Feb 16

The Cozy Way: Mystery Writer Nancy J. Cohen

It’s now my privilege to interview author Nancy J. Cohen. Nancy writes the humorous Bad Hair Day Mysteries featuring hairdresser Marla Vail, who solves crimes with wit and style under the sultry Florida sun.

Welcome, Nancy! Tell us a little bit about your background.

I worked as a registered nurse for ten years before retiring to write full-time. I’d always enjoyed writing but didn’t try a full-length book until I was in grad school for my master’s degree. Joining Romance Writers of America, attending local chapter meetings, and getting into a critique group made all the difference to my career. I love reading and storytelling.

My first books that sold were science fiction romances and I’ve written eight books in that genre. Professionally, I’m active in the writing community where I’ve been president of the Florida Romance Writers and president of the Florida Chapter of Mystery Writers of America. My next book will be my 23rd published work.

So . . . define the cozy mystery. What sets it apart as a subgenre of mystery?

A cozy mystery involves an amateur sleuth in a unique setting or occupation. The setting is a character itself, giving us a glimpse into a lifestyle we might not see otherwise. Your everyday hero stumbles upon murders on a regular basis. These stories focus on relationships among characters and not on crime scene details. Suspects often know each other, and all may have a motive for murder. Motives are personal and do not involve terrorists, serial killers, or drug cartels.

Cozies do not have graphic sex or violence or use of bad language. They may have a touch of humor and a romantic subplot. Also, the puzzle is the thing. Readers want to solve the mystery along with the sleuth.

What are the origins, the DNA, of the cozy?

Agatha Christie started the cozy genre. Her confined settings with a limited number of suspects are classic examples. The Mousetrap is still one of my favorites. Jill Churchill’s books turned me on to this genre with their amusing titles. Diane Mott Davidson was probably one of the earliest authors who introduced the culinary mystery, with her caterer sleuth. Pets, crafts and hobbies are other popular subgenres. Some stories may have a cat detective or a dog that sniffs out clues.

Now paranormal mysteries have come into vogue, so you might have a sleuth with psychic abilities or a ghostly sidekick. For the most part, these stories are more lighthearted than serious crime fiction, but they don’t always have to contain humor. The focus is on a microcosm of life with a small group of people in a defined setting. Murder, She Wrote, the TV show with Angela Lansbury, is a classic example.

Are there rules or bounds to the genre? What would it take to get pegged as being out-of-bounds?

Rape is out of bounds, as well as anything terrible happening to a child. As mentioned above, bad language and graphic sex or violence are no-no’s in this genre. Also, you never kill the family pet. You can do so in a suspense novel but not in a cozy.

Would that cause heartache among agents and editors? And more importantly, with readers?

Yes, cozy readers expect an author to follow genre conventions. They know when they pick up a book with a cute cover and a funny title what kind of read they’ll be getting. If you disappoint or shock them, they may look elsewhere for their next story.

Trends come and go in publishing, but the cozy seems to be one of the most reliable genres. Indeed, if anything, it seems to be growing in popularity.

Cozies are lighthearted whodunits, and we all want to escape from the horrible news out there. There’s a certain fantasy element involved, in that the sleuth always wins; justice is served; and another murder to solve is just around the next corner. The story may have you laughing out loud if it has a humorous slant. And readers like solving the puzzle. These stories appeal to the intellect and engage your attention with their glimpse into a particular slice of life. They’ll always appeal to readers who want to read a mystery but who don’t want to be horrified.

Bad Hair Day has got to be the all-time greatest name for a mystery series, bar none, and Marla Shore’s coiffing and sleuthing skills make it work. Who the heck is Marla and why?

The Bad Hair Day series is set in Florida, where I live with my husband. When the series starts, hairstylist Marla Shore is a 34- year-old divorced woman who has an aversion to having children due to a tragedy in her past. She’s overcome her mistakes and opened a successful salon. She is proud of her accomplishments and fiercely independent. So when she meets handsome Detective Dalton Vail, she’s dismayed to learn he has a 12-year-old daughter and a controlling temperament. They develop a romantic relationship but have many hurdles to jump before they can settle down.

Marla is brave, sometimes foolhardy, and very compassionate. She’s a good listener and cares about her clients. That’s the main reason she became a stylist; she likes to help women look their best so as to raise their confidence. Marla is someone you would want for a friend. She’s also dedicated to truth and justice, so when someone she knows is murdered, she’ll set on the trail of the killer. She uses her conversationalist skills to interview suspects.

How do you work through a story? Extensive outlining, or sketch broadly and vaguely, and let the chips fall where they may?

I develop my characters before doing anything else. This means I select the victim and then determine who might have gained from that person’s death. I’ll assign each suspect a motive. Once I have these elements, I’ll write a synopsis. This comes before I begin writing page one. The story might change as I write, in which case I’ll go back later and revise the synopsis.

You also write paranormal romance. Do you see any overlap, and are you tempted to write a cross-genre novel bringing the two together somehow? Would fans of each embrace it?

Romance readers are far more willing to embrace other genres. Not so the other way around for mystery fans. I started writing amateur sleuth stories because I’d ended up putting a mystery into my romance novels. In the same manner, I have a romantic subplot running through my Bad Hair Day series. Each genre enhances the other, but you have to market to different audiences.

There’s this definitive how-to guide for writing the cozy mystery, titled, appropriately enough, Writing the Cozy Mystery. Ever heard of it?

I wrote this short instructional guidebook because there weren’t any how-to texts available for this topic. My book isn’t aimed at beginning writers; it’s focused solely on writing the cozy mystery. Some authors don’t like to be labeled as cozy writers. They feel these works aren’t respected as much as serious crime fiction. That’s because cozies aim more at a female audience, although men do read them. But I’m proud of what I write and happy to fill the void for this type of instructional tool. Writing the Cozy Mystery has received highly positive reviews; when I have time, I’d like to add more material in a revised edition.

What about you would most surprise your fans?

I enjoy the romantic movies on the Hallmark Channel. I also watch superhero TV shows like The Flash, Arrow, and Supergirl. Castle is my favorite crime show.

What’s next for Nancy J. Cohen?

I’m working on revised and updated Author’s Editions of my backlist mystery titles and also want to get them into audio. Meanwhile, I’ve finished book 14 in the Bad Hair Day series except for edits. And I hope to have a story in an anthology with other authors in the Fall.

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Titles in the Bad Hair Day series have made the IMBA bestseller list and been selected by Suspense Magazine as Best Cozy Mystery. Nancy’s Writing the Cozy Mystery provides valuable instruction on writing a winning whodunit. Her imaginative romances, including the Drift Lords series, have proven popular with fans as well. 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. When not busy writing, she enjoys fine dining, cruising, visiting Disney World, and outlet shopping. Visit her at http://NancyJCohen.com