Nancy's Notes From Florida

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

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Posts Tagged ‘crime fiction’

Crime Fiction Giveaway

Posted by Nancy J. Cohen on August 7, 2017

Crime Fiction Giveaway, Aug. 7 – 14

I’ve teamed up with 35+ fantastic crime fiction authors to give away a huge collection of novels to 2 lucky winners, PLUS a Kindle Fire to the Grand Prize winner! 

You can win a copy of my revised Author’s Edition HIGHLIGHTS TO HEAVEN ebook, plus books from authors like Sara Paretsky, Linda Fairstein, and Lisa Gardner.

CLICK HERE to enter. Contest runs for one week only, so enter now!

Crime Fiction Giveaway   Highlights to Heaven


Booklover’s Bench Giveaway, Aug. 1 – 18

ENTER HERE to win a $25 Amazon/BN gift card from Booklovers Bench



Don’t want to miss more chances to win?

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Security Tips from an Expert

Posted by Nancy J. Cohen on September 20, 2016

Situational Awareness

Research for crime writing often includes advice we can use in our daily lives. Recently, we heard retired police Sergeant Al Hallonquist from speak at a meeting of Florida Chapter of Mystery Writers of America. Here are his safety tips.

Al Hallonquist2

Use common sense and be aware of your surroundings.

In a restaurant, sit with your back to the wall. Watch the doorway and the cash register.

Before getting into your car, look in the back seat to make sure nobody is lying there. My note: Also be wary if there’s a van or large vehicle parked alongside your driver’s side. Somebody could slide their door open and grab you.

Look inside before entering convenience stores, banks, or other businesses.

Think about where you’re going when you are walking or driving. Pay attention to your surroundings. Is anyone following you?

Don’t go down a dark alley or dead-end street.

Think three steps ahead of everything you’re doing.

When in a room, note where everything is located, including exits. Observe who enters. Do a “threat scan.” Note where to hide and where to escape.

Re Schools: Schools today have codes they can use over the PA system. Teachers may be allowed to lock doors to keep intruders out.

Active Shooter Situation

Be aware of your surroundings prior to, during, and after an event.

Don’t get fooled by “NIMBY”—Not In My Backyard. This can happen anywhere.

Flee if you can. Use all available exits, not just the place where you entered. Follow the exit signs. This also applies to a fire.

Before the shooter takes control of the room, consider throwing anything handy to distract him or tackle him with intent to disarm. Do what feels right and comfortable to you, but don’t try to be an untrained hero. It’s better to be an excellent witness than a dead hero. Also, don’t get in the way by running at the bad guy. You might be blocking another person who is armed and who can fire a clear shot at the shooter until you block his aim.

Obtain cover when possible rather than concealment. Taking cover, like crouching behind a table that you’ve flipped over, may stop a bullet. Concealment will hide you but will not stop a bullet.

Be wary for a lookout or accomplice.

If you’re in a hostage situation, don’t look a shooter in the eye or you might set him off. Better to be a nobody.

When the police come, assume a non-threatening pose. Preferably lie down with arms spread out on floor or hands behind head. Don’t make any threatening moves. Don’t jump up and yell.

Tear gas: Pull clothing over your face.

Flash/Bang grenade: Super bright flash and concussive hearing loss. It’s a “ball-like” grenade. It flashes upward so be on the floor and cover your ears if possible.

Taser range is up to 20 feet. You shoot a wire from a distance. This wire has sharp barbs. In contrast, a stun gun needs physical contact.

Q: Re a taser, if you’ve been shot with one, is it all over? Is there anything you can do?
A: Pretty much.  It’s pretty brutal in that your nervous system contracts and shuts down. For a short time afterward, you’re disorientated as well.

Q: How about if someone is following you? Is it better to make eye contact to let them know they’ve been noticed?
A: Again, that’s a situation by situation decision. Sometimes confronting them (even something as simple as eye contact) makes them re-evaluate their goal.

“While I hope this helps someone with their writing, I also hope it helps people become more aware, and less victimized.” 

Disclaimer: Any errors in interpretation are my own.



Posted in Fiction Writing, Research | Tagged: , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Happy Homicides 4: Fall into Crime

Posted by Nancy J. Cohen on August 29, 2016

Happy Homicides 4: Fall into Crime anthology– A bountiful harvest of 12+ cozy mysteries plus a special bonus file of recipes and craft tips. Regular price 99 cents. Look for my original Bad Hair Day cozy mystery novella, “Haunted Hair Nights.”

HH4-LowRes.jpgBonus File

Two-for-One Limited Time Offer: Buy Happy Homicides 4: Fall into Crime and get Happy Homicides 3: Summertime Crime absolutely FREE! Two books for the price of one (only 99 cents) –and you get two enormous bonus files full of recipes and craft project ideas for no extra cost. This offer is good from Aug. 29 to Sept. 11. Order Now!

InfographicHH BoxSet2

TONIGHT! August 29, 5:00 – 7:00pm EDT, Facebook Launch Party. Join us for fun and giveaways of gift cards and free books. I’ll be posting at 6:30 pm.


Blog Tour August 29 – September 11. Leave comments for more chances to win cool prizes!

Blog Tour
August 29 – Reading Is My SuperPower – SPOTLIGHT
August 30 – Cozy Up With Kathy – GUEST POST
August 31 – The Pulp and Mystery Shelf – SPOTLIGHT
August 31 – 3 Partners in Shopping, Nana, Mommy, &, Sissy, Too! – SPOTLIGHT
September 1 – A Holland Reads – GUEST POST
September 1 – fuonlyknew – SPOTLIGHT
September 2 – The Girl with Book Lungs – SPOTLIGHT
September 2 – My Funny View of Life – REVIEW
September 3 – Bibliophile Reviews – REVIEW, INTERVIEW
September 3 – LibriAmoriMiei – REVIEW
September 4 – Book Babble – REVIEW
September 4 – Sleuth Cafe – GUEST POST
September 4 – Dru’s Book Musings – REVIEW
September 4 –Dru’s Book Musings – A Kiki Lowenstein Short Story

September 5 – Laura’s Interests – REVIEW
September 6 – StoreyBook Reviews – GUEST POST
September 6 – Victoria’s Pages of Romance – SPOTLIGHT
September 7 – Back Porchervations – REVIEW
September 8 – Community Bookstop – REVIEW 
September 8 – Queen of All She Reads – GUEST POST
September 9 – Brooke Blogs – REVIEW, Nancy’s GUEST POST  “A Story for Halloween”
September 10 – Island Confidential – INTERVIEW
September 11 – Shelley’s Book Case – REVIEW, Nancy’s GUEST POST  “Haunted House”
September 11 – Kaisy Daisy’s Corner – REVIEW

Giveaway Enter to win a tote full of goodies for a fun Fall afternoon


For more details, go to
























Posted in Book Excerpt, New Release, The Writing Life | Tagged: , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Bouchercon: Day 3

Posted by Nancy J. Cohen on October 30, 2015

Saturday at Bouchercon began with the New Author Breakfast. Anyone could attend, but each table ideally held one or two debut authors with a centerpiece of books. The authors were introduced one at a time, and each had a few minutes to tell us about his book. A list was provided on each table with the authors’ names and their debut titles. I checked off the ones which interested me, and I hope to add those titles to my TBR list.


That afternoon, I attended a panel on Danger and Death in Suburbia. Speakers included Greg Herren, Mary Sutton, Meredith Anthony, and Lori Roy, with Katrina Nildas Holm moderating.

These stories involve a dichotomy, with beautiful settings where nothing bad should happen but crimes do occur there. We have expectations of people who live in suburbia. You’ll often hear, “He was the nicest man,” about a neighbor who commits a crime. Suburbs are not as peaceful as they appear.

People believe marriage is forever. Then you live together and experience the pressure cooker of constantly being with someone else. This togetherness can inspire crimes.

These types of mysteries often involve ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. The highest stakes come from your loved ones. Romantic suspense involves things that frighten women. These are more internal stories.

Why do people keep secrets? Shame is often the motivator. People will kill to hide their secrets, so others will not think badly of them. There is also the pressure to succeed. If we all work hard, why aren’t we at the top? So we cast blame on others. We say, “She slept her way up the ladder”, or “He must be corrupt.” We’d like to believe successful people are not as perfect as they seem.

The Anthony Awards Ceremony capped the evening.


As for the rest of the time, I hung out and schmoozed. Here are photos of my writer pals.

BeckOliveSuzBeckyCarla NortonCherylNanConSanNancyDirk WyleDon BrunsDonConSandyJamesJim NanHeather

Toni Kelner RickMaryLou NeilNan

From left to right, starting at the top: Rebecca Swope, Olive Pollak, Suzanne Baginskie; Rebecca Swope; Carla Norton; Cheryl Hollon, Nancy J. Cohen; Con Lehane, Sandra Balzo, Nancy J. Cohen; Dirk Wyle; Don Bruns; Don Bruns, Con Lehane, Sandra Balzo; James W. Hall, James O. Born, J. Kingston Pierce; Nancy J. Cohen, Heather Graham; Toni L.P. Kelner; Rick Wymer, Mary Lou Benvenuto;  Neil Plakcy, Nancy J. Cohen

Posted in Business of Writing, Conferences, The Writing Life | Tagged: , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Mystery Writers Key West Part 1

Posted by Nancy J. Cohen on August 20, 2015

Mystery Writers Key West Fest
Friday, August 14, 2015

Mystery Writers Key West Fest started on Friday with a presentation by a crime scene investigator and a detective. “We witness what other people shouldn’t have to witness.” Regarding crime scene shows, the detective said they have most of the technology right but not the timing for things like DNA results.

[Disclaimer: These statements are my interpretations of what I heard or scribbled down and may not be totally accurate.]

P1040786  P1040787

Who shows up first at a crime scene? The lead investigator, civilian techs, detectives, and responding officers. The latter’s job is to secure the scene, identify and control any dangerous individuals, and assess the environment. Approach/Survey/Notify. They’ll call for emergency care of injured persons without contaminating the scene. Crime scene work “is almost like an art when you do it for a long period of time.” The team must secure and control people at the scene and document everyone who is present in a crime scene log. They must gather physical evidence to aid in prosecution.

Processing the Scene

The team’s composition is decided. This may include a dive team, SWAT, K-9, M.E., State Attorney, other officers or affiliated agencies. A command post is set up. “We document every single step in a crime scene.” Documentation includes photos, video, sketches, notes, and measurements. The purpose is to collect, preserve, inventory, package, transport and submit evidence.

Different types of sketches are done. A Perspective sketch depicts a view of the scene along with positioning of evidence. “It’s like pieces of a puzzle that you put together for your best guess at what happened.” A Projection sketch is a viewpoint from above. A sketch or photo of blood spatter on a gun can be revealing as to whose blood it is, the angle, etc. Another sketch may be taken using two fixed objects and measuring the distances to various pieces of evidence and/or the body.

When searching an area, methods deployed include the Lane or Strip Search, Grid Search, Zone Search, and Spiral Search.

Biological evidence will be collected after photos are done. The investigator has to keep changing gloves so as to not cross-contaminate the scene.

Investigators following up on a burglary will look for the same types of evidence. Unattended deaths are treated as a homicide until signed off by a personal physician or the M.E.

The M.E., and not a coroner, determines cause of death. [I think this is what was said, but you’d better verify my statements before using them in a novel. And different states might have different laws.]

The Sheriff’s office supersedes the local police, but they work together. Everyone in CSI is cross-trained to engage and work in different situations.

Physical evidence can include body fluids, blood, ignitable liquids, bombs, stains detected by forensic light sources, sexual assault kit results, ammo, tool marks when there’s been a break-in, tools found in the trunk of a car. Footprints, shoe and tire impressions. Electronic and digital items. Documents that can be checked for sweat, blood, and prints. And of course, fingerprints.

Plastic degrades DNA. Use paper bags to hold evidence. Shelf life of DNA is 500 years. There are only three types—black, white, and Asian.

“Love, hate, and greed are the three reasons for murder.”

Social Media with Irish Author Laurence O’Bryan

Laurence said he’d acquired blog and Twitter followers before he got published. When he sold a book, his publisher put the number of followers on his sell sheet. So get started tweeting and blogging before you’re published. “Authors must be online and accessible.” Extend your novel via maps, pictures of locations in your novel, research posts, and other online extras. Tweet items of value. Re blogging: Show pictures with your posts, use short paragraphs and a bigger font. “Engagement with other people is the Holy Grail.”



I didn’t stay for the talk on Audio Books as I had to catch the shuttle downtown to make the opening ceremonies at the Smokin’ Tuna Saloon. This was a pleasingly informal setting to chat with friends and meet new ones. So many people to greet! Florida chapter MWA members present included myself (chapter president), Gregg Brickman (chapter treasurer), Heather Graham, Don Bruns, Britin Haller, Sharon Potts, Sandra Balzo, Michael Haskins, Vicki Hendricks, Carolina Garcia-Aguilera, Becky Swope, and more.

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P1040798 P1040802

As we got rained out, I passed on the subsequent bar stroll. It was getting near my bedtime anyway. More in the next post.

See the photo album on my Facebook Page. Please Like the page while there.

Contest Alert!
Name a Character in my next Bad Hair Day Mystery! Or win one of two runner-up prizes: a signed paperback of Hanging by a Hair and a deck of Marco Island Playing Cards, or a signed paperback of Shear Murder and a deck of Tropical Drink Playing Cards. Enter Now


Posted in Business of Writing, Conferences, Fiction Writing, Marketing, The Writing Life | Tagged: , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Writing the Cozy Mystery

Posted by Nancy J. Cohen on February 5, 2014

Do you want to write a mystery but don’t have a clue where to start? Or maybe you’ve begun a whodunit but are stuck on the plot? Perhaps you’re already writing a series, and you need tips on how to keep track of your material?Cozy

After hearing numerous aspiring writers ask for advice on how to write a mystery, I decided to compile an easy-to-read instructional booklet on this needed topic.

What makes a cozy different from other crime fiction? How do you plot the story? Where does your sleuth originate? How do you plant clues?

The answers to these questions and more are in Writing the Cozy Mystery.

This title is now available on Amazon but will appear soon in multiple digital formats, including Nook, Kobi, iBooks, & SW. A print edition is coming next. Please keep watch on my website for links to these editions.

For the affordable rate of $0.99, what have you got to lose?




CUSTOMER REVIEWS are requested. Please write a blurb about the book if you find it to be useful and post it on Amazon, Goodreads, Barnes & Noble, etc. Also any shares and tweets would be appreciated.

This morning we are at:

#3 in Kindle Store > Kindle eBooks > Education & Reference > Writing, Research & Publishing Guides > Writing Skills

Let’s keep the momentum going!

And here’s another reason to celebrate: I just finished, as of this morning, my first draft of Peril by Ponytail, #12 in the Bad Hair Day Mysteries! Yes, I actually typed “The End.”

Watch for my Valentine’s Day contest coming soon. In the meantime, enter our Booklover’s Bench anniversary contest to win a Kindle Paperwhite or 1/8 free books by our authors, including an advance reading copy of Hanging By A Hair, #11 in the Bad Hair Day series.


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

CSI Investigations

Posted by Nancy J. Cohen on January 22, 2013

At a recent meeting of MWA Florida, we heard a CSI investigator from North Miami PD speak about her experiences. “Our day begins when yours ends,” she quipped. A beautiful woman who is married with five children, she could be a TV star of her own show. She proceeded to differentiate what’s real and what isn’t from what we see on television. The “CSI Effect” is what people expect from watching these shows, like immediate test results. That isn’t what happens in reality when it might take years. However, these dramas are good for bringing attention to an underfunded field. Private labs might produce quicker results, but she’s not allowed to use them for legal reasons.  magnifier

Why doesn’t she drive a Hummer? This is one of the questions she’s been asked. She drives a van because it’s large enough to hold her equipment and has storage space. She never parks in front of a business unless she’s on a case because that would drive customers away.

DNA testing can take months. Florida is number one for the best hits on CODIS (Combined DNA Index System). You must have been arrested to be on this database. In Miami, they have one year from date of entry to make a hit with a suspect. Otherwise, the statute of limitations runs out. Two types of DNA concern them: Mitochondrial and Nuclear. The latter contains a cell’s nucleus and goes back to a single source while the genetic pool is larger for the former type of DNA.

IAFIS (Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System) is fingerprint storage and retrieval. Usually it’s the latent examiner who makes the hit, although this can be subjective. Prints come from people who’ve been arrested. Other sources for prints can be places like jobs that require them, immigration, etc.

Five manners of death exist:

Natural (over 80%)

She says investigators specialize in certain areas, and the science and technology are constantly changing. They look for signs of foul play. For example, if you are sick or injured, you may curl on your bed into fetal position. You don’t lie prone in a closet, where a body was found. It was later determined he died from a broken neck. A migrant worker renovating the house was guilty of murder.

With Live Scan, ink isn’t used for fingerprinting. The old method often resulted in operator error—too much or too little ink, not rolling the prints properly. There are 150 points of identification on each finger. Patterns can be a loop, arch, or whorl or a combination therein. Footprints have similar characteristics. Fingerprints develop at 7 months in the womb. Changes may occur with scarring, like musicians who grow calluses. How long do prints remain on the scene? Forever, unless they are removed.

They give every case a name, like the Lemon Case where a guy supposedly fell on his knife when paring fruit. She’ll look in the kitchen, in the garbage for clues. It turned out the man’s girlfriend stabbed him, and friends helped her cover it up. But they neglected to erase the footwear impression where someone had stepped on the knife.

As a mystery writer, it’s important to get the facts straight. We can’t rely on what we watch on TV.


Disclaimer: These are my notes and they are subject to my interpretation. Any errors are not intentional.

Posted in Business of Writing, The Writing Life | Tagged: , , , , , , | 11 Comments »

The Plotting Process

Posted by Nancy J. Cohen on February 6, 2012

I love it when a new story begins to come together. I’ve started to plot my next mystery, and as such, I’m in the discovery phase as I mentioned below in my discussion on the three stages of writing. This means I’m getting to know the general background, setting, and characters before sitting down to actually write the story.

Since this will be a continuation of my series, I already know the main characters and the setting. So who’s the victim? That’s the first thing I determine. Next come the suspects. Who wants this guy dead and why? I begin by making a list of possible acquaintances, relatives, or business associates close to this individual. Then I give each one a motive. Suspect A is embezzling money. Suspect B is skirting state regulations. Suspect C resented the victim for spurning her. And so on. What’s more difficult is linking these people together.

For example, the Victim discovers an irregularity and reports it to Suspect B. Suspect B advises him to notify the authorities. Instead, he tells Suspect C. Suspect C, alarmed about the implications, threatens Suspect B to keep her quiet. Meanwhile, after the Victim dies, Suspect B throws suspicion on Suspect D. This person tips off the sleuth that Suspect E could cause trouble. You get the idea?

It’s wonderful when these connections start snapping together. At this point, I begin writing my synopsis. I also have to determine the personal angle for the sleuth, because the mystery won’t take up an entire 75,000 words. We want the story to be about her life and how the crime impacts her and why she gets involved. What other difficulties is she facing at this time? How will she grow and change by the end of the book?

Research also comes into play at this stage. I have to ask my police source about the crime scene and I have to look up info on the “irregularity” the Vic discovers and where that can lead my sleuth. Maybe I’ll send her to a location I haven’t visited before, so I’ll have to figure out how to work that into the plot.

The discovery process can take weeks or even months. I don’t like to hurry it. Once the fragments start to brew in my subconscious, it’s like a stew that has to simmer so the ingredients can blend together. Ideas will bubble to the surface and I’ll jot them down. I’ll delve deeper into my characters, determining who they are and cutting out photos from magazines to suit them. Eventually, I’ll have a cohesive whole and a completed synopsis. Then I can begin writing.

Posted in The Writing Life, Writing Craft | Tagged: , , , , , | 7 Comments »

Crime Scenes

Posted by Nancy J. Cohen on January 22, 2012

Detective R.C. White (retired) spoke at yesterday’s Florida chapter of Mystery Writers of America. Here’s a smattering of what he discussed. Even though my cozy mysteries don’t contain forensics details, you never know when such knowledge will be useful.

  • Consider involving a Public Safety Aid in your story. The PSA doesn’t have arrest power but does a lot of the grunt work.
  • DAVID—Driver and Vehicle Identification Database. If an officer has this equipment in his car, he can bring up your driver’s license photo, driving record, vehicle registration info, and your emergency contacts if you’ve listed them.
  • NCIS is one of Detective White’s recommended TV shows.
  • Bag and Tag. In reality, more than plastic bags are used. Guns may go in boxes. Items may go into brown bags. But on TV, they use plastic bags so the viewer can see the item.
  • Before touching anything at a crime scene, you must carefully observe and photograph.         camera
  • Photographs should be taken from wide angles all the way to close up shots. The camera should be at a ninety degree angle. Tripods or other equipment are sometimes used to steady the camera, which has to be leveled to take the shot. Often a ruler is placed beside the item being photographed. Different types of rulers may be used depending on what’s being photographed. Lighting is important. Footprints, for example, require oblique lighting.
  • A database of shoeprints exists, or at least it did when the detective was active at work.
  • Luminol glows like a wrist watch in a darkened room, and it’s a time exposure. This chemical agent is used to expose possible blood stains. False positives can come from rust, copper, iron, enamel paint, horseradish, etc. So it’s a presumptive test. The next step is to take a swab and test it. Some of the other techniques deploy PTH or phenylthaline and Protein Dye Stains.
  • For fingerprints, besides lifting tapes, Iodine Fuming involves breaking a glass beaker tube and blowing through it. The fumes adhere to grease and oils, i.e. prints may become visible. Must photograph them before the chemical fades. Ninhydrin turns fingerprints into color so you can see them this way, too. (Disclaimer: This is what I heard, so it’s subject to my perception. Accuracy should be verified before using this source).

At this point, Detective White showed us clips from the film, “My Cousin Vinny”, to demonstrate courtroom technique. He said this movie is required viewing at some law schools. I hadn’t seen this movie. It looks hilarious as well as informative. Will have to watch the TV schedule to catch it next time it plays.  detective

I may never use this information in one of my stories, but again, you never know. It’s absorbed into my mental storage unit of crime data from mystery conferences. But it proves one important point. Don’t rely on television for your investigative details. Get the facts, ma’am, and check your sources.


Please visit the sites on my Blog Tour and leave a comment for your chance to win a free signed copy of Shear Murder. This site counts, too, but I’d like to thank my hosts by having folks stop by my guest sites. Today I’m at Lelia Taylor’s Buried Under Books.

**January 22, Sunday, Buried Under Books, “Setting as Inspiration”

Coming Next:
January 25, Wednesday, Escape with Dollycas, “Weddings and Murder”
January 30, Monday, Savvy Authors, “Concluding a Series”

And if you missed my prior ones:
January 13, Friday, Killer Crafts & Crafty Killers, “Character Quirks”
January 16, Monday, Author Expressions, Author Interview
January 20, Friday, Jungle Red Writers, “Conferences, Cocktails, and Coffee”

Posted in Writing Craft | Tagged: , , , , , | 4 Comments »

Crime Writer Geraldine Evans

Posted by Nancy J. Cohen on February 7, 2011

Geraldine Evans is a multi-published author who writes the popular Rafferty & Llewellyn crime series. She also writes the Casey & Catt mystery series and has published historical and romance novels, plus articles on a variety of nonfiction topics.          Geraldine2

Geraldine is a Londoner but now lives in Norfolk, England where she moved, with her husband George, in 2000. Deadly Reunion is her eighteenth novel and number fourteen in her humorous Rafferty & Llewellyn series. She is currently working on her next mystery in this series.

How I set about creating my first, Rafferty & Llewellyn crime series.

How on earth do you set about creating an original crime series? All I can tell you is how I went about it.

This bit will mean more to the Brits amongst you, though I know a lot of Americans also enjoy British cop and comedy shows. Anyway, having a love of both, I decided to meld the cop and the comedy. I suppose you could describe my Rafferty & Llewellyn crime series as Inspector Frost meets Del Boy Trotter and Family. So if you’re looking for the intellectual, Sherlock Holmes, type of crime novel – steer well clear.

The Rafferty family’s leisure pursuits are far from Sherlock Holmes’s, far from Adam Dalgliesh and his poetry writing or Morse and his Wagner. They’re into back-of-a-lorry bargains and other diversions of questionable legality. And Rafferty’s Ma, Kitty Rafferty, often leads the field in such pursuits, using emotional blackmail to make Rafferty feel guilty when he upbraids her. Having far more than her fair share of Blarney Stone baloney, she always wins these little arguments.

I think you can see where I’m going with this. I used a cop who, although male, wasn’t a million miles away from me and a family who, although not my family (!) were certainly reminiscent of some of the families on the south London Council estate where I grew up. Ma Rafferty has a bit of my own mother in her as well as a casserole of all the other Dublin ladies I used to know when I was a kid when we used to spend the summer holidays in Ireland with my maternal grandmother.

Alongside the main story runs a humorous sub-plot, in which Rafferty is ensnared in the first of the series’ many family-induced problems. Deadly Reunion, my fourteenth Rafferty novel (UK 24 February, US 1 June 2011), like the previous thirteen, has Rafferty embroiled in more family trouble than a Victorian lady of the night sans the morning after pill.     Geraldine1

To return to similarities, I thought if Rafferty shared class and education with me, he might as well have other elements of similarity. Why not? Other writers do. Would a non-classical music lover have created Colin Dexter’s Morse? Would someone who knows little and cares less about poetry have created the poetry-writing Adam Dalgliesh of P D James? Well, possibly, I suppose. But it’s far more sensible to make use of elements from your own life. I wanted a lead character I could empathise with, one who was as near me as I could get. Believe me, it helps!

My background is Irish-Catholic working-class. So is Rafferty’s. I was educated (sic), in a bog-standard Catholic school. So was Rafferty. All these similarity help to give the writer a ‘feel’ for a character and their lives, something I regarded as essential when I hoped to carry him through a series of novels. There are a lot of working-class police officers out there, just like Rafferty, who have risen up the ranks, perhaps leaving behind them the less savoury habits of youth and family. But just because our police character has found it necessary to change doesn’t mean that his family would be so obliging as to do likewise. He would have parents, siblings, nephews, nieces and so on, all with their own ideas of what constitutes right and wrong, and all beyond the lead character’s influence or control. Imagine such a family. They’d be only too likely to embarrass your lead character. He could even have his career put at risk by them.

Okay, we’ve got our lead character, but what about his past? Maybe elements of your own past would help flesh him out? When it came to my character, I decided that if Rafferty was going to be working-class like me, he might as well have other elements of ‘me’. It not only makes life easier, it also helps me relate to him and to the past which has helped to shape him. Rafferty lost his father when he was around twelve. In a way I had ‘lost’ my father, too, although he hadn’t died, but was a rather distant figure.

So – his past. In order to have a ‘past’ he’s got to have memories. And the best memories, from the point of view of believability, are one’s own memories. For instance, in Down Among the Dead Men, the second novel in the Rafferty series, I had Rafferty reveal – just as I remember doing – that as a schoolchild, he and his classmates would attend Friday afternoon Benediction at the local Catholic Church and sing Latin hymns without –as they had never been taught any Latin – having a clue what they were singing about. Not much, perhaps, in the broad sweep of a novel, but I believe that it’s little touches like that which help to bring a character to life.

Once I had Rafferty down on paper, I gave a lot of thought to his side-kick. Now opposites always provide conflict. A genuine conflict, stemming from character, background and upbringing.

So Sergeant Dafyd Llewellyn was born. The intellectual, university-educated, only child of a Welsh Methodist minister, who thought the law should apply to everyone – even the mothers of Detective Inspectors. Llewellyn is a side-kick pre-ordained from birth to look with a jaundiced eye on Rafferty’s outlook on life, his theories and conduct of cases, and his less than law-abiding family. The words Duty and Responsibility feature strongly in Llewellyn’s life, though his character is leavened with a sense of humour so dry that Rafferty isn’t sure it exists at all. Given what I said earlier about finding characters as much like oneself as possible, I thank God every day that I spend all my time in Rafferty’s head!

Once I had the basics of Rafferty, his family and his sidekick sorted out, I had to place Rafferty in his environment. And after all I’ve said about his background, I felt there was only one place I could use as a setting for such a character. Essex. Non-Brits won’t understand the resonance. But perhaps you will after reading a couple of ‘Essex’ jokes. Like these.

Q What’s the difference between Essex and Mars?

A There might be intelligent life on Mars.

Q What is an Essex Girl’s idea of a really classy meal?

A A wooden chip fork with her takeaway. (Any Americans out there

will know chips as French fries, or just fries).

Get the picture? People from Essex are regarded as always able to put their hands on ‘dodgy’ (ie stolen) gear. They’re also regarded as not being too bright.

Anyway, after describing Rafferty’s background and his family and their little hobbies, I felt that Essex was the only place I could use as a setting for such a character. But unlike the stereotyped depictions of the working-classes in ‘Essex’ jokes and many of the older British crime novels, as chip-eating, adenoidal and terminally stupid, I wanted to show that there is intelligent life, not only in Essex, but among the working-classes themselves. Okay, Rafferty’s not exactly deeply intellectual or highbrow, but intelligence, like most things, comes in different guises. His background has given him a street-wisdom of a kind that’s often far more valuable in police work than the more academic intelligence.

There was another reason why I chose to locate my Rafferty and Llewellyn novels in Essex. And that was that Essex has lots of interesting historical connections. Many of the towns and villages in Essex are associated with the early settlers in America. And, because of its port links, the entire area has always been close to the religious dissent stemming from Europe. A bit of a dissenter himself, having been force-fed Catholicism from the cradle, it’s no wonder he feels so at home in an area with such strong dissenting traditions.

So, one decision about a character helps you make other decisions, not only about the lead character himself, but also about the other characters who will populate your series and about where in the world they’re going to play out their roles.

Anyway, all this furious thinking produce Dead Before Morning, a crime novel which features a prostitute bludgeoned beyond recognition, a suave, social-climbing doctor and an idle hospital porter who had a few ‘nice little earners’ of his own. In this first novel, Rafferty has just been promoted to the rank of inspector in the CID. His beat is Elmhurst, a fictitious town based on Colchester, the old Roman town where that original ‘Essex Girl’, Queen Boadicea, used to hang out and harry the centurions.

Whatever the critics made of it, I must have done something right, because on only its second outing, that first Rafferty & Llewellyn crime novel was taken from Macmillan’s slush pile and published. It was also published in hardback and paperback in the US.

So far, I’ve had seventeen novels published, fifteen of them crime, two of which form the first two novels in my Casey & Catt crime series, with the eighteenth, Deadly Reunion, another Rafferty book, coming out this year.

I wrote the kind of book I wanted to read, but rarely found, the kind of mystery where, along with a murder investigation, the writer makes me laugh, makes me cry, makes me wait, even. But most of all, makes me care about the characters. Admittedly, that’s just my preference. You might prefer your crime novels to concentrate firmly on stimulating the brain rather than the funny bone. But I didn’t see any reason not to try to do both.

This approach provided the bonus that I had far more fun with Rafferty than I imagine the more high-minded writers have with their characters. And writing’s meant to be fun. Isn’t it? It’s meant to be enjoyable. If it isn’t, why do it? After loads of dead-end jobs in my youth I was determined that I would end up doing something I liked.

There’s no reason why, just like me, you shouldn’t ‘Do your own thing’ and attract a publisher who goes, ‘Mmm, this is different.’

So, go and have fun. And give me another crime series that provides the occasional chuckle. If you do, you’re guaranteed one fan.

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Deadly Reunion

Detective Inspector Joe Rafferty is barely back from his honeymoon before he has two unpleasant surprises. Not only has he another murder investigation – a poisoning at a school reunion, he also has four new lodgers, courtesy of his Ma, Kitty Rafferty. Ma is organising her own reunion and since getting on the internet, the list of Rafferty and Kelly family attendees has grown, like Topsy. In his murder investigation, Rafferty has to go back in time to learn of all the likely motives of the victim’s fellow reunees. But it is only when he is reconciled to his unwanted lodgers, that Rafferty finds the answers to his most important questions.

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