Saturday, February 4, 2012

Florida as Character

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.


Towns
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.


Tabletop Treats
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.


Tourist Attractions
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.


Topography
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.


Topics
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.




In Highlights to Heaven, Marla travels to
Is it any wonder so many mystery writers gravitate to the Sunshine State?

41 comments:

Kaye said...

We visited Bonnet House and just loved it. Great spot but the traffic in south FL is horrendous. As much as I detest living in Podunk (n. central FL) at least we don't have an overload of traffic.

Janet Rudolph said...

Mystery Readers Journal, Volume 8:3) will focus on Florida Mysteries. Love you to contribute, of course, and this would be a great article! Hope I can count on you for an Author! Author! essay

Nancy J. Cohen said...

Kaye, traffic lightens up in the summer when the snow birds go home. I love the grounds at Bonnet House. It's delightful to meander the paths and admire the foliage.

Janet, I'd love to contribute to MRJ.

Una Tiers said...

Hi Nancy, great post. I write about my hometown, Chicago.
Does the tourism office know of your loyalty?
Una Tiers

Anonymous said...

I've been daydreaming about a trip to Florida! I'd love to drive south and wind up in the Keys. Back in the 70's I went on a trip to Miami and Hollywood Beach area. LOVED it and vowed to return...where has the time gone? I can always return in a book, right? ; )
Glenda S.

Sandra Parshall said...

Great post, Nancy. Thanks for being with us this weekend. Florida is an endlessly rich setting for mysteries, from the lightest to the darkest.

Nancy J. Cohen said...

Una, I'll bet Chicago provides an interesting background with its history and all.

Glenda, come on down. This winter has been delightfully mild. I'm looking outside at sunny skies in the 70's.

Nancy J. Cohen said...

Thanks, Sandra. Florida has a wealth of authors and writing organizations. It's a great place to find comraderie as an author. And all of our stories are so different because the choice of locales varies.

Molly Swoboda said...

Great article, Nancy. We *do* have it all in Florida. Attention Visitors! The doors are always open, and the lights are always on in Paradise. C'mon down :)

Nancy J. Cohen said...

Molly, it was paradise for me when I moved here.

If any of you are Florida residents or visitors, please check out my appearance schedule on my website and come say hello!

Palmaltas said...

I've lived on the east coast of Florida for the past year and a half. I take daily walks on a raised boardwalk through a swampy area. As I walk, I conjure murders among the palm trees and dense foliage. Loved this blog!

Nancy J. Cohen said...

Palmatas, is that at a local park? Sounds like several places we might have been.

Mom2MandJ said...

i love Mt. Dora and the Leu Gardens. I know you love cruises and set Killer Knots in one. How about setting one in Disney World?
I'm hoping to making it to SleuthFest and meet you!

Christine Lawrence said...

I use my state and a made up suburb outside of Columbus, Ohio in my stories. This blog gave me some great ways to incorporate some of our well known area attractions :)

Nancy J. Cohen said...

Sorry, Mom2, but I am careful not to mention Disneyworld due to trademarks and their protectiveness of the company name. Even my upcoming paranormal romance that has scenes at an Orlando theme park is a fictional place. A city, which is public, is different.

Nancy J. Cohen said...

Oh yes, Christine, send your character to your local attractions to interview suspects. I may use real restaurants, but only if nothing exciting happens there. Otherwise, I change the name.

GBPool said...

Aristotle said there were 5 basic points to a novel: Plot, Character, Setting, Dialogue and the Thought Behind the Story. I love a great setting. It does add a dimension to the story and gives the characters a place to grow. I set my Johnny Casino Casebook stories in Los Angeles since I live here, but he can go into the foothills, the beach, or even down to Mexico. Setting gives the reader a sense of place and they don't have to go to the airport to get there. Great article, Nancy.

Nancy J. Cohen said...

Thanks, GB. California offers a rich variety of terrains and ecosystems and people also.

Glynn Marsh Alam said...

I write novels set in the northern part of the state, specifically in the swamps. The trees are taller and the winters colder than in the Everglades. I've always felt the swamp is a character, one as dangerous as any killer if you don't know where you're stepping.

Glynn Marsh Alam

JackieW said...

Interesting blog today. I like to read stories set in Florida since I've never visited there. Your books are a delight.

JOYE said...

Would love to visit your state but in the meantime I read books about Florida...your books as well. Even tho your state is called the Sunshine State I think my state -Arizona-has as much if not more sunny days .

Jan Washburn said...

When we visited Florida way back in the 1950's,"we got sand in our shoes". I wonder if they still use that expression to mean you fell in love with Florida and decided to make it your home. I know what you mean about Disney's protection of its image. My editor wouldn't let me say my heroine looked like Snow White, even though that was an old fairy tale long before Disney.

lil Gluckstern said...

I've only been to Florida to visit my in-laws in West Palm Beach. does that sound like a cliche? bBut we also went to the Everglades and today I read several series that take place in all the less populated areas of the state. I'm fascinated because you are the first writer to mention the heat, and humidity, which for me would definitely be a character. I look forward to finding your books.

Nancy J. Cohen said...

Glynn, it gets cold in northern Florida! The terrain is hillier and trees can lose leaves in winter. Swamps are definitely atmospheric for mysteries and mysterious happenings.

Nancy J. Cohen said...

Jackie W., thanks so much. I hope you enjoy visiting our state vicariously through all the good Florida reads out there. Now you just need to come and visit.

Nancy J. Cohen said...

Joye, you get the sunshine too but not the humidity!

Nancy J. Cohen said...

Jan, these days I'd rather lounge around the pool than get sand in my shoes. LOL

Nancy J. Cohen said...

Lil, I hope you look up my books. I have scenes set around the state in interesting towns, also western Fort Lauderdale is the base setting for Marla's salon. Shear Murder finds Marla at the Venetian Pool in Coral Gables. I went there for research and was totally charmed by this natural lagoon.

Maureen Hayes said...

I miss living in Florida and love reading about it in your books. I used to go to Tarpon Bech every Wednesday morning with my Mom. We would stop at Dunkin Donuts on the way for cofee and donuts, then go and enjoy the beach for several hours - heaven!

I want to thank you for the good memories these places evoke, as well as for the fun I have reading your series. I hope I get lucky and win the copy of your book. It was kind of you to offer us the chance.

Keep writing and we'll keep reading you!

Nancy J. Cohen said...

Thanks, Maureen. I've never been to Tarpon Beach. We like to get away to Marco Island for one weekend in the summer. They have beautiful beaches and some good seafood restaurants.

Anonymous said...

I love a book that uses the area as one of the characters.

boots9k at wowway dot com

Misty MacRae said...

I grew up here & can still remember the Glades - if you ran off the road and into the marshes back then, you would have been in real trouble - but the Coral Castle would be a good a setting for a story of any kind

Nancy said...

I'd love to visit Florida for real, but I do love reading mysteries set there, especially since you include so many interesting details about the locale. Plus, Marla is quite the character!

suz said...

Just discovered this delightful and informative blog and I will be back. Thoroughly enjoyed reading the blog.

suz said...

Just discovered this delightful and informative blog and I will be back. Thoroughly enjoyed reading the blog.

Nancy J. Cohen said...

Oh yes, Misty, the Coral Castle is another cool site. I used to live in Miami when the Monkey Jungle and Parrot Jungle were still there.

Nancy, thank you and I'm glad you enjoy Marla's adventures.

Suz, thanks for coming by. Please visit on my other blog tour stops. Schedule is on my website.

Rebecca said...

Hey Nancy,
Great post. Thanks for the heads up on Bonnet House. I've always wondered if it was worth going to. Let's not forget that Florida also is home to pockets of Horse country. Not too long ago, people would ride up on their horse to shopping areas and restaurants in Kendall. Sure there are stories there.

Rebecca Lugones

Nancy J. Cohen said...

Oh right, Rebecca, and Davie used to have rodeos or still does. Florida has ranches, too. Hmm, I'll have to send Marla and Dalton for a stay at a dude ranch.

Grace said...

Hear, hear! I too use Florida as a character, though not all my remarks were complimentary when I first started writing c. 20 years ago. But I've mellowed now and can't imagine living or working anywhere else.

Nancy J. Cohen said...

Florida does have its idiosyncrasies to get used to when you first move here, like giant palmetto bugs.

Jane said...

Hi Nancy,
My name is Jane and I'm with Dwellable.
This is a WONDERFUL description!
I was looking for blog posts about Tarpon Beach to share on our site and I came across your post...If you're open to it, shoot me an email at jane(at)dwellable(dot)com.
Hope to hear from you :)
Jane