Writing the Cozy Mystery–Whodunit?

By Elizabeth S. Craig, @elizabethscraigquestion mark

One of the most important aspects of the cozy mystery is the puzzle itself.  Aside from character development, the puzzle is the most important part of the mystery.  Mystery readers tend to be avid readers who are practiced at looking for clues to the killer.  Here are some thoughts about how to make sure the readers don’t solve our puzzle before we want them to.

Red herrings: To keep readers guessing, we need to provide some false leads for our sleuth. These leads frequently come from other suspects, but they can come from some of the physical (usually not forensic in a cozy) evidence surrounding the crime (something out of place, something missing, something there that shouldn’t be there).

To make it more difficult for our sleuth and readers, the sleuth can try to sort through suspects’ information and find out what’s true, what’s a lie, and what’s just someone being an unreliable witness.

I think it’s less frustrating when there’s a limit for each red herring—when they don’t last the entire length of the book. If we’ve led our readers to believe that it’s all about an inheritance for the whole story and then we change the motive at the very end, if we don’t handle that well and lay a couple of clues for that motive somewhere earlier in the story, readers may feel cheated.

Clues can point to motive and suspects.  To be very fair to the reader, it’s probably best to have a few subtle clues scattered throughout the story.  Clues can be verbal—something that contradicts a suspect’s alibi or that points to a possible motive for murder.  Clues can be physical—a suitcase in the back room. Clues can even result from insights our sleuth gets into the suspects’ characters.  That’s one reason why our investigation isn’t just about the crime—it’s about the people who might be involved.

It’s very tricky to use our sleight of hand with mystery readers. They’re extremely savvy readers who usually read a lot of mysteries each month. They’ll frequently believe any extraneous detail must be a clue (which is why we need to be careful about wrapping up anything that seems like a loose end or a Chekhov’s gun at the end of the book).

I’ve found the best ways to slip clues under the radar are to lay them near the beginning of the story and then introduce things that seem more interesting (the victim’s body, perhaps), and then continue laying them out throughout the book but being very careful to distract from them (maybe with an argument between two suspects, etc.).  It also helps to have an especially well-thought-out red herring near the end of the story to lead the sleuth and reader in an entirely different direction.

This probably goes without saying, but the puzzle has to be fair. Modern mystery readers won’t be happy if the killer is someone who was introduced at the very end of our story, etc. The modern mystery reader expects to be able to solve the mystery alongside the sleuth—it’s an almost interactive experience, or it needs to be.

The murderer: Occasionally, I’ve come to the end of my book and realized that I didn’t care for my choice of killer.  Occasionally, I’ve come to the end of my book, sent it off to my trad pub editor, and she didn’t like my choice of killer.  The good news is that this is relatively easy to change.  Even better, because we set the story to point to one particular suspect, a change (if we leave in the original clues, which are now red herrings) can mean the mystery is harder for readers to solve.

Any tips that I’ve missed for making a good puzzle in our cozy mystery?

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26 thoughts on “Writing the Cozy Mystery–Whodunit?

  1. I agree with you, Elizabeth. Clues and ‘red herrings’ have to be handled carefully. I’ve found that there’s a balance between giving the reader enough information through the clues, and making them too obvious. On the other hand, of course, you do, as you say, have to ‘play fair’ with readers. It’s a tough one at times!

    1. Margot–You’re right about the balance. The clue needs to be something that, at the end of the story, the reader says, “Oh, okay–right, I remember that.” So, it should be clear, but also subtle. Tricky.

  2. Hi Elizabeth – starting off writing mysteries would be difficult, but I guess if one could get into a way of doing things … that can be adjusted with each new book – the writing could become slightly easier – your formula is (for you as the writer) there to be had. Fascinating .. cheers Hilary

  3. I’d go further than your statement that the puzzle is “one of the most important aspects.”

    If I were going to write a mystery of any kind, I’d start with the puzzle and work my way outward to everything else. A great puzzle will have readers overlooking flaws in areas most writers agonize over (character development, dialog, description.) Really, has anyone ever said Dame Agatha could write dialog? Who cares? Her puzzles are fiendishly clever, and that’s what nails a cozy.

    Understanding story structure is a huge help in these aspects of a cozy. Knowing, for instance, that a good story never introduces new information after about the 75% mark will keep a writer from having the murder turn out to be a case of mistaken identity with all the interested parties over in some parallel story we never heard.

    This, the clues and the puzzle and whatnot, is what convinced me that my stories aren’t cozies, and are barely even mysteries. As much as I love a good mystery, it’s not what I write. And being unclear about my genre is, I’m now convinced, what led to my first 1-star review recently, which essentially said, “There’s no mystery here.” Not entirely true, but, point taken.

    1. I think I got the same reviewer: “It doesn’t really qualify as a mystery book.” She’s the only one out of the bunch on Amazon and Goodreads who said that, so I take it with a grain of salt–and, like you, make peace with the idea that I’m not exactly writing cozies. No explicit violence, gore, language, or sex: check. There’s a murder to figure out: check. An amateur sleuth in a small town with a warm group of friends: check. Cozy, right?

      Not necessarily. Maybe cozies have a higher ratio of mystery to the surrounding story?

      1. I think we should all have a good long chat about where “cozy” and “traditional mystery” overlap and where they don’t. Love to have a nice infographic, mostly because explicitly describing our genre helps readers make better choices.

        1. Agree entirely. And then perhaps Amazon could be persuaded to add Traditional as a subgenre for non-British mysteries. Certainly there’s nothing to be gained by having a fair chunk of authors in an identity crisis.

        2. Joel–Cozy is heavily branded right now to the series hook. My Myrtle series is considered a little risky to trad publishers (I was dropped by one) because it has no series hook (Myrtle can’t cook and is hopeless with crafts). Publishers weren’t sure how to sell it to readers, who are looking for a hook.

          I think humor is one element that can definitely differ from a trad mystery: a very light humor. Sometimes I even delve into slapstick.

          I’m at a conference now, but I’ll try to drill down to add some more areas where I really find the two subgenres differ.

          1. The hook!!!! That’s the thing I don’t have, either. My sleuth is an Everywoman variant, and the tone is straightforward rather than humorous or, as Margot put it in one of her recent posts, “frothy.”

            Editors require hooks for cozies–which goes to prove that Amazon needs to give us a Traditional category for mysteries with no hook.

            Okay, I really gotta get back to the Scrivener screen….

            1. Meg, have you read Larry Brooks’ stuff on concept? One thing he teaches marvelously is that a description like “an average woman solves a mystery” is meh from the word go, but a concept like “a female accountant battles underworld mob bosses using her brain instead of brawn” is completely different because it gives us something conceptual to latch onto.

              I’ll go out on my very own intuitive limb here and posit that your protagonist probably has something quirky which could be turned up to 11 and become her hook.

                1. I thought, for a moment, you’d said I was on something, which I categorically deny (though I don’t deny Irish whiskey, no I don’t.)

                  If you’d like to wallow around and tear this idea apart and you don’t want to do it here, there are a couple options: we could just email, or you could join a forum I’m in at http://StoryGrid.com/forum/ (Shawn Coyne is a monumental editor who’s just written the very first book, ever, on what good editors know. He lets me run this little play space in his backyard and it’s chock full of smart writers who love to help.)

      2. Meg–I think the crime is very central to the cozy, yes. My editors wanted a body in the first 20-30 pages, if not before. That helps it click with readers…okay, so this *is* a mystery. I think their radar is going off, looking for potential victims and clues, from the very start and if they don’t see it soon, they start getting frustrated.

        Definitely don’t let the reviewer get you down…sounds like you haven’t.

        1. I agree that mystery readers have their radars turned on from the start, which is why I always have a body by the end of the very first chapter. And there’s a puzzle that can be solved with clues. Maybe I just bury ’em too deep ;)

          Can’t please everyone all the time, but overall my reviews are great. I was just a bit surprised by that one particular observation, and then realized it sort of tied in with things others said, except that most of them liked those elements that she thought made it a non-mystery. But I’m cool with that. And the whole cozy/traditional category debate is getting to be a hobby horse with me.

          1. Meg–On the face of it, I’d say your books are edgy cozies. There *are* edgier cozies out there, just not a ton. You’ve got a mystery right off the bat. I’d say, and it’s been a while since I’ve read yours, is how much time (percentage of book) is your sleuth committing to the investigation? That might be where readers are thinking it’s less mystery-centric.

    2. Joel–Cozy mystery readers are looking for a puzzle that they can solve with clues–really, it’s a game for them and it should be. Yes, we can get dinged by readers if they are expecting a puzzle and get something else. Sorry about the review. :( That stinks.

  4. Great post! I love the note that our red herrings need to last the entire story, and not just for a scene or chapter. This can deal with the “cheap” twists that some mysteries have, making the reader feel jerked around.

    Regarding my killer, I like to give the reader moments to think that he/she is actually guilty. If we dance around a character and never let the reader suspect him/her, then that could be the worst giveaway of all.

    1. David–I think that’s also very important…good point. If we give readers reason to suspect the killer, then deflect from that, it won’t be the only suspect we’re not throwing suspicion on.

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