Writing the Cozy Mystery–Common Pitfalls

by Elizabeth S. Craig, @elizabethscraigfile6881312030155

If you’re just joining us, I’ve been running a series on writing cozy mysteries. (Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5).  Today I thought I’d cover a few problem areas that we might run into when writing a cozy mystery.

Slow pace, story seems weighed down.   Is the story too basic and formulaic? What’s going on with your sleuth in her personal life? What background can we discover about the suspects? Is there a subplot we can develop that sheds light on one of the recurring story characters? Are there recurring story characters (they are common in cozies).  Can we tie in the subplot with the mystery somehow?

The issue could be mechanical, too. Try for shorter sentences, more dialogue, and shorter chapters.  Try changing the sentence structure around a little.

The story is confusing.  Review the number of suspects and supporting characters. Eliminate any that don’t contribute or at least offer a brief reintroduction of the character if he’s been offstage for a while.

Is the mystery too complex?  Sometimes too much complexity can make the story unbelievable. We can still make a simple mystery with very basic motives (this is better for a cozy mystery, anyway) and surprise the reader at the end.  Remember, the sleuth is also learning more about each suspect and how they related to the victim—it’s not all about clues to the killer.  It’s about clues to the suspects’ character, too.

Our beta readers figure out whodunit…way too early. Or, they’re not surprised at the killer at the end of the story.

If readers are figuring out clues to the killer too early in the story, we need to distract from the clues with very noisy red herrings.  An argument, another body, something that appears to be an important clue. An alibi that’s disproven. Anything that we can input to make it look as though the red herring is more important than the actual clue.

If readers aren’t surprised when the killer is revealed, we need to redirect them better.  I like to pick a suspect who seems very likely to have done it and throw a last minute red herring out there in a very subtle way.  So the reader thinks they’re picking up on a hidden clue.  Instead, we close down the story quickly after that and unveil the actual murderer.  In the wrap-up, we can address any loose ends.

Series hook seems clunky when inserted in the text instead of woven in more seamlessly.

If the series hook is quilting, for instance, we could create the murder around a quilting event…a guild meeting or a quilt show, etc.  Or we could stage it at the local quilt shop.  Or the quilt shop could function as a sort of town hub or hangout for characters to facilitate suspect questioning.

In my culinary series, I’ve had murders take place at barbeque festivals and functions the barbeque restaurant was catering.

Editors have stressed to me time and time again that readers of mysteries with craft hooks like a good deal of detail on fabric, texture, etc., in addition to quilting activity.  This also goes for culinary mysteries and other crafting mysteries.  If we’re looking to query a trade press, then that’s the direction we’re going to want to go in.  It doesn’t come naturally to me so I have to work it in (usually in a pass during draft two).

Are there any other trouble areas you can think of in a cozy mystery?  What have I missed?  The saggy middle is easy for mysteries…insert another body. :)

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17 thoughts on “Writing the Cozy Mystery–Common Pitfalls

  1. If the test readers in any genre figure out the ending way ahead of time, that’s not good. It might actually be easier to fix in a mystery because you can make small adjustments. With other genres, it could be a predictable storyline that just needs to be scrapped.

  2. This is all really helpful, Elizabeth! And honestly, your advice could go for any sort of crime novel. Making sure that readers are misdirected (but that you ‘play fair,’ too), for instance, is an important part of a crime novel no matter what the sub-genre.

  3. “Review the number of suspects and supporting characters. ”

    Writing international thrillers requires a large case, but you’ve just reminded me to do a head count and fire some of the slackers.

    Thanks once again, Ms. E! You’re the BEST!

    Peace, Seeley

  4. One lesson I have to keep relearning: humans always do what they see as the simplest path to some objective. This doesn’t have to be true. It just has to feel true to the character.

    If a character suddenly takes up needlepoint or karate as a way to get close to a suspect to break their alibi when they could just ask the three people they claimed they were with, it’s ridiculous — unless we spend appropriate time in advance laying out why this, for them, is the most direct path to their objective.

    Nobody goes around the barn out back to check the mailbox out front — at least, not without a reason. And “my plot needs it” ain’t a reason, it’s bad writing.

    1. Joel–That’s the number one cause of plot holes, for sure…”my story needs it.”

      I will say that, in a cozy with a series hook, reader expectations are set for the inclusion of the crafting/culinary hook and the protagonist should start in book 1 either being part of that culture or learning it at the start. That’s the set-up for half the action in a commercial cozy.

      But series hooks aren’t necessary for indie cozies (my Myrtle series).

  5. My biggest worry is being confusing. As someone who has read SO many mysteries over the years, I have a tendency to write for people like me who like a lot of complication. (Then I have to worry about over-simplifying and hiding too much into the subtle undercurrents.)

    It’s helpful to have a beta reader who reads for “what the audience thinks at this moment” rather than grammar and typos. (Comments like “I’m suspicious of that guy.” “Ha! I knew it!” “I’m expecting this to go badly, you know.”) It’s similar to reader reaction but specific to mystery and comedy, I think.

    1. Camille–That’s what’s been so surprising about Wattpad…they’re not betas, but they’re commenting inline. Because many of them are novice mystery readers, frequently they think my sidekick sounds suspicious! It’s been fun to see who they come up with.

  6. My favorite genre is the thriller. What I love is when the clever writer takes me down the road of discovery, scares me a little (which I admit throws me off in itself and rattles the common sense), then takes me to end without (me) noticing we had changed lanes and I end up surprised. I want to be the writer that causes the reader to say at the end, “How did that happen. I did not see that coming.” Of course, the whole thing needs to make sense to the reader.

    1. Teresa–I love that you enjoy thrillers and zombies!

      That’s *exactly* what I like as a reader. I feel a little cheated if I know the killer and the motive and the set-up. I do know readers who feel cheated when they guess *wrong*, but I don’t totally understand their way of thinking. :)

  7. Hi Elizabeth – I guess this ‘problem’ could occur with a romance too … if it all comes together too easily – it’s boring … we need the action and perhaps the extra lover, or mistress thrown into the mix (well woven in!). It’s providing that hook – that hooks the reader for the next book too … as this one is ‘so well written’ ie it keeps us involved all the way through.

    Cheers and once again some great thoughts here, together with your commenters – Hilary

    1. Samantha–It does, doesn’t it? I don’t think I’d thought of it that way, but it’s a tricky balance. We need to not lose them by making the plot too complicated. But we need to still surprise them (and have it be a fair surprise) at the end. Comes easier with practice. :)

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