Thursday, February 16, 2012

Obsessions and Orchids by Nancy J. Cohen, Guest Blogger

Please welcome Nancy J. Cohen, an award-winning author who writes romance and mysteries. Her popular Bad Hair Day series features hairdresser Marla Shore, who solves crimes with wit and style under the sultry Florida sun. Several titles in this series have made the IMBA (Independent Mystery Booksellers Association) bestseller list, while Nancy’s imaginative sci-fi romances have garnered rave reviews.

Her latest book, and tenth in her mystery series, is Shear Murder from Five Star. Coming next is Warrior Prince, book one in The Drift Lords series, from The Wild Rose Press. Active in the writing community and a featured speaker at libraries and conferences, Nancy is listed in Contemporary Authors, Poets & Writers, and Who’s Who in U.S. Writers, Editors, & Poets.


Obsessions and Orchids by Nancy J. Cohen, Guest Blogger

Ask me how many candlesticks we have in our house, and my face might go red with embarrassment. For a while, my husband was on a collecting jag and he fixated on candlesticks. He ordered them from catalogues, picked them up on trips as souvenirs, and drooled over them in department stores.

Now imagine if he’s a character in a book. What sort of man would collect candlesticks? What kinds of obsessions do the people in your stories possess?

In Shear Murder, my latest Bad Hair Day mystery featuring hairdresser sleuth Marla Shore, I have a character who loves orchids. He’s addicted to collecting them. Before I researched this subject, I had no idea such a fanaticism existed. And yet the more I read, the more fascinated I became.

Consider this excerpt wherein Marla is at a class learning about orchids. Why is this important to her? She’s investigating a murder that took place at a friend’s wedding. The nuptials were held at Orchid Isle, a nature park in Miami. Like me, Marla knows very little about the exotic flower.

Marla raised her hand again. “How can I tell a rare orchid from a regular one?”

“Today, most orchids can be cloned, although this doesn’t usually happen because then prices would fall. A few years ago in China, a new species was discovered. It was fabulously expensive and rare, but not for long. To me, a rare orchid signifies that it’s in danger of being overcollected in the wild. There are laws regulating what people can take and from where. A well-known orchidist in Miami just got fined a hefty sum for illegally collecting specimens in the Philippines.”

“Does this mean there’s a black market for the more exotic blooms?” Marla folded her arms across her chest.

The instructor’s eyes gleamed. “Sure, fanatics will pay anything. Call it orchidelirium if you will, but collecting orchids can become an addiction just as strong as alcohol or drugs.”

“So how much money flows through this illicit trade?”

Pacing back and forth in front of the class, Diane snorted. “Trophy orchids, or rare varieties that cost thousands of dollars each, fuel a ten-billion-dollar orchid black market.” She paused to survey them. “Look at the London pharmacist arrested for having six rare orchids in his luggage. He went to jail for orchid smuggling, and that’s a minor case. Murder, greed, and
betrayal are not uncommon among people passionate about their plants.”

Another character in the story, the victim’s husband, is obsessed with clocks. Scott owns a clock repair shop and has a collection of timepieces in his house. Witness this conversation between Marla and one of the victim’s colleagues.

“I ran into Griff the other day,” Marla mentioned casually. “He nearly accused Scott of murdering his wife. You don’t know Scott that well, but did Torrie ever seem scared of him?”

“Hell, no. All she did was put down the poor guy. He wasn’t assertive enough. He spent more time with his clocks than with her. He didn’t care if his clothing was out of style. She didn’t have one good thing to say about her husband.”

Sometimes the meek types were capable of the most violence, Marla thought.

“Did Griff tell you he got mugged? Nothing was stolen, so robbery couldn’t have been the motive. That’s why I was interested in the pictures he took at the wedding. Maybe one of them shows Torrie’s murderer.”

Hally took a gulp of coffee. “What else would you expect, darling? The killer had to be someone familiar to her, and we’re all in the photos. I know it’s not me, so that leaves everyone else.” She wrinkled her brow. “What happened to Griff?”

“Someone conked him on the head.”

“Is he okay? I haven’t seen him in … since we worked together at Orchid Isle.”

And so the story shifts back again to Orchid Isle. Even the owner of the nature park has a collection. Animal heads brought back from hunting expeditions decorate his walls. He might love plants, but you can’t say the same for his wildlife targets.

Characters become more interesting when you give them an obsession or populate their houses with collections. You can use this to show character. What if a muscle man with tattoos collects glass figurines of cats? Or what if the sweet housewife has a secret hobby of hiding human bones in her underwear drawer? Maybe your gruff trucker who lives in a trailer raises cacti because he likes their prickly spines and hopes they’ll discourage unwanted visitors? As for an obsession, how far will your character go to pursue his interests?

Giving someone in your story an obsession will broaden his character as well as contribute to the plot. What are some memorable traits you’ve used or discovered in your reading?


Nancy, thank you so much for including us in your blog book tour. I hope you'll come back for the launch of Warrior Prince.

Shear Murder

Who knew weddings could be murder? Hairstylist Marla Shore is weeks away from becoming a bride herself when she walks down the aisle as a bridesmaid at her friend Jill’s ceremony. Things take a turn for the worse when the matron of honor ends up dead, the cake knife in her chest. Now what will they use to cut the cake?

Follow Nancy on her website, blog, Twitter, Facebook and Goodreads.

Leave a comment during Nancy’s blog tour and enter to win signed copies of Perish by Pedicure and Killer Knots.


Margot Kinberg said...

Pat - Thanks for hosting Nancy.

Nancy - You are absolutely right that characters are much more interesting if there's something unusual about them, such as an obsession. And hey, orchids worked with Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe!

Nancy J. Cohen said...

Yes, and now I have to apply this to the next mystery I'm planning.
Thanks for stopping by, Margot!

Kathleen Kaska said...

Sounds like you've got a winner, Nancy. I agree that giving characters quirky habits or hobbies makes them come alive. I'm working on a eccentric guy who weighs more than 300 pounds and he carves miniatures in his spare time.

Nancy J. Cohen said...

Kathleen, that's certainly a different hobby to give your guy.

It's interesting to think about what our friends collect when we create characters. Teapots? Elephant figurines? Troll dolls?
What else can you add?

Karen said...

I love giving my characters a hobby or serious interest like that. It definitely adds depth to the characterization and can sometimes function in the plot in unexpected ways. Rex Stout used the orchids as a plot device in at least one of the Nero Wolfe books.

In my own continuing mystery series, The Market Center Mysteries, my heroine has a thing for interesting pens, which ties in with her career as the assistant to the director and chief problem solver for the Market Center. If you've been to a trade show, you know that gewgaw giveaways are everywhere, but pens are among the most common.

Patricia Stoltey said...

I once met a lady on Sanibel Island, FL, who collected all kinds of seashells, driftwood, and other beach debris. She used some of it for crafts to sell, but I think she kept most of it for herself just because she enjoyed searching, sorting, and viewing.

Good morning, Nancy. Thanks again for being here today. I'm off to help spread the word.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Interesting idea to use an obsession to further the story. I wonder if the candlestick obsession will wind up in a story?

Judy said...

Hey Nancy, nice meeting you through this Blog. I haven't read any of your books but I am hoping to! I like the idea of characters having an husband would fit right in. He's always on one kick or another. You should see our extra space anywhere!


Nancy J. Cohen said...

Karen, I actually have a friend who likes to collect interesting pens. And now that you mention it, so do I! Mine tend to run expensive, though, and I have enough. I keep them in a cherry wood box with a glass lid.

Nancy J. Cohen said...

Patricia, I used to collect seashells that I'd picked off the beach but I have nowhere to put them now. I have some in vases or baskets in my bathrooms for decorations. Other people make lamp shades, jewelry, etc. out of seashells. The best pickings are on Florida's west coast.

Nancy J. Cohen said...

Alex, a heavy candlestick makes a good murder weapon. Remember your old Clue game--Colonel Mustard in the library with the candlestick?

Nancy J. Cohen said...

So Judy, what does your husband collect?

Susan said...

Great post, and so true!

My ninja detective, Hiro, has a thing for noodles from street vendor carts. (In 16th century Japan, this was what passed for junk food.) He stops at the carts whenever he can, and never passes one without at least noticing its presence. It's something that sets him apart, and also something readers can relate to - and it definitely makes him a stronger protagonist.

This is such good advice, and it's a good reminder to me that these quirks are a great character builder! Thanks for the great post!

Jacqueline Seewald said...

I hadn't thought of an obsessive trait as a way to deepen character.
Very clever! Thanks for the idea.
A lot of us do collect things. I'm into glass objects: paperweights and vases.

Nancy J. Cohen said...

Susan, I like the noodles bit. I can see a modern day hero having a passion for those gourmet food trucks that are all the rage.

Jacqueline, I like glass paperweights, too. I've a small collection on my office shelf.

Patricia Stoltey said...

Nancy, your posts and the comments have given me so many great ideas that I'm now itching to start a new mystery series (something I'd promised myself I wouldn't do). :)

Mary Ricksen said...

Great advise as always Nancy! Thanks! You got me thinkin'!

druidgirl said...

My mother-in-law collected tea pots of all sizes and shapes and I like to collect bookmarks and Betty Boop items. I can not wait to read your books Nancy!


Maureen Hayes said...

I have read about characters who collect all sorts of things from art to cats, but I personally like to collect teacups, especially bone china from England or Germany.

I think the idea of giving a character this extra dimension makes him or her more interesting as a reader and also must give you more to play with as a writer. Thanks for the interesting post and the chance to win copies of the books.

I am enjoying the blog tour, glad you are doing it!

Nancy J. Cohen said...

Betty Boop items, Deb? That's different!

Maureen, I have a bone china teacup collection too, although I inherited it from my mother. I don't buy any more as we have enough. Hey, beer steins (is that what you call those mugs) would be a good guy collection item.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the great tip about how to create interesting characters. Your new book, SHEAR MURDER, looks great too. I'm definitely going to order a copy.

Nancy J. Cohen said...

Thank you, MTLogan, for stopping by. And to Patricia for having me here!

Anonymous said...

Good luck to Nancy and Obsessions and Orchids! I'm sending big thoughts for lots of success and sales right now!

June Shaw said...

Interesting post, Nancy. I hadn't gotten to read this book yet. Now, of course, I need to. And since I know about the orchids in it now, I'll have to tell two people I know here who are orchid fanatics about it. They'll certainly get your book--and then probably buy others you wrote.

Nancy J. Cohen said...

Thanks, Stephen, I appreciate your good wishes!

June, I'd love it for you to spread the word to your orchid loving friends.

Nancy J. Cohen said...

Re orchids, a friend gave me one for my birthday once. I'm sorry to say that I killed it. I do not possess a green thumb.

Did you know vanilla is the only edible plant in the orchid family? I talk about vanilla growing and its rare plant value in Killer Knots, my cruise ship mystery.

Patricia Stoltey said...

Nancy, I've tried orchids several times and never managed to keep one alive for more than six months. I think our house is too dry.

Joyce Yarrow said...

I really enjoyed learning about our obsession with obsessions, Nancy :) - all kidding aside, it's rich territory to mine.

What comes to mind is John Fowles' classic first novel, "The Collector" which delves into what happens when the obsession is with a person...

Nancy J. Cohen said...

Obsessions with people are creepy, more like stalkers. And that's not the grist of the mill for a humorous cozy, IMHO. Too serious and real.