Writing the Cozy Mystery—the Sleuth

By Elizabeth S. Craig, @elizabethscraigfile000946809180

I’ve had a few people emailing me asking questions about starting a cozy mystery (or, really, any type of mystery involving an amateur sleuth).  I promised to write a post on the topic… and then I didn’t deliver!  So here, belatedly, is the first post in a crash course on cozy mystery writing.

I thought it might be easier for someone starting out to think about potential questions to answer.  This helps us flesh out our sleuth and story.  It’s also, in my view, a heck of a lot easier than just launching into a brand new mystery.

Who is my sleuth and why is she getting involved in this case?  Readers tend to be able to suspend disbelief a bit in cozies, but it can be nice in the first book of the series to make the sleuth’s involvement more of a result of a direct action.  Is our sleuth a suspect?  Is the sleuth’s friend a suspect?  Was the victim a friend of the sleuth’s?  Did the crime occur at a place the sleuth works?  Did the sleuth discover the body?  There are many different directions to go with this.

How does my sleuth learn important crime scene details?  How detailed will I want to get?  My books are nearly free of forensics, but my sleuth at least knows the time of death (important for finding out which suspects have alibis) and the murder method.  It can also sometimes be useful to be able to get details regarding the victim’s will.  Many cozies have sleuths with friends or relatives who are married to police or are police officers themselves.  Or maybe some of the crime scene details are public knowledge.

How does my sleuth learn who the likely suspects are?  Does she witness suspects engaged in altercations with the victim?  Is there local gossip about who might have a grudge against the victim?  Is it because she’s able to figure out who gains most from the victim’s death?

What makes this sleuth stand out?  What are her special talents? Remember, sleuths are supposed to be gifted amateurs.

How will the sleuth go about interviewing the suspects?  This is always a fairly awkward thing for me to write.  Here we have an amateur, with no official capacity at all, who needs to talk to everyone who might be involved with the case.  How can our sleuth get away with it?  There are several ways of doing this.  My Myrtle character writes for the local paper in the small town and is upfront about speaking with the suspects sometimes, while working on a story.  But sometimes she’s simply a nosy old lady who brings casseroles and drops by for chats with people.  For another series, the hub is a quilting shop that doubles as a local hangout.  There suspects may be waylaid while shopping or attending a quilting class.

How do suspects and other characters react to my sleuth?  This is actually more important than it sounds.  Is your sleuth pushy?  Curious? A good listener?  Is she easily dismissed/flies under the radar/doesn’t seem like a threat enough to hide things from?  What makes people want to give her information?

What flaws has the sleuth got?  Because, let’s face it: perfect people are annoying.  They’re annoying in real life and they’re annoying in fiction, too.  Whatever the flaw is, it can’t be stupidity.  This is a genre where readers are completely unforgiving (and rightly so) of sleuth stupidity.  No middle of the night meetings with suspects in the middle of nowhere.

Who does my sleuth have to talk to?  Internal dialogue can get really old.  It’s so much better to have a sidekick to hash things out with.  Even better if the sidekick can provide a bit of conflict, adds a quirky quality to the book, or has talents and knowledge that our sleuth doesn’t have.

What does my sleuth do?  And for a cozy, this can be a big one, if you’re going into traditional publishing.  I’ve done very well with my Myrtle series which has no series hook (no culinary or crafting hook), but you’d do well to put your sleuth in an interesting job or consider a series hook, strictly in terms of selling the story.  Although I kind of like the mysteries that don’t.

And finally: does your sleuth have a pet?  Perhaps she should.  It’s a cozy mystery.  :)

I’ve probably left out some important questions—any suggestions from crime fiction readers or writers?  And…although this is a genre-specific post, I do think some of these questions can be adapted for other genres.  Does your protagonist have a friend to discuss the story situation with?  What types of flaws and strengths does he have? How do people react to your protagonist?

Tips for creating a sleuth for our mystery: Click To Tweet

Image: MorgueFile: altankoman

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33 thoughts on “Writing the Cozy Mystery—the Sleuth

  1. This is a great post! Do you think that its more difficult to create suspension of disbelief for an amateur sleuth in a world where we’ve all been exposed to “CSI” type shows and police procedurals? I know that’s a stumbling block for me when I pick up a cozy mystery.

    1. Robert–It’s not hard for regular series readers who go into the book prepared to suspend disbelief (like fantasy readers in a way…they’re prepared to accept magic to a certain degree). But if a reader isn’t used to cozy/traditional and is a big police procedural or thriller reader, I think it’s tough to accept. I do like to make the sleuth’s involvement more believable in at least the first of every series.

  2. This is really, really interesting, Elizabeth! I think one of the more challenging things about writing cosy mysteries is creating characters – including the sleuth – who are interesting and credible. So many times, the story hinges on that. So it’s really important, I think, to plan that out. Thanks for offering some important questions to ask.

  3. I’m reminded of a cartoon where someone commented that every time there was a murder, that Jessica Fletcher lady was around . . . and they were eyeing her suspiciously.

    Everyone loves a series, so the next issue might be, why does my amateur sleuth keep stumbling over bodies or puzzles or whatever? Worth pondering before writing the first one, to make transitioning to a series easier.

    I could also write whole bunch about story structure, knowing the ending before you begin, stuff like that. I love love love a good mystery — and rage in frustration at a badly written one.

    1. Joel–Yes, that’s also called Cabot Cove Syndrome. :) It seemed to follow her around when she traveled to Atlanta and other locations, too.

      A poor ending, a resolution that doesn’t make sense…definitely not the reward mystery readers are looking for.

    2. “…why does my amateur sleuth keep stumbling over bodies…”

      It won’t always be (personally) stumbling over bodies. Once your sleuth has solved a difficult case, word is going to get around. There might be a story in a local newspaper, or a friend tells someone in trouble about this person who once helped someone in a similar situation. Cases will arrive at your sleuth’s door even if he or she doesn’t welcome the attention.

  4. Hi Elizabeth – what great ideas for people to take on board and give their ideas a murder mystery try.

    I hate weak endings … where a brilliant story line – just tails off … I have just read one – I’ll be writing about it somewhere once I’m back …

    Cheers and Enjoy Labour Day Weekend … Hilary

  5. Elizabeth–
    Your questions/answers are applicable to a lot of genres, not just to the cozy. They underscore a problem I have with my own series. It’s not cozy, not really thriller or mystery. It’s mostly whydunit, in which the central character, a journalist, isn’t really a sleuth, but keeps finding herself in dicey crime situations. Your questions are applicable there as well. Thank you.

  6. Hey, Elizabeth, this was a really good post, and I thank you for it.
    After writing my vampire series [Sabrina Strong], I’ve wanted to do a cozy murder w/o any fantasy. It would be a challenge for me. From this, I believe I’ve got most of it covered. My Lainey Quilholt mystery is a YA. I’ve put her in a small town, and her parents are both dead and she lives with an aunt who runs a bookstore, and also dates the chief of police (not sure if he would be considered the chief, in a small town?)
    Anyway, this, and all your posts have been helpful. Thank you!

    1. Lorelei–I think you’ve got it covered! Small town is good (I’ve written both small town and city and think small town is easier), bookstore is perfect hook, and she has a police informant (chief is correct for a small town). :)

    2. If a small town has it’s own police force, there is a police chief. If the town is too small to have it’s own police force, then the top cop will likely be the county sheriff.

      But yes, “police chief” is fine for small towns.

      1. Camille–I’d say the only issue I’d have with having a sheriff in a story is the fact that their geographical area is so much larger that they might not be as much ‘in the loop’ as a chief. Growing up in Anderson County, SC, the sheriff in our area could take *forever* to get to a house that had called for police assistance. Although, that could also play well in a mystery, ha! Could add some tension.

        1. I originally had my character’s policeman uncle as a Chief, but I looked up the area I was using as inspiration for my locale, and discovered that there were no local police, but the sheriff’s office was based in the township, and his force was about the right size. So I went with Sheriff Rosie rather than Chief Rosie. (Besides it’s a TINY county.)

          The advantage of a chief (for the writer) is that he’s going to have a lot less power, which can be useful for story options. A sheriff, on the other hand, means you can avoid Cabot Cove syndrome a little, because you can spread the crimes out a lot. (Now a sheriff may also not be all that powerful, but he’s beholden to the electorate, not the town council.)

          Research is a wonderful thing, because you don’t have to be realistic in a cozy, but seeing how it really works can give you lovely details. (For instance, just looking at the website of the sheriff’s dept in question showed me that they had ONE detective, and his main job was school visits and the drug education program.)

          1. Camille–Ah, right, good to remember we can shrink the county! And nice point that it can help us avoid having a million murders in a tiny town.

            Research does help to add some complexity, even if we don’t use a lot of it! Ping me about your post, if I don’t hop over today!

  7. A really good list – and one to go over every new book in the same series (especially the parts about how the sleuth learns about important clues and details).

    Two thoughts on character flaws:

    1.) People sympathize with struggle, so one great way to approach your character’s “flaw” is to give them something they want out of life that is always a little out of reach, or always in conflict with something else they want. For instance, a cook who always struggles with her weight. Or a busy housewife who dreams of being a musician, but it’s always a struggle to eke out time for practice.

    2.) You can have a perfect character is he/she is not the protagonist. For instance Miss Marple really is a character without flaws (other than being old and people underestimate her — but that’s kind of a strength) but we see most of her stories through the eyes of other characters. Sort of like Holmes and Watson. Of course, Holmes is not perfect, but he is something of a super hero, and Doyle gets away with it via Watson.

    1. Camille–Interesting thoughts on this! Good point that the flaw could be something the protagonist knows about and is actively trying to work out. That could create a lot of empathy from readers, for sure.

      And…yes! I’d never thought of it that way. You’re right–Marple and Holmes worked well because they were being filtered.

  8. Cool post, Elizabeth! Someone may have suggested this in the comments above, and it’s sort of an amalgamation of several of your points: how do the professionals feel about this amateur butting in? What kind of push-back does the amateur have to deal with in getting involved, and how does the amateur manage to get away with it?

    Thanks so much!

    1. Kathy–Good one! There are so many different ways to go with that, and it’s such an important question. In my quilting mysteries, the police chief is not interested in his job and is happy to outsource his duties to an amateur. In the Myrtles, she is in constant conflict with the chief, who is also her son.

      1. I find it really helpful to know how the professionals will respond to my amateur. It often can serve as a springboard to plot sequence when I’m stuck. ;)

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