Nancy J. Cohen (Guest Blogger)
Lil Gluckstern is the lucky winner of a copy of Nancy's Died Blonde.
Florida offers the writer a wealth of characters, settings, and issues to incorporate into a story. From killers to kooks, from seaside views to sinkholes, from voting snafus to violence, we’ve got it all.
I’m not an authority on the wide range of authors populating my home state, but I can tell you how living in Florida has influenced my writing. All of my mysteries are set here. Why? Well, obviously it’s easier to write about what you can find in your own back yard. I’ve been a Florida resident for over thirty years. My Bad Hair Day mystery series is set in Palm Haven, a fictional western suburb of Fort Lauderdale. Many of the folks who live here are transplanted northerners. If you hear a Southern drawl, you’ll wonder where that person originated. An accent might be common in Jacksonville, but not in South Florida. Our population is diverse as we’re a nexus for the region, drawing commerce from Latin America and travelers from around the world. This diversity contributes to the many colorful characters in Florida fiction.
My heroine sleuth, Marla Shore, runs a hair salon in Palm Haven but often chases suspects to other locales. Each section of the state has its own personality, and I like to showcase these distinctive qualities in my stories. So my series is peppered with visits to towns that make for quaint weekend getaways. Mount Dora, located northwest of Orlando. This hilly town boasts a train ride, restaurants and boutiques, a nature trail around a lake where you can spot alligators, art festivals, antiques and more.
In Died Blonde, Marla visits Cassadaga, northeast of Orlando. This spiritualist camp houses certified mediums who are happy to do readings for a fee. Stay overnight at the Cassadaga Hotel and learn what the word “spooky” really means. Or visit Tarpon Springs, home of the Greek sponge fishing industry on Florida’s west coast. Marla goes here to interview a suspect in Body Wave.
Each town in Florida has a unique history and personality, including the Keys and other offshore islands. These details offer a multitude of interesting settings for stories. I love exploring these sites and putting them into my books so readers in other parts of the country can enjoy them, too.
Food specialties are another way to appeal to the reader’s senses. Whenever a character eats at a restaurant, the writer has an opportunity to bring the location to life. In Florida, this may mean conch chowder for a starter course, or perhaps gator fritters. How about grouper or snapper in citrus sauce for the main dish? Key lime pie for dessert in my favorite.
Certain towns may have events highlighting their regional specialties, like the strawberry festival at Plant City and the corn maze at Zellwood. I set a scene in a corn field in Dead Roots where Marla is chased by armed gunmen. She also interviews a tilapia grower in Body Wave. So as you see, food can work its way into plotting elements, too.
Let’s not forget one of our major industries in Florida: tourism. Attractions abound beyond the beaches and theme parks. In Hair Raiser, Marla helps her cousin Cynthia with a fund-raiser for an ocean preservation society. Scenes here were inspired by Bonnet House, a historic estate in Fort Lauderdale by the sea. For Shear Murder, I based my setting on Harry P. Leu Gardens in Winter Park. This lovely botanical garden turned into Orchid Isle in my story. I love visiting Leu Gardens and hope my enthusiasm shows in the descriptions in my story.
We may not have mountains in Florida, but we have hilly terrain, beaches, the Everglades, strings of islands, forests, rivers, lakes, and more. Each region has its uniqueness and gives a story its distinctive flavor. As for weather, we can have cloudless blue skies, torrential downpours, and dangerous hurricanes. The varied ecology, insects, humidity, and heat are common elements recognized by anyone who’s made a trip here. They’re typical of background settings in Florida stories.
Mentioning the semi-tropical foliage is always a pleasure for me. Flowering red hibiscus, sweet-smelling jasmine, orange trees, hot pink bougainvillea, banana plants, and coconut palms are just some of the native plants in South Florida. Other areas of the state have their own types of vegetation. When you put these details into your settings, it helps bring the scene alive for the reader.
All we have to do in this state is look in the newspaper for inspiration. I’ve used news stories many times as a resource. So many interesting people and issues cannot help but appeal to the storyteller. In my books, I’ve dealt with illegal migrant labor, false psychics, citrus canker, melanoma detection, pet fur products, exotic bird smuggling, and more. These topics provide for fascinating research, plus I learn something new along the way.
Under these diverse conditions, the well of inspiration can be refilled daily here. Weird events transpire with wacky people, and where sizzling temperatures cause passions to ignite. What better place is there in which to set a mystery?
Leave a comment for Nancy and you’ll be entered to win a signed copy of Died Blonde. The winner will be posted on Monday morning. If it’s you, email liz(at)elizabethzelvin.com with contact info so we can tell Nancy where to send the book.
Nancy J. Cohen’s popular Bad Hair Day series features hairdresser Marla Shore. Several titles in this series have made the IMBA bestseller list, while Nancy’s sci-fi romances have garnered rave reviews. Her latest book, and tenth in her mystery series, is Shear Murder from Five Star. Nancy can be found at her website, www.nancyjcohen.com, her blog at www.nancyjcohen.wordpress.com, and on Facebook, Twitter, and Goodreads.