Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Guest Blogger - Nancy J. Cohen -- Writing in Multiple Worlds


Plotting a mystery for me is very different from how I plot a fantasy romance. With a mystery, I’ll start with the setting or the victim. Perish by Pedicure, for example, was inspired by my attendance at a beauty trade show in Orlando. I took notes that later became the basis for my research. Having decided to set the story at a hair show, I relocated it to Fort Lauderdale.
Here we find Marla Shore, my hairdresser sleuth, taking a job as assistant hairstylist at a beauty show. She’s employed by Luxor Products and sees this as a stepping stone to career advancement. It’s her first such experience and she wants to make a good impression with her new colleagues, including an old college friend.

Now for the victim. On Marla’s second day at the job, the company director is found dead. Determining the suspects is easy. Who are the victim’s friends, family, and associates? Who has something to gain by the victim’s death? Here I draw a diagram, with the victim’s name in a center circle, and spokes coming out from the circle like a wheel. Each spoke represents a suspect. Next I’ll give each person a secret or a motive to want the victim dead. At this point, I may not know which one is the killer. I’ll try to interweave relationships among the suspects so the diagram ends up like a spider web. The suspect with the strongest motive may become the killer.

As you can see, my plotting process is different from a crime novel where the emphasis is on the psychological twists that make someone into a killer and on the effects of the murder on the survivors. My stories are lighter without forensics or graphic details. They focus on relationships and the puzzle aspect of a whodunit.

After I define the characters, then begins the forward story momentum. Act one: A dead body is discovered. My sleuth begins her investigation. She gets to know each suspect. Act two: She realizes each person harbors a secret. We learn more about them. A second death may occur halfway through the book to raise the stakes. Act three: Secrets are unraveled and the killer is exposed. I always have an emotional wrap scene to show what the character has learned from her experience. Character growth is important; it’s what keeps readers coming back for more.

Now I can write the synopsis. I do all this before writing the book. I may also do a plotting board (see my blog post on this topic:

My process is different for a fantasy. Here I’ll start with a premise, and then the world building becomes paramount. For the series I’m hoping to sell, I started out with a premise that the Bermuda Triangle is a rift between dimensions. Evil trolls have forced the rift open and are invading Earth. So now we come to a whole list of questions. Who is going to stop the nasty creatures? Since I like science fiction, I choose intergalactic warriors from another planet. The women will be from Earth and will possess special powers to help stop the invaders, although they don’t know it yet. Character sketches follow for my protagonists, the villains, and their associates.

At this point, I must explore the entire back story of who these evil beings are, how they access the rift, what the heroes will have to do to send them back to their dimension, special powers, military ranks, political factions, the bad guys’ rationale for invading Earth, and their history with our heroes from past encounters. In addition, for the warriors, I have to determine how they’re chosen, their training, their limitations, their personal hangups. Now for the heroines. Where do they fit into the whole scheme? Inspired by the Maelstrom ride at Norway’s Epcot pavilion, I’ve decided that my series will be based on Norse mythology. So I have to research this aspect.

Once I’ve created the characters, the mythology, the worlds they come from, and the rules of my universe, I’m ready to begin the forward story action. I’ll want the hero and heroine to meet in the first chapter, and I’d like to follow the hero’s journey structure. So I begin with a few pages showing the heroine in her normal world before all hell breaks loose. The evil trolls attack her, and she’s drawn kicking and screaming into the fantasy universe.

This concept was a challenge, because I’d never combined a modern society with magical elements before. It took me a while to catch on. Once I figured out how it worked, writing the story was a blast. Now I only hope to find a publisher so I can share it with you.

While my approach to plotting each type of story may differ, what remains the same is the character development. Before beginning the writing phase, I’ll get to know these people. Then I can stand aside and let them take over.

Nancy J. Cohen


  1. Very interesting Nancy. So much goes into what becomes a book. Thanks for sharing this!
    Glenda (from cozyarmchair group)

  2. Just the words - The Rift - makes me think of Captain Jack from Torchwood and then my mind wanders...


  3. Nancy, thank you for breaking down the different approach you take to your genres. I've been a fan of your 'Bady Hair Day Series' for years and now I really want to read your romantic fantasy series.

  4. Thanks, all. I am hoping my fantasy series finds a home, but I also hope my new mystery series makes a hit, too! Both genres offer different challenges and are fun to write.

  5. Thanks for writing about how you write. I know this means taking time away from writing for book publication. Readers always have questions about the process and it's generous of you to write about it.


Review: Chesapeake Crimes: Fur, Feathers and Felonies by Donna Andrews and Shari Randall

Each story in this collection features an animal as an important part of the story. Some of my favorite stories were "As the Crow F...