University of Rochester

Alumni Gazette

15 Clues to a Writer’s Life

A nursing graduate turned successful mystery writer reflects on lessons learned. By Nancy Heller Cohen ’70N

1. I grew up reading Nancy Drew, Judy Bolton, and Cherry Ames. The Cherry Ames books inspired me to become a registered nurse. I liked the Judy Bolton series because it was the most realistic with Judy ending up getting married. Maybe that’s why the heroine of my novels, Marla Shore, is progressing in her relationship with her boyfriend, Dalton, in my own mystery series. Next I read Phyllis Whitney, Victoria Holt, and Mary Stewart. Notice these were all forerunners of the modern female amateur sleuth story. I got hooked on romances by Barbara Cartland novels and devoured every one I could find.

2. I am a Trekkie. Beam me up, Scotty. Live long and prosper!

3. I bought a book called Structuring Your Novel to teach myself how to write an entire book. I’ve never found creative writing courses to be helpful, but I do learn a lot from classes taught by published authors who focus on a particular aspect of the craft.

4. I believe learning is a lifelong process.

5. When I was in college, I took courses on Shakespeare and Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. War and Peace was one of my favorite books. I also liked Charles Dickens’s novels.

6. Books are clogging every room in my house, including the living room floor. I realize it’s an addiction, but look at all the exciting things I learn! At Thanksgiving, a cousin of mine wanted to know what the protective item was called that covered a man’s . . . you know. He asked me because he figured I would have the answer. Right off, I told him it’s a codpiece. How did I know? From reading historical romances.

7. I’m happy when my kids call me a “walking dictionary.” Their voices are distinctly lacking in awe when they say this.

8. I don’t mind being a bookworm. Nerds rule the world!

9. My mother used to urge me to go out and meet boys instead of staying indoors to read.

10.My favorite evening activity is still staying home and reading a good book. A glass of red wine makes it even better.

11. I get excited when an author I like comes out with a new book. It’s like receiving a treat. I am hoping this is the same feeling that my series brings to my readers.

12. My dog keeps me company in my office all day. She has her own round doggie cushion where she lies behind my chair. She’s the model for Marla’s poodle, Spooks.

13. I often read more than one book at a time, usually in different genres. I need a book to read in bed at night and one that stuffs into my purse for travel. I’m a fast reader and can finish one hundred pages a day if I put my mind to it and have time.

14. Sometimes I peek ahead to the end of a book. Terrible, isn’t it? But I can’t wait to find out what happens.

15. People who enjoy reading fiction have a gift that will keep them company throughout life. We can sink ourselves into an imaginary world, share experiences vicariously, and learn all sorts of things we’d never have known otherwise.

Nancy Heller Cohen ’70N is the author of the Bad Hair Day Mystery series, published by Kensington Books. Dead Roots, her most recent novel and the seventh in the series, was published in December. This is adapted from her blog,, where she chronicles her work as a writer.