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 ‘Writing Craft’ Category

10 Mistakes for Beginning Writers to Avoid

Posted by Nancy J. Cohen on February 2, 2016

It’s annoying, when I’m judging a writing contest or reading a self-published book, to find common mistakes that could be avoided with editorial help. Unfortunately, many beginning writers don’t even realize they need assistance. They’ll ask a friend or an inexperienced critique partner or a local English teacher to proofread their work, and the result is considered ready for publication. Think again. If you write fiction, you want an expert in the genre to edit your work and not the local journalist who has published nonfiction or the lit professor mired in academia.This post doesn’t apply to indie authors who know the ropes and have an expert eye screen their story.

editing

Revise and polish your work as best you can before submission, whether to a writers contest or a publishing house or even to an editor you might hire. Here are ten common mistakes to avoid.

1. Create an Identifiable Main Character

Get us into the action right away with a sympathetic viewpoint character. Put us in her head and show us the world from her unique viewpoint. Make sure we can identify with this character throughout the story, so stay in her head as much as possible. Even when you use multiple viewpoints, we want to root for the hero.

2. Make Your Characters Likeable

Remember to address your character’s goals, motivation, and conflict. What does your character want? If she wanders aimlessly through life with no particular goals, that makes me as a reader less interested in her. Give me a reason why she behaves that way. Maybe she lacks confidence because of a past event. Maybe she’s afraid of failure. Knowing this will make the reader become more engaged with her. Give her redeemable qualities so we’ll like certain aspects of this person. If not, the reader won’t care, and that’s the death knell to your story. This also applies to the anti-hero. What makes him redeemable? Why should I, the reader, care about him? By balancing action with reaction, you’ll motivate your characters and make them more believable. For every action, you need a reaction. Don’t focus on plot to the exclusion of emotion. Make me care about your characters’ lives.

3. Avoid Bouncing Heads

Don’t switch viewpoints in mid-scene. If you must switch viewpoints, use a space break. Don’t leap into the head of every minor character. We cannot know a person’s thoughts unless we’re in their mind. You have to infer what the other person is thinking through non-verbal cues or dialogue. It becomes very disconcerting when every character we meet has an internal dialogue. Then the story loses focus. Stay in one character’s head. When you switch, indicate it with a space break.

4. Establish the Setting Up Front

As soon as possible into the story, establish the place, season, and time of day. Remember your five senses of Who, What, Why, Where, and When. Try to work these into the opening pages. Examples: Crickets chirped their nightly summer chorus, or late afternoon sunlight glinted off an icicle hanging from the roof. Also, don’t mention a street name or landmark and assume the reader knows where this place is. Be specific and give a location. Use the five senses to bring your settings alive, but remember to describe them from your viewpoint character’s perspective.

5. Watch Your Use of Bad Language

The occasional curse word may be acceptable for a hero who’s a hardass or for a heroine in the urban fantasy genre, but elsewhere it may raise a reader’s hackles. It can also turn off some readers completely, so this language should be sprinkled in judiciously, if at all. Add it only if it helps to define a character, not because you believe it makes your protagonist seem tough. Ask yourself: Is this necessary? If not, leave it out. Or deploy a substitute, like “frak” on Battlestar Galactica. Remember the old adage: Less is better, especially if you want to expand your readership.

6. Show, Don’t Tell

To keep the pace flowing, use dialogue and action and minimal exposition. If you have long passages where nothing happens except the protagonist thinks to herself or explains what happened in the past, the story comes to a dead halt. You want to imbue a sense of immediacy to your story, and that won’t happen unless you involve the reader. Long meandering passages of narration may have been acceptable centuries ago, but that doesn’t work today. Show us what’s happening; don’t tell us.

7. Avoid Flashbacks Like the Plague (and don’t use clichés, either)

The first chapter is your only chance to grab the reader so she’ll continue your story. If you segue into a flashback, the forward momentum is lost. Who cares what happened in the past? Throw in a line or two of dialogue or introspection to show us how the past is relevant to the current action, and then move on. Or make it part of the story action, such as a confrontation with a friend or a hesitation on the part of the main character to perform some act. Work backstory into your chapter with minimal intrusion. Flashbacks, too, will kill pacing, so remove those long passages that reflect past scenes and not the present. Only retain what is necessary to explain the current action.

8. Every Conversation Should Have a Purpose

When I suggest you use dialogue generously, I don’t mean that two friends should get together and chat meaninglessly on matters that don’t move the story forward. Dialogue must serve a purpose: to reveal information, define character, move the plot ahead, offer reaction and reflection on what’s just occurred. So ask yourself as you approach a conversation, what do you want to get across in this segment? If you don’t have a point to make, delete the scene.

9. Use Character Tags Sparingly

Try to replace “he said” or “she said” with actions. Avoid adverbs and show the tone of the conversation in dialogue instead. Don’t use “he thought” or “he wondered” if you are in the character’s head. Do use italics for inner thoughts.

Bad Example:

“You’d better not stick your nose where it doesn’t belong,” he said in an angry voice.

You’re telling me to mind my business? she thought. “I’ll do whatever it takes to find Angie’s killer,” she replied. “You’re the one who should watch your back.”

“Oh, yeah?” he sneered nastily. “Don’t say I didn’t warn you.”

Better Example:

“You’d better not stick your nose where it doesn’t belong.” He towered over me, as though his superior height could intimidate me into behaving.

You’re telling me to mind my own business? You’re the one who should watch your back. “I’ll do whatever it takes to find Angie’s killer.”

“Oh, yeah?” He jabbed his finger in the air. “Don’t say I didn’t warn you.”

10. Proofread Your Work

Would you enjoy reading a book riddled with spelling errors or misplaced commas? No? Then why send one to a contest where mechanics are judged? Proofread your work for typos, dropped quotation marks, missing periods, and misspellings. Same goes for your work before you indie publish it. Get beta readers to help if you can, and definitely hire both a developmental and a copy editor. You want your work to appear professional, not only out of respect for your readers but also for your future career as an author. If the goal is to increase your readership, you’ll strive to publish a polished product so readers will want more.

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Posted in Fiction Writing, Self-Publishing, The Writing Life, Writing Craft, Writing Tips | Tagged: , , , , , , , | 8 Comments »

Avoiding Info Dumps

Posted by Nancy J. Cohen on January 15, 2016

An info dump is when you drop a chunk of information on the hapless reader. This can take various forms. Here are some examples:

Overzealous Research

You love your research, and you can’t help sharing it with readers. These excerpts are from Facials Can Be Fatal (Bad Hair Day Mystery #13). The first paragraph is the original. The second one is the revised version.

Original

“The company built houses and rented them to the miners and their families. Single men would have shared a place together, eight to twelve of them in one dwelling. The homes were shotgun style. You could see in through the front door straight back to the rear. Since the miners worked twelve hour shifts, they weren’t all home at the same time. The rent was taken out of their paychecks.”

Revised

“The company built houses and rented them to the miners and their families. Single men often shared a place together. Since they worked twelve hour shifts, they weren’t all home at the same time.”

P1030065 (800x600)

Original

“The Colorado River Compact of 1922 divided the waters of the Colorado River between seven states and Mexico. Getting it to the farther regions of our state proved difficult. Thus was born the Central Arizona Project Canal, or CAP as we call it. This required pipelines and tunnels to move the water. That can be costly, which is why our cities obtain most of their water supply from underground aquifers. Groundwater is our cheapest and most available resource.”

Revised

“The Colorado River Compact of 1922 divided the resource between several states. The Central Arizona Project Canal, or CAP as we call it, uses pipelines to move the water to the far reaches of our state. That can be costly, which is why many of our cities obtain their water supply from underground aquifers. Groundwater is our cheapest and most available resource.”

Laundry List

Any kind of list runs the risk of being tedious. Here’s a litany of symptoms you might get after being bitten by a rattlesnake. This passage is from Peril by Ponytail (Bad Hair Day Mystery #12):

Western rattlesnake strike ready

“You’d have intense burning pain at the site followed by swelling, discoloration of the skin, and hemorrhage. Your blood pressure would drop, accompanied by an increased heart rate as well as nausea and vomiting.”

As this passage wasn’t necessary to my plot, I took it out. Be wary of any list that goes on too long. Here’s another example:

He counted on his fingers all the things he’d have to do: get a haircut, buy a new dress shirt, make a reservation, call for the limo and be sure to stop by a flower shop on the way to Angie’s house.

Do we really need to know all this, or could we say, He ran down his mental to-do list and glanced at his watch with a wince. Could he accomplish everything in one hour flat?

Dialogue

Here’s a snatch of conversation between my sleuth, Marla the hairdresser, and her husband, Detective Dalton Vail:

conversation

“I’m going to talk to our next-door neighbor, who happens to be the Homeowners’ Association president,” Dalton told her. “Wait here with Brianna. Since my daughter is a teenager, she won’t understand the argument you and I had yesterday with the guy.”

“Yes, isn’t it something how he made a racist remark?” Marla replied.

“I thought it was kind of Cherry, our association treasurer, to defend you.”

This dialogue could have come from Hanging by a Hair (Bad Hair Day Mystery #11). But why would I have Marla and Dalton talking about something they both already know? This is a fault of new writers who want to get information across. It’s not the way to go, folks. Show, don’t tell. In other words, show us the scene and let it unfold in front of us. Don’t have two characters hack it to death later when they both know what happened. Now if one of these participants were to tell a friend what went down, that would be acceptable.

No doubt you’ve run across info dumps in your readings. Can you think of any further examples or other forms this problem might take?


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Posted in Fiction Writing, The Writing Life, Writing Craft, Writing Tips | Tagged: , , , | 8 Comments »

Character Development: Lifespace

Posted by Nancy J. Cohen on June 19, 2015

Do you lie awake at night worrying about future events or reviewing your to-do list? The other night, I couldn’t fall asleep. Too many thoughts and concerns flickered through my mind. When this happens, one technique I use is to grab a handy notepad and pen and scribble down every thought in my head. This might include a list of things I have to get done the next day or a list of my worries, whether realized or not. Writing them down seems to allay some of the anxiety.

Assigning these concerns to a set of worry dolls is another method I might employ. These are miniature Caribbean dolls that you lay out on your nightstand or put under your pillow. Then you assign each doll one of your worries. They fret all night while you can go to sleep, safe in the knowledge that someone else is doing the worrying for you.

Worry Dolls1

I’d suggest a good book, but if it’s too good, you might want to keep reading. So choose a happy story that isn’t so engrossing that you can’t put it down. And if all else fails, there’s always a glass of wine to lull you into a state of tranquility.

wine

What does this have to do with writing? When developing your main characters, you want to do the same thing. Imagine your character’s lifespace. Determine what is in her head at any given moment in time. Here is an early version for Marla Shore, my hairdresser sleuth. Never mind my minimal drawing skills.

Lifespace

What is YOUR main character thinking about right now? Why are these things on her mind? Which ones are the most important to her? How do they influence what she’s going to do next?

Giveaway! Anyone who comments or reblogs this article will be entered into a drawing for a free set of miniature Caribbean worry dolls. Winner will be picked by random.org on Monday morning and posted here. U.S. residents only due to postage constraints.

Worry Dolls3

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Posted in Fiction Writing, Writing Craft, Writing Tips | Tagged: , , , , , | 15 Comments »

Facing the Void

Posted by Nancy J. Cohen on June 8, 2015

I’m in that void in between books. Having finished my Author’s Edition of Body Wave (Bad Hair Day Mystery #4) and scheduled it for launch on June 16, I can start thinking about my next project. And so far that’s all I’ve done—think about it. This would be Bad Hair Day #14. It’s a direct sequel to Facials Can Be Fatal that follows Peril by Ponytail, my September release. I’ve set this summer for plotting with writing beginning in the Fall.

All I have at this point is the victim. I also have a possible motive, but whether this ends up a red herring or the actual reason for the crime is yet to be determined. My suspect pool is limited to work colleagues. Who else can I bring in? Did the victim have any interests or extracurricular activities that might have gotten him in trouble?

charcoal blazer

I won’t know the answers until I do my character development charts. But first, I have to figure out the timelines, because this guy’s background indirectly intersects with my sleuth’s life. So where was she when they first met? What does she know about him?

Another person is involved who has a closer relationship to our intrepid hairstylist. How is this person related to the crime? Is it random, or does this character have secrets of her own that could provide a motive?

And what about the so-called crime? Is it plausible? What could be the course of events that led to the victim’s death? Who else might be involved? This necessitates research. I have to ask an expert in the field.

As you see, all I have are a series of questions. But these are things I must ask myself to start the plot formulating in my head.

idea

And then there’s the Wow factor for me. What can I learn that’s new and interesting? This is what really grabs my interest and gets me excited about a story. The idea can come from a newspaper or magazine article, news broadcast, personal experience, or tidbit of information that crosses my path. Maybe as I’m delving into the characters, it’ll come to me. Meanwhile, my story antennae are alert.

If all else fails, I can explore my Dirt File, where I keep clippings of interesting articles about people’s crimes. Or I could explore my General Research files where I stick items that might inspire me. I’m hoping these actions won’t be necessary. Maybe I’ll get an unexpected visit from the muse who will bring me the right idea. Then the pieces will start to fall into place, and a story will form. I call this the Discovery phase because you are discovering what the story is about.

Plotting a new book is a daunting task, but one every writer faces when he finishes one book and contemplates the next. I can’t wing it like some authors. I need the story plotted out in advance. I’ll write a synopsis before beginning page one. This entire Discovery process can take me from one to three months. Then the hard work of writing begins.

How about you? When does your story brain put the pieces together?

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Posted in Fiction Writing, The Writing Life, Writing Craft | Tagged: , , , , | 13 Comments »

Starting a New Novel

Posted by Nancy J. Cohen on April 21, 2015

Starting a new novel can either be an exhilarating prospect or a daunting one. No matter how many books you’ve written, this reaction still holds true. If you’re a pantser regarding plot, you might begin with a concept, a character, or a setting. You wing it from there with a general idea of where you want to go. But if you are a plotter like me, you need a roadmap. So how to begin?

Characters Come First

Get to know your main characters. Who are they? What do they want in life? Why do they want it? What stands in their path? Give them internal and external goals. Have them deal with an inner emotional struggle that inhibits them from moving forward. What caused this conflict? How does it relate to the main plot? Let’s say your heroine meets a firefighter that she really likes. But she has an insane fear of fires because her parents died in one when she was little. How can she have a relationship with a guy who’s life is always at risk? Meanwhile, the external plot involves an arsonist. For some reason, he’s targeted her. She has to rely on the hunky firefighter to keep her safe. And so on. But don’t leave the hero out, either. He should have his own reasons for not pursuing a commitment. As for the villain, give him a plausible motivation so the reader can understand his actions if not approve of them.

Determine the path of character growth so you know how things will end. How will your characters change by the end of the story? In this example, the heroine might have to overcome her fear of fires to rescue someone in a blaze—perhaps herself, or the hero who’s been disabled by the villain. She realizes her own inner strength will get her through any adversity. She’s a survivor. And so she can let down her barriers and give her heart to the man she has come to love.

It’s no different when you’re writing a series. In each book, your protagonist must change in some way or realize a truth about herself. Yet her emotional growth can involve a bigger arc that encompasses a number of books. Always solve the external conflict first in a story, and then wrap up the resolution with the insights your character has learned.

Nira1

Build Your Setting

You’ve done your character development. Now where does your story take place? What is unique about this setting? How can you bring it to life for readers? This is where your world building takes place. Where does your character live? Why did she choose this place? What are its architectural and design elements? How is the setting a character in itself? Describe the sensory impressions you might note if you visited this area. How can you get its flavor across to readers? Why is this setting important to your plot?

Hong Kong

Do Your Research

Make sure you get your facts straight about the locale and any issues involved in your story. This can be preliminary research until you begin your story. Then you’ll know what details to pursue. Is there an interesting news article that caught your fancy? Look up more information on the subject and figure out how it relates to your plot. Or perhaps your story is based on something you read or saw on television. You’ll know what avenues to explore. Just be sure you’re as authentic as possible. That goes for your protagonist’s career as well. Use metaphors and similes from her viewpoint. Get familiar with her work lingo and research her occupation.

runes

Plot Your Story

If you like to use the storyboard method, grab a big poster and divide it into squares that represent your chapters. Brainstorm plot points and put them on sticky notes. Plaster these sticky notes around the poster approximate to their timing in the story. Or you can do a chapter by chapter outline instead. Either way, keep track of emotional as well as external plot points. Don’t worry if gaps show in your planning; they’ll fill in later if you lay the groundwork properly.

Keep in mind that each scene must have a purpose and hold tension. Each action is followed by a reaction and a decision. Start with a crisis or “call to action” for your character. Build the complications, layer in the secrets and suspense, determine the plot twists, and aim for an exciting resolution.

Many writers utilize the three act structure in their story plotting:
I. Inciting Incident and Introduction of Characters, Conflicts build to First Turning Point
II. Secrets, Subplots, and Complications, Rising Stakes, Second Turning Point
III: Black Moment for Sleuth, Villain Exposed, Resolution, Character Growth

Hook the Reader

How can you grab the reader at the start? Begin with action or dialogue and move the story swiftly forward. This is not the place for flashbacks or background information. Make sure your protagonist is likable to gain reader sympathy. Make the stakes personal. Consider that you only have the first few pages to make an impression. And just as importantly, end each chapter with a hook. You want to create a page-turner, so keep that tension ramped up.

Tomorrow, visit my piece on Internal Conflict at The Kill Zone.

Posted in Fiction Writing, Writing Craft | Tagged: , , , , , | 8 Comments »

Your Character’s Secret Dreams

Posted by Nancy J. Cohen on April 14, 2015

Your Character’s Secret Dreams

Character development in fiction writing always mentions goals. These can be long term or short term and are usually practical in nature. But what about your protagonist’s youthful dreams? An article in a news magazine got me started on this topic. It randomly interviewed a bunch of women about their dreams in life. This inspired me to make a listing of my own to aid in character development

  • Start a political career
  • Have a big family
  • Travel throughout Europe
  • Enter a baking competition
  • Become an Olympic athlete
  • Study to be a ballerina
  • Perform on Broadway
  • Turn party planning into a career
  • Visit the Egyptian pyramids
  • Apply to be an astronaut
  • Run a marathon
  • Ride on the Orient Express
  • Learn computer programming
  • Adopt some rescue dogs
  • Join the Peace Corps
  • Sing in public
  • Live in Paris for a year
  • Hike the Appalachian Trail
  • Be on a reality show
  • Get hired as a personal chef
  • Work on a cruise ship
  • Learn to fly an airplane
  • Become a volunteer firefighter
  • Write a novel

Marla Shore, my heroine sleuth, carries around travel brochures of Tahiti in her purse. She may never get there, but at least she has been on a Caribbean cruise.

BoraBora   Tahiti Hut

What hidden dreams does your main character have?

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Posted in Fiction Writing, The Writing Life, Writing Craft | Tagged: , , , , | 2 Comments »

How to Write Short Fiction

Posted by Nancy J. Cohen on February 12, 2015

How to Write Short Fiction—and Why Your Readers Think You Should!
Joanna Campbell Slan

JSlanAuthorMore and more authors are discovering the power of short fiction to market and promote their work. I’m certainly one of them. Several years ago, I promised my readers that I would write a short story a month in the run-up of the release of my next Kiki Lowenstein mystery book. Folks loved the pieces, my sales benefited, and I learned a lot in the process.

Guidelines for Writing Short Fiction

1. Concentrate on “one.” In my short stories, I typically write about one main character, one big problem, one setting, and one span of time.

2. Set it up fast. When they’re reading a short story, readers want to settle in quickly. Therefore, I try to work the “who, what, when, where and why” into my first paragraph. That gets my readers engaged as we explore the remaining question, “Whodunit?”

3. Craft your opening images so that they both paint a picture and set a mood for the reader. Promise your reader action and conflict from the get-go. Here’s an example: “The snow was busy blanketing our spirea bushes with a gentle white coverlet, while my mother slammed around a pot on the stove. At thirteen, I’m too old for hot chocolate, but my younger sisters, Eve and Edith, love it. Mom’s usually even-tempered when she cooks, but on this particular day, Mitt Romney had decided he wouldn’t make his third run for President. That made Mom mad. Hopping mad.”

4. Grab the reader fast. Your opening sentence should be a real show-stopper. Think of it as a baited hook that you’ll toss out into the ocean. Here’s an example, “If Mitt Romney had done his patriotic duty to our country, my mother wouldn’t be in jail today.”

5. Tell your reader the story, AFTER you tell it to yourself. It’s easy to get locked into a chronological narrative when we’re telling ourselves a story as we write it. As a result, we don’t always tell the most entertaining tale we could. Before you start writing, make a list of the things that must happen in the story and put them in chronological order. Order your information so that it makes the most impact.

6. Use this formula to help you get started: “First (inciting incident) happened to (character) and then that’s how (action started), and so (fill in the blank/more action) until (a conclusion is reached).” Example: “First Mom heard on the news that Romney wasn’t running, and that’s how she discovered that Dad wasn’t really volunteering down at Romney headquarters like he said he was, and so she followed him, and discovered he was having an affair with…a registered Democrat!” Once you encapsulate your entire short story in a sentence, you can charge ahead with confidence.

7. End with a bang! Whenever possible, I like to end my short fiction with a pithy observation or an ironic comment. The reader should feel a sense of (twisted) satisfaction. For example, “If she hadn’t dropped her ‘Mitt Romney for President’ button at the scene of the crime, Mom would have gotten away with murder. As they slapped the handcuffs on her and walked her toward the waiting police car, she yelled back at us, “See? None of this would have happened if we’d elected a good Republican into the White House!”

Do I break these rules? All the time. But I’ve developed my list as a useful template for pointing me in the right direction, even if I do wander off the suggested path.

Is it worth the time and effort? My short stories have proven to be extremely useful for keeping readers engaged between my books. I like to use the short format to expand on my characters, or to write about a situation that doesn’t warrant being explored in a full length book. You can see how this works in my Kiki Lowenstein Short Story Anthology #2. It’s only 99 cents. In particular, you might want look at the reader reviews about that particular anthology. Their comments have encouraged me to keep offering fiction in this short format.

Now it’s your turn. I’d love to hear what you’ve learned about writing short fiction or any questions you might have.
Joanna

P.S. In case the link doesn’t work, here’s the link to the anthology: http://www.amazon.com/Lowenstein-Anthology-Volume-Scrap-N-Craft-Mystery-ebook/dp/B00BQ2ITVI/ref=pd_sim_kstore_3?ie=UTF8&refRID=1MT1PG8YM2VPBP7MHCEA

About the Author
Joanna Campbell Slan is a national-bestselling and award-winning author of twenty-eight books, including three mystery series. Her newest book—Shotgun, Wedding, Bells—is now available for pre-order on Amazon. When you buy Shotgun, Wedding, Bells (Release date Feb. 14, 2015), you automatically get Tear Down and Die (Book #1 in the Cara Mia Delgatto Mystery Series/86 five-star reviews) absolutely FREE. Here’s that link: http://www.amazon.com/Shotgun-Wedding-Lowenstein-Scrap-N-Craft-Mystery-ebook/dp/B00SURBH7A/ref=sr_1_1?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1423518318&sr=1-1&keywords=Kiki+Lowenstein

Book Blurb for Shotgun, Wedding, Bells   Shotgun Wedding Bells cover
A very pregnant Kiki Lowenstein and her fiancé Detective Chad Detweiler are trying to race the stork to the altar. But their vows are interrupted by a shoot-out. With the help of her nanny, Bronwyn Macavity, Kiki vows to track down the man who ruined her wedding and put her family at risk. Even a big belly bump won’t stop this intrepid amateur sleuth! http://www.amazon.com/Shotgun-Wedding-Lowenstein-Scrap-N-Craft-Mystery-ebook/dp/B00SURBH7A/ref=sr_1_1?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1423518318&sr=1-1&keywords=Kiki+Lowenstein

Where to find Joanna
Joanna shares excerpts, tips and craft tutorials on her Blog: http://www.joannaslan.blogspot.com
Pinterest: http://www.pinterest.com/joannaslan
Facebook: http://www.Facebook.com/JoannaSlan
Website: http://www.joannaslan.com

Get a FREE e-book from Joanna
For a free sample of Joanna’s work, send an email to her assistant, Sally Lippert at SALFL27@att.net and request your copy of Ink, Red, Dead (Book #3 in the Kiki Lowenstein Mystery Series).

 

Posted in Fiction Writing, The Writing Life, Writing Craft | Tagged: , , , , , , | 14 Comments »

The Muddle in the Middle

Posted by Nancy J. Cohen on January 7, 2015

Somewhere in the middle of my current WIP, I froze with hesitation. It seemed as though I could finish the book within the next fifty pages, and I had one hundred pages to go. Where would I find enough material?

I staved off a full-blown panic attack by realizing this same fear struck me with every book. And each time, I made my word count without a problem. So how do I slug through to the end? And what if you get stuck? How can you take the plot in a new direction?

Raise the body count.
This is especially easy in a murder mystery. Just throw in another dead body. Who is dead and why? Who could have done it? How does this deepen the primary mystery? Could two different killers be involved? What if this victim was your prime suspect? Who does that leave?

6275719_m

Have an important character go missing.
If a character disappears mid-point in your story, that’s going to disrupt everyone’s plans and theories. Is this person in jeopardy, or are they guilty of perpetrating the crime? Did perhaps one bad guy betray another and do him in? Or is this act meant to manipulate a good person into obeying the kidnapper’s demands? How do people feel about this missing person? Was he loved or despised? How far will the hero go to get him back?

Create a new character who shows up unexpectedly.
What is this person’s role in the mystery? How does his appearance change the hero’s theories? Who was keeping this character’s pending arrival a secret? Is it someone who was presumed dead or who has been missing for years? What tipped this person off that it was time to appear? This would be the time for that secret baby to come to light or the past husband no one knew about or a former girlfriend with a grudge. Or it’s someone who’s heard about the case and wants to cash in somehow. Could they be a fraud? How does his arrival affect the other characters?

Cherry

Build on secrets and motives already present.
If you’ve laid the proper groundwork for your story, your characters have enough secrets, motives and hidden depths you can explore as you move the story along. Write down each loose end as you review the high points and make sure you go down each trail until that thread is tied.

You’ll usually find you have enough material if you just keep writing. Snippets of suspicions your characters mention can be plumped out until laid to rest. So give your people enough layers that peeling the onion takes the entire book. Except just when you thought you knew it all, throw in another twist like one of the points above.

What are your tips for getting through the muddled middle?

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It’s not too late! Vote for Hanging by a Hair under Mystery Novels in the Annual Preditors & Editors Readers’ Poll: http://critters.org/predpoll/novelmys.shtml

Vote for Warrior Lord under Romance Novels: http://critters.org/predpoll/novelr.shtml

Win a $25 Amazon/BN gift card or free books from Booklover’s Bench authors, including a first edition signed copy of Moonlight Rhapsody, one of my sci-fi romances, in our January contest: http://bookloversbench.com/contest/

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

Journaling for Research

Posted by Nancy J. Cohen on October 20, 2014

Your experiences and travels provide fodder for future works and should be recorded. When I wrote travel journals years ago, little did I realize that I’d be mining those notes decades later for my Drift Lords series. I’d been to Hong Kong in 1978. Yet today, many of the sights, sounds, and sensory impressions remain the same. Thus I sought my notes for Warrior Rogue, where a scene takes place in that great city. Ditto for the other locations around the globe for my paranormal series—Los Angeles, Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen, and Arizona. You never know when a bit of research will come in handy.

I’ve been journaling my travels ever since I can remember. And I never related this talent to my father’s writing ability until I edited his 1929 true life travel adventure titled Thumbs Up. Who knew this is where my drive to write everything down came from? Thanks, Dad. And from my mother came the attention to detail. She described every scene in a way that made me more observant.

And now, for my latest Bad Hair Day mystery, I’ve turned again to my notes. Years ago, I accepted an invitation to go backstage at a fashion show to observe the goings-on. In particular, I took note of the hairdressers and their role in prepping the models. I used all this info in a chapter I just completed for my current WIP.

How did I find this material? I write my observations, travel journals and on-location research notes in various small notebooks. I use colored tabs to divide the sections. Then I sticker them with a number and detail the contents on a separate list. Conference notes, on-scene research and experiences that may someday be relevant to my work go into these journals. So this time, I looked on my list and saw Fashion Show under number two. I pulled out this notebook and there they were: copious notes that would prove highly useful for my scene in progress.

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Here’s an excerpt:

Marla had brought four stylists plus herself for eight models. She’d let her staff do the actual work while she supervised. She had supplied each of them with Luxor products specifically for this event. The fashion designer had sent pictures of each woman ahead of time so her staff could consult on the look. Yolanda wanted a sleek, elegant appearance to go with her gowns.

In another corner, the makeup artist was laying out her cosmetics. Each model would head over there for a touch-up once her hair was done.

Marla glanced at the racks of gauzy, glittering dresses, wishing she had time to examine each gown and drool over the creations. Sparkling burgundy, bright yellow, sexy black, tropical turquoise, sublime coral, chocolate and lime stood out in satins, silks and chiffons along with sequins, seed pearls and intricate beading. A separate rack held a dazzling array of wedding gowns. Who else but a wealthy socialite could afford these outfits? Each one cost thousands of dollars. With a sigh, Marla realized this was the closest she’d ever get to high society.

Yolanda bustled about, greeting each person and keeping her tote box at hand. What was in there? Needle and thread for last minute repairs? Jewels to go with her gowns?

“Thirty minutes per person, ladies,” Yolanda shouted. “That’s the goal.”

Marla winced. That wouldn’t give them much iron time. “The guests have to eat dinner yet. It’s still relatively early.”

“Our show starts before the entrée course to get people in the mood for dancing. We have to get the models through makeup and into their gowns by eight-thirty at the latest.”

“How many changes does each girl have to make?”

Yolanda pursed her lips. “The show is divided into four segments, although the bridal procession at the end requires only four models. So some girls will have three changes and some will have four. You’ll have mere seconds between scenes to fix any stray hairs, so make sure your stylists do their jobs right the first time.”

The lesson here is for you to pay attention to your surroundings and experiences. Take notes on ANYTHING that might become useful to your writing. Chronicle your trips and record the sensory impressions along with unusual observations, sights and experiences. Take notes during conference workshops. Then organize the material so you can find it later. Consider it a legacy to pass down to your kids. They might throw out your journals, or they might treasure them like I do my parents’ writings. Never miss an opportunity to record a slice of life.

Do you take random notes when you go places, even if you can foresee no immediate use for them?

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Don’t forget to visit me over at The Kill Zone, where I blog on alternate Wednesdays. This week my topic is Attending a Writers Conference, very appropriate since I’ll be at the Novelists, Inc. event in St. Pete Beach.

Posted in Book Excerpt, Excerpt, Fiction Writing, Research, The Writing Life, Writing Craft | Tagged: , , , , , , | 4 Comments »

Character Development

Posted by Nancy J. Cohen on September 9, 2014

Plotting a story can take weeks, especially a mystery with its varied suspects and convoluted plot twists. Refer to my Elements of a Mystery Plot at the Kill Zone for steps to take in plotting a mystery: http://killzoneauthors.blogspot.com/2014/08/elements-of-mystery-plot.html#.U-tSIWOOrYg

Once I’ve devised the crime scene, the victim, and the cause involved, I turn to my list of suspects. Here is where I delve more deeply into their psyches. This means working on character development sheets for each person as necessary. Doing this allows me to determine their secrets and goals before I start writing. Any one of these items may change as I write the story, so I don’t hold fast to them, but the descriptions help start me on my way. I might also look for pictures online at the royalty free sites or cut out photos of celebrities or models from magazines of people who fit the character.

If the story contains a romance, I’ll do a conflict chart as well to show how the hero and heroine are at odds with each other in their goals and motivations. It’s not until I have an idea of each person in my mind that I can write the synopsis. This provides a road map for my story. As for research, I’ll do whatever is necessary along the way.

Here is a sample of a character development chart from my current WIP.

CAREER: Val is an artist who paints scenes of natural Florida. A history buff, she’s especially interested in Florida’s early development. She sponsors Friends of Old Florida annual ball. She’ll go to garage sales on weekends seeking photos and journals of life in early Florida.

PHYSICAL FEATURES: 59 years old, works out in gym on weekends.

FAVORITE SPEECH PHRASES: “You said it.”

LIFESTYLE: Val lives in the family mansion in east Fort Lauderdale. She’s used to having her staff do mundane tasks and isn’t a pragmatic person. She can see the overall picture but not the details. In this regard, she relies too much on others.

DARK SECRET: Lesbian.

RULING PASSION: Painting

DOMINANT TRAIT: Idealistic Dreamer.

GOALS

Short-Term: To make sure she’s funding the right objectives.
Long-Term: To leave a legacy through her paintings.
Concrete Symbol: An appointment to the Florida Historical Commission.

MOTIVATION

Val comes from old money through her mother’s side, who made their fortune in Florida’s East Coast Railroad in the 1890’s. She got her interest in history from her father, a naturalist who’d enthralled her with tales of Florida pirates, Indians, and Spanish explorers. Her ancestry might even include a pirate who’d ploughed the high seas by the Florida Keys. But when her sister dies from breast cancer, she rethinks her focus. The past won’t mean anything without the future, and we’d better do something about pollution, contaminants and toxic waste. She considers switching her funding to an environmental group. Val is divorced, having married a gold-digger who soured her on marriage. Or at least that’s her excuse for not remarrying. She dotes on her sister’s kids and has left them a generous bequest in her will.

CONFLICT

Internal: She’s highly regarded in Friends of Old Florida and hesitates to leave them in the lurch. She is a past recipient of their Lifetime Achievement Award. But perhaps this other organization needs her more now.
External: She has some concerns about her trust fund that she inherited from her mother. One of the trustees is also on the Board of FOLF, and that’s how she became involved in the organization. Her investments seem solid but her dividends don’t seem to add up.

She’s confided her uncertainty to her friend, Lora. She knows Lora’s secret, having once made a pass at her. Becoming suspicious of Lora’s frequent trips, she hired an investigator and discovered what Lora did on those excursions. Lora begged her to keep silent and threatened to expose Val in return. The two became polite antagonists, working together but keeping their distance otherwise.

STRENGTHS: Val is good at public relations and working a room at parties to gain donors for her cause.

FLAWS: She doesn’t care to scrutinize things too closely.

REALIZATION LEADING TO CHANGE: Maybe the past isn’t as meaningful as the future. We have to take steps to protect our environment now or there won’t be anything left to preserve.

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Now here is a sample of a Romantic Conflict Chart from Warrior Prince. Nira is a makeup artist destined to be one of the legendary six women who will defeat the demon, Loki and his minions, the Trolleks. Zohar is Crown Prince of the Star Empire and leader of the Drift Lords. Keep in mind that even if you’re writing in another genre, your characters in a romantic subplot would benefit from this analysis.

WarriorPrince680

INITIAL INCIDENT

Nira: Attacked by Trolleks
Zohar: Rift opens between dimensions

GOALS
Long Term
Nira: Financial security; Discover her identity
Zohar: A loving family; Accept his Destiny

Short Term
Nira: Get a job so she can research her birth parents and pursue a graduate degree.
Zohar: Locate the Trollek jamming device, shut down the rift and banish the enemy.

DRIVING FORCE
Nira: To discover her identity. Job security so she doesn’t have to struggle like her mother. Fears abandonment because her parents deserted her.
Zohar: Fears losing his heart to a Trollek woman like his father and going insane. Feels he must correct his sire’s mistakes.

DOMINANT TRAIT
Nira: Plucky survivor
Zohar: Arrogant protector

PERSONAL WEAKNESS/STRENGTH
Nira: Fiercely independent. Resilient in face of adversity.
Zohar: Sensitive to criticism. High moral standards.

RELATIONSHIP OBSTACLE
Nira: Fears abandonment so doesn’t want to depend on a man.
Zohar: Fears intimacy so doesn’t want to get close to a woman.

Nira in Warrior Prince   Zohar

BLACK MOMENT
Nira: She lets herself get taken by a Trollek in order to save him. He thinks she’s turned to the dark side.
Zohar: He leaves for his home world to deal political instability. She thinks he’s left her.

CHARACTER GROWTH
Nira: Wishing for adventure can become a curse rather a blessing. Embrace who you are rather than who you want to be. Lesson: Be careful what you wish for.
Zohar: He doesn’t have to make up for his father’s sins. He will be a kind, strong leader. Lesson: You have to accept yourself before you can lead others.

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Another way of getting to know your characters is to interview them. This is especially important in a mystery. Often I’ll interview the killer to learn why he committed the crime. Or interview your sleuth to determine what her concerns are at the start of your story. I’ll use the chart as indicated in my Writing the Cozy Mystery booklet to point out the interrelationships among the characters.

Cozy

Anyway, these are the tools that work for me. What other means do you deploy to get to know your fictional people?

 

Posted in Fiction Writing, The Writing Life, Writing Craft | Tagged: , , , , , | 14 Comments »

 
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