When the Story Writes Itself

Nancy J. Cohen

Have you noticed how you plod through some books you’re writing and others seem to write themselves? Why is that, do you think? Peril by Ponytail, my upcoming mystery release, was a breeze compared to some of my other stories. I had a wealth of research material from my trip to Arizona. Not only did I stay on a dude ranch similar to the one where Marla and Dalton honeymoon in the story, but I explored a copper mine, hunted spirits at a haunted hotel, toured a cave, visited ghost towns, and more. With such an abundance of historical and sensory details, I had too much material for one book. The story sprang from the setting and the characters I’d placed there. Photos brought me back to the locale along with my detailed notes. I didn’t lack for words to fill in the pages.

PerilbyPonytail

My next story, Facials Can Be Fatal, is a different story…figuratively as well as literally. Based back in my hairdresser sleuth’s hometown, it involves a client who dies in the middle of getting a facial. The method of death tripped me up, and it took me weeks to decide Howdunit. Then I created my ring of suspects, but it wasn’t enough. The spark was missing. When I hit upon a historical angle and the idea of a deserted theme park, those two elements hit the ball into the field. Now I was off and running. I’d needed that ember to ignite the flame of creative passion.

Now I’m writing the sequel, since #14 in my series directly follows book #13. Normally, I write a detailed synopsis before the writing process begins. In this case, I wrote four pages of plotting notes that essentially go from Point A to Point B without much in between. A mystery doesn’t work without twists and turns. My normal synopsis runs 12-15 pages. But just by winging it, I’m already up to page 40 in the story. I’m not sure where I am going. I have hazy images of the suspects and their motives in my head. And I haven’t yet hit upon the angle that’ll make my pulse race.

Do I need it? Maybe not.

I sit down every morning with the blank page in front of me and my five pages a day goal, and those words somehow get filled in. I expect at any time to get stuck due to insufficient plotting, but it hasn’t happened yet. This is a different kind of mystery for me. It’s not a “dead body up front” kind of story. There’s been an accident, and we aren’t sure yet if it was intentional or not. Meanwhile, I’m going with the flow to see where it takes me.

Does this happen to you? Are some stories easier to write than others? What do you think makes the difference?

13+

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.

BODY WAVEeBook

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.

P1000847 (640x480)

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

2+

Playing with Pinterest

Nancy J. Cohen

Pinterest might be the third most popular social network after Facebook and Twitter. It’s an online pin board where you post photos along with a description. The photos link back to the source. Go here to set up a free account: https://www.pinterest.com/

To find people you know, go to your friends’ sites and search through their followers. Follow any familiar names. Or on the left, click on Find Friends or Invite Friends to Pinterest. If you don’t see these features, click on the gear shift arrow in the upper right corner and then on Find Friends.

Go here to Follow me: http://pinterest.com/njcohen/

 

Pinterest3

To gain followers, follow other people’s boards and repin their photos. If you click on the little heart by the photo, it means you Like their photo. Clicking on a photo brings up a comment box.

Create your boards. Suggestions for topics can include My Books, Books by Friends, Coming Next (your WIP), Favorite Places, The Writing Life, Book Tours, Books I’ve Read, Food, Hobbies, Travels, Crafts. Browse by Category to get ideas. On the right of the search bar, click on the arrow beside the three lines. A category list will pop up. Or see what your favorite authors feature and copy their topics.

Pinterest1

I like to do storyboards for my books. Check out my boards, and you’ll see what I mean. This is a fun activity. It gives me and my fans a visual reference for my books. I’ll use some of the same photos I buy from royalty free sites for my video trailers and mix them with photos I’ve taken personally or that others have pinned.

Pinterest2

To get to your Boards, click on your name in the upper right corner. Find the Board you want to change and click Edit. Here you can add a description to the board.

To access the photos, double click on a board. You can add a pin to this board or edit the photos that are there. When you add a pin, you can also post it to Facebook or Twitter. Click on the pencil on the upper right corner of a pin to edit. If you upload your own photo, go in and edit it to add a description and website link. When you want to post your own book cover, do it from an online bookstore so the source leads back there.

Get the PinIt badge to put on your toolbar. Use it to pin photos from around the Web. On the right of the search bar in Pinterest, click on the arrow beside the three lines. Choose About, and then Browser Button. Also make sure the photos on your sites are pinnable by having the Pinterest share option appear on each post or website page. Get Share buttons at http://www.sharethis.com or http://www.addthis.com

Caution: Do not pin copyrighted material. Make sure the source is listed. Upload your own photos or Repin someone else’s, or buy royalty free images. If in doubt, refrain from pinning.

Manage your pins if you wish on Tailwind: http://www.tailwindapp.com/pinreach

Pinterest can be fun once you start playing with images. It can also be so much fun looking at the pictures on display that you lose all sense of time. So be sure to do your workload for the day first, and plug in Pinterest along with your other social networking. I hope to see you there!

6+

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.

MURDER BY MANICURE small online

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?

 

5+

Submission Protocol

Nancy J. Cohen

Last week, I sent a submission via snail mail. “What’s that?” you ask. It’s almost a forgotten art. I hadn’t sent out a physical manuscript in so long that I’d forgotten the specifics. I think it’s been at least five years, likely longer, since I last had to send anything from the post office. This submission went to a niche market and was another of my father’s travel journals.

So what was involved? After reading the online submission guidelines, I reviewed my manuscript. Oops, I’d forgotten all about headers and footers with the book title, author name, and page number. Having formatted for ebook requirements, I added those back in.

writing

Since this book is nonfiction, I had to include a Table of Contents. No problem. I know how to do this in Word. Oh, wait. I forgot to write a Foreword like I did with my father’s other journal, Thumbs Up, that I’d indie published. So I added the TOC. Then I deleted some of the book buy hyperlinks in the back. I shouldn’t include those for this type of submission.

A query letter topped it all off. I polished mine once more before adding it to the pile of papers. It’s also been ages since I’d had to write one of these things. It’s never easy, is it?

Now what? I printed out the whole work, since it is short and about equivalent to a normal book proposal in page count. Next came the SASE. How do you do this again? If you want the manuscript back, you have to put actual postage stamps on a suitably sized manila envelope. This means you have to weigh the envelope for return postage with the manuscript inside, affix the stamps, remove the pages and stuff them into the outer envelope along with the folded SASE. A complicated business, isn’t it? Or you can just include a stamped and self-addressed #10 business envelope for the form rejection letter you’re sure to get.

envelopes

And then comes the great sigh of relief when you send your baby off at the post office. This generates a more visceral response than sending a book into cyberspace. Somehow the physical manuscript seems more a part of you.

Weeks pass and then months. You watch the mail for the return envelope. Once you see it, gloom sets in. You’ve been rejected. And you start the process all over again.

At least that’s how it used to be done in the old days. Do you remember those times? Do you miss them?

6+

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

Mizner4
Food—grape, cherry, orange, lemon, lime, cocoa, coffee, fudge, chocolate, blueberry, avocado, strawberry

P1010482 (800x600)

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

anvil2

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.

Beach

What’s your secret to describing colors?

17+

12 Tips for a Book Blog Tour

Nancy J. Cohen

If you wish to do a blog tour, determine if you want to offer guest posts, author interviews, reviews, and/or book blasts for your new release. Then determine which hosts you’ll want to solicit. Aim for popular blogs that get a lot of hits and target your particular genre or thematic content. Approach them by asking if you can be a guest on their site. Make sure you study their content and note the length of their typical posts.

I’ve had bloggers approach me to contribute to my site. I’ve turned down some of them because it was clear their business had nothing to do with a writing career. On the other hand, I’ve had cozy mystery or paranormal romance authors query me politely about a guest spot. In those cases, if I feel they’ll have something to contribute to my readers, I say yes. My personal blog readers respond the most to writing craft and marketing articles, so I am selective about guests.

If you don’t care to DIY, you can hire a virtual tour company. However, you’ll still have to publicize the tour, show up on the date of the post, answer comments, and offer giveaways. Send an author photo and book cover image along with your post to the host.

Here are some blog tour companies:
Goddish Fish Promotions http://www.goddessfish.com/tours.htm
Great Escapes Book Tours (Free for Cozy Mysteries) http://www.escapewithdollycas.com/great-escapes-virtual-book-tours
Bewitching Book Tours (Paranormal Romance) http://bewitchingbooktours.blogspot.com/
Buy the Book Tours http://www.buythebooktours.com/#axzz2OqJtoGjs
Partners in Crime (Crime, Mystery & Thrillers) http://www.partnersincrimetours.net/

12 Tips for your Virtual Blog Tour:

  1. Slant your blog to the audience you hope to reach.
  2. Vary your guest posts with a mix of interviews, articles and reviews.
  3. Space the dates out so you don’t clog the loops with your announcements.
  4. Write your posts ahead of time.
  5. Include a short excerpt from your book with your article when possible.
  6. Add buy links to your book along a story blurb, plus links to your website, blog, FB page, and Twitter at the end of your post.
  7. Plan to be available to answer comments all day when your post goes live.
  8. List the tour as an Event on your various social media sites.
  9. Publish the blog tour dates and topics on your website.
  10. Consider offering a giveaway for commenters with each post.
  11. Have a grand prize using Rafflecopter or a random drawing from all commenters.
  12. Thank your host at the end of the day when your post appears.

For next time, write down blog topics as you write your WIP. This way, you’ll have a ready list of topics available when you need them (i.e. research, the writing process, what inspired you to write this story, world building, themes, etc.).

A blog tour can help you gain exposure to new readers who might not have known about your work. It takes a lot of advance planning, publicity, and commitment to make it a success. A blog tour is another tool to raise your readership and possibly garner some reviews. Schedule with the companies listed above or with your selected hosts as far in advance as you can. So decide upon a target date for your tour and go for it.

16+