Hairstylist Marla Shore is quite excited to be part of her friend Jill’s wedding party. Marla’s own wedding is scheduled for only a few weeks away, but she’s more than delighted to assist her friend. Of course Marla’s own schedule is impossible – between both weddings, moving to a new home, and expanding her hair salon – the last thing she needs is a murder investigation, but that’s exactly what’s thrown her way when Jill’s sister, Torrie, turns up dead at the wedding reception.
Jill begs Marla for her help in investigating the murder. After all, Marla has more experience than the police in investigating crimes these days. She discovers there were quite a few people who would want to kill Torrie, including her good friend Jill. Marla begins to step on many toes as she continues questioning all the suspects.
Meanwhile, Marla’s wedding draws closer and her fiancé, Dalton, who happens to be a police detective, is getting angrier and angrier at her involvement in this murder case. Not to mention it becomes clear that Marla angered the wrong person and has now become the target of a killer. Will she even make it to her own wedding alive?
This is the tenth book of Nancy J. Cohen’s “A Bad Hair Day Mystery” series and I loved it! I haven’t read the previous nine books, which is unusual for me, but it really didn’t matter – at least not as far as the storyline went. I didn’t need the previous books to read this one, but I would like to read about Marla and Dalton’s relationship. Fortunately, I have the first book on my Nook and I’ll definitely be continuing from there.
Marla Shore is a likeable and strong heroine. Although scared for her safety, I did understand her motivation. I loved how Dalton stood behind her and was supportive. A great couple!
The story is laced with humor, romance and mystery. It’s a quick, fast-paced book set in beautiful South Florida. For a few hours, I felt like I was on vacation. It’s a great read to escape from everyday life. It will keep you smiling through the entire book.
Do you write about real life events in your fictional story? As a reader, how can you tell fact from fiction? Are some ideas so far out that they should be relegated to science fiction, or is there a kernel of truth in them? Where do the lines blur?
At Saturday’s meeting of the Florida chapter of MWA, we heard speaker Jim Linder, former Navy aviator and intelligence agent. This man—tall, dark, and handsome—lived a life you’d only find in books. A self-professed fan of Ian Fleming and Robert Ludlum novels, as a youth he aspired to adventure. He found it in the work he did. A romance hero come alive, Linder said “the fictional and the real world blend together. Whatever story you want to tell, it’s probably already out there.”
He told stories of notorious Russian smuggler Victor Bout, of how pirates smuggle diesel fuel to diamond mines in South Africa, and of how there’s a market among drug runners for mini-submarines made in the States. “There are bad guys out there who are richer and more powerful than anyone in fiction,” he says. The upsurge in social media has made a difference in his current consulting position. “We use social media a lot. Finding information isn’t the problem. Connecting with the person who has the info is harder.”
As for myself, I use personal experiences and composites of people I meet in my stories.
For example, the Countess in Killer Knots was based on a white-haired lady I noticed on a cruise. She always wore the most fabulous outfits. When I got up the nerve to ask where she shopped, “Paris” was her answer. Why was I not surprised?
In Perish by Pedicure, I visited the North Miami shvitz where Marla goes to interview a suspect. Now, that was an experience!
And the setting in Shear Murder was inspired by Harry P. Leu Gardens in Winter Park, where I’ve been many times. Marla journeys to Coral Gables and the Venetian Pool, another local gem I’d discovered. Visits to the dermatologist and dentist show up in some of my books—in Marla’s viewpoint, of course. Plus a reading from a psychic that I’d experienced shows up in Died Blonde.
Even in Warrior Prince, my upcoming paranormal release, the action starts out in Orlando, Florida on International Drive. The sinister theme park in this story is partially based on an attraction that used to be in the Fort Lauderdale area and designed with other theme parks in mind. I’ll have to admit, though, the action that follows is purely imaginary. Well, almost.
One of the bad guys uses what I call an EM (electromagnetic) grenade in Warrior Rogue: Book Two in the Drift Lords Series. “Are EM weapons real or the stuff of sci-fi?” I asked our speaker. He gave a broad grin. “Many of the things you’d relegate to science fiction are already here.”
In some ways, the beaches of the Hamptons in Eastern Long Island, a hundred miles from New York City, resemble Florida beaches: same white sand, same ocean rolling in, same sun turning the unwary, and especially the fair-skinned, “red as a lobster in a pot of boiling water in about the same time as it takes the lobster,” as someone remarks in Death Will Extend Your Vacation, my new mystery featuring recovering alcoholic Bruce Kohler and his friends. In other ways, not so much: northern beaches aren’t fringed with palm trees, the Atlantic is jade green rather than turquoise, and the water is a lot colder. A lot.
When I wrote the first book, Death Will Get You Sober, I imagined a series that would alternate between New York City settings and what we New Yorkers call “out of town.” More experienced authors quickly enlightened me: if a publisher bought a New York series, they would want every story to take place in New York, on the premise that readers, too, would buy the next book and the one after that for the pleasures of revisiting the familiar haunts of familiar characters. So the first and second books about Bruce and Barbara the world-class codependent and Jimmy the computer genius, as well as the four published stories, were set in Manhattan, with excursions on the subway to Brooklyn as close as they get to out of town. (Bruce takes a quick trip to Dayton, OH in the first book, but he doesn’t have to like it.)
My book ideas tend to start with titles, and from the very beginning, I knew I wanted to write about the Hamptons, a resort area that stretches along the south shore of Long Island about 45 miles from Westhampton Beach to Montauk. I meant to use it as a setting whether or not the series made it to Death Will Extend Your Vacation. The alternative title I had in mind was A Season in Deathhampton. The Hamptons abound in cutesy names. The bookstore is Bookhampton (an excellent indie, family owned, with branches in East Hampton, Sag Harbor, and Southampton). There’s a Cashmerehampton and a Pet Hampton. And I always get a chuckle when, on my run around my neighborhood, I pass a house whose owners must be Abrams, Abraham, or Abrahams: the sign on their driveway says “Abrahampton.”
What publishers (some of whom, I bet, have homes in the Hamptons themselves or go there to visit) have to understand is that in real life, New Yorkers never stay in New York. Stimulating as living cheek by jowl with eight million people is, every once in a while we’ve got to get out. We want to see a little green, breathe a little air, get a little elbow room. Getting out of town is as much a part of us as our attitude and the way we say “New Yawk.” So in locating a New York book in the Hamptons, I’m simply being true to my setting. In fact, the Hamptons are a playground for vacationing New Yorkers, whether they stay in mansions on the dunes or flimsy little ranch houses on half an acre like the one we bought twenty years ago so I could garden, hole up with my writing, and get to the beach.
When Bruce ends up in detox on the Bowery at the beginning of Death Will Get You Sober, he hasn’t been out of town in years. Alcoholism tends to limit one’s horizon. So a summer in a clean and sober group house in the imaginary Hampton that, after much reflection, I named Dedhampton (known locally as Deadhampton) is one of those new experiences that Bruce has to go through sober as his character grows and changes, like having relationships, feeling his feelings, and figuring out what to do with his life.
I had yet another good reason for writing a Hamptons mystery. The traditional whodunit works best in a limited setting, where the amateur sleuth knows most of the people and can easily find excuses to ask them questions. That’s why so many of them are set in small towns. My books feature personal crimes. The victims, the suspects, and many of the witnesses all know each other. But it’s not realistic to expect the investigators—Bruce, Barbara, and Jimmy—to know them all. I’ve been living in my apartment building for almost 45 years, and I don’t know the names of some of the five neighbors on my floor. I recognize three of them to say hello to in the elevator (and a fourth when she has her dog with her). I’ve never been in any of their apartments. Writing about amateur sleuthing in a big city is a challenge that never goes away. A group house at the beach, on the other hand, has as much potential for a murder as an English country house weekend in the Golden Age of mystery. So I went for it, and Death Will Extend Your Vacation is the result.
Elizabeth Zelvin is a New York psychotherapist, a three-time Agatha Award nominee, and author of the mystery series featuring recovering alcoholic Bruce Kohler, starting with Death Will Get You Sober. The third book, Death Will Extend Your Vacation, is just out, and “Death Will Tank Your Fish” was a 2011 Derringer Award nominee for Best Short Story. Liz has also just released a CD of original songs, Outrageous Older Woman. She summers at the poor end of the Hamptons.
May 8, 2012
Writing a Mystery Series by Peg Herring
Once is not enough. Readers love a series; just ask Laurie King or Lee Child or Charles Todd. A series is fun for the reader, since the characters become like old friends. I know Harry Bosch better than I know many people I see every day. I’ve seen Harry in danger, under extreme temptation, and tested to the limits of endurance. The toughest test I’ve seen most of my real friends endure is a traffic snarl or an uncooperative vending machine.
Many readers find characters they like and then read everything they can find about them. Writers are usually happy to oblige—at least for a while.
I have two series in progress, the Dead Detective mysteries and the Simon & Elizabeth (Tudor) historical mysteries. Although insanity does not run in my family, I recently signed to do a third series. How, you might ask, will I handle that? Here’s the plan, and I hope it works.
I’ve limited the number of books in each series. When I began the historicals, I plotted out five books. The first two (one with Henry VIII as king and one when Edward takes the throne) are now in print. Book #3 is under my editors’ care. Book #4 is forming, although I keep telling my husband that a trip to the UK would help to solidify the colorful historical background.
The Dead Detective series will also consist of five books. The one you see here is Book #2, DEAD FOR THE MONEY. Book #3, DEAD FOR THE SHOW, is mostly done, and Book #4 is just starting to dance around at the back of my head, calling “Me! Pick me! I’m ready!”
The first book of the third series demanded my attention until I gave up and took the time to write it down. When I sent it to LL-Publications, the word “Awesome!” came back to me. They’re excited about It and hope I find time to write Book #2 soon. (Me too.)
So what are the problems with series? Keeping things straight, for one thing. It pays to take good notes all the way along, because it’s easy by Book #4 to forget what kind of car your sleuth drives or what he usually orders at the diner for breakfast.
Another possible problem is boredom for the author. Some end up wanting to murder their own protagonists, as I once heard Martha Grimes confess. Her publisher wouldn’t hear of it, of course, because the fans wanted more and more of Inspector Jury. Steve Hamilton likes to try his hand at standalones, but I’ve heard his fans ask more than once, “When will we get another Alex McKnight mystery?” Publishers prefer a safe bet, the characters that worked before, but writers are creative people. We often want to do what feels right, not what will sell most.
For me, writing what I want to write is more important than commercial success. (Not that I know what commercial success would do to me!) Readers tell me they like my books, and I try to make it clear that they’re different. You might like Simon but hate Seamus. What is the same in my books is my belief in justice and the triumph of the human spirit (no pun intended). Whether it’s a series or a standalone, I just work to deliver “Strong women; Great Stories” with every book.
First, thanks to Nancy for sharing her space at Notes from Florida!
Prizes: People who comment on any blog post on the tour will be entered in drawings for several prizes: Dead Detective T-shirts, copies of THE DEAD DETECTIVE AGENCY and DEAD FOR THE MONEY (paperback or e-books available), and the chance to be a character in the third of the series DEAD FOR THE SHOW. Multiple winners will be drawn.
Bio: Peg Herring lives in Michigan and writes two series, the critically acclaimed Simon & Elizabeth (Tudor) Mysteries (Five Star Publishing) and the award-winning Dead Detective Mysteries (LL-Publications). When not writing, Peg enjoys directing musical groups, gardening, and talking about writing.
Malice Domestic Conference: The New Nick and Noras: Mixing Romance and Murder
Sunday morning at Malice started out with the Sisters in Crime Breakfast. It was a lovely affair where I met new friends. The Board was introduced and volunteers were thanked for their efforts throughout the year.
Following this event, I attended the workshop titled above. Moderated by Stephanie Evans, the panel included Kathleen Ernst, Christina Freeburn, Barbara Graham, Elizabeth J. Duncan, and Kate Carlisle. Following are the questions posed by the moderator. Disclaimer: These interpretations are based on my notes and the paraphrasing is accurate to the best of my ability.
How does danger affect the relationship?
Kathleen: Her characters are a detective and a park curator. Danger reveals a new side to each character, i.e. protectiveness of the hero and a broken heart in the heroine’s past. Also it shows that the heroine doesn’t crumple in the face of danger. Chris says danger in her stories brings her couple back together. They have to work to restart their relationship. Barbara says her hero is the sheriff. “Danger finds you no matter where or who you are. Thing happen.” Hers is a loving couple. “Every day, if it’s the last one, it’s a good one.” Elizabeth’s hero is a police officer. He overrides his training and instincts to put the heroine ahead. In Kate’s story, the woman is a suspect but the hero grows to protect her. Danger heightens the sexual tension between them.
Does your couple need or seek out danger? If it wasn’t there, what else would they need?
Kate says her couple wasn’t brought together by murder but that murder found them. Her heroine is open, free, loving. Her hero is a James Bond, by-the-book type. He feels fear for her safety. Elizabeth’s hero is an inspector who wants a quiet, peaceful life away from work. He warns the heroine away from every case, but she’s curious and can’t leave it alone. He’s unable to keep his work separate from her. Barbara’s heroine listens to gossip and lets the hero do the detecting. They’d like to have a normal life. Chris: Finding people who need protection is their purpose. They each possess a strong protective instinct but in different ways. They are willing to take risks so that others can have a better chance at life. Kathleen’s hero doesn’t want the heroine involved but he needs the info she can provide, so she gets sucked into the situation. They each define danger differently. Solitude and wilderness don’t frighten her when she goes to a deserted island to restore a lighthouse, but he’s concerned about the isolation. So they define danger differently.
How do you work in the lightness and levity of romance with the darkness of murder?
Chris’s romances are more inspirational so they’re not graphic. The couple was married but the marriage ended over guilt from her sister’s death. Dark issues and pain are involved and they have to work out these problems. Elizabeth: Her heroine was a witness that the hero interviewed and subsequently liked, so their romance progresses slowly. In her stories, the romance offers comfort and security for people in their 50s, so it’s a different angle. Kate also writes romance for Harlequin. “A good romance has heavy conflict so I don’t consider that part to be light even though I don’t write dark, deep mysteries.” She adds humor in other ways like with secondary characters. Kathleen has an inner plot or personal conflict that affects the outer plot. Barbara has a married couple who are loyal and faithful to each other. Tender moments enter into the story on occasion.
For the cozy genre, what do you use to create the mood for sex?
In Kathleen’s stories, the relationship is progressing slowly. She says the power of suggestion can be incredibly sexy and better than spelling things out on the page. Chris’s couple needs to rebuild trust in their relationship. It’s more about caring and the “little things” the couple does for each other. Barbara’s characters long for each other when they’re apart. She agrees that it’s the little things, too. Elizabeth says intimacy can be pretty sexy, more so than overt sexuality. Her hero thinks about the heroine often. “It’s more about love than sex, but they’re inching toward it.” In Kate’s mysteries, nothing is overt. “Little moments are sweet but they can’t stop to consider them because they have to solve the crime.” You get the feeling that the relationship is growing.
I took a break after this panel, skipping some of the events and going out to lunch with family until the Agatha Tea later that afternoon. If I’d known we would be served little sandwiches, scones, cheese and fruit, I wouldn’t have eaten so much earlier! This final event was well attended and then it was time to say goodbye.
Our drive home was uneventful except for a stop at a historic house in South Carolina and a couple of country stores where we bought Peach cider, pecan meal (ground pecans—great for coating tilapia before frying), cinnamon honey, and peach jam.
Coming Next: Guest Blogger Peg Herring on Tuesday, May 8!
On a chilly day in April, we visited downtown Washington D.C. the day before Malice Domestic was to begin. It was so exciting to descend deep into the ground on a steep escalator, to join the hustle and bustle of people rushing to and fro, and to hear the rumble of an approaching train. When you’re not used to cities, riding the subway becomes an adventure on its own. We bought a ticket at the Metro station next to the Hyatt Regency Bethesda where we were staying and took the red line into town. I noted the urban style clothing: i.e. darker colors than we see in South Florida, closed toe shoes instead of sandals, men in suits. It was totally a different atmosphere than back home where people wear shorts and tank tops. I rode the train with a sense of wonder.Then we emerged outside, where the sky was overcast and the fifties temperature had prompted me to wear my North Face insulated jacket. We took a stroll around the White House and the executive office buildings surrounding it, noting the various gated entries. We passed the Renwick Gallery, an intriguing museum of decorative arts that I’d like to visit next time. And then we dined at our favorite place, the Old Ebbitt Grill.
After lunch, we visited the Smithsonian Museum of American History. I enjoyed the exhibit of First Lady gowns. But then panic assailed me when I realized my prescription sunglasses were missing from their perch on my handbag. We went everywhere peering at the ground searching for them. Then my brilliant niece suggested looking up. If someone had found the glasses, this person might have put them on a display case to keep them from being trampled.
She was right! She spotted them atop a glass case and I secured them. Whew! Smart tip. Remember this advice if you lose an item in a crowd.
We toured exhibits of musical instruments, historical trains and cars and trolleys, and memorabilia from the American Presidency. Tired from our explorations, we trooped outside to the Metro station and rode back to the hotel. Dinner was Italian night with relatives. We visited with family again the next day. As it had dawned into the forties, we entertained ourselves at a local mall. Friday night, I attended the Malice Domestic welcome reception. And then the conference began in earnest for me.
First Lady Gown
Coming next: Panel Discussion on Southern Mysteries.
Besides the shenanigans that happen on the Tropical Sun, my fictional cruise ship in Killer Knots, real crimes take place on ships at sea. You’ve all read news articles about people who go overboard or go missing on ocean voyages. What about murders and rapes and robberies?
A cruise ship is like a city. You should take the same precautions there as anywhere. Don’t go alone into deserted parts of the ship. Keep your valuables locked up. Steer clear of areas with high winds and a single railing between you and the ocean, especially if you’ve been consuming alcohol. Be wary of strangers who come on to you. The crew are no exception. Don’t go off to uncharted territory with a crew member just because he’s cute. You don’t know his background or his motivation. Always get your own drinks. Don’t accept drinks from strangers or leave your drinks unattended. Know where your children are and warn them to be cautious. Vacations are no place to let down your guard.
In many cases, jurisdiction over a shipboard crime is questionable. Lack of communication, overlapping authority, and poorly trained staff who don’t know how to collect evidence have been problems in solving crimes at sea. Plus it’s hard for local authorities to examine a crime scene when the ship is in port for one day and by then, days may have passed since the incident.
Fortunately, new laws aim to tighten standards. The Cruise Vessel Security and Safety Act of 2010 will require ships to install video surveillance in common areas plus door viewers and safety latches on cabin doors. Ships will need to carry kits to conduct sexual assault exams and to administer drugs that prevent STDs after an attack. They will need to log in all deaths, missing persons, assaults involving U.S. citizens, and other alleged crimes. These reports will be available to the FBI and Coast Guard.
The FBI has jurisdiction if the ship is owned by a U.S. company, if the victim is a U.S. citizen on a ship departing or arriving at a U.S. port, if the crime takes place within 12 miles of our coastline, or if an act of terrorism against the U.S. is involved.
You don’t want to become a cruise ship victim. Be as careful on vacation as you would be on shore, and you should have a great time.
As a mystery writer, I’m often asked where I get my ideas. Well, here’s one for you: how about the local newspaper? Consider this story: Celebrity actress found dead at home; no signs of foul play; pneumonia following flu-like symptoms suspected as cause of death. Within months, husband dies from possible heart attack. Strange coincidence or not?
My mystery mind goes into high gear. If I were writing this story, how would it play out? Naturally, the celebrity (and it doesn’t have to be a movie actress. It can be anybody like a famous chef or athlete or stage star) leaves a substantial estate. If someone knocks the husband out of the way, who stands to inherit? I’m not familiar with all the hangers-on of the rich and famous, so I’ll have to make up my own list of fictional suspects. Disclaimer: This is totally fiction and made up from my own devious creative mind:
The Crooked Manager, who wants to cover up that he’s been pilfering from the celebrity’s funds.
The Greedy Relative, who inherits the estate because the celebrity couple is childless.
The Jealous Best Friend, who discovered the celebrity was having an affair with her husband.
The Financial Advisor, who’s in cahoots with the manager, and who needs money to feed his gambling habit or to pay for his insurmountable medical bills for the illness he’s been hiding.
The Makeup Artist, whom no one would suspect but who was always around the couple. She hates the celebrity and is getting revenge for a past wrong.
You get the idea? Who would you add to the list and why?
We have the Motives. Now we need Means and Opportunity. How would someone kill these two to make it look like natural deaths? Poison comes to mind. It would have to be something not detectable in toxicology texts, perhaps a substance that dissipates in the body. It cannot be injected so has to be absorbed either through ingestion or the skin or even eyedrops.
I like this! If my new mystery series gets picked up, you’re looking at book number four.
What are the turning points in a mystery? When we plot romances, we have certain emotional plot points, like first kiss and big dark moment. What about the traditional whodunit mystery? For example, is it necessary to have a dead body in chapter one? Does the crime always have to be a murder? How many suspects is too many? How can the sagging middle be avoided?
Each author will have a different answer, and they’re all right. I’ve read mysteries where no one gets killed for the first hundred pages. You can guess who might get the axe and are often right, but everyone you meet until that point becomes a suspect. This works if the sleuth leads such an interesting life that you don’t care about when the body shows up, or the author’s voice is so catchy and engaging that you’ll read along just for pleasure. But for beginning mystery authors, placing the body up front is often the best bet.
After writing ten mysteries in my Bad Hair Day series, I found a pattern that I find comfortable. This isn’t to say I follow it every single time. But my loose structure might help others who are wondering how to plot those turning points. Keep in mind that other writers might reverse the order, jumble it up, or not include these items at all. The crime might be a stolen object of value, a missing person, a kidnap victim. It doesn’t always have to be a murder. But for a mystery in the traditional sense, the story usually involves a murder with an amateur sleuth in a confined setting, which may be a small town that has its own unique flavor. So these are the plot points I might employ:
Introduction of Suspects
Secrets: Every suspect has something to hide
Second dead body
Attempts on sleuth’s life as he/she gets closer to truth
One suspect turns out to be a red herring and has led sleuth down the wrong path
Secrets are exposed and suspects are eliminated
Final clue leading to killer
Through all of this is the personal subplot, often a romance or other relationship, that leads the sleuth to experience a revelation about herself thus providing character growth by the end of the story. This is the hook to make your reader buy your next book. She has to care what happens to your sleuth, and it’s the personal relationships, the sleuth’s quirky outlook on life, and the distinctive setting that will draw readers back for more.