Nancy's Notes From Florida

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

  • Subscribe

  • Peril by Ponytail

    Peril by Ponytail

    A Bad Hair Day Mystery

  • Hanging by a Hair

    Hanging by a Hair, a Bad Hair Day Mystery by Nancy J. Cohen

    A Bad Hair Day Mystery

  • Body Wave

    Body Wave

    A Bad Hair Day Mystery

  • Murder by Manicure

    Murder by Manicure

    A Bad Hair Day Mystery

  • Hair Raiser

    Hair Raiser

    A Bad Hair Day Mystery

  • Writing the Cozy Mystery

    Writing the Cozy Mystery

    Writing Guide

  • Archives

  • Categories

Posts Tagged ‘Writing Craft’


Posted by Nancy J. Cohen on November 19, 2015

You can’t complete a full-length novel without a strict code of self-discipline. Imagine all the distractions we have throughout the day. How can a writer put these aside to focus intently on a book? How can we face a blank page each day, knowing we have to fill in the words? How can we concentrate day after day, month after month, on the same story until it’s done?

It takes immense self-discipline. You can train yourself to do it. First, you must set an attainable goal. Don’t think about the 300 page manuscript you have to complete or the 80,000 minimum word count. Consider how many pages you can reasonably complete each day. Set a daily goal. Determine what time of day is your most creative and set your starting hour. You will complete your pre-writing rituals and get down to business each day…when?

Now consider how many days per week you’ll be able to get this done. Do you want a five-day work week with weekends off? Or do you have a day job, so you have to binge write on weekends? How about allowing for doctor appointments, lunch with friends, and business meetings? Now set a weekly goal.

Use your tabulations from above to figure out your monthly projections. Then set monthly goals.

Beyond all this is the deadline you set for the first draft. Always leave leeway for sick days or vacations or unexpected visitors from out of town. When is your expected completion date?

Keep in mind that these deadlines are somewhat variable. Let’s say you’ve set five pages per day as your attainable goal. One day you might write two pages. Another day you might write seven pages. But your overall goal is twenty-five pages per week. As long as you reach the weekly goal, you’re okay.

Now comes the hard part. You need to practice BICHOK: Butt in Chair, Hands on Keyboard. You must do this day after day, no matter how tedious it becomes. Progress may seem slow, but even if you complete two pages a day, you’re moving forward. That’s the important thing. Do not stop to revise your work. You can fix it after it’s done. Keep moving ahead.

woman computer

Non-writers don’t realize how hard it is to accomplish these goals. It’s easier to make plans with friends, play on Facebook, or do the household projects you keep putting off. You’d rather do a hundred other things than stick to a writing schedule. But the only way you’ll write that book is through sheer determination. You WILL do it despite temptation.

So set your goals, grit your teeth, and get your butt in the chair. You’re allowed to take an exercise break, but then sit back down and finish your daily goal. When done, you can have the reward of checking your email and social media and going out to have fun. The next day, it starts all over again. Put on those blinders while you write and keep going full-speed ahead. Many people say they want to write a book. Only a true writer at heart will finish one after the other.

What’s your method for getting the work done?

Posted in Business of Writing, Fiction Writing, The Writing Life | Tagged: , , , , , | 12 Comments »

Young Adult Mysteries

Posted by Nancy J. Cohen on October 28, 2015

This panel at Bouchercon was titled “Importance of Book Clubs and Young Adult Literacy.” Speakers included Destiny Geddis, Matthew McGrath, B.K. Stevens, and Kaley Whittle, with Tina Whittle moderating.


Disclaimer: These notes are based on my interpretation and any errors are mine.

· This panel included YA readers. They do reviews and have a book club at their charter school. Here is what they wish writers and editors knew about YA.

· YA mysteries have a teenage sleuth. The crime doesn’t have to be a murder. These stories often include elements of self-discovery and current issues for teens.

· Panelists advised authors to talk to young people to see how they speak. TV teens are as accurate as CSI teams on TV. Know your audience. Do the research. Talk to young adults to see what they do and what their friends do. “We don’t use certain words that have become antiques. We talk differently.” They also use different languages between texting, e-mail, talking in person to friends and to adults.

· Not all teen protagonists need a tragic backstory. They don’t have to be misunderstood. They don’t have to be loners, either. There’s lots of diversity in high school.

· Adults are not always evil, mean, unlikable, or uncaring. Avoid clichés like “I’m a teenager and I hate my parents.” Teens don’t rebel against authority in high school. They have to be respectful to teachers. Parents don’t always have to be divorced or dead. Nor does the family dog have to die. Most parents love their kids and try to be good parents and sometimes make mistakes.

· Don’t force the romantic elements. Have your characters be strong on their own, and then they can fall in love. You don’t need a lot of angst. The romance doesn’t always mean boy/girl, or white guy/white girl. Platonic relationships work too. Friendships are also desirable. The romance can lead to character growth when the protagonist has to make a choice.

· Don’t kill off a pet just to elicit an emotional response. Make the emotion natural and realistic to a character who’s connected to readers. Don’t throw in a baby either for the emotional response. Look at for a guide to movies.

· Create a diverse cast of characters.

· Treat YA mysteries as seriously as adult mysteries. Readers should have access to clues, and the protagonist should solve the mystery on her own. “We figure things out really quickly and we want surprises. Don’t dumb down the mystery. Give us challenges. Develop the villains as fully as other characters.” Avoid dialogue such as “as you know…”

· Strong female characters do not act like stereotypical men. They can be feminine but strong. Males will read books with a female lead. Don’t follow gender clichés. Guys can be sensitive, and girls can like sports.

· Leave your moral soapbox at home. Subtlety is appreciated. Talk to the reader, not at the reader, otherwise it feels preachy.

· It’s okay to be both serious and funny.

YA writers or readers, what would you add?

Posted in Conferences, Fiction Writing, The Writing Life | Tagged: , , , , , | 4 Comments »

Revising Your Manuscript

Posted by Nancy J. Cohen on July 30, 2015

I’m in the midst of edits for Facials Can Be Fatal, #13 in the Bad Hair Day Mysteries. A couple of the problems I’m fixing are things you should be looking for in your work, also. These include too many mentions of previous stories, info dumps, and extraneous material that doesn’t add to a scene. My own read-through has revealed inconsistencies that I didn’t catch during my prior rounds. Here are some examples.


Excerpt One—Original Scene

“Was the other ship ever found?” Dalton’s rapt expression showed his fascination.

As a history buff, he must be soaking this in, Marla thought with fond affection.

Sam’s face folded into a frown. “The problem with that wreck site, unlike the deeper water where the Atocha sank, is that undercurrents cause shifting sand dunes. The Santa Margarita broke apart in a wide debris field. Through the years, people discovered a trail of artifacts, from gold chalices to silver coins, jewelry, and swords. Then in 1980, Mel Fisher’s company located a section of the ship’s wooden hull, along with items valued at forty million dollars. However, other portions of the ship remained elusive. Records showed eight hundred ounces of registered gold, one hundred and forty-five silver bars, more than eighty thousand silver coins, and millions of dollars in smuggled contraband still missing.” He ticked off each listing on his fingers.

“So that treasure remains unfound?” Dalton scratched his head as though the magnitude of value astounded him.

Sam got up to pace the room. “Another salvage firm from Key West discovered more relics. They contacted Mel Fisher’s company, since his group had the federal permit to explore those waters, and the two companies formed a partnership. Since then, they’ve recovered many more items. I like this one: sixteen thousand natural pearls in an oval leaden box. The largest weighs in at over fifty-two carats, one of the biggest known natural pearls in the world.”

“That’s amazing,” Marla said. “Those ships must have been heavy with all those coins and ingots aboard. No wonder they sank.” Gold jewelry and pearls, emeralds from Columbia, silver from Mexico . . . who wouldn’t kill to obtain such bounty? “How many more ships like those two remain undiscovered?”

“Quite a few.” Sam went on, his words rushing together in his enthusiasm. “In 1733, the Nuestra Espana fleet left Havana for home with three armed galleons and eighteen merchant ships. They encountered a hurricane off Marathon. The San Jose alone was carrying almost seven million pesos in gold when it sank. Many of these wreck sites are charted on maps and have been studied by archaeologists as part of the state’s historical preserves.”

“And yet, not all of the ships that sank have been found?” Marla imagined there must be records of missing cargo dating back in history.

He nodded. “As I said, some thirty to forty known ships have sunk in our coastal waters. There could be hundreds more.”

“What are the laws pertaining to these wrecks? Who owns them if found?”

“According to the Abandoned Shipwreck Act of 1988, any historic find becomes the property of its respective state.”

Excerpt One–Revised Scene

“Was the other ship ever found?” Dalton’s rapt expression showed his fascination.

Sam’s face folded into a frown. “The problem with that wreck site, unlike the deeper water where the Atocha sank, is that undercurrents cause shifting sand dunes. The Santa Margarita broke apart in a wide debris field. Through the years, people have discovered many of its relics, including a lead box filled with sixteen thousand pearls.”

“That’s amazing,” Marla said. “Those ships must have been heavy with all the gold coins, silver bars and jewels aboard. No wonder they sank. How many more ships like those two remain undiscovered?”

“Quite a few.” Sam got up to pace the room. “Most of the known wreck sites are charted on maps. They’re part of the state’s historical preserves.”

“Who owns the salvage rights to a sunken ship?” Marla asked, wondering about laws regarding lost treasure.

“According to the Abandoned Shipwreck Act of 1988, any historic find becomes the property of its respective state.”


Excerpt Two—Original Scene

They’d requested a table outside at the rear but under the covered portion, not the lounge part that was just for drinks. Their table, covered with a white cloth, was already set with wine glasses, bread plates, and a glass-enclosed candle when they took their seats. Further out on the wooden deck, the drinkers had bare wood tables open to the sea breeze with some shade provided by green umbrellas. The tables and chairs had been bleached by the sun and looked more ashen in color.

They faced east and the Atlantic Ocean. A tree grew from under the deck, dropping the occasional debris when the wind blew. The view to the side enchanted her with its sandy beach and graceful coconut palms, but she couldn’t see the water stretching out to sea. The sky had darkened and there wasn’t enough illumination from the moon.

After the waitress uncorked their bottle of Chardonnay and they had sampled their first glass, Marla ordered the Boston lettuce salad with watercress, blue cheese, apples, and spiced pecans, while Dalton couldn’t pass up the conch chowder. They both had fish for their entrées; he got the soy glazed grilled tuna steak and she ordered pan-roasted salmon. Dalton, sitting next to a potted red croton plant, reached for a slice of crusty bread.

Excerpt Two– Revised Scene

They’d requested a table in the outside dining area at the rear of the house. Their white-clothed table held wine glasses, bread plates, and a glass-enclosed candle. They faced east and the Atlantic Ocean. The view to the side enchanted Marla with its sandy beach and graceful coconut palms, but she couldn’t see the water stretching out to sea. The sky had darkened, and the moon didn’t provide enough illumination.

After they had sampled their first glass of Chardonnay, they placed their orders. Dalton chose the soy-glazed grilled tuna steak and Marla ordered pan-roasted salmon. Dalton, sitting next to a potted red croton plant, reached for a slice of crusty bread.


Excerpt Three—Original Scene

Howard lived in Mangrove Isles, a community of pricey homes bordered by canals in east Fort Lauderdale. Since they were already on A1A, it didn’t take them long to get there. His two-story house was well-maintained with iron grillwork on a second-story balcony, ceiling fans on a covered porch, and white outdoor wicker furniture. Majestic palms and other tropical greenery graced the front lawn. The driveway’s red pavers led to a detached three-car garage.

As Dalton parked along the curb, Marla looked up the house via a real estate site on her cell phone. “It’s worth over two million,” she said with a sense of awe, wondering if Howard had a yacht docked out back like many of his neighbors. “Would you believe he has five full bathrooms? The place is listed at nearly forty-three hundred square feet.”

“It must cost a lot of money to maintain.”

“Does he live alone, or is he married?” She didn’t recall his family status.

“He got divorced eight years ago. His kids live with the ex-wife.”

Excerpt Three–Revised Scene

Howard Cohn lived in Mangrove Isles, a community of pricey homes bordered by canals in east Fort Lauderdale. His Mediterranean-style villa had iron grillwork on a second-story balcony, ceiling fans on a covered porch, and hurricane impact windows facing the front lawn. Tropical greenery bordered a paved walkway to the door.

“Does Howard have a family?” Marla asked, unable to recall his marital status.

“He got divorced eight years ago. His kids live with the ex-wife.”

So what do you think? Are these revised versions better? What are your main weaknesses that you look for in revisions?


Visit my discussion at Booklover’s Bench to see why I started out in a nursing career but I don’t write about a nurse sleuth. Leave a comment for a chance to win a copy of Body Wave.

Posted in Fiction Writing, The Writing Life, Writing Tips | Tagged: , , , , , , | 4 Comments »

Character Development: Lifespace

Posted by Nancy J. Cohen on June 19, 2015

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

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

Worry Dolls1

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


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


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

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

Worry Dolls3

Contest Alert
Visit my Contest Page for a chance to win free books.


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

Facing the Void

Posted by Nancy J. Cohen on June 8, 2015

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

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

charcoal blazer

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

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

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

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


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?

Contest Alert!

LibraryThing June 1-22
Enter at LibraryThing to win one of two signed ARCs for Peril by Ponytail (Bad Hair Day Mystery #12). Look near bottom: LibraryThing Giveaway

Goodreads Giveaway June 3-14
Enter to win one of two signed paperback copies of Hanging by a Hair (Bad Hair Day Mystery #11)
Goodreads Giveaway

Booklover’s Bench June 4-18
Enter June 4-18 to win a $25 Amazon/BN gift card from Booklovers Bench
Check out our other features, including a weekly giveaway, while you’re there.


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

Starting a New Novel

Posted by Nancy J. Cohen on April 21, 2015

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

Characters Come First

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

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

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


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.


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 »

How to Write Short Fiction

Posted by Nancy J. Cohen on February 12, 2015

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

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

Guidelines for Writing Short Fiction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

P.S. In case the link doesn’t work, here’s the link to the anthology:

About the Author
Joanna Campbell Slan is a national-bestselling and award-winning author of twenty-eight books, including three mystery series. Her newest book—Shotgun, Wedding, Bells—is now available for pre-order on Amazon. When you buy Shotgun, Wedding, Bells (Release date Feb. 14, 2015), you automatically get Tear Down and Die (Book #1 in the Cara Mia Delgatto Mystery Series/86 five-star reviews) absolutely FREE. Here’s that link:

Book Blurb for Shotgun, Wedding, Bells   Shotgun Wedding Bells cover
A very pregnant Kiki Lowenstein and her fiancé Detective Chad Detweiler are trying to race the stork to the altar. But their vows are interrupted by a shoot-out. With the help of her nanny, Bronwyn Macavity, Kiki vows to track down the man who ruined her wedding and put her family at risk. Even a big belly bump won’t stop this intrepid amateur sleuth!

Where to find Joanna
Joanna shares excerpts, tips and craft tutorials on her Blog:

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


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

The Muddle in the Middle

Posted by Nancy J. Cohen on January 7, 2015

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

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

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


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?


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?


It’s not too late! Vote for Hanging by a Hair under Mystery Novels in the Annual Preditors & Editors Readers’ Poll:

Vote for Warrior Lord under Romance Novels:

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

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

Journaling for Research

Posted by Nancy J. Cohen on October 20, 2014

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

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

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

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


Here’s an excerpt:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Character Development

Posted by Nancy J. Cohen on September 9, 2014

Plotting a story can take weeks, especially a mystery with its varied suspects and convoluted plot twists. Refer to my Elements of a Mystery Plot at the Kill Zone for steps to take in plotting a mystery:

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

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

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

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

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


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



DOMINANT TRAIT: Idealistic Dreamer.


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


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


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

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

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

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

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


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



Nira: Attacked by Trolleks
Zohar: Rift opens between dimensions

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

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

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

Nira: Plucky survivor
Zohar: Arrogant protector

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

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

Nira in Warrior Prince   Zohar

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

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


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


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


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


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 10,171 other followers

%d bloggers like this: