Writing the Cozy Mystery–Points to Consider

By Elizabeth S. Craig, @elizabethscraigfile6851297891836

This is the last post in my series on cozy writing. (Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5  6.) Today I thought I’d wrap up a few things that are, mostly, specific to cozies (where some of the earlier posts could have been applied to other subgenres of mysteries.)

Murder method.  If the method is gory, the state of the victim’s body isn’t explained in great detail. There isn’t a focus on forensics in cozies.  If you’re using guns, be accurate but move away from a lot of forensic detail…keeping it simple.  In a cozy, the focus is on the puzzle itself.

There tends to be a lot of blunt force trauma, suffocation, strangulation, stabbing, poisoning, and victims being pushed down staircases.

When should the body be found?  If you’re writing for a trade press, your cozy should be a murder mystery instead of a robbery, etc.   My editors wanted to have a body before page thirty, if at all possible. I think that’s because they were worried about pace, but also because mystery readers are always looking out for who the possible victim is and they can get frustrated if that victim doesn’t surface.  They want to start figuring out the puzzle.

Profanity.  Although some cozies do have profanity, many don’t.  There are even reader lists online of profanity-free cozies.  Authors are, naturally, free to write what they want—but I will say that I responded to readers (and you wouldn’t believe how many messages I got on my use of profanity in early books) and cut it out completely.  I didn’t really care one way or another about it and there were readers who really cared a lot.  I thought the profanity I used was very minor, but I stopped using it after 2011 or so.

Puzzles.  One of the most important elements of the book.  It needs to be complex enough for experienced mystery readers to be surprised by the ending, but it must be completely fair.  Distractions must follow clues, there needs to be enough diversity in motive, and it helps if suspects obfuscate.

Series.  If you’re writing a cozy, be prepared to write a series.  Readers expect it, and some mystery readers won’t even start reading a series until there are at least several books in it.  I think they feel that if they’re going to invest their time in learning the characters and the story world, they want to make sure the author isn’t going to give up on the series.

It used to be that trad pubs would offer 3-book deals.  Then it became 3 books for the first contract, 2 each for following contracts.  They’re in a state of flux now with the digital disruption, but the publishers are still buying/pushing series.  And, if we’re publishing the cozies independently, it’s a good idea for us to follow their lead there.

Humor. Strongly suggested.  The book doesn’t have to be filled with it, but the general tone of a cozy shouldn’t be too heavy. If the focus is mainly on crime, we should try to lighten it up in spots when things get too serious.  The books tend to be more of an escape for readers.

Adult content.  The author should close the door on the couple…there is no explicit sex in cozies.

Title Selection.  Obviously, again, authors can choose what they want.  But I will say that the punning title is specific to cozies and can help readers to quickly identify the type of mystery that you write.

Hope this series has helped for anyone who is working on a cozy mystery.  I know there have also been some questions from writers who thought they were writing a cozy mystery and now aren’t so sure.  There is definitely some crossover with mysteries.  But, in general, if you were to pull up “cozy mysteries” on Amazon, you’ll see a lot of common ground in the choice of title, cover design, book description, and series hook. Series published by the Big 5 will have recipes and craft tips in the back of the books. That’s the commercial cozy.

If you have some similarities to cozies in your mystery…lack of gore, lack of profanity, amateur sleuth, crime takes place offstage, focus on the puzzle…but you don’t have a series hook (crafts, cuisine, pet lovers) or a lot of humor, you may want to independently publish your book. You could also query a book with a slightly more complex, heavier feel as a “dark cozy” or “edgy cozy.” (I think Sheila Connolly’s popular series are a good example.)

If you’re self-publishing it, you could choose to call it a cozy (you’d want to indicate it’s a cozy with your cover design, your title, and your book description), or you could think of it more as a traditional mystery or a soft-boiled (somewhere between a hard-boiled mystery and a cozy…maybe Janet Evanovich or Sue Grafton. I would include M.C. Beaton’s books, too ). Some call these contemporary mysteries, but I think that’s a little too vague.  Definitions vary with a traditional mystery, but you have a little more leeway. The sleuth can be an amateur or a professional.  They can be light or darker.  The stories can address more controversial subjects. The reader expectations aren’t quite as rigid as they are for the cozy mystery.

Hopefully this all makes sense.  Any questions from anyone?  And thanks for reading this blog series.

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13 thoughts on “Writing the Cozy Mystery–Points to Consider

  1. Staircase. Oh, I love a good fall.

    I always love the story puzzles where the first death isn’t a murder but it spurs our killer on to make their first out of fear/reaction/master plan out of whack. I love that knowing twist ha of way through when “the plot thickens” and death one isn’t the first of “the killer.”

    I’ve read a ton of the new noir ( sex and drugs and violence) in the past year and find those stories follow the rules as well … Just with sex and drugs and violence. Admittedly, some of the best invert the story and have as puzzle “what will Bad Guy do next” rather than detective focused plot lines.

    I’ve enjoyed this series immensely. Thanks for it. Great stuff.

    1. Jack–And cliffs. :)

      The unexpected death can really lead our killer’s plans amok. Maybe especially if the first death is a suicide.

      I need to read more new noir. So…more, almost, of a thriller take on things. We know the killer, we’re following the action breathlessly instead of figuring out whodunit?

  2. Thanks for sharing these ideas, Elizabeth. One thing I’m noticing is that readers really do pay attention to things like profanity, the kinds of puzzles and so on. They will be quite forthcoming, too, about their opinions. That can be very helpful to the author, as s/he thinks about that next novel in the series…

  3. This series is GREAT. I’m going back to read it again. I don’t write cozies, but I find your methods helpful.

    I want to talk about cursing in general. I feel pressures sometimes to pop a word in a story here and there, except, it always feels awkward. I don’t use foul language in my daily life, so that’s probably why. If I curse, it’s always in my head–and I do. I read comments that say people curse in their conversations and that’s more real, but not in my circles. Anyway, great information.

    Oh and on humor. The titles of cozies nearly always make me laugh. The humor begins before the first page.

    1. Teresa–In my *head*, a couple of my sleuths are the kind of people who will, on occasion, utter a little profanity. But on the page, I might say, “Myrtle muttered curses under her breath.” Because I’m still being true to *Myrtle*, who I *do* think gets frustrated (particularly with other people). But this way I won’t upset the vast majority of the people I write for.

      My corgi knows that when I cuss (Southern, ha) in the kitchen, I’ve dropped something majorly spectacular. A Pyrex of lasagna, maybe. :) She comes running when I curse.

      And good point on the titles! It sets the stage for the rest of the book and its tone.

  4. Thanks for this series Elizabeth. You’ve provided us with excellent information on writing cozies. And I have to say that as a reader of cozy mysteries I look for most of the ideas you’ve provided here. As a writer of cozies, you’ve given me excellent insight into how to make the story stronger. I’m in the final edits of my first book in a series and am going to give it one more look using the information you’ve provided. If I may, I’d like to develop a checklist for my own use based on some of the information you’ve provided.
    Rose

  5. Oh yeah. There’s a book in these 7 posts ;)

    One thing I’ve absolutely learned from your series: I do not write cozies. One thing I had completely missed, but which you made obvious, is the puzzle. Dame Agatha was the Empress of the Witty Puzzle. I don’t write puzzles. My readers, I feel certain, don’t care whodunnit.

    I’m still looking for a way out of the label traditional mystery because, like contemporary mystery, it’s way vague.

    Lovely series. Bookended with more info on writing in general and tips for planning for trad or self publishing, I think it could be a marvelous resource. So many aspiring authors have been drawn by either romance or cozies, and if they had a resource for getting it right the first time we’d have more great books and fewer, erm, not great books.

    1. Joel–The puzzle is key for the cozy readers, for sure.

      Maybe it’s better to compare your books to other authors’ books in your copy–that might be better for setting readers’ expectations.

      And thanks! Yeah, if I can find the time. My fiction calendar is killing me right now.

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