Outlining a Cozy Mystery

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by Elizabeth S. Craig, @elizabethscraig

I realized recently that the most common question I’m asked in podcast interviews, during writer’s conferences, and via email is: “What does your cozy mystery outline look like?”

I’ve always kind of blown my answer to this question, I think, because I’m surprised to get it. I never even thought of myself as an outliner until six years ago (I was a pantster until that point).

My outline has been a work in progress.  But I’ve tweaked it a lot over the years until now it’s the basic tool that I need to jump quickly into a new story.

I’m posting a link to it in this post so that now I can actually have an answer to the question I’ve never answered well before.  :)   Hopefully, someone will find it useful.  You can find the template here on Google Docs and can copy it or download it there.

A few notes about the outline:

I do start with the back cover copy.  For one thing,  I have the cover made before I even write the book, and I need that cover copy right away.  For another, I like having it at the top of the outline to help keep me focused on the big picture of the story.

My suspect descriptions are short and sweet.   My main purpose is to assign them names (making sure that none of the names are too similar as to be confusing) and to give me something to work with when I pick the story up (for me, months later since I alternate writing two series).  An example from a recent outline:

Barton Perry: He’s running for the state senate. He’s married to Pearl, but is having a secret affair with Mae.  He’s desperate to protect his government run. He’s a good-looking, if smarmy, man in his late-fifties. He wears lots of colorful bowties and is always dressy.  He attends Wyatt’s church and is an elder there.  Blustery. Cheerful. Flushed cheeks. Drinks a bit.

Interviews:  Each of my suspects, to keep readers guessing, tells a lie and a truth. They also point the finger at another suspect. This helps me develop suspects in a more natural way (so the amateur sleuth doesn’t have to be clairvoyant to figure out who might be to blame).  In the second round of interviews (after the second murder), the suspects can also defend themselves against allegations by the other suspects in the original round of interviews.

Subplots/Memes/Series Tropes:  These are the extras. This might be the series hook (quilting, cooking, animals, etc.), this might be non-mystery-related character growth in a supporting character (or even the sleuth), etc.  My Myrtle series, for example, includes things like Myrtle’s disastrous cooking, Elaine’s hopeless hobbies, book club, etc.

I think everything else is pretty self-explanatory, but feel free to shoot me questions if it’s confusing.

Again, this is something I use as a tool to more quickly jump into my book.  I’ll deviate from it frequently, but it sure can make it easier to write.  This is a starting point for your book.

Do you use templates for your outlining?  Do you outline at all?

An Outline Template for a Cozy Mystery: Click To Tweet

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22 thoughts on “Outlining a Cozy Mystery

    1. There’s variance in cozy, too, but there are some elements that really just *have* to be in there. That does help with a template. And the template is really just a starting point…the story can be more complex on top of the basic mystery, and the subplots can be complex, too. Mine are fairly simple subplots, however, usually to add humor.

  1. I don’t use a commercial template for what I write, Elizabeth, but I do outline my stories, and your approach looks fairly similar to mine. I think an outline helps to structure my writing time without limiting me, if that makes any sense. It also helps me quickly find places where the story is going to need work.

    1. I was always very leery of outlines, but I have to say that they’re tremendous time savers now. They help me keep the story on track and ensure that I include all the elements that readers like in my books. Good point that they can also help us find story weaknesses.

  2. Thanks for this! I’m one of those writers that starts out a story as a pantser, then gets three chapters in and needs an outline. This template will be really helpful.

  3. This is awesome – I’m trying a cozy for the first time, and my outline has stalled in the run-up to the first murder. I’m worried about rushing things and ending up with a short story instead of the novella I’m aiming at. I’ll try running what I have through your template and seeing if that shakes things up for me! Thanks again!

    1. If you come up too short, even with the outline, my advice would be to ramp up your subplots. Those are important in cozies and are easily shortchanged. I tend to focus heavily on the mystery (that’s evident even with this outline template) and then realize I’m coming up short. I beef up my subplots later.

  4. Elizabeth, this is the most useful thing I’ve found in ages. I recently finished my second book, and for the first time, gave serious thought to the downside of pantsing. Unfortunately, every time I considered using an outline my brain froze. Your method is so different from what I was contemplating. I’m going to give it a try! Thanks for sharing.

    1. I hear you on the downsides of pantsing! I didn’t start using outlines until an epic disaster while writing “Hickory Smoked Homicide.” The story fell into a black hole of a plot hole right before deadline. That convinced me I’d better start looking at the story on paper before writing it to make sure all the bits and pieces worked. Good luck!

  5. Thanks for sharing your outline, Elizabeth. It looks like it would work well as a template. Had to chuckle when I imagined sharing my current outline with others–they’d run after me with pitchforks!

    1. Ha! I’m guessing that might be because your outline are very specific to your stories? And long? :)

      In my contract, I had to submit outlines for review for the Southern Quilting mysteries when I wrote them for Penguin. This coincided with my disaster pantsing “Hickory Smoked Homicide.” The first 2 outlines I submitted to them were about 25 pages long. It was basically the entire story, even with bits of dialogue thrown in. Sometimes I still include bits of dialogue with these templates (they’ll pop into my head). After a few outlines, I realized the basic elements of the stories were the same: the suspect questioning, the moment of danger for my sleuth, the opening and closing images. That’s when I pared down the outline to just the guts of the story. You have continuing storylines from book to book, so I’m thinking your outlines are probably a bit more complex.

      1. Probably, since I go into motivation for even the secondary plots, let alone the main story. I drive myself nuts. No excuse, really–not like I have to please a publisher or an agent. Just is. Recently proofread someone else’s book, and it was more challenging than her previous books, because she broke away from her template. Had a good book in there someplace, but only after chasing all the loose bits and conflicting details. One example: she randomly changed the season, or whether it was sunny or rainy.

        1. That sounds like weeks of work! Oh my gosh. But you know, it’s whatever works best for us! It sounds like that’s the way to go for you…it definitely gets you good results.

          Sounds like you had to do a lot of continuity editing for the other writer!

  6. Terrific post, Elizabeth! I am a chronic outliner, and then I deviate as I discover things during my first draft writing, then I tweak the outline, then I reverse outline it when the first draft is done to make sure there are no holes and the structure is sound (e.g., no “sagging middle”). I know…crazy, right?

    I’m blown away that you do your cover first. I can be finished with nearly everything in my polished draft before it goes to the proofreader, and still be agonizing over what title to give it! Which kinda holds up the cover designer…she’s very patient with me…sigh.

    Thanks for the template. Will check it out!

    1. The reverse outline sounds wild! But I can totally see where you’re going with it…makes for good pacing and a sound plot!

      My cover designer is so busy that I’m already on her calendar for the middle of January, ha! So it’s one of those things that just has to be done that way or else I lose what’s left of my sanity, begging to be fit into her schedule. I think I was also used to working that way because the publishers liked to do it that way. But it’s a weird way to do it, for sure!

  7. Hi Elizabeth – I like the idea of doing the back cover first … though when I write my posts – so often the title is the last thing I ‘concoct’! But can quite see with a book it’s somewhat different and gives you the overall concept of the book – then using your template to outline makes perfect sense … great to know about – thank you … cheers Hilary

    1. My titles are pretty basic at this point…the Southern Quilting mysteries employ puns (which aren’t even necessarily specific to the book content) and the Myrtle series tells where the body was discovered or when/where a murder took place. A post title might take more thought–there’s SEO involved, etc.

      Hope you have a great week!

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