Writing the Cozy Mystery: the Setting and the Sidekick

by Elizabeth S. Craig, @elizabethscraigfile611236549064

This is the fourth part in my series on writing cozy mysteries. Today, I’m covering two important elements of our story: the setting and our sidekick.

Most cozy mysteries shoot for a very closed environment and a closed group of suspects from which to choose from.

You can still maintain a closed environment in a large city or bigger town (I did in my Memphis series), but it’s a little harder, I think.  Although I’ve got a city as a backdrop for the story, I center much of the story action around a barbeque restaurant.  This doesn’t mean we can’t stray from these central locations, but they serve to make the setting seem more intimate (yes, cozy) and create a home base for the sleuths.  Sleuths can interview suspects from there, use it as a place to discuss the case with their sidekicks, and generally interact with the other characters.

In fact, even if you’re writing a small town cozy, it still helps to have a home base for the story, especially if you’re trying to sell the mystery to a traditional press. This is why I have the quilt shop in the Southern Quilting mysteries.  It’s a good way to incorporate the series hook (cuisine, crafts, etc.), which are still (from what I can see) pretty vital to selling our book to trade presses.

Having written both types of settings, I do think that writing a cozy set in a small town is easier.  That’s because you already have your ready-made closed setting: the small town itself.  You also have the chance of an easier “in” with the police since your sleuth is dealing with a smaller police department instead of the NYPD.  And you can easily produce both red herrings and clues in small towns through gossip.  Everyone knows everyone in a small town.  And people are eager/desperate to hide their secrets.  If they can.

Readers typically like an armchair visit to the area we’re writing about.  Writing setting is never my favorite thing, but I like to help readers experience the South (my setting) through food, choice in diction, and cultural customs.

Another important consideration is our sleuth’s sidekick.  Sidekicks helps prevent endless internal dialogue for the sleuth.  It’s not good for our story’s pace to keep our sleuth too much in her own head.    Much better to have her discuss the case’s ins and outs with her loyal sidekick and let them act as a sounding board.

It’s also good for story pace and conflict if our sidekick acts as a foil for our sleuth.  Sometimes they can provide push-back or maybe they have their own ideas as to the murderer’s identity.

It can be helpful (and more realistic)  if your sidekick has a gift or talent of some kind that can complement the sleuth’s abilities.

How the sidekick interacts with the sleuth can also be revealing.  Do they build the sleuth up?  Do they help to ground the sleuth and knock her ego down to size if it threatens to get too big?

They can provide humor or can act as a straight man for our sleuth.

What other considerations for setting and sidekick should we consider…what have I missed?

Tips for cozy mystery settings and sidekicks: Click To Tweet

Image: MorgueFile: Jade

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11 thoughts on “Writing the Cozy Mystery: the Setting and the Sidekick

  1. I really like the way you explain the role of both setting and sidekick here, Elizabeth. If you’re doing a traditional-style or a cosy mystery, you do need to have some way to focus readers on a small cast of suspects, so it makes sense to have a restricted setting. Having that setting be a shop or restaurant also allows the proprietor to be involved, either as a ‘regular,’ a suspect/victim, or the sidekick. Of course lots are sleuths, too, like your Lulu Taylor; but there’s a lot possibility there.

  2. Hi Elizabeth
    This series so helpful! I love the information on setting and how a small town plays an important role. I lived in a small town for 25 years and yes, there is a lot of gossip and everyone thinks they know everything about everyone. AND small town police department is much more approachable than a big city one. Thanks for this series.

  3. Sidekick as lesser mortal, playing stand-in for the reader.

    Don’t know how many times I’ve heard that advice but this time I think it’s going to stick. Maybe because I’m finally considering a 3rd person action adventure mystery series. My 1st person books, I think I do okay spending the time in the protagonist’s head since, like, we’re already there.

    A 3rd person book, though, it’d be nice to have someone for my guy to talk at.

    Though he is by nature a serious loner, so I’m going to have to get creative about the sidekick role; have it be someone or something other than a person on the horse (or hoverbike) next to him. (Maybe he hears voices in his head and talks out loud to the dumb one.)

    1. Joel–Yeah, first person books would be the exception, for sure. I’m much more of a 3rd person writer, but internal dialogue creates its share of problems with that POV.

      You’ll definitely have to think on the sidekick issue. Could be like Wilson in Cast Away. :)

  4. Hi Elizabeth – the sidekick sort of appears sometimes … not appearing to be particularly relevant, yet becomes necessarily so … and a small town or village setting would be easier to remember all the aspects …. cheers Hilary

    1. Hilary–So often, it was the hapless Hastings in Agatha Christie’s books who accidentally helped Poirot figure out whodunit. :)

      And the sidekick cat in Hong Kong Phooey (a cartoon that I’m not sure made it across the pond) was really the brains behind the crime fighting duo.

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