INTERVIEW WITH NANCY J. COHEN
How long have you been writing?
I’ve been writing ever since I can remember. When I was younger, I wrote poems, short stories, and plays. Then in 1975, I decided to write a novel and bought a how-to book on writing fiction. That taught me how to structure a novel, and I’ve been completing full-length books ever since. I take notes wherever I go, and characters keep talking in my head. Fiction writing is an addiction.
How did you sell your first book?
I joined Florida Romance Writers in 1988 and attended my first conference. I met my agent there. I’d already written three novels by then and she tried to sell my fourth, fifth, and sixth books. At that point, I took the advice of a critique partner and wrote a futuristic romance. This became my first sale. I went on to write four science fiction romances total for Dorchester. At that point, the market plunged, and I had to reinvent myself. I’d been putting mysteries into my romances so it wasn’t such a stretch to create a straight mystery series.
What inspired the Bad Hair Day mysteries?
I was in the hair salon getting a perm, waiting for the timer to go off, and I had nothing good to read. I glanced at the other customers who were staring into space waiting for their timers to go off, too. I thought: we need something gripping to read to kill time. Let’s kill off one of these ladies! Thus Permed to Death was born. In the story, hairstylist and salon owner Marla Shore is giving grumpy Mrs. Kravitz a perm when the old lady croaks in the shampoo chair. Marla has to prove her innocence to handsome Detective Dalton Vail.
How did you decide Marla would be a hairstylist?
Marla is a businesswoman as well as a talented professional who cares about her customers. A stylist has to be a good listener, so she’s a natural for a sleuth. She knows many people around town, and clients confide in her. The beauty salon is a great background for a mystery series. People are constantly walking in, gossiping, and exchanging information. Plus, it’s a fun setting to research. Plus a hairdresser can work anywhere if you think about it: weddings, film sets, funeral homes, fashion shows.
Some readers think you’re a hairdresser. How do you make Marla seem so real?
I researched the hairdresser profession by interviewing my own hairstylist, following her around the salon, observing her techniques, reading Modern Salon magazine, attending a beauty trade show, visiting a cosmetology school, and cutting out any articles pertaining to the hairdressing profession. It really helps if you can find a source in the profession you want to write about. People often have the best stories, and you can pick up their lingo by listening.
What other kinds of research do you do?
Topics that interest me have become subjects for my books: biomedical waste disposal, animal testing of household products, shade-grown coffee, tilapia fish farming, vanilla plantations, psychics, Victorian mourning jewelry, ghosts, cruising, melanoma detection. I’ll work whatever topic catches my fancy into my stories. I’ve attended Citizens Police Academy, interviewed police detectives, surfed the Internet, and personally visited locales where Marla goes to interview suspects. For Peril by Ponytail, I visited all the places in the story during a fabulous trip to Arizona.
I also do research for my romance novels on such diverse topics as electromagnetic weapons, vile vortices, volcanoes, and Norse mythology. Although these stories delve into myth and magic or scifi realms, they’re still based on reality.
How do you keep your series fresh?
Character relationships are always evolving, and new complications can take a series in different directions. My characters grow and change just as people do in real life. Plus I am always excited to learn about a new topic, so I’ll usually explore a different area of interest for each book. A new setting helps now and then, too. Marla has worked at a beauty show, sailed on a cruise, stayed at a haunted resort, and honeymooned at an Arizona dude ranch.
In your opinion, what constitutes a good mystery?
Compelling relationships among the continuing cast are the most important feature, as well as quirky secondary characters As a reader, if you’re interested in the people, you’re interested in what happens to them. So the emotional hook is paramount to reader satisfaction. Setting in a traditional mystery is another important element. It’s often a character unto itself and lends distinction to a series. The mystery element should keep readers guessing whodunit until the end.
Are you a plotter or a pantser?
I’ll write an entire synopsis before I begin writing. This synopsis may change as the story progresses. A couple of times, I had an unexpected character pop up and this provided an exciting plot twist. Another time, I changed the killer’s identity. So while the synopsis acts as a guideline for my story, it isn’t defined in stone.
Do you work on more than one book at a time?
I am usually thinking about the next story and starting to gather research, but generally, only one book stays in my head at a time.
Which book was hardest to write? Which was the easiest?
They’re all hard to write. It takes discipline to sit in the chair all day when there are so many distractions. I set a goal of writing five pages a day or a chapter a week.
What advice would you give other writers about doing a series?
Write each book as if you’re speaking to a new reader. Fill in only the necessary details from earlier volumes to bring them up to speed with the continuing plot threads. Each book should be a story complete in itself.
You write in more than one genre. Which do you like best?
I like writing mysteries because of the plotting elements and interrelationships among the characters. But I also love writing adventurous romance stories where cliff-hanging action can occur. For now, I’m sticking with the mystery genre since that’s where my prime readership is.
What are you doing next?
More revised editions of my backlist titles are on the agenda, as is a Bad Hair Day mystery novella.