Writing the Cozy Mystery—the Victim

By Elizabeth S. Craig, @elizabethscraigDSC06922

This is the third in my cozy mystery writing series.  Today I’m taking a closer look at our victim. Parts one and two can be found here and here.

Handling our victim’s demise: As I mentioned in an earlier post, you can handle this a couple of different ways.  You can show the reader the likely suspects and why the victim might have been killed during interactions between future suspects and future victim at the start of the book (victim is still alive as the story opens).  Or you can open the story with the victim’s body and have the sleuth figure out who the suspects are and the motive (slightly trickier, I think).

Another tricky victim area: likeability.  If the victim is too unlikeable, readers may not care if his murder is solved or not.  Although it does make it easy in terms of motive. If you’ve got a very unlikeable victim, might be a good idea for the sleuth to remind others that justice is still important (as Hercule Poirot did in Agatha Christie’s mysteries). Or we could consider having someone close to the sleuth or the sleuth herself under suspicion to give the reader extra incentive to find out whodunit.

If the victim is too likeable, it can be hard to realistically imagine 4-5 people who would want to do away with him.  In that case, you might want to uncover backstory on the victim that shows him in a new and unflattering light.  Or show that the victim’s life is a carefully constructed lie.  This can be a fun approach and one that typically adds a lot to the word count, for you short writers out there.

The suspects are never strangers to the victim in a cozy.  The victim’s death has a purpose.

The victim’s death. There are lots of different ways to murder someone.  If this is a cozy, the murder should be offstage and not described in graphic terms. Since forensics doesn’t play a heavy role in these books, the information you do supply (particularly in terms of guns) needs to be accurate.  There are good resources available to help you with the crime itself.  Crime writer Sue Coletta has a great blog and nice list of resources,  doctor and writer D.P. Lyle has helpful information for writers (see his sidebar near the middle of the page for searchable categories),  and crime writer Fiona Quinn has informative interviews on her blog, along with a nice list of resources.  Another good roundup of resources is provided by Klariza (who, in the bizarre tradition of Tumblr…sigh… goes only by a first name).  Crime writer Clarissa Draper has a nice series of poisons on her blog.

An additional victim?  I like two victims in my books.  The second body shows up about halfway through the book and is frequently one of the suspects who seems most likely to have murdered the first victim.

We probably should avoid (particularly if we’re trying to sell the book to traditional cozy publishers):  having children as victims in the cozy mystery (unless the child is particularly unpleasant or a much older child. Even then, I’d think twice).  And, if you’re contemplating killing a dog or cat in a cozy mystery…I’d seriously reconsider.

What other aspects of the victim do you mystery writers and readers like to consider?

Tips for creating a better crime fiction victim: Click To Tweet

Image: MorgueFile: Dodgerton Skillhause

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16 thoughts on “Writing the Cozy Mystery—the Victim

  1. These tips are so helpful, Elizabeth! And I couldn’t agree more about Sue Coletta’s great blog. When I think about the victims in what I write, I also think it’s important to give her or him some character depth. That’s a little trickier if the victim is killed, or the body discovered, early in the novel. But however you do it, I think it’s important for readers to have some kind of connection to the victim. Otherwise, why would they care who killed the victim, let alone why?

    1. Margot–And so often, the consensus among writers that I’ve seen has been, “Oh, they’ll care about whodunit because it’s a mystery…regardless of who the victim is.” But from what I’ve read in customer reviews, that just isn’t true. So, something to think about when writing commercial quality mysteries…the personality and likability of the victim.

  2. Hi Elizabeth – how funny … I looked and read the first para as “today I’m going to look at the victim’s parts” …..?!

    I do look at tv series now with a new light … too clean and too good looking I’m not happy with them!

    A new book on the poisons used by Agatha Christie has come out this month .. and I though some readers might be interested in it – I expect they’ve already seen it … but if not:

    http://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/sep/05/agatha-christies-poisons-crime-fiction Guardian article
    A is for Arsenic: the Poisons of Agatha Christie

    2 articles and one to the book …

    It is so interesting to see how things are done … and how clever people are in utilising their skills or their knowledge base … Cheers Hilary

    1. Hilary–Ha! That would be a bad day if I had to look at victims for real! I’m wayyyy too squeamish. Especially parts. :)

      Oh, I’m excited about these links, thank you! I love, love, love Agatha Christie and I love her use of poisons. I’m looking forward to reading these in the carpool line at the high school in a little while!

  3. I’m finding this series really useful. Also realising that my mysteries fall outside the ‘cozy’ genre for a number of reasons, like my sleuths tend to have pro-resources, even if not all police. But a lot of the info is useful – and the links. Thank you.

  4. Great tips, as always! Your exasperation with Tumblr made me LOL. Would you consider “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time” a cozy? It has an amateur sleuth and there’s no graphic violence or descriptions (at least I think so, it’s been a few years since I’ve read it.) It seems to be one example of breaking a rule in a good way. The “no children” rule, though, seems ironclad.

    1. Megan–Oh gosh, I *hate* Tumblr! Absolutely despise it. There’s such terrific content there but it’s a nightmare to navigate it for anyone trying to curate and credit links, as I do. It’s the only social media platform that practically makes me break out in hives. :)

      I would consider “Curious” a cozy. And the humor in it (even the bittersweet humor) definitely helps push it into that category.

  5. Too likable to kill? Lovely point.

    One of the world’s shortest books: People Too Likable to Kill.

    There’s always a reason in killing season.

    “He had it commin'” – Chicago, the musical.

    1. Jack–What I think I like best are those hidden reasons. You know. “But who would kill Miss Emily? She was the town’s favorite Sunday school teacher!” Ah, but Miss Emily had a secret life! Something wonderful about secrets.

      And the Southern version of “he had it commin”….”he needed killin’.” :)

  6. This series has helped me seriously rethink calling my books cozies. They’re not. Not at all.

    I’m thinking about calling the introspective noir. They’re not strictly traditional, but then, sometimes I have no idea what I’m talking about.

    Love the series, even though I don’t write cozies.

      1. Chats with other readers have convinced me that cozy isn’t the right label. Too strongly feels of thatched cottages and little old ladies sipping tea at the book club. (I am a huge fan of little old ladies sipping tea at the book club, but it’s not what I write.)

        I considered “soft noir” but the entertainment industry already has a “soft — ” entry and it’s not an association I want to make.

        And “light” briefly, but “light” almost always means “we took out the parts with any substance and just left the boring bits.” Light beer, light salad dressing, I guess light reading shouldn’t fall into the same pit, but I couldn’t get behind it.

        Always appreciate feedback from someone who truly knows whereof they speak. Thank you!

        1. Joel–Ha! Yes, as a matter of fact, I’ve set murder *during* book club in one of my cozies. :) They were old ladies. There may or may not have been tea involved.

          Oh, I don’t know, soft noir is rather edgy. :)

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