surprised

You can go back later and revise your synopsis accordingly. Meanwhile, go with the flow and see where it takes you. You’ll be pleased by your reviews when you have a few surprises along the way. Here are some of mine that are particularly pleasing in this respect:

Facials Can Be Fatal

“The story had more twists and turns than a pretzel. And I ate them all up! It is really fast-paced and kept me thoroughly engaged to the end.” Readeropolis

pretzel

“I recommend this book to those who are cozy mystery fans and enjoy a sleuth mystery with many twists and turns.” Readers’ Favorite

“The storyline is fast-paced and keeps readers guessing to the end. There were several different twists and turns this story could have taken. I was surprised at the outcome.” Socrates Book Reviews

Hair Brained

“You are always thinking and on your toes while reading this book. And when you get to the end and everything is revealed….it will blow your mind!” Cozy Mystery Book Reviews

“The story actually has a couple of mysteries within its pages and all is worked out by the end, but there are a lot of plot twists along the way.” Carla Loves to Read

“There were several twists and turns, plus many red herrings in this book. Just when I thought I knew what was going on, the author threw in a few extra curves to have me scratching my head.” Socrates’ Book Reviews

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Notes in the Night

Posted by Nancy J. Cohen on October 16, 2017

When you wake up in the middle of the night after having a vivid dream or a great idea for your novel, do you scribble in a notepad or write yourself a note on your smart phone? I do the latter, so I don’t have to turn on the light. Invariably if I think I’ll remember the details later when I’m fully awake, I am mistaken. A vague recollection might return but not every nuance. Recently I had a dream that was a mystery with a surprise twist. It would work for a short story. I wrote it down, which is a good thing because right now I cannot remember a single element. Maybe as I review my notes, I’ll see it was a silly idea, but at least I will have that option.

Dreamer

Last night I had another dream. I went with a friend to my former publishing house’s NY office. I saw some faces I recognized from my days there. I got invited to an informal dinner where we were invited to choose some complimentary romance novels by their authors. I browsed the room and picked out a paranormal romance with an Indian American heroine (as in native India). I didn’t care for the other choices as I was tired of the same tropes. The editor proposed we sit together while he had food brought in and we’d discuss our works in progress. This editor took me aside and asked what I was working on. When I told him I was revising my backlist titles, he said, “Why are you wasting time working on projects that appeal to your old readers when you could be working on new ideas that will draw in all readers?”

Is this sound advice? Is someone from a higher authority suggesting I’d be better spending my time doing something new? Should I be working on the idea I’ve put on the back burner while working on these other projects? And yet, those backlist titles matter to me. I have eight romances and four mysteries to do yet, and even though they won’t require much in the way of revisions, I have to carefully read through for formatting errors and to tweak the prose here and there. It’s important to me to make these titles available in multiple formats for readers and in the best version possible.

But it’s interesting what comes from our subconscious. What do you think of this advice I received? How do you record ideas that come to you in a dream or while you’re lying in the dark?

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Liquid Latex

Posted by Nancy J. Cohen on October 12, 2017

Research Insights – Liquid Latex

Research for a novel can lead to all sorts of esoteric topics. For Facials Can Be Fatal, I came across the term liquid latex. I’d heard of latex gloves, and that people could be allergic to latex. My hairdresser sleuth would have to be careful what type of gloves she used when applying hair color to a sensitive client. She could avoid risk by using gloves that do not contain this element. Next time you buy a pair of gloves for washing dishes or doing housework, check the label and see if they are latex-free.

So what is liquid latex? Latex is a substance derived from rubber trees as a milky liquid. The commercial substance called liquid latex contains about one-third latex, two-thirds water, and tiny amounts of ammonia for preservation. You can also buy it ammonia-free. This would be desirable when applying the substance to your face.

LiquidLatex

Liquid latex is commonly used for body paint and special effects makeup, such as scars, wrinkles, and wounds. It can be applied with a disposable sponge and takes up to ten minutes to dry. As it dries, the liquid latex hardens to a rubbery consistency and shrinks about three percent. Manufacturers add pigments to provide color choices. Or you can dust shimmer powder over the dried latex to create a metallic effect. Since it also has a sticky quality, liquid latex can be used as an adhesive for bald caps and other prosthetics. Fortunately, this substance is easily removed by peeling it off, but it can remove your fine hairs at the same time. Ouch.

makeup

Looking to enhance your Halloween costume? You can buy liquid latex online or at your local party store in varying sized containers and a choice of colors. Try building up an area on your skin using alternating layers of latex and tissue paper and color it to make fake injuries. Learn how to apply it by watching a YouTube video. Next time you see a blockbuster movie, note if the special effects makeup might have been done with liquid latex.

monsters

So how did I use this information in Facials Can Be Fatal? Let’s just say that some people can be highly allergic to the stuff. In other words, latex can be lethal.

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Facials Can Be Fatal by Nancy J. Cohen
A Bad Hair Day Mystery
Readers’ Favorite Gold Medal Winner
Finalist in the Royal Palm Literary Awards

During the frenzy of the December holidays, the last thing salon owner Marla Vail needs is a dead body slathered in a green facial mask at her new day spa. The victim, Valerie Weston, was a major donor for Friends of Old Florida, a historic building preservation society. Marla’s stylists are scheduled to work backstage at their upcoming gala fashion show, but Val’s demise might put a crimp in their plans. Hoping to salvage her reputation, Marla determines to track down the suspects. As she learns more about Val, she realizes the benefactress might have stumbled onto secrets others would kill to keep. She’d better prepare for a body count that has nothing to do with hot stone massages and everything to do with murder.

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Keeping A Series Fresh

Posted by Nancy J. Cohen on September 28, 2017

Once you’ve written several books in your mystery series, it gets harder to come up with new and interesting material. The story has to engage your senses as a writer if you want to entice readers. You’ll want to avoid repetition such as means of murder and motives. And you need to vary the locales without going too far afield. Probably the most important element is to grow your characters. Let’s look at what you can do to bring excitement to each story in a long-term series.

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1. Vary the setting within the setting. My Bad Hair Day cozy mystery series is set in fictional Palm Haven, Florida. But each story has its own milieu. Permed to Death, book number one, introduces hairstylist and amateur sleuth Marla Shore in her hair salon when a grumpy client dies in the shampoo chair. Subsequent stories involve a haunted hotel, a sports club, a wealthy family’s estate, a beauty trade show, a wedding and a day spa. Readers come to love the recurrent characters and expect to see them again, so you can’t deviate from the home town too often. I’ve taken Marla and her husband, Detective Dalton Vail, on a Caribbean cruise and later on a dude ranch honeymoon in Arizona. For me, those stories are particular fun, but I can’t do them on a regular basis. Readers like to return to the same environment which becomes a character in itself. To avoid boredom, you have to take the same background and change it up enough to keep it interesting for you and your readers.

2. Avoid using the same murder method twice. Have you poisoned a victim already with a plant potion? Use snake venom next time. Or try shooting, hanging, stabbing, bashing on the head, pushing down the stairs, etc. Avoid repetition and be creative. Also vary the villain’s motives. You don’t want two stories in a row where a jealous lover did the deed. Think of your negative motivators—greed, envy, protection of a loved one, guarding one’s reputation, revenge, righting a perceived wrong—to provide variety.

3. Character growth is critically important. Your protagonists should evolve like people do in real life. Who surrounds them in terms of family, friends, and colleagues? How do their relationships change in each story? What’s the overall emotional journey for your main character? What new person can you add to spice things up? It could be a new friend, an old flame, a secret baby, a new boss, or a romantic interest. Keeping your main character static won’t work. The protagonist must continually adapt and develop expanding goals while letting insights guide her along the way.

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4. Include a research or historical angle that excites you in a story. In Facials Can Be Fatal, I used excerpts from my father’s true life 1935 travel journal, which detailed his trip to Florida in simpler times. History plays a part in this story that includes tales of shipwrecks and pirates off the Florida coast. For Trimmed to Death, I’m researching olive oil scams. I am an olive fan so learning about this product interests me. Other topics I’ve explored have included the pet fur trade, biohazardous waste disposal, tilapia breeding, the prepper movement, and more. These tidbits of information snag my interest and provide something fresh for readers, too. Avoid info dumps, however, where you have long expository paragraphs with too much detail. Your research shouldn’t show. It should enhance your story.

5. Sprinkle in local issues or social problems that concern you. In Hair Brained, one character tells Marla about the risks to children left in hot cars. This is a big issue in Florida where child deaths from this cause are notable. It’s a preventable tragedy and I include tips for prevention in my story. My books also touch upon child-drowning prevention, another issue in a locale with so many backyard pools. These types of issues provide added depth to your story, but do it in a way that matches your chosen genre. If you’re writing humorous cozies, for example, things can’t get too serious. There are “edgier” cozies, but is this what you’re known for? You want to meet reader expectations. It’s okay to change things up once in a while but keep your author brand in mind and don’t stray too far.

6. Introduce enough of past events and relationships to clue in new readers when they pop into your series later down the road, but not too much that you give away previous plots. You also don’t want to bore your long-term readers, so keep this backstory to a minimum. It’s a delicate line to tread. Each story should feel like a standalone to newcomers but make fans happy to see what’s evolved personally for your characters in this latest book.

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It gets harder to find a fresh angle as you get further along in your series. While avoiding repetition, you have to maintain the setting and characters that readers have come to love. What tips do you have to offer? As readers, how do feel about this topic?

CLICK TO TWEET

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When hairstylist Marla Vail’s best friend is hurt in a suspicious car accident, Marla assumes guardianship of her infant son. No sooner does Marla say, “Baby want a bottle?” than she’s embroiled in another murder investigation. Her husband, Detective Dalton Vail, determines the crash may not have been an accident after all. Can she find the culprit before someone else ends up as roadkill?

“This is Nancy J. Cohen’s 14th Bad Hair Day mystery, and given its vigor, humor and inventiveness, the series has a lot of life left in it.” Florida Weekly

“It is wonderful to watch Marla’s emotional journey from suburban housewife to investigator and, dare I say, Mama Bear.” Back Porchervations

“This is the 14th book in this series. It is the absolute best one so far, and they are all pretty darn good. It is fresh, believable and timely.” Escape With Dollycas Into A Good Book

“WOW- a complicated and intense mystery with strong emotional elements that may make you look closer at your own friendships and personal values.” Laura’s Interests 

“You are always thinking and on your toes while reading this book.  And when you get to the end and everything is revealed….it will blow your mind!” Cozy Mystery Book Reviews

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In case you missed my earlier guest posts, check out these topics:

“What’s in a Name?”
“Chocolate – Healthy or Harmful?”
“Killing Off a Character in Your Book
“Character Guest Post by Marla Vail”

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Posted in Fiction Writing, The Writing Life, Writing Craft, Writing Tips | Tagged: , , , , , | 11 Comments »

 
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