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 Tips’ Category

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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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?

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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 »

Stuck in the Middle

Posted by Nancy J. Cohen on July 25, 2017

While writing a novel, you are plodding along during the first half of your book, and all of a sudden you come to a halt. Now what? It’s too soon to start the revelations leading to the killer or to the romantic resolution. You need more material to make your word count. It’s also a good spot for a turning point in your plot. So what do you do? You face the blank white page and experience a sense of fear that your story will come up short. You’ve reached the dreaded Muddle in the Middle.

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Do not panic. Instead, read your synopsis over again or review your chapter-by-chapter outline. Haven’t done them? Do so now. Reviewing what you’ve written will reveal plotting elements you might have forgotten or personal threads you can expand on. Here’s what else you can do:

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? A whole new investigation will start based on who is dead, and it may throw your sleuth’s earlier theories out the door. Now she has to go in another direction for answers.

Crime Scene

Have an important character go missing.

If a character disappears mid-point in your story, that’s going to disrupt everyone’s plans. Is this person in jeopardy, or is he guilty of perpetrating the initial crime? Did another bad guy betray him? Or is this act staged, and the person isn’t really missing after all? How do your other characters feel about this missing person? Was he loved or despised? What efforts are being made to find him? How are the police treating his disappearing act?

Introduce a new character who shows up unexpectedly.

Think about a secret baby, secret lover, or secret sibling. Or a secret spouse. What is this person’s role in the mystery? How does his appearance change the investigation? Who was keeping this character’s identity a secret? This would be the time for that secret baby to come to light or the past husband no one knew about or the former girlfriend with a grudge. Or it could be someone who’s heard about the case and wants to cash in somehow. Could this new arrival be a fraud? How does his presence affect the other characters?

Twins

Resurrect a character thought to be dead.

This is possible if a death was staged, meaning no body was ever found, or the corpse was not identifiable. Is it someone who’d been gone for years or whose alleged murder started the current investigation? What made this person decide to reappear now? Or, what is the clue that leads the sleuth to believe this guy isn’t dead after all?

Steal a valuable object or return one.

Why was this item taken? Is it a clue to solving the mystery? Does it relate to another crime? Who took it and why? Is it meant to be a distraction from the murder investigation? Or was it part of the same crime all along? In the reverse, you could have a valuable object turn up, like a missing will or a more recent one that names a different heir.

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 that you can explore as the story moves 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. Usually you’ll find you have enough material already hiding among your pages. Snippets of suspicions your characters mentioned 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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Get Started Blogging

Posted by Nancy J. Cohen on July 10, 2017

What is a blog? And how do you start one? This past weekend, I gave a talk to a group of aspiring writers on “The Writer’s Life.” During the Q&A session, one person referred to my section on book marketing. “I don’t understand about blogs. Can you explain more about them?”

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So I thought this would be a good time for a review of the principles. I’ve been blogging for over ten years. I regard it as a live journal that includes glimpses into your life such as travels, hobbies, other fun activities or musings on life in general. Plus, as a writer, you can offer tips on writing craft and marketing and share the creative process. So here are some items to consider.

Define Your Purpose.

Are you aiming to build an author platform? Do you want to be recognized as an expert in your field? To engage with readers? Or to have other writers look to you for advice? Ask yourself why you want to start a blog.

Determine Your Goals.

Do you mean to increase book sales? Gain a substantial number of followers? Attract comments on each blog? Receive requests for guest posts? What’s your benchmark of success?

Set Parameters.

How often do you intend to post? What days of the week are best? What time during the day will more people likely read your post? How long should each post be? Check your analytics as time goes on and make adjustments accordingly.

Brainstorm Topics.

While you are writing a book, jot down blog topics related to your theme, research, and writing process. These will be useful either to show your story in progress or to provide fodder for blog tours when your new release comes out. Meanwhile, determine how your content can add value to people’s lives. In what way can your personal anecdotes inspire others? Some authors set certain days for specific blog topics. For example, one day they might post recipes. Another day they might bring in a guest blogger. Or perhaps they do author interviews. Excerpts, book reviews, or trivia related to a particular hobby or personal interest might fill in other slots. I like to do conference workshop recaps. Or you can write posts as they come to you.

Acquire a Site.

When you’re ready to start, register at WordPress.com or Blogger for a free site. Or add a blog to your website. Become familiar with the features and start posting.

Link the Blog to Your Social Media Sites.

Not only should visitors be able to tweet and share each particular article, but your posts can be linked to your Twitter and Facebook pages. Check your Settings for how to enable these features or ask your Web designer to add the proper Plug-In.

What Pages Should Your Blog Site Contain?

Keep in mind that visitors to your blog, if separate from your website, might not visit you elsewhere. So consider what Pages you’ll want to have. Here are some suggestions: Welcome or Home Page; About (Bio); Appearances; Book Trailers; Books List (with series books in order); Contact (your email); Giveaways. In the sidebar, you can show your book covers, a Blog Roll with links to other authors’ sites, a Search box, a Subscribe button, Social Networking Icons, and an RSS feed button.

Include Photos in your Posts.

Photos will draw more hits, but be careful of copyright issues. Upload your own photos. Obtain photos at royalty-free sites or at least make sure you provide attribution.

Use Keywords.

Use tags with keywords and put keywords in your text to drive traffic to your site.

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How to Gain Followers

  • Post often. Some people set themes, like “Recipe Monday” or “Guest Blogger Wednesday” or “Photo Friday.” Be consistent in your approach and keep your material current.
  • Have a clear and catchy headline for each post.
  • End your posts with a question to stimulate discussion.
  • Don’t use your blog solely to promote your books. You’re building a community of readers who want to get to know you, or else you are establishing yourself as an expert by offering useful material. Share new release info, reviews, and contests sparingly.
  • Comment on other people’s blogs.
  • Invite guests who have a following.
  • Always respond to comments and respect other people’s opinions.
  • On occasion, offer a prize drawing from commenters.
  • If you get a lot of comments on certain types of posts, steer your blog in that direction. Be responsive to readers. Note what engenders interest and what does not.
  • Be careful what you put out there. This is a public post. Avoid politics, religion, and any mention of personal business or issues you don’t want to share.
  • Always be respectful of other industry professionals.
  • Include links and images in your posts to raise visibility.

Index Your Blog

When your blog is a few years old, you might want to reissue an updated article. Keeping records of the topics, categories, and dates will help you retrieve these files. I suggest you write your blog in Word and save the posts by month and year. It’s imperative to keep your own blogs on your computer so you don’t lose them if there’s an online snafu. Then keep a separate file that’s an index so you can quickly search topics.

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Mystery Movies

Posted by Nancy J. Cohen on May 26, 2017

MYSTERY MOVIES and TV SHOWS

In addition to the classics like Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie, here are some of my favorite films in the mystery genre or movies involving writers. A happy ending is a must for my taste. This list does not include the Hallmark Channel mystery movies of which I’m also a fan.

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FILMS

AMERICAN DREAMER with JoBeth Williams and Tom Conti.

This classic tale of intrigue is one of my favorites. A romance novelist wins a contest and a trip to Paris. En route to the awards luncheon, she’s in an accident and suffers a head injury. She wakes up believing herself to be the heroine in her favorite books. A spy caper follows that’s all too real, as she teams up with the author’s handsome son who thinks she’s a nutcase. That is, until someone tries to kill them. http://amzn.to/2qZVEhl

DROWNING MONA with Danny DeVito and Bette Midler.

This funny whodunit in a small town has a cast of wacky characters. Classic example of a cozy. http://amzn.to/2rkArzR

GOSFORD PARK with Helen Mirren and Jeremy Northam.

This is an English drawing room mystery that takes place at a country estate. Aristocrats and servants alike have secrets that slowly unravel during a hunting party weekend. Albeit a bit slow-paced, this film requires repeat viewings to catch the nuances. http://amzn.to/2rklnC8

HER ALIBI with Tom Selleck and Paulina Portzkova.

This hilarious escapade finds mystery novelist Phillip Blackwood falling for a suspected murderess while he searches for inspiration to unlock his writer’s block. Did the mysterious and beautiful foreigner have a hand in the victim’s death? If so, was he foolish to vouch for her alibi and bring her home? And are the accidents that occur after her arrival truly accidents, or is Philip next in line for his guest’s lethal hijinks? http://amzn.to/2qjtafC

MANHATTAN MURDER MYSTERY with Woody Allen and Diane Keaton.

A Manhattan housewife thinks her next door neighbor is a murderer. She enlists her friends to search for clues. Probably my favorite Woody Allen film out of all of them. http://amzn.to/2qZEEIb

MURDER 101 with Pierce Brosnan.

English professor Charles Lattimore assigns his class to plan the perfect murder as a literary exercise. When he’s framed for a woman’s death, he has to find the killer before the detective on the case finds him. Will his students help him solve a real murder, or is one of them guilty? http://amzn.to/2qje0qK

MURDER BY THE BOOK with Robert Hays.

A mystery novelist thinks he’s hallucinating when his hero appears in front of him and talks back. He’s been thinking of changing to a new series and scrapping the sleuth, but now he needs the fellow’s help to solve a real murder. http://amzn.to/2qZrQzF

MY COUSIN VINNY with Joe Pesci, Ralph Macchio, Marisa Tomei, and Fred Gwynne

In this funny courtroom drama, a New York lawyer on his first case defends two fellows in Alabama who are mistakenly accused of murder. Watch for the clues in this hilarious mystery. http://amzn.to/2qnMisB

THE BOY NEXT DOOR with Dina Meyer and Cory Monteith.

A romance writer goes on a retreat to a small town to seek inspiration for her next story. When her next door neighbor is found dead, the chief of police suspects her. Even when her place is ransacked and someone tries to run her off the road, he discounts her theories and refuses to look into the incidents. It’s up to our heroine to prove her innocence and uncover the killer before his next attack turns fatal. http://amzn.to/2qZQXEi

TV SHOWS

THE BROKENWOOD MYSTERIES with Neill Rea and Fern Sutherland.

I’ve bought the DVDs. Otherwise, you can find this show on the Acorn TV Channel. http://thebrokenwoodmysteries.com/
Detective Senior Sergeant Mike Shepherd and Detective Constable Kristin Sims solve mysteries involving a limited number of suspects, most of whom know each other, in a distinct setting and with a definite sense of humor. Emphasis is on the relationships between characters and personal motives rather than forensics. Each episode is a perfect example of a cozy mystery despite the lack of an amateur sleuth. http://amzn.to/2qjcPYl

Brokenwood

MISS FISHER’S MURDER MYSTERIES with Essie Davis and Nathan Page.

http://www.abc.net.au/tv/programs/miss-fishers-murder-mysteries/
The Honourable Miss Phryne Fisher solves crimes in 1929 Melbourne, Australia. Essie Davis plays the lead while Nathan Page plays her romantic interest, Detective Inspector Jack Robinson. Warning: Miss Fisher’s spectacular outfits threaten to steal the show. http://amzn.to/2qjwVle

Miss Fisher

MIDSOMER MURDERS with John Nettles and Jane Wymark.

A police detective and his deputy solve murders in small town England. Some people love this show. I couldn’t get into it but it might appeal to you. http://amzn.to/2qSu0Cu

ROSEMARY AND THYME with Felicity Kendal and Pam Ferris.

Two ladies in England solve mysteries together. One is a plant pathologist. The other woman is separated from her husband. I haven’t watched too many of these but they caught my interest. http://amzn.to/2qj87ty

Disclosure: I am a member of the Amazon Affiliate program. These are affiliate links.

So here you go. If you have some free time this weekend, look up these films and have a good time. Keep watch for Murder on the Orient Express, an upcoming theatrical release and remake of the classic Agatha Christie tale, with Johnny Depp, Judi Dench, and Penelope Cruz in an all-star cast.

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Writing Tips – Color Descriptions

Posted by Nancy J. Cohen on April 4, 2017

Do you have trouble with color descriptions when writing your novel? I can see colors fine except when I have to describe them in a story. Then I’ll say a character has brown eyes, is wearing a green top with khakis, and has her nails painted red. Remember the childhood refrain you learned to help you remember the colors? “Red and orange, green and blue. Shiny yellow, purple too. All the colors that we see, live up in the rainbow…” Anyway, that might not be an accurate rendition, but it’s how I remember the song.

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Rainbow colors alone don’t do justice to the myriad of shades out there. So I’ve written color charts for myself as a writing tool for when I need more interesting variations. You can also classify by categories, such as:

Jewels—pearl, amethyst, emerald, ruby, sapphire, jade, garnet
Flowers—rose, lilac, daffodil, hibiscus, orchid
Minerals—onyx, copper, gold, silver, malachite, cobalt
Nature—thundercloud gray or leaf green or canary yellow
Food—grape, cherry, orange, lemon, lime, cocoa, coffee, fudge, chocolate, peach, nut brown, pumpkin

IMG_0928  pumpkin

One of the best resources is a department store catalog. You can’t get more imaginative than their names for towels, sheets and sweaters. Thinking white? How about pearl, ivory, parchment or snow?

You get the idea. And so I’ve created a file listing colors which I’ll share with you here. My only request is that you tell me what I’ve missed. Here we go.

· BLACK: Jet, ebony, charcoal, raven, crow, coal, pitch, soot, ink, velvet, cast iron, midnight, onyx, obsidian

· BROWN: Chestnut, auburn, nut, mahogany, walnut, hazel, fawn, copper, camel, caramel, cinnamon, russet, tawny, sandy, chocolate, maroon, tan, bronze, sun-ripened, coffee, rust, earth, sod, dusty, mud

· GRAY: Silver, metallic, gunmetal, steel, cloudy, ashen, foggy, slate, leaden, stone, mist, platinum, smoky, mercury

· WHITE: Milky, chalk, frost, snow, ivory, cream, pearl, opal, parchment

· RED: Blood, apple, ruby, rusty, brick, fire engine, pink, rose

· ORANGE: Tangerine, fire opal, sunset, kumquat, pumpkin, apricot

· GREEN: Emerald, jade, apple, leaf, sea, grass, sage, basil, pea, olive, malachite, forest, lime

· BLUE: Cobalt, indigo, sapphire, turquoise, azure, sky, navy, royal, deep sea, ink, ice, denim, Cerulean blue

· YELLOW: Blond, lemon, daffodil, canary, topaz, golden, tawny, sand, saffron, citron, sulfur, amber, straw, primrose

· PURPLE: Lavender, violet, lilac, amethyst, orchid, mauve

Bougainvillea  Flamingo Nursery3

Colors also convey emotions. For example, mud brown and toad green have a less pleasant connotation than chocolate brown and sea green. Browns, oranges, and reds are so-called “warm” colors while blue and green are “cool” colors or more soothing. So choose your hues carefully to enhance a scene.

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What’s your secret to describing colors? Do you prefer rainbow colors or more specific shades?

 

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Six Stage Plot Structure – Part 2

Posted by Nancy J. Cohen on March 16, 2017

Michael Hauge’s Six Stage Plot Structure, Part 2 – The Inner Journey

The second part of Michael Hauge’s talk on Six Stage Plot Structure at the Florida Romance Writers Cruise Conference deals with inner conflict. If you missed Part One, read it Here. For the sake of expediency, I use the term “heroine” but these principles apply to the hero as well.

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Disclaimer: Any mistakes in this summary are due to my misinterpretations.

The writer wants to elicit emotion in the reader. You can convey emotion and show us what’s going on without the need for dialogue or internal reflection. i.e. A lonely guy is staring at the empty furniture in his house. We get a sense of loss.

Character, desire, and conflict are the key components to storytelling. “Stories are participatory. We become the hero or heroine in the story.” We want to create a movie in the reader’s mind.

Modulate the tone and pace of the story to heighten emotional response. Here Mr. Hauge showed us clips from the movie “UP” as an example.

 

Key Components of the Inner Journey

Longing or Need

This is a desire that is expressed but the protagonist does nothing about it. It’s a hole in the character’s soul. A longing is expressed while a need is not acknowledged. This need is usually for a connection with another person.

Wound

A painful experience from the past is still driving the protagonist’s behavior. Most typically take place in adolescence. In “Up,” the older man’s wife Ellie dies. His wound is that he never gave her the adventure he’d promised.

Belief

We formulate a belief to explain what caused the wound, and to prevent it from happening again. In “Up,” the guy believes he failed by not keeping his promise. In a romance, it might be the heroine’s belief that if she loves again, her heart might be broken like before, and she might not survive this time. Or, an abused child believes he deserved punishment. The belief is never true but it is always logical.

Fear

We harbor the Fear that the painful experience will happen again. The Belief is very specific as to what may cause it to reoccur. For the abused child, the fear might be of letting anyone see who he truly is. An abandoned child might believe that anyone he gets close to will disappear. In “Up,” the man’s fear is that if he lets go of Ellie, he’ll lose all connection to her (i.e. he’ll lose her again).

Identity

The Identity is the false self we present to the outer world that allows us to feel safe. It protects us from the fear that grows out of the belief that was created by the long-ago wound. In “Up,” the main character has turned into a curmudgeon who lives in an empty house with Ellie’s things still there. If he sells the house or lets anyone inside, he might lose his memory of her. He must protect his memory of her at all cost. Our identities keep us feeling safe. It’s our emotional armor. But it makes us believe this is who we really are.

Essence

The Essence is a person’s true potential if they let go of the Identity. We see who this person really is underneath their façade.

The heroine of a story must leave her identity behind and live fully in her essence. This is the only way to achieve the outer motivation or visible goal.

Identity versus Essence is the Inner Conflict. The heroine’s inner journey or character arc takes her from living fully in the Identity to living fully in the Essence.

Looking at the Six Stage Plot Structure, in Stage One which is the Set Up, the heroine is living in her Identity. She believes the wound is in the past and over. Then an Opportunity arises that moves her to a New Situation. In the New Situation, the heroine is still in her Identity but she gets a glimpse of what living in the Essence would be like. She sets a goal.

To achieve this goal, she must live in the Essence. In the film “Up,” the main character realizes his wife Ellie viewed their marriage as an adventure. He throws out their furniture, which has served as his emotional armor, and he moves on to a new adventure. He goes into his Essence and achieves his goal.

The inner journey involves moving from Identity to Essence. This exposes the Fear, and so the protagonist retreats to her Identity before finally embracing the Essence. The Aftermath shows the reward where the heroine has found the courage to move beyond her Fear and live her truth.

This character arc should be a universal truth, while the outer plot is specific to the story. i.e. To live fully, we have to be willing to let go of the past and move forward.

This transformation should be gradual and not an epiphany. During the third stage, the character makes Progress. She vacillates between her Identity and her Essence. She feels vulnerable at getting a glimpse of her Essence and retreats back into her Identity.

In a romance, the biggest weakness is when there’s no solid reason why these two people should be together except the author wants it. Attraction at first sight is okay, but physical chemistry only takes you so far. This does not make for an enduring relationship. Why are these two people in love? They fall in love because they are each other’s destiny. The hero is the only one who sees beneath the heroine’s Identity and appreciates her true Essence. And vice versa. They connect at the level of the Essence. When there’s a love triangle, the guy she’s going to leave represents her Identity. The guy who is her destiny represents her Essence.

Conflict takes place at the level of Identity. Connection is at the level of Essence.

At the Change of Plans, the characters may not recognize their goal of pursuing each other but the reader does. You can put them into a competition or force them to work together. At the half-way mark, they can acknowledge their goal but still resist it.

Complications (Stage Four) ensue as the outside world intrudes. The heroine might feel safe but unfulfilled in her Identity. She can have it all, but she has to get past her Fear. She may think, “I’ll do whatever it takes to achieve my goal. Just don’t ask me to [blank] because that’s not me.” You know it’s the right thing if [blank] scares her.

At the Major Setback, both characters retreat to their Identities to feel safe. In a romance, this is the Big Black Moment.

The heroine’s reflection character (best friend, sidekick, etc.) says, “What are you doing? This isn’t you. Go after him.” The reflection reminds the character of who she truly is.

The hero and heroine make the Final Push (Stage Five) to achieve their goals and win each other’s love. They return fully to their Essence. The Aftermath (Stage Six) shows their transformed existence.

For more information on Mr. Hauge’s one-on-one coaching, visit StoryMastery.com

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Six Stage Plot Structure – Part 1

Posted by Nancy J. Cohen on March 13, 2017

Michael Hauge’s Six Stage Plot Structure, Part 1- The Outer Journey

Michael Hauge teaches a terrific class on Six Stage Plot Structure. Michael has coached screenwriters, producers, stars and directors on projects for every major studio and network, as well as top public speakers and corporate leaders. He’s the author of Writing Screenplays That Sell and Selling Your Story in 60 Seconds: The Guaranteed Way to Get Your Screenplay or Novel Read, as well as his best selling lecture with Christopher Vogler, The Hero’s Two Journeys. Michael is also a popular speaker around the world. We were fortunate to have him with us on board Independence of the Seas for the Florida Romance Writers Fun in the Sun cruise conference.

 

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Disclaimer: Any errors in this summary are due to my misinterpretation.

 

Key Components of the Outer Journey

Set Up (Stage One)

Here’s where you introduce the protagonists and show them in their normal life. You’ll want to establish an emotional connection with readers. Create empathy with the main character and connect the reader to her before you introduce any flaws. How do you do this? For the sake of expediency, we’ll use the term “heroine” but these principles apply to the hero as well.

1. Create sympathy by making her the victim of undeserved injustice or misfortune.
2. Put your character in jeopardy, but it doesn’t have to be physical. It can be the threat of loss for something vitally important to the character.
3. Make your heroine likeable by showing her kindness or generosity. Show that she is well liked by others.
4. Make the character funny. She can be funny by saying things that are unfiltered and not politically correct.
5. Give her a skill set that we admire. For example, we admire people who can get things done. They have the power to accomplish things.

Next show the protagonist as being stuck or in a state of inertia. They’re tolerating a situation or lying to themselves, and something is missing from this person’s life. Another character in the story tells them what they need to learn in order to progress.

In a romance, do we meet the hero and heroine separately before they come together, or do they come together at the outset? Determine if you’re using one or two viewpoints for these characters. If we meet the heroine first and encounter the hero when she does, you can use the singular viewpoint.

Opportunity (Turning Point 1)

Something happens that has never occurred to the main character before. It jolts the heroine out of a normal life and she must react. This can be a good or bad event, but either way, it will result in the heroine’s preliminary goal, a desire to move to a …

New Situation (Stage Two). Now the protagonist must figure out what’s going on and how to react, and in response will formulate a specific, visible outer motivation.

Change of Plans (Turning Point 2)
The heroine will begin pursuing the outer motivation.

Most Hollywood movies involve a heroine pursuing one or more of five visible goals:

1. To win the love of another person or a competition
2. To stop something bad from happening
3. To escape a bad situation
4. To deliver or transport an item of value
5. To retrieve something of value and bring it to safety or possess it.

Emotion should grow out of conflict and not out of desire. In a romance, you have to delay pursuit of the love interest. Or, have them meet but then go back and show their normal lives beforehand. Or, force them together but give them different goals. The heroine should have another goal than pursuing the guy. For example, “You two have to work on this project together. The outcome will determine which one of you gets the promotion.” Hold back her admission that she’s falling for the guy by giving her a different goal to pursue.

In a mystery, the dead body presents the Opportunity. The sleuth makes a discovery at the one-quarter mark. A new event leads to a new goal, i.e. “It looks as though we’re going after a serial killer.”

Progress (Stage Three)

The heroine’s plan seems to be working. She’s moving closer to her goal but still has conflict. She must bypass or overcome obstacles until the midpoint or Point of No Return (Turning Point 3). Something happens that forces the protagonist to make a full commitment to her goal. In a romance, it might be the first kiss, or the first time your couple goes to bed together. Now they are not able to return to the life they once had.

Complications (Stage Four)

It becomes more difficult but more important to reach the goal. If the heroine loses the hero now, she risks losing her destiny. But the outside world is closing in and the conflict becomes greater and greater, until the main character suffers a Major Setback (Turning Point 4). All appears lost. In romance jargon, we call this the Big Black Moment. This is when the two lovers break apart.

Retreat and Final Push (Stage Five)

Each character will try to return to the way they were in the Set Up. They go back to the original situation, but it’s no longer satisfying. So the protagonist makes a final push to achieve her goal.

The Climax (Turning Point 5) is where the heroine faces her biggest obstacle. She either achieves her goal or she doesn’t.

In the Aftermath (Stage Six), we see the heroine in her new life. In a romance, we see how the hero/heroine will be living together. It’s the reward at the end of the goal. They’ve reached their destiny.

For more information, visit StoryMastery.com

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Coming Next: Michael Hauge’s Six Stage Plot Structure, Part 2 – The Inner Journey

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Writing the Mystery – Howdunit?

Posted by Nancy J. Cohen on February 7, 2017

When writing a cozy mystery, you need to decide upon crime scene details even though interpersonal relations and not forensic investigations are your story’s focus. Here’s an example of what this means. For my next book, I decided to start the tale at a bake-off contest, but the setting bothered me. Our city fairs are held on athletic fields or a flat stretch of grass in a park. This doesn’t leave much opportunity to stash a dead body.

I was telling this to my manicurist and mentioned that I needed a more interesting setting. She suggested Bedner’s Farm as a possible model for my story. The next day, my husband and I drove north to visit this farmer’s market in Boynton Beach. See my post for a report on this visit. The varied structures and grounds were ideal for my purposes, but I’d move my fictional site nearer to Marla’s hometown. Marla Vail is my hairstylist sleuth and the star of the Bad Hair Day Mysteries.

Bedner's Farm  sheds

Now what? Francine Dodger is the target of the festival’s Find Franny scavenger hunt. I got this idea by looking up harvest festivals online. This drove me to research living scavenger hunts until I had an idea of how mine would work. Think about the five W’s when you’re in this phase.

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Who ends up dead? Let’s say Francine is the victim.

Where is she killed? How does she arrive there? Is she lured on purpose, or it is a crime of opportunity? Did the killer follow her? Determine Where-dunit.

How
does he do it? She could be drowned in a ditch. Water-filled canals line the U-pick rows. But other customers might be milling around there. Will it look like an accident or right away be identified as a homicide? She can fall down a silo. But what would make her climb up there in the first place? Or she could be runover by a tractor.

What knowledge does the killer need? If the murder involves an equipment accident, it’ll have to involve someone who knows to operate the machinery. Ditto the hazards inside a silo. You don’t want to point the finger at a particular suspect like the farmer, because it’s too obvious. Maybe give one of the other characters a secret history of working on a farm or of selling agricultural machinery.

If you poison a victim, who has knowledge about the type of poison used as well as access to it? Is it fast-acting enough for the circumstances, or do you need a slower more insidious death? What are the particular symptoms? Consider your means of murder very carefully when you’re making these decisions so your story will sound plausible.

When does it happen? Think about not only the time of death, but also why not a week or a month ago? Why NOW?

How does the killer get away? Does he have blood on his clothes? Are his shoes wet or muddy? Is he able to blend back into the crowd? How does he act when he encounters the heroine?

Now let’s throw a wrench into the works.

What if it’s a case of mistaken identity? He thought he had killed one woman but he got somebody else who was similarly attired. How will he react upon seeing his intended victim alive and well? This leads to another set of problems. It means he can’t see the victim’s face before he kills her, or he’ll realize it’s the wrong person. So again, we go back to Howdunit?

Once you figure out these details, you’ll have to determine how your amateur sleuth stumbles across the dead body. And this is when the story actually begins.

If you missed my previous posts on this topic, go here:

Writing the Mystery – Whodunit
Writing the Mystery – Whydunit
Five Stages of Writing

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Writing the Mystery – Whydunit?

Posted by Nancy J. Cohen on February 3, 2017

In the previous post, we discussed character development. As you figure out each person’s goals and secrets, you need to determine how that character relates to the others. Think of a spider web. The victim is in the center, and all of the other threads are the suspects. Or visualize it as a character wheel with spokes. Whichever model you choose, you’ll want to connect the characters to each other.

characters

Here are examples from my WIP to show you how it’s done. The characters are involved in a bake-off contest held during the spring festival at a local farm.

Tally Riggs, my hairstylist sleuth’s best friend, met Becky Forest at a local historical museum. She told Tally about the bake-off.

Becky, a scientist, is a cookbook author and curator of the museum. She studies plant remains of ancient peoples, including early Florida food practices. Every time Becky has a new cookbook out, she’s a guest on Chef Raquel Hayes’ TV show.

Raquel, a judge at the bake-off contest and a TV chef, did something in the past that could scandalize her. Francine Dodger recognizes her on TV and threatens to spill her secret.

Francine, a contestant at the bake-off, is a food magazine editor. While researching an article on the farm, she uncovers something that could ruin the owners’ reputation.

Zach Kinsdale, eldest brother of four siblings who run the family farm, hasn’t told his two brothers and sister Janet about this looming disaster.

Janet is married to Tony, who runs an import-export business. He sells his imported olive oils to Zach for the farm’s marketplace. But Janet suspects something unethical about her husband’s business. She’s the one who organized the bake-off since her husband’s company is a festival sponsor.

Tony, Janet’s husband, is worried about an exposé that Francine has mentioned. He’s also concerned about Tristan Marsh, pastry chef at The Royal Palate and a judge at the show. Tristan has been making inquiries that concern him. He’s not the only one. Alyce Greene, a blogger who supports the farm-to-table movement, has been troublesome as well.

Alyce is a contestant at the bake-off. She’s married to Jon, a food truck operator. Jon got a loan to start his business from Alyce’s brother, Steve Madison. Steve, an investment advisor, manages Tony’s accounts.

And so on. You get the idea. It helps when the puzzle pieces fit together as a whole, but this process may take a while. In the meantime, allow your subconscious to stew on these ideas until story magic happens. The connections will pop into your brain. It’s a joyful moment when this occurs. It always does; you have to maintain faith in the creative process.

Now you know as much about these people as I do. Next comes Writing the Mystery – Howdunit.

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