Things to Avoid in a Cozy Mystery

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by Elizabeth S. Craig, @elizabethscraig

Believe it or not, there are ways to make cozy mystery writing complex.  And I think cozies are fairly easy books to write.

At first I titled this post “Cozy Mystery Mistakes,” but I don’t think these things are all necessarily mistakes–they’re just elements that could make for potential problems.

Looking at my list, I’ve done nearly all of them at least once.

Too many characters:  This is a very easy problem to have. Cozy mystery series can be rife with characters: you have 5(ish) suspects in each book, a sleuth, a sidekick, plus recurring series characters (sleuth’s family, co-workers, etc.) .  Cozies are all about the quirky characters, and quirky characters have a way of multiplying.

The fix:  Anytime that one of the characters has been ‘off-stage’ for a while, apply a tag or a short reminder in dialogue to help readers remember who the character is.  Or, obviously, include fewer characters (although sometimes readers will ask after a  recurring supporting character if they’re not part of a story).

Too much hook.  The hook (quilting, knitting, cooking, horseback riding, birdwatching , gardening, antiquing) is definitely important in a cozy mystery.  It can help the sleuth more naturally meet up with suspects for interviews. It can help the reader connect with the sleuth. It can help create interesting settings and subplots. But if the hook is overshadowing the mystery, there’s too much hook.

The fix:  Look at your story and see if it’s a gardening book with a mystery or a mystery with some gardening.  The mystery has to come first.

Too much mystery.  The mystery has to come first, but there can’t be just mystery, either. If it’s straight mystery, it’s probably not a cozy.

The fix:  Highlight the mystery in your text one color and highlight the subplots, hook, and other non-mystery parts of the story another. Aim for more of a balance.

Too short: Again, this is super-easy to do.  Cozies are, by nature, pretty short.  But if your book is getting into novella territory (and you’re shooting for a full-priced book), there’s a problem.

The fix: Usually for me, the culprit is the subplot.  Or, rather, subplots.  If there aren’t any relatively healthy subplots, you’ll probably find the book is too mystery-focused and too short.

Too dark: This is, obviously, a big no-no for cozy mysteries. Of all of these issues, this is the most problematic.

The fix:  Is the murder method too gory? Too well-described? Are the potential motives for the suspects too dark?  Is there enough humor in the story? Should you consider labeling this a different genre?  Maybe the story should be a police procedural or more of a traditional mystery instead of a cozy.

Supporting characters that steal the show. With all the natural quirkiness of cozy characters, it’s almost inevitable that one of them will end up being a stage hog.

The fix:  They’re going to need to tone it down a little if they’re not the sleuth.  In  dialogue with your sleuth, who’s leading the conversation? Who’s putting two-and-two together? If it’s the secondary character, switch it around as much as you need to in order to put the sleuth back in the driver’s seat again.

Looking back over my list, there are a couple of things that might work for other genres, too.  What kinds of problem areas have you run into with your own writing?

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17 thoughts on “Things to Avoid in a Cozy Mystery

  1. I really like these points you make, Elizabeth. It’s always a balance, isn’t it? Whether it’s characters (how many is too many?), hooks (how much discussion of scrapbooking should there be?), or something else, the author always has to balance things out. Thanks for these useful fixes. And you know, some of them are just as useful for other sub-genres…

  2. I really do think these tips can apply to other genres as well. Too much or too little of any essential ingredient affects the story.

  3. These are great tips, and yes, I think most of them could apply to other genres. I love a good, cozy mystery. It’s my favorite to read. Maybe I should try writing one, but I suspect it takes more plotting and planning than I’ve done in the past.

    Thanks for visiting my blog this week. : )

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