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

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Posts Tagged ‘story process’

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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See all cruise conference photos HERE.

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

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Story Dreams

Posted by Nancy J. Cohen on April 5, 2016

Have you ever had a dream that sparks a story? I used to have them more often. A dream is what inspired Circle of Light, my very first published novel. I woke up and didn’t want that science fiction adventure to end. So I wrote the rest of the story and sold the book. It went on to win the HOLT Medallion Award.

Snippets from other scifi dreams have gone into my futuristic romance novels. To date, I’ve written eight books in this genre. But I seem to have lost the ability to have these dreams along the way. And never do I recall having a mystery idea dream like I did last night. Is it because I’m at a juncture in my career and seeking guidance on which way to go?

In dreamland last night, I had an experience that seemed so real, I felt a keen sense of disappointment when I awoke and realized it was merely a dream. I didn’t want to lose the wisps of this place from my mind, so I grabbed a cup of coffee and ran to write it down.

In this ethereal place, my husband and I were strolling along a shopping strip, and I noticed a store we hadn’t been in before. It was a day spa, and since the heroine sleuth in my Bad Hair Day mystery series owns a hair salon and day spa, I thought I’d drop in to see what this one offered.

It wasn’t like any day spa you’ve ever seen. This was more of a Zen-like retreat.

meditate

An attractive fortyish woman greeted us when we entered. We posed as prospective members and asked to be shown around. The place had an ultra-modern feel with open spaces and contemporary furnishings. Recessed lighting in high ceilings provided illumination along with wide windows. The polished wood flooring added to a soft ambiance.

Our guide explained that members used private trainers for physical fitness. They would help you devise a series of exercises custom-tailored to your body’s needs. There wasn’t any ugly machinery here.

Massage rooms were available, but that was the only concession to the traditional spa.

A serenity section, bordered off, was filled with water. Jagged white opaque glass pieces floated artistically over this pond to imbue a sense of peace, like at a Japanese rock garden.

rock garden

We saw a wave runner section, where you stood on a room-sized inflatable mattress. It pitched and rolled like on a ship. Our guide explained that this got members accustomed to ship motion so they wouldn’t get seasick on a cruise. As we watched, a fellow dressed in a pirate outfit rode the motion on the blue mat, clearly living out his fantasy.

Another section was for folks working with their personal trainers, practicing yoga or whatever else they were instructed to do. Young men and women worked hard to condition their muscles and control their breathing. We didn’t see any older clients around. Where did they do their cardio? Outside, perhaps?

As we moved along, our guide pointed out a chair where you sit strapped in and your body temperature is lowered to acclimatize you to colder temperatures. This was popular with Floridians who were traveling north. Left alone in the chair, you could freeze to death. I feel my eyes light up and my face brighten. I nudge my husband. “You hear that? A person could freeze to death.” He knew exactly what I meant. Here was how the victim in my next mystery novel would die.

A shop by the front offered a dazzling array of items but nothing that appealed to me. The selections included wine glasses and accessories, New Age crystals and incense, jewelry and tchotchkes from around the globe.

Voices coming from the rear led us through a narrow corridor to a large hall filled with members eating like in a cafeteria. I overheard one fellow say to a friend, “You’d better sit on your towel in the corner like ordered, or you’ll forfeit your passes.” What did this mean? Was it a form of discipline? They had to get passes to leave the premises? Did these people live there?

An undercurrent of something not quite right pierced me before the owner found us and led us back to the front section.

This is great, I am thinking. Somebody can freeze to death in that electric chair. Sounds like a great way to commit murder.

Once a writer, always a writer.

How can I ever think of quitting? Stories are everywhere, waiting for me to pluck them out of the air. They beg to be written and read by the multitude.

This story wouldn’t suit a Bad Hair Day mystery. Marla has already been to an athletic club in Murder by Manicure, and a murder occurs at her day spa in Facials Can Be Fatal. But this would be a neat place to set my other mystery heroine waiting in the wings for her chance at fame. She could go stay at a retreat like this one if I set it in a more isolated location.

spa pool

And then I remember one of my earlier unpublished stories takes place in the exact same type of setting. Could I adapt that mystery to a new series? Possibly.

You know what this means, don’t you? I answered it for myself in the dream. Retirement isn’t an option. As long as I breathe, there are more stories to tell.

Do you ever get story ideas in your dreams?

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Creatures and Story Creation

Posted by Nancy J. Cohen on February 8, 2016

Writers can spin stories out of thin air. Yes, it’s true. We grab ideas out of the effluvia around us. Soon we’re building a novel. The characters gel, and the setting takes on detail. And then we’re off, pounding at the keyboard, the fervor of creation keeping us in its grip.

Let me give you a demonstration.

The other day, my husband and I enjoyed a sunny afternoon at Morikami Museum and Japanese Gardens in Delray. Florida may have changeable weather in the winter, but we have no snow, sunny skies, and colorful flowers.

Bougainvillea Flowers ElDorado

Birds fly down here in the colder months to share space with ducks and turtles that grace our neighborhoods.

Bird2  Geese Roadblock3 IMG_1974IMG_1962

We also have a variety of critters we’d rather not meet up close and personal. Witness this guy we observed during our visit to Morikami.

IMG_1964 IMG_1973

Here he is enjoying a meal. Thank goodness iguanas eat plants and not people.

 

Places like Morikami remind me of why I became a writer. When I sit on a bench and gaze at a lake or tread upon dead leaves through the forest, I let my imagination soar to other worlds. And so here we go with an example of how easy it is for a writer to start a story under any circumstances. We are walking along a wooded trail surrounded by tall trees and leafy foliage.

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Mystery: I’m a tour guide/curator/director leading a group through a botanical garden. Our continued funding depends upon the success of this excursion as does my job security. All is going well until one of our party goes missing and later turns up dead…murdered. Whodunit? Is it the real estate magnate who covets the property to turn into condos? The chief curator at a rival attraction? A meandering spouse who saw the tour as a good opportunity to make his partner disappear? A politician whose stance on public safety will lift his status on the campaign trail? The mystery deepens as I begin my investigation and learn that each person in the group has a secret to hide.

Romance: I’m sitting on the park bench when a cute guy sits beside me. He wears a camera with a big lens around his neck. With a sexy grin, he peers over my shoulder and asks what I am sketching. We get to talking. I love the dimples that crease his cheeks when he smiles. But I’m dismayed when he tells me he’s the photographer assigned to the article I’m writing. Oh, no. How will I keep my professional distance when all I can think about is jumping his bones?

Horror: Patrons have vanished from the trail around the lake. Other guests have reported hearing strange noises in the brush and glimpsing a reptilian tail. But my friends think it’ll be a hoot to stay here overnight. We’re all drinking and having fun after dark until Ada is pulled screaming into a clump of trees. No one sees what grabbed her, but she’s totally gone except for the blood. We pack to leave and go to call for help, but our cell phones have no service and the road is closed due to flooding ahead. We’re trapped there….

Science Fiction: With my laser weapon strapped to my hip, I patrol the woods. My acute sense of smell tells me the creature is near. Anticipating the bounty for my catch, I track its life form on my portable viewer. My client will pay a bonus if I capture the specimen alive. All I have to do is net the prickly ardtrunk and transport us both to my flier.

Fantasy: I halted at the Japanese rock garden, admiring the combed gravel. At the far end, a pair of white stone statues guarded the display of Bonsai plants. A sense of peace washed over me as I stared at the small, glittering stones on the ground. They’d been raked recently, with a spiral pattern leading one into the other like a miniature maze. I’d been drawn to this place, never realizing the oasis sat just outside the city beyond the Fae Woodlands. I glanced to my right, where the air under a painted red archway seemed to shimmer. My heart raced as I approached. I could no more stop my feet from stepping across the threshold than I could stop my breathing. And that’s when the world tilted….

YA Fantasy: Oh Gawd, why’d my parents have to bring me to this boring place? They might enjoy the trees and plants, but nature isn’t my thing. Give me my cell phone and a Diet Coke, and I’m a happy sixteen-year-old. I took out my cell phone to text Marlene and tell her what Randy had said to me in math class, but the dang thing wouldn’t connect. “Hey, Ma,” I yelled, glancing up. “When are we leaving already?” Oh great, I couldn’t see my folks anywhere in this freakin’ garden. They must have gone up ahead. Wait, that hedge hadn’t been there a moment ago. And where did that weirdo come from? The short little guy stood staring at me as though I had come from Mars.

Isn’t this fun? Which story do you like?

As you can see, storytelling is in my blood. I can’t stop playing the “What If?” game. Where do you go for inspiration?

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Starting a New Novel

Posted by Nancy J. Cohen on April 21, 2015

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

Characters Come First

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

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

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

Nira1

Build Your Setting

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

Hong Kong

Do Your Research

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

runes

Plot Your Story

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

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

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

Hook the Reader

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

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

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

Your Character’s Secret Dreams

Posted by Nancy J. Cohen on April 14, 2015

Your Character’s Secret Dreams

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

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

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

BoraBora   Tahiti Hut

What hidden dreams does your main character have?

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Author Interview for Hair Raiser

Posted by Nancy J. Cohen on February 2, 2015

Back in 2000, when I wrote Hair Raiser, I was interviewed about the story. I’m repeating it here so you can see some of the thoughts I had at the time.

First tell us anything you want us to know about Hair Raiser.

Here’s the story blurb: When hairstylist Marla Shore volunteers for a fund-raiser benefitting a coastal preservation society, she gets more than she’s bargained for when someone attempts to sabotage the gala event. Participating chefs are dropping off the roster like hot rollers, and Marla is the only one who can tease the truth from them. Too late to stop a murder, she must salvage the grand affair before she’s moussed into oblivion.

Research involved mangrove habitats, biomedical waste disposal, and funeral Pre-Need Plans. In particular, I enjoyed dining out at restaurants in Fort Lauderdale and in Nassau so I could describe the menus in detail. Touring Bonnet House in Fort Lauderdale provided the inspiration for Cousin Cynthia’s estate in the story. An interview with a funeral director, an exhibition of Samoan fire knives, and a visit to a biomedical waste disposal facility rounded out my inquiries. I always like to learn something new when writing a book, and I hope my readers find these topics as interesting as I did.

How did you decide to choose a beautician as the protagonist?

I wish I had Marla’s skills to style my own hair! Seriously, I find the backdrop of a beauty salon is perfect for a mystery series. Being a skilled stylist is a profession I admire. You have to be a good listener since people talk to their hairdressers. Clients gossip while getting their hair done; suspects and informants exchange information while Marla cuts and colors their hair; and she encounters customers all around town. Her caring nature fosters confidences that aid her in numerous investigations. And think of those sharp instruments in a salon—scissors, metal hair picks, and razors.

What drew you to locating the story in South Florida?

I live in South Florida, and I want to share the appreciation I have for our tropical environment. I love the seagrapes, palms trees, and mangroves; the sunny beaches and diverse cultural mix. Instead of the usual gritty Florida stories, I want to showcase our attractions in a positive manner. Locals as well as visitors enjoy reading about sites familiar to them.

Tell us about protagonist Marla’s sense of curiosity. What was the inspiration for this?

Anyone investigating murders needs a nosy disposition. Marla is naturally curious, but her sense of responsibility for sniffing out murderers comes from her background. When she was nineteen, a toddler in her care drowned in a swimming pool. As a result, Marla feels responsible for her clients and strives to prove her self-worth. When Cousin Cynthia asks her to investigate a lawyer’s death in Hair Raiser, Marla feels obliged to accept. Earning Cynthia’s respect is important to her, and so is digging out the truth. Marla’s experience comes from my own background as a nurse. In a continuing education class on near-drowning, I saw a film where a child’s body was pulled from a backyard pool. Drowning is the number one cause of death for children ages 4 and under in South Florida, so it’s an important issue here. Marla has learned to overcome her past mistakes and turn them into a force for good.

Does your living in Florida have anything to do with protagonist Marla’s desire to preserve natural resources?

Yes, I love living in the semi-tropics and believe we should do everything we can to preserve our planet’s natural resources.

Where do you see the series going?

Murder by Manicure is the next book in the series. Marla’s relationship with Dalton Vail will continue to evolve. Hint: I like happy endings.

What are you working on next?

I’ve started Body Wave, #4 in the Bad Hair Day series.

How would you describe your writing style?

Quick reading with lots of dialogue and fast-paced action.

NOTE: Hair Raiser (Bad Hair Day Mystery #2) was originally published by Kensington Publishing Corp. This Author’s Edition has been revised and reformatted with added bonus material.

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Posted in Author Interviews, Fiction Writing, The Writing Life | Tagged: , , , | 1 Comment »

Determining Theme in Novel Writing

Posted by Nancy J. Cohen on July 15, 2013

Do you know your story’s theme before you begin writing? Many writing coaches will advise you to figure this out ahead of time and work symbolism into your story as you write. But what if you don’t have a clue as to what your theme should be? Sometimes the theme only becomes evident later, after you’ve completed the book. At that stage, a wise observer might point out that you’ve naturally incorporated symbolism into your story.

The point is not to worry about this analytical part of writing if you’d rather write your book in the heat of the moment.

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I’ve never set out to craft a story knowing my theme ahead of time. I’ll write a synopsis in my initial stage and do some character development, but heavy analysis would stop me dead. I need to let the story unravel, even though I know where it’s going. Thematic elements are there. I might not have recognized them yet.

Ask yourself this question after you’ve penned a few novels: What are your stories about? What is the core message that comes across? I’ve realized many of my works are about redemption. My heroine sleuth, Marla Shore, seeks to redeem herself for a past mistake. The first Bad Hair Day mystery, Permed to Death, reveals her sense of guilt and what she’s done to assuage it. Guilt is a great motivator. The theme of redemption is also evident in some of my romances where characters seek to redeem their self-respect or reputations.

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But is that my only theme? Recently I’ve begun using the self-editing software mentioned below in a previous blog. I have been eliminating repetitive words within my manuscripts. One of my favored words is “just.” This word can also be found in “adjusted” and “justice.” Whoa. Justice?

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In Died Blonde, Marla goes to Cassadaga, FL and gets a reading from a certified medium. This spiritualist tells Marla the following:

The medium’s eyelids fluttered. “Right now, you’re obsessed with completing your task. You feel the need to pursue justice. Learning the truth will bring you peace.”

A chill captured Marla all the way to her toes. She’d pronounced similar words as part of her Bat Mitzvah speech: Justice, Justice, Shall You Pursue. How could they form on Hazel’s lips?

“Treat yourself fairly as you would treat others,” the medium explained. “Accept who you are, and you’ll find the power within you to move forward. Above all, don’t give up. The truth is just around the horizon.”

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These words become Marla’s mantra throughout the series. She seeks truth and justice.

Warrior Lord, book 3 in my paranormal Drift Lords series, also deals with this theme. Lord Magnor has been unjustly accused of a crime. Ditto the hero, a wanted fugitive, in Silver Serenade. Is the pursuit of justice another one of my themes? I believe so, and it’s one I’ve only now realized.

One of my favorite book series is Terry Goodkind’s Sword of Truth fantasy series. Why? Because Richard Rahl, the protagonist, is the Seeker of Truth. Richard seeks the truth in all matters, as does his love Kahlan, the Mother Confessor. Once under her spell, no one can lie. If you’re not into the books, check out the TV series Legend of the Seeker for swashbuckling adventure, fantasy, and romance.

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I didn’t set out to write about this theme, but there it is. So, too, might your theme reveal itself in your body of work.

Do you determine your theme ahead of time? What is your core message?

 

 

Posted in The Writing Life, Writing Craft | Tagged: , , , , , , | 20 Comments »

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?

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

The Wrap Scene

Posted by Nancy J. Cohen on August 22, 2012

You’re approaching the end of your book. Do you finish in a spate of action, or do you have your characters meet in a quiet scene where they reflect on what’s occurred? In a romance, these last pages are where the hero proposes and the main characters profess their love for each other. In a mystery, this scene serves a different purpose. It’s where all loose ends are tied up and final explanations for the crime come to light. Use the following steps as a guideline for your own work.

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The authorities reveal information they previously couldn’t discuss.

In the course of an investigation, the police/detectives/federal agents cannot reveal all that they know. But once the killer is in custody, they can explain the rationale that led them to determining the murderer’s identity. In my Bad Hair Day mysteries, hairstylist Marla Vail is married to a homicide detective. Her husband Dalton may discuss some aspects of the crime with her earlier on, but much of what he learns cannot come out until later. Marla follows a different path to targeting the killer. This final scene may show them exchanging information on how each one arrived at the same conclusion but from a different angle.

The villain’s means, motives, and opportunity are confirmed.

What drove the villain to commit the crime? How did he do it? Very likely, in the previous chapter, the hero confronted the killer, who may have confessed. But here is where you can fill in the sordid details and psychological aspects of the crime.

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The survivors are not forgotten.

Even if you’re writing a light cozy mystery, the murder affects people. What happens to the victim’s family? How about the killer’s close relations? Two sets of tragedies occur here. What are the ramifications for these people?

What has my character learned?

This is perhaps the most important item. Your main character, the amateur sleuth, has been affected by these events in some way. What has she learned from this experience? How have the people around her changed? How does this sequence of events change her plans for the future?

Set up for the sequel.

Has a new person been introduced into your universe who may play a larger role next time? Is there an unsolved mystery that’s part of a bigger story arc? Or does your main character receive a call to action that he has to accept? Here is where you can drop a hint of what’s to come.

Revisit old friends.

This final scene might take place between your main characters alone, or among recurrent characters whom your readers have come to regard as friends. This decision will arise from your setting and from the people who’ve peppered your story. Genre expectations may play a role here, too. In a romance, usually the hero and heroine are focused on each other at the end. Anything goes in a mystery, thriller, or sci-fi/fantasy, but make sure the ending has emotional impact no matter which characters it includes.

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Frame the story.

If you began your story with a particular setting, you may want to return there for your final scene. This gives your book a sense of completeness. It also resonates with readers.

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It’s hard to remember everything that’s happened in the story when you write the first draft of this scene. No doubt you’ll add more later during self-edits. It helps to write down all the loose ends when you do a thorough read-through. Then you can check off each item as it’s answered in the story and fill in any missing information during the final chapter. Once you are satisfied that you have covered all bases, save and close the file with a smile.

Posted in Writing Craft | Tagged: , , , , , , , | 6 Comments »

 
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