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

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Posts Tagged ‘plotting’

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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Posted in Fiction Writing, The Writing Life, Writing Craft, Writing Tips | Tagged: , , , , , | 9 Comments »

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 – 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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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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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?

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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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Increase the Chaos. Engage the Reader.

Posted by Nancy J. Cohen on March 19, 2014

Increase the Chaos. Engage the Reader. by Julie Anne Lindsey

Chaos is one of my favorite things about fiction. This is especially true in a cozy mystery. I truly enjoy the insane amount of juggling required by the heroine. As a woman, I can relate to the pressure and frustration of handling too much- minus the murder investigation, of course – and it’s fun to see the scenarios unfold on someone else for a change. I can relate. It’s no secret women handle unthinkable amounts of responsibilities while maintaining the peace and meeting unreasonable expectations of others. We hold down the household, punch a time clock, volunteer in the community, date, please our family, entertain our friends and so much more. (We really are the more miraculous portion of our species. In my humble opinion). Which is why we all deserve a good book and a break from time to time.

As writers, it’s our job to connect strangers with a character we dreamed up. Chaos is a common ground we can use to our advantage. When I fall into a great new cozy or amateur female sleuth series, I immediately connect with the heroine if she’s got her hands full. I nod along and smile, thinking, man-oh-man am I glad it’s not me this time. My heart goes out to her. It’s hard keeping things afloat, and honestly, the chaos can be pretty entertaining when I’m not on the business end of things. Murder-Comes-Ashore-jpg

As I write each mystery, I want my heroine overwhelmed, well-liked and spread paper-thin. I want readers to feel the pull of hands on her time and person. So, as I plot and scheme a fun new investigation, I ask myself “What do I do every day?” and then “What do my friends do?” What keeps us so busy? The snowball method takes over from there because the short answer is we do too much.

Piling up the trouble is a great writers’ tool. It’s a fun and easy way to increase the chaos and pacing of a story. It keeps the pages going and stops the story from stagnating. I spend extra time on my outlines peppering in all the commitments my heroine, Patience, has to maintain in addition to surviving the wrath of a provoked killer and exploring the leads in her investigation, not to mention all the people she wants to please.

Add responsibilities to connect readers to your heroine. Give her problems they can all relate to, like family and romance. Those things are complicated. Messy. Real.

In my newest release, Murder Comes Ashore, I’ve piled up the everyday things that make a woman bananas. As my heroine pursues her investigation, (the crux of the story), she’s drawn away repeatedly by phone calls from clients, impromptu visits from family and a frustrating love triangle she’d prefer not to think about. She’s running from a killer, volunteering at the grade school and questioning birders about anything unusual they might have seen since the murder. Local law enforcement is running a parallel investigation and they get in her way, too.

Adding reality to the fiction anchors readers to your story. Who can’t related to a boss that expects us to show up on time? Or a sister who takes it personally if you’re five minutes late for dinner? The predicaments don’t have to be fantastical because they’re fiction. Take the things that make you the craziest and share them with your heroine. It is fun to move the burden onto someone else and it bridges the gap between you and women readers everywhere. Hey, it’s no fun when I have to fold laundry, check homework assignments and explain to my mom why I haven’t called all week, but when those things fall to a character, I smile because we share common ground. And us XX chromosome types have to stick together.

If you’re looking for a fun new mystery to cozy up with, I hope you’ll consider my new release, Murder Comes Ashore. It’s packed with chaos and a heroine who understands. Besides, who couldn’t use an island escape right now?

Murder Comes Ashore

Patience Price is just settling into her new life as resident counselor on Chincoteague Island when things take a sudden turn for the worse. A collection of body parts have washed up on shore and suddenly nothing feels safe on the quaint island.

Patience instinctively turns to current crush and FBI special agent Sebastian for help, but former flame Adrian is also on the case, hoping that solving the grisly crime will land him a win in the upcoming mayoral election.

When the body count rises and Patience’s parents are brought in as suspects, Patience is spurred to begin her own investigation. It’s not long before she starts receiving terrifying threats from the killer, and though she’s determined to clear her family’s name, it seems the closer Patience gets to finding answers, the closer she comes to being the killer’s next victim.

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About JulieJulie Lindsey

Julie Anne Lindsey is a multi-genre author who writes the stories that keep her up at night. She’s a self-proclaimed nerd with a penchant for words and proclivity for fun. Julie lives in rural Ohio with her husband and three small children. Today, she hopes to make someone smile. One day she plans to change the world.

Murder Comes Ashore is a sequel in her new mystery series, Patience Price, Counselor at Large, from Carina Press.

Learn About Julie at:

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What If? Plotting Made Perfect

Posted by Nancy J. Cohen on April 2, 2013

The words “What If?” are at the heart of every plot. Currently I’m in the throes of plotting my next Bad Hair Day mystery. Having already written the draft of a synopsis, I welcome the “what if’s” that are flying into my brain.

What if the rivalry between ranchers Hugh and Raymond has a personal basis involving Hugh’s dead wife? What if the murdered forest ranger’s spouse had gotten turned down for a loan to start a business? Would that have induced her to take out a life insurance policy on her husband? What if the bad guy is selling his valuable ore to terrorists who resell it in exchange for weapons? What if….?

Once the story elements are in your head, your subconscious goes to work and new ideas keep popping up. Some are viable. Others get discarded as unrealistic. It’s wonderful when you get to this stage because the connections start snapping together. Pieces of the puzzle coalesce into a whole, and your story is ready for writing. But how do you reach this pinnacle of inspiration?

You begin with a story premise. In a mystery, it might be the victim. Who’d want to kill him and why? You sketch the suspects in your mind. Friends, family, and business associates who might have something to gain go on your list. What if suspect A’s wife was having an affair with the victim? And what if the husband discovered their liaison? What if suspect C owed the victim money? Or maybe the victim was extorting money from a colleague, knowing something that would get the guy fired. You examine their motives, seeking the secrets these people would do anything to hide.

Keep in mind that plot is not story. Plot is the background, the secrets everyone is keeping, the motive for the murder, the devious scheme created by the villain. You are creating a tapestry that leads to the opening scene. That’s where the story starts and moves forward.

In a romance, you’ll want to determine the first meet between hero and heroine. They’re attracted to each other but initially sparks fly between them. What if…they had a history together? Or what if she hates him because…? What if they have to work together in order to…?

Or a thriller: What’s at stake? Who is behind the dastardly scheme for world domination this time? Who’s the hero? What resources does he possess? How is he going to hit the ground running? What if…he’s semi-retired and he first gets wind something is wrong when…? He’s recalled to duty? He meets his old girlfriend and she says….? Or what if she’s in trouble? What if he receives a cryptic note from her?

Whenever I get ideas relevant to the plot, I jot them down in a plotting file for that book title. I may use them or not, but this way I don’t lose them.

Being a plotter and not a pantser, I write a complete synopsis before I begin writing the story. This synopsis may go through numerous drafts before I get it right. I pass it through my critique partners and make more changes. I ask my husband to read it so he can evaluate the logic. He’s good at catching things that don’t make sense or need clarification. In the case of my current WIP, I’m consulting my cousin who lives in the area where the story is set. She’s been invaluable in pointing out what works and what doesn’t.

I’ve been doing research on the Internet as I go along. I have a whole page of links and topics to explore. It comes to mind that I’ve been calling the law enforcement officer in the story a sheriff. Is this appropriate to the location? What’s the difference between a sheriff and a police chief? Does a sheriff only work for the county? Does this apply to a state other than Florida? Another item to research goes on my list.

Meanwhile, what other motives might people have for doing in the victim? What hidden connections might exist between my characters? Often these secrets reveal themselves during the actual writing process. New angles spring to life, taking the story in a new direction. But before you get there, you have to lay the foundation.

These story details possess you and take over your mind. You think about them all your waking moments. The plotting threads sizzle, curl, and snap in your brain like writhing snakes until one bites you. What if…?

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Are you a plotter or a pantser? Do you figure out these details as you write or before you begin the story?

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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.

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Plotting the Mystery

Posted by Nancy J. Cohen on June 11, 2011

How do you get started plotting a mystery? Let’s assume you have already created your sleuth, the continuing characters, and the setting. See my blog below titled “Creating a Series: Laying the Groundwork” for more details on these aspects. So what’s next?

The Victim

Answer the five W’s about your victim: Who, What, Why, Where, When.                                       
Decide Who is the dead person. What is the method of murder? Why is this person eliminated? Where does the crime take place? When the crime could have occurred at any other time, why does it have to happen now?

The Suspects

Make a list of all the people who might have a reason to want the victim dead. Consider the victim’s relatives, co-workers, and friends. Give everybody a secret that will make them seem guilty. Now link them up wherever possible.

Here’s an example. DARA is the victim.

ALICE was an employee of Dara, who denied her a job promotion. Did Alice kill her out of spite? Or did Dara find out about her secret affair with Brent and threaten to fire her?

BRENT is Dara’s business partner, who is having an affair with Alice. Did Dara find out and threaten to reveal his corrupt dealings with their subsidiary? With Dara dead, Brent takes over her half of the company. Did he murder her to gain control of her business assets?

MICHAEL is Dara’s brother, who is glad she’s taken a family secret to the grave. He doesn’t know that Dara confided this private matter to Brent.

And so on. After you have your list of suspects and their possible motives, look for photos to match your characters’ appearances. This will help you visualize each person.

At this point, make a drawing with a circle in the center and spokes like a wheel coming out of it. Put the victim’s name in the center circle. Put the suspects’ names in a balloon at the end of each spoke. Where the suspects have a connection, draw a line between them. This should start to look like a web. I call it my Web of Suspects. Branches off each line can represent motive, means, and opportunity.

Which suspect is the killer? Often it’s the one with the strongest motive. You can also decide at this point which one is the best one for a red herring, or a misdirection. You’ll try to fool the reader into believing this person is guilty.                    

Now that you’ve determined the killer’s identity, answer this question: Why has the murderer decided to kill the victim now? What change has occurred or is imminent that threatens the killer? Or what new opportunity has arisen for him to carry out his plan? There has to be a reason why the murder occurs now instead of at some other time in the backstory.

The Story

At this point, you’re ready to write the synopsis. Begin a narration telling what happens from the start of the story. If you’re a newbie writer, it’s best to have the murder up front in the first chapter. Besides a crisis at the opening, creating a sympathetic sleuth is the key to hooking the reader and drawing him in.

Give your sleuth a personal reason for solving the crime and also a subplot that follows her throughout the story and leads to character growth at the end. We’re speaking here of internal and external conflict. The external conflict is the murder. The internal conflict is the personal dilemma afflicting the sleuth that for whatever reason inhibits her from moving on in relationships, from forgiving herself for past mistakes, etc. She should come to a realization about herself by the end of the story that makes her grow and change. It’s more satisfying if this comes after the final confrontation with the killer and hints at a new direction in her life. For example, she may express interest in a new boyfriend, or face a reconciliation with a family member. This personal thread is what will keep your readers coming back for more.           

The story should flow logically from the opening scenes. The crime occurs. The sleuth gets involved. What does she do first? In a classic whodunit, often she’ll interview the suspects, overhear gossip about different individuals, or people will come to her with information. She’ll realize everyone has something to hide. She’ll follow trails, some of which will prove false. Other information will come to light that leads her in a new direction. Here is where you’re planting clues while misdirecting the reader and slowly moving the story ahead. Secrets are revealed, and at last, the killer is exposed. Many times, while you’re writing the synopsis, new connections between characters will come to light. This is great; it means your subconscious is at work. Remember to include the sleuth’s emotional reactions to what’s going on.

Once your synopsis is done, you’re ready to begin writing. Storytelling magic comes into play and the story may take off in unexpected directions. This is okay; you can revise your synopsis later. Keep moving forward until the book is done. You can fix things in the revision and polishing stage. Keep in mind that Action leads to Reaction leads to Decision. The story should flow logically until the compelling conclusion.

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