Nancy J. Cohen writes the Bad Hair Day Mysteries featuring South Florida hairstylist Marla Vail. Titles in this series have made the IMBA bestseller list, been selected by Suspense Magazine as best cozy mystery, won a Readers’ Favorite gold medal, and earned third place in the Arizona Literary Awards. Nancy has also written the instructional guide, Writing the Cozy Mystery. Her imaginative romances have proven popular with fans as well. These books have won the HOLT Medallion Award and Best Book in Romantic SciFi/Fantasy at The Romance Reviews.
A featured speaker at libraries, conferences, and community events, Nancy is listed in Contemporary Authors, Poets & Writers, and Who’s Who in U.S. Writers, Editors, & Poets. She belongs to Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, Romance Writers of America, Novelist, Inc., Florida Writers Association, and International Thriller Writers. Nancy has served as president of Florida Romance Writers and as president of Mystery Writers of America Florida Chapter. When not busy writing, She enjoys fine dining, cruising, visiting Disney World, and shopping. Visit her at nancyjcohen.com.
How did you get started writing fiction?
I always wrote stories, poems, or travel journals. When I was in grad school for nursing, I bought a book called Structuring Your Novel that took me step-by-step through the writing process. That’s how I learned to write a book-length novel. I wrote six books before finally selling my seventh title. That was my first sci-fi romance, Circle of Light. This book won the HOLT Medallion Award.
You used to be a registered nurse before becoming a full-time novelist. Did you ever regale your patients with your stories to test the stories out on your patients? Or maybe to help distract the patients from their illness/pain?
No, storytelling didn’t enter into my work with patients. However, it helped me gain an enjoyment of teaching. As a clinical nurse specialist, I ran workshops for other nurses and created a patient education program. My nursing knowledge infuses into my fiction in more subtle ways and in my sleuth’s nurturing nature.
Your Bad Hair Day series is set at a beauty salon. What inspired you to want to place your books in that setting?
A hair salon is a great background setting for a mystery series. A good hairdresser or nail tech knows how to listen and be a confidant. Often she’s a good conversationalist. And her job isn’t necessarily confined to the salon. She can be a stylist for models backstage at a fashion show or for the bridal party at a wedding. Plus, you can overhear lots of gossip in a salon.
You write humorous cozy mysteries and romances, the latter being both paranormal/ fantasy and science fiction. How does the experience of writing the different genres compare and contrast?
For both genres, I write a fast-paced story with romance and humor. Otherwise, the creative process is different. The mysteries follow my prescribed pattern of plotting, while the romances are often adventurous quest tales. Here I let my imagination run wild and anything can happen to my heroes. Their emotions must still be the focus of the story and the action follows a logical path, but there’s no limit to where I can send these characters. Marla, my hairstylist sleuth, must remain grounded at all times. I like my plots in either genre to have unexpected twists and turns to capture the readers’ attention and keep them turning pages.
How do you develop your plots?
For the whodunit-type mystery, first I’ll determine the victim. Then it’s a matter of identifying the suspects. These could be anyone who has something to gain from the person’s death. It could be friends, colleagues, or family members. Or it could be a random character, such as the gardener who holds a grudge against this person. I’ll give each suspect a secret that could be a motive for murder. Then I see how they might relate to each other. I visualize the pattern like a spider web with the victim in the center and the suspects surrounding her. Then we need a personal reason for the sleuth to get involved. After the crime occurs, the sleuth gets to know the suspects until she can unravel their secrets.
What kind of research do you do before writing a new book?
It depends on the issues included in the story and the particular settings. For example, in Hair Brained, I did research on children dying in hot cars. This is an important issue in Florida. I also visited a chocolate factory and a vegan restaurant. A scene takes place in another town that’s a fictional version of Winter Park, so I used my notes from a visit there. Facials Can Be Fatal involved shipwrecks off the Florida coast, pirates, and excerpts from my father’s 1935 travel journey detailing his early trip to Florida. Besides getting a facial, I did research by observing the action backstage at a designer fashion show. I like to learn something new with each book. That’s what makes it fun for me and keeps things fresh for readers.
You published the book, Writing the Cozy Mystery. What advice do you give potential writers of mystery?
Read a lot of mysteries in the subgenre you favor in order to gain an understanding of reader expectations. Plan a series from the beginning and make your first book richly layered so as to lay the groundwork for the rest to come. Your sleuth should be likable and someone you want to spend time with, and ditto for the setting. You’re in this for the long haul, so do your homework. Attend workshops and go to mystery writers conferences where you can learn the craft specific to this genre.
I’m interested in how authors create names for their characters. How do you decide what to name your characters?
I don’t do a great job of it, because I’ll usually end up with too many names that start with the same letter. Sometimes I’ll purposefully make the names funny, like Champagne Glass or Henutt (rhymes with peanut) Soe Dum. Otherwise, it’s whatever comes to mind. I may even look through my fan mailing list and pick out a first or last name.
You live in Florida and love visiting Disney World. What is your favorite ride? Do you have an annual pass? Do you think you’ll ever set a book at Disney World?
My favorite attractions are the Carousel of Progress in Tomorrowland at the Magic Kingdom and The Land ride through the hydroponics gardens at Epcot. We have annual passes, but while I love the place, I can’t set a book there due to legal issues. Disney is very protective of its brand. However, I created my own theme parks for my scifi/fantasy romance series, The Drift Lords.
What did you love to read while growing up, and what do you like to read now?
I graduated from Nancy Drew, Cherry Ames, and Judy Bolton to Victoria Holt, Mary Stewart, and Phyllis Whitney. Then I discovered Barbara Cartland and devoured Regency romances. I still like to read historical romance. Also on my shelves are fantasy, scifi, humorous cozy mysteries, historical mysteries, and some YA. I’ll never have enough time to read all these good books.
Where can we follow you?
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