Cast of Characters

Nancy J. Cohen

Do you include a Cast of Characters in your mystery novel? Is this a helpful item to readers? In my experience, some readers like to have this directory. It serves as a refresher or helps to explain the relationships among the story people. Others may view a long list of characters with trepidation. In a mystery, they feel the tale might have too many suspects to remember. So who do we please?

The other thing to consider is placement. If you list your characters in the front of a book, potential new readers who click on “Look Inside” at Amazon will lose a page of text that you could have there instead. Same goes for a Table of Contents. While it may be good to put these in the front of a print book, for a digital copy the opposite might be true. Should we consider putting them in the back where they won’t interfere with that critical first look?

Some authors include entire family trees along with their sagas. This can be helpful if you are writing a series with multiple generations. But what about a single title? Is listing the cast a desirable item?

In my online files, I differentiate between Continuing/Recurrent Characters and the current Cast. The latter includes my main characters and the suspects for this story only. It does not include recurrent secondary characters that only make brief appearances. Those people go on my private list of Continuing Characters. I suppose if your series gets very lengthy, you could insert a guide to all the characters in this particular universe, whether they have blood ties or not. This type of guide should definitely be part of the back bonus materials.

The Cast List that I include for each story is as brief as possible. You can include a teasing question about each suspect or just describe their straightforward role. Be careful not to include spoilers that give away a character’s secrets. There is a short CoC in Peril by Ponytail. Click on the Look Inside feature.

What do readers think?

One reviewer recently said about Peril by Ponytail: “I really liked that at the beginning of the book there was a ‘List of Characters’ outlining everyone within the context of the series.”

Then I asked these questions on my Facebook Page: Do you like a Cast of Characters in a mystery novel? Is it helpful or intimidating? Does it matter if the list is up front or in the back material?

Negative Responses:

“I don’t usually look if it’s included. I like to discover the characters as I read the book.”

“No. It makes it seem too theatrical, like I’m being told right from the start that this isn’t real.”

“I won’t look at it unless I’m having a hard time keeping characters straight or am having long lag times between reading and need a refresher.”

Positive Responses:

“Up front! It’s especially helpful if you haven’t read the previous books in the series.”

“I like it because it gives me a sense of place, especially with a new series. Also, if I get confused, I can go back to the list to figure out who’s who.”

“I like it, and I usually refer back to it as I read and come across each character. I like to know how they relate to each other.”

“If the book is a part of a series, the cast of characters can be very helpful if you didn’t start at the first of the series.”

“I like it if there are a lot of characters, of if you have a character who only appears a few times, several chapters apart. And put it in the front.”

“Up front! I recently read two mystery books that involved several guests at parties and a quick cast of characters guide would have helped.”

“I think it can be helpful if there are a lot of characters or if they have similar/unusual names. Also, no spoilers in the list.”

“I like it in the front. Sometimes new characters are hard to keep straight.”

“I like it at the front. That way I know it’s there if I need to refer back to it. I also love maps!”

“Up front. I always read it and I go back to refresh my memory on who a character is.”

“I like a CoC and a floor plan of the main character’s home.”

And More! This question garnered over 960 people reached. View it here: https://www.facebook.com/NancyJCohenAuthor

As you see, it’s a mixed bag of responses, but the majority appears to be overwhelming in favor of including a list of characters in the front of a book. What is YOUR opinion?

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Bookus Interruptus

Nancy J. Cohen

You’ve all heard of another type of interruption in the middle of a certain act which I’d rather not mention here, yes? Consider this one similar, except we’re talking about interrupting your writing process when you’re in the frenzy of storytelling. How disconcerting when you’re working on book number 14 in your series, and you get an email announcing that edits for number 13 have arrived. You have to disrupt your train of thought and put aside the current WIP to go back to the previous book. Two weeks are gone to the winds while you answer your editor’s notes, polish each scene, and perfect each sentence for the umpteenth time. This book takes over, and you think of nothing else until the job is done. With a sense of relief, you send this version back across cyberspace, aware that you still have rereads of the copy edits and page proofs further down the line.

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Nudging at the edges of your mind is the reminder that you have blogs to write and interviews to do for your upcoming new release of book number 12. Have you ordered swag yet to promote this title? Designed your contests, newsletter, Facebook launch party, and other activities as the release date nears?

Book number 14 calls to you. It’s sitting front and center on your desk, and you yearn to get back to the story. But your mind tells you to get these other tasks done, and only then will you be free to resume the joy of storytelling. When you’re finally able to return to writing, you face the blank page with a blank look on your face. You’ve lost your train of thought and your place in the story. So how do you get your head back in the game?

Hopefully, you’ve made detailed notes on where you left off in your WIP and what comes next. Review these plot points when it’s time to resume the story. Line edit what you’ve already written. This will save you time later and reacquaint you with what’s come before in the story. Then set a date when you must begin your writing schedule again.

It’s hard when you have interruptions, whether for edits of other works or for conferences and events that you have to attend. Prepare for your departure as best you can by noting the next scene and any surprises you have planned along the way. It helps to have a synopsis. Then you can see where you left off and continue from that point onward. What technique do you use to get your mind back in the story?

Contest Alert!
Name a Character in my next Bad Hair Day Mystery! Or win one of two runner-up prizes: a signed paperback of Hanging by a Hair and a deck of Marco Island Playing Cards, or a signed paperback of Shear Murder and a deck of Tropical Drink Playing Cards. http://bit.ly/15SmIi0

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Settings as Inspiration

Nancy J. Cohen

Settings can provide inspiration for a scene, a story, or even a character in a book. For example, I’ve used old Florida estates as models in at least three of my novels. Body Wave, book 4 in my Bad Hair Day Mysteries, launched yesterday as a newly revised Author’s Edition.

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Marla, my hairstylist sleuth, goes undercover as a nurse’s aide to care for elderly matriarch Miriam Pearl. As Publisher’s Weekly states, she “agrees to help her snake of an ex‑husband, Stan Kaufman, who’s been arrested for the murder of his third wife, Kimberly, find the real killer.” Stan believes one of Kim’s relatives might be guilty. Most of them reside at the Pearl estate. Marla, feeling a sense of obligation to Stan, agrees to his scheme. She dons a nurse’s uniform and accepts a part-time job assisting the wealthy head of the family.

So what stately mansion did I use as the model where Marla goes to snoop? A drive along our coast will show you many stately homes, any number of which could have served as the model for the one in Body Wave. Bonnet House (http://bonnethouse.org/) was the model for cousin Cynthia’s seaside Florida estate in Hair Raiser (book #2 in the series). It’s a historic site with lush tropical grounds abutting Fort Lauderdale Beach. There’s the Flagler Museum (http://www.flaglermuseum.us/) in Palm Beach, which I’ve used in an—as yet—unpublished mystery.

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And then there are the haunted sites that coalesced into Sugar Crest Plantation Resort on Florida’s west coast for Dead Roots. I enjoyed researching the Breakers (http://www.thebreakers.com/), the Don Cesar Beach Resort (http://www.historichotels.org/hotels-resorts/loews-don-cesar-hotel/), haunted sites like the Kingsley Plantation (http://floridafringetourism.com/listings/ghosts-kingsley-plantation/), and other locales for their ghost stories and spooky ambience. A stay at the haunted Cassadaga Hotel (http://www.cassadagahotel.net/) set among a town of certified mediums lent authenticity to Died Blonde.

These are mainly historic estates and grand resorts. I’ve used Florida theme parks as the model in several of my stories, not to mention numerous towns that Marla visits to interview characters or to investigate an angle in a mystery. Florida has a wealth of diverse settings that inspire writers in many ways.

How about you? Have old houses played a part in your stories?

Check out my Contest Page for a chance to win free books: http://nancyjcohen.com/fun-stuff/contest/

For more details on Body Wave, go here: http://nancyjcohen.wordpress.com

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Religion in Mysteries

While at Malice, I was on a panel about Religion in Mysteries. It’s a topic I really hadn’t thought about before. So how do mystery writers handle this subject? Fellow panelists were authors whose protagonists included a hospital chaplain (Mindy Quigley), a minister (Stephanie Jaye Evans), a rabbi (Ilene Schneider), and a Scotland Yard Detective (Anne Cleeland).

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What made my series different was that my sleuth Marla is a hairdresser. As I told the crowd, women see their stylists a lot more often than their clergymen. They willingly confide in their hairdressers and overhear juicy conversations in the salon, whereas people confess to priests or to chaplains on their deathbeds. So while people approach the ministry to be absolved for their sins, Marla has to worm their secrets out of them. Thank goodness she’s a skilled conversationalist.

The moderator posed some interesting questions. If those other protags were not clergy, would it matter to the series? And if my heroine was more religious, how would that change things? Ask yourself this question about your main character. In Marla’s case, it would make a big difference. She’s not particularly religious but she has a basic belief in Judaism and follows the traditional holidays. As the series progresses, so does her romantic relationship with Detective Dalton Vail who isn’t Jewish. This probably wouldn’t happen if she were more devout. They enter into an interfaith marriage where they respect each other’s traditions and beliefs.

Here’s another question to pose to your characters: How does their view of religion color their view of the world? Marla’s outlook is more expansive. She encompasses other viewpoints with tolerance and understanding. A priest or rabbi’s attitude will be focused on their own kind, while a hospital chaplain has to minister to patients of all faiths.

What role does religion play in your books? Is it a central or peripheral part of your plot? Does religion influence your protagonists’ search for justice?

How important are your protagonists’ careers to the stories? Would the slant be different if they were police professionals or hairdressers or members of the clergy?

Do holidays play a role in your stories? I’ve had Passover, Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, and New Year’s in my series, if you count the book I just turned in. Holidays in my books are where friends and families gather and where their ties are strengthened. But you could easily have a contentious family gathering where tensions escalate instead.

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Perhaps this thematic content is something you haven’t considered before. But as a writer, your views of religion and sense of right from wrong color your perceptions. Do they influence your protagonist’s view as well?

Read my report on Malice 2015 here: Malice 2015

Contest Alert!
Enter May 7– 21 to win a signed copy of bestselling author Joanna Campbell Slan’s historical mystery, Death of a Dowager, and a $15 FANDANGO gift card to enjoy a movie this summer. Two runners-up will each win an ebook copy of Hair Raiser (Bad Hair Day Mystery #2). http://nancyjcohen.com/fun-stuff/contest/

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Character Development from the Heart

Welcome to guest author Joanna Campbell Slan. Joanna is the creator of three mystery series and winner of the Daphne du Maurier Award for Literary Excellence. She has been a television talk show host, an adjunct professor of public relations, a sought-after motivational speaker, and a corporate speechwriter.

Tell Me Who You Love: Character Development from the Heart
Joanna Campbell Slan

Here’s the Test

There’s an old adage: “Tell me who you love and I’ll tell you who you are.” It’s a great test to apply to our characters. Ask yourself, “Who or what does my character love?”

What Characters Are Driven to Do

Love is not only powerful; it also makes fools out of most of us. As authors we can use this primal drive to explain situations that would otherwise seem absurd.

Think back to Gone with the Wind. In the book, it’s Scarlett’s love for Tara that compels her to marry one unsuitable man after another. It’s her love of family that sends this fragile flower out into the fields to work like a common laborer. And her love of Ashley Wilkes forces her to remain beside his wife, Melanie, even as the Yankees approach.

Love Causes Conflicts of All Sizes

We all know the story of Romeo and Juliet, but love for life’s small pleasures can also cause our characters problems. Kiki Lowenstein loves food. Especially desserts. In many of my Kiki books, this amateur sleuth’s attention gets side-tracked when someone waves a particularly luscious treat under her nose. In one book, a nasty crafter ruins Kiki’s artwork while Kiki is too busy eating a gingerbread cupcake to keep an eye on her materials.

Telling Versus Showing

Of course, it’s not enough to tell our readers that our character loves someone or something. We have to show this emotion in practice. One way is by forcing our characters to make tough choices. When Cara Mia Delgatto adopts a Chihuahua with a broken leg, she doesn’t need one more complication in her life. However, she’s willing to adjust her world to accommodate the ailing pup because he’s a rescue dog, and Cara is all about second chances.

How our characters spend their time is another way we show what they value. If a character doesn’t spend time with his children, readers might assume they aren’t an important part of that character’s life. However, if a tattered family photo falls out of the character’s wallet as he pulls out a dollar bill, we have to believe his children matter, but something keeps him away from them.

Characters can demonstrate their love by their reactions. Perhaps your character’s voice changes when he’s talking to his wife. Or maybe your protagonist gets teary-eyed when coming across a man’s jacket in her closet. These responses show the reader a powerful emotion at work.

The next time you create a character, ask yourself who or what this particular player loves. Make a list. Using what you learn will help you build a more realistic, well-rounded character that readers will relate to.

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JoannaSlanJoanna Campbell Slan is the national bestselling and award-winning award of twenty-books, both fiction and non-fiction. She has taught writing at Illinois State University, to executives at large corporations, and through Internet courses. She currently writes two mystery series.

Contact her at http://www.JoannaSlan.com or http://www.fb.com/JoannaCampbellSlan

 

 

TearDownandDieThe first book in her newest series is Tear Down and Die (Book #1 in the Cara Mia Delgatto Mystery Series/4.8 out of 5 stars). http://www.amazon.com/Tear-Down-Delgatto-Mystery-Series-ebook/dp/B00H5R8LK2/ref=pd_sim_b_5?ie=UTF8&refRID=1PBTAGS96KEWBVZ3TNB7 or http://tinyurl.com/TearDD

 

 

Contest Alert! Enter May 7– 21 to win a signed copy of bestselling author Joanna Campbell Slan’s historical mystery, Death of a Dowager, and a $15 FANDANGO gift card to enjoy a movie this summer. http://nancyjcohen.com/fun-stuff/contest/

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Humor in Mysteries

Nancy J. Cohen

My reading preference leans toward humorous mysteries. Why? There are enough tales of horror in the daily news. I aim to escape into another world when I read at night, to ease my mind into sleep. If I’m reading a thriller with a rollercoaster ride or a suspense novel with a sense of dread, that doesn’t induce a calm state of mind. So I turn to lighter works for that escapism.

I do the same in my own writing. I’d rather have you smile than cry while reading my stories. Murder by Manicure is a perfect example. I’ve updated this earlier work, so it’s available in a new Author’s Edition. Revising the story brought me the same joy as when I originally wrote it. Besides the heroine’s wry outlook on life that is one source of humor, I’d set up a situation with a friend that would get her in trouble. Marla is a hairstylist and salon owner in sunny Palm Haven, Florida. In the same shopping center is Bagel Busters, a deli owned by her friend, Arnie.

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One day, Arnie rushes into Marla’s salon. Here’s the condensed version of what happens:

“Marla, you have to help me!” The big man’s mustache quivered, and his dark eyes regarded her wildly.

“What’s wrong? Are your kids all right?”

“Yes. That’s not the problem. It’s Hortense.” Arnie wrung his hands. “She’s a former classmate. We went to high school together, and she had a crush on me. The ugliest dog in school, that was her. A real fresser, too. Ate everything in sight. And now she’s here! Oy vey, what am I going to do? She’s on her way over here.”

“So? You can exchange a few reminiscences and then she’ll leave.”

He leaned forward, breathing heavily. “You don’t understand. She likes me. Hortense said she’d been sorry to learn my wife had passed away, and how difficult it must be for me to raise two kids on my own. I could tell from her tone of voice that she’s still interested in me.”

“Hortense never married?”

“She’s divorced.” His brows drew together. “I said the only thing I could think of to get rid of her. I told her I was engaged.”

Marla smiled gently. “Arnie, how could you? The poor woman probably just wants an hour of your time.”

“No, no. She’s moving back to Palm Haven. I had to discourage her. Tell me you’ll play along.”

“Huh?”

“I knew you wouldn’t mind, since you’re such a good friend.” Taking her by the elbow, he steered her into the rear storeroom. “She’ll come to the salon. Tell her off for me, would you please?

“Me?” She wrinkled her nose. “Why would she come here?”

“Oh, God,” he moaned. “I remember how her second chin jiggled when she waddled down the hall. She was the only girl with frizzy black hair whose boobs were overpowered by her blubber.” His eyes grew as round as bagel holes when the front door chimed. “That may be Hortense,” he croaked. “Marla, you have to save me. I’ll give you free bagels for a year.”

Marla meets the woman, who turns out to be a buxom blonde. The story continues….

“Hey, Arnie,” she called, eagerly anticipating his reaction. “Someone here to see you.”

All eyes in the salon turned in their direction as Arnie shuffled toward the front, gaze downcast like a condemned man.

“Congratulations, Arnie,” crooned Hortense. “You have a lovely fiancée.”

Marla, entertained by Arnie’s sudden, shocked glare as he raised his eyes, didn’t catch on right away until she heard snickers from her staff.

“Don’t tell me,” she said to Hortense. “Arnie told you we’re engaged?”

You can imagine the hijinks that follow. And hopefully, readers will want to follow Marla’s crime solving exploits as well. It’s the personal connection to your characters that keeps bringing readers back for more. In this example, we have situational humor. Other sources can be physical antics like slapstick comedy, snarky comments, or outrageous characters. What methods do you employ to bring levity to your work?

 

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Color Cues

Nancy J. Cohen

I can see colors fine except when I have to write them in a story. Then I’ll say a character has brown eyes, is wearing a green top with khakis, and has her nails painted red. What is wrong with this picture? Rainbow colors don’t do justice to the myriad of shades out there. So how do you get more specific? Here are some helpful aids. Think in categories.

Jewels—pearl, amethyst, emerald, ruby, sapphire, jade
Flowers—rose, lilac, daffodil, lavender

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Food—grape, cherry, orange, lemon, lime, cocoa, coffee, fudge, chocolate, blueberry, avocado, strawberry

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Minerals—onyx, copper, gold, silver, malachite, cobalt
Nature—slate gray like a thundercloud, leaf green, walnut, coal, ivory

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But sometimes my mind goes blank, and so I turn to the most creative resource of all—a department store catalog. You can’t get any more imaginative than this, whether it’s towels or tops or sweaters. Here are some descriptive colors from a recent newspaper insert:

Heather gray, apple green, aquatic blue, berry, coral, cornflower blue, charcoal, navy, banana, raspberry, tropical turquoise, sky blue, stone gray, violet, burgundy, claret, evergreen, marine teal, sand, ocean aqua, pewter, snow.

You get the idea. And so I’ve created a file listing descriptive adjectives under each basic rainbow color. Here is one example:

BROWN

chestnut, auburn, mahogany, walnut, hazel, fawn, copper, camel, caramel, cinnamon, russet, tawny, sand, chocolate, maroon, tan, bronze, coffee, rust, earth, dusty, mud, toffee, cocoa

Thus when I am stuck for a particular shade, I can hop over to my color chart and pick one out.

Colors descriptions also convey emotions. For example, mud brown, toad green, or cyanotic blue have a less pleasant connotation than chocolate brown, sea green or ocean blue. So choose your hues carefully to enhance a scene.

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What’s your secret to describing colors?

17+

Theme Through Intent

Nancy J. Cohen

Recently, I spoke at a local book club. The readers posed interesting questions about my life as a writer, but I also learned a few things from them. For example, the special needs teacher said her students are “unable to visualize movies in their head” like we do when we read. This deviance stems from all the visual images presented to us through TV, movies, video games and such. These young people haven’t developed the ability to imagine beyond the words on the page.

This statement took me aback. I understand that not everyone likes reading fiction, and it’s a gift when words on a page transport you to another place in your mind, but I never realized some people can’t see beyond the actual words themselves. If this deficit is allowed to grow, we’ll lose generations of readers to literal translation.

Another book club member, an English teacher, had this to say:

“On our tests, students are given a passage to read and then asked to explain the author’s intent. I once asked an author if they knew the theme of their story before they wrote it, and their answer was no. They write the story as it comes. How about you?”

“My intent is to entertain,” I said. “That’s it. I want to give my readers a few hours of escape from their mundane routine and all the bad news out there. My goal is to write a fast-paced story that captures their attention.”

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And this is true. I’ve had a writer friend who is a literature professor look at my work and find all sorts of symbolism. Excuse me? I had no idea it was there. Must have been subconscious. I do not set out to sprinkle meaningful symbols related to a theme into my story content. I just write the book.

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However, I do know what life lesson my main character has to learn by the end of the story. This is essential for character growth and makes your fictional people seem more real. Usually, I include this emotional realization in my synopsis or plotting notes. It doesn’t always turn out the way I’d planned. Sometimes, this insight evolves differently as I write the story. Or maybe a secondary character has a lesson to learn this time around.

For example, in the book I just finished, I have a couple of paragraphs in my notes under the heading, “What does Marla learn?” Now maybe these lessons could be construed as the book’s theme, but I did not consult these going forward to write the story. To be so analytical would have stopped me dead. Fine arts grad students can pay attention to these details, but I have to write the book as it unfolds. So did I meet the intent that I’d originally set out for my character? Yes, in some respects I covered those points. But do they constitute the main theme of my work? Only my readers will be able to tell me the answer to that question. I can’t see it for myself.

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How about you? Do you deliberately devise a theme and the symbolism to support it before writing the story, or does it evolve from the storytelling itself? How do you even tell if a theme is present? Or is it the same as the life lesson learned by one of the characters?

Note: I have a Contest going to celebrate the release of Hair Raiser, #2 in the Bad Hair Day Mysteries. This title had been originally published by Kensington and is now available in a revised and updated Author’s Edition. Enter to win a signed hardcover copy of Shear Murder and a $10 Starbucks gift card. http://nancyjcohen.com/fun-stuff/contest
 

0

Gerunds Be Gone

Nancy J. Cohen

What’s wrong with this sentence: “Shutting off the ignition, she threw her keys into her purse and emerged into the bright sunshine.”

How can you throw your keys into a purse when you are using them to shut off the ignition?

This type of “ing” phrase is called a gerund. I never knew what it was until a critique partner pointed out that I was using them liberally. And I hate to say it, but this was several years into my published works. Even now, I’m not sure this is the correct grammatical term.

I learned my lesson, and as I’m now going through my backlist mystery titles making updates and tightening sentence structure, I am finding more phrasing like the one above.

Beware these illogical phrases in your own work. Here are some examples:

NO: Flinging the door wide, she stepped inside the darkened interior.
YES: She flung the door wide and stepped inside the darkened interior.

NO: Taking a sip of orange juice, she put her glass down and opened the newspaper.
YES: After taking a sip of orange juice, she put her glass down and opened the newspaper.

NO: Racing down the street, she came to a halt when the light turned red.
YES: She raced down the street, coming to a halt when the light turned red.

NO: Shaking the lady’s hand, she stepped back to admire her cobalt dress.
YES: After exchanging a handshake, she stepped back to admire the other woman’s cobalt dress.

It’s okay to use an “ing” phrase in thoughts. For example, you can say, “Wishing she could change the events of the past few hours, she sped down the road.

What is your grammatical Achilles Heel?

1+

Real Life Characters

Nancy J. Cohen

She looked like a witch straight out of the Harry Potter series. Wild curly blond hair. All black outfit including a jacket with unusual cuffs and an odd pendant necklace. Black boots. I did a double take when I saw her. Had a Harry Potter store opened in the Mall at Millenia where I was shopping? Or had she come from work at Universal Studios, still in her costume?

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This strange apparition strolled through the mall to the apparent indifference of anyone except myself. And this reaction brought home the claim I’d made in Warrior Prince, my first Drift Lords adventure that takes place in Orlando. People are so used to seeing themed characters in this city that they don’t think twice about someone striding around in costume. Thus when my space-faring warriors show up in their uniforms and bearing arms in this story, no one reacts to their unusual attire.

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I am still curious about this person I saw in the mall. Was this the way she normally dressed? Did she believe herself to be a witch like in the Potter saga? Or was she an employee who needed to stop off at the mall before going home to change? That mass of blond hair could easily be a wig. The only thing missing was a magic wand. Or is this my imagination taking flight?

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It’s not the first time I’ve been inspired by a random character. This happened to me once before on a cruise. I noticed a beautifully dressed older woman with a head of white hair and designer duds. I turned her into a countess in my cruise ship mystery, Killer Knots. It’s just so exciting to see someone who can inspire one’s creativity. Our writer’s voice whispers in our ear: “What if…?” What if this costumed character is an evil superhero from another universe? Or a nutty theme park employee who believes herself to be her fictional character? Or…the possibilities dazzle me.

When have you been inspired by a real life character you’ve encountered?

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