Tips for Writing a Cozy Mystery
Guest Post by Elizabeth Spann Craig
Cozy mystery is a fantastic genre for writers. It has an avid reader base, many of whom like to read as many cozies as they can each month. The readers tend to be loyal to an author, supportive, and communicative on social media. And the books are fun to write.
What’s a cozy mystery?
It’s a subgenre of the mystery category which focuses on an amateur sleuth; a closed environment (a small town or action centered around a particular place); a limited number of suspects, all of whom are known to the victim; and emphasis on the story’s puzzle as opposed to forensic clues. The books are light on profanity and free from gore.
Here are a few important ingredients as you’re cooking up your cozy mystery:
The sleuth is incredibly important in a cozy. Readers will be solving the mystery alongside your sleuth in an almost interactive fashion and the sleuth needs to be someone they enjoy being around . . . or at least respect. Usually the sleuth is a gifted amateur with excellent critical thinking skills. The sleuth usually has an “in” at the local police department in order to hear important information about the victim’s demise (time of death, method, etc.) Getting your gifted amateur involved in the case doesn’t mean the sleuth has to bulldoze her way into the proceedings. Instead, she might have discovered the body, might be a (temporary) suspect herself, or might have a friend who’s a suspect.
I always start with the victim when I’m planning out my mystery. In many ways, this person is the most important in the book. Who wanted to kill them and why? What were their relationships like?
One frequent question I hear is when should the murder be introduced into the story? I know my editors at Penguin always wanted a body in the first 30-50 pages. I think that was simply because some readers would be impatient by that point to start solving the mystery. Regardless, it’s a habit I’ve fallen into. Sometimes I’ll open the book with the victim. This makes for starting the story off with a bang, but you’ll need to be thoughtful about how you go about establishing suspects and getting a feel for the victim as a person. It can be easier to include a scene near the beginning of the book where your future victim interacts with future suspects before the murder.
Was your victim likeable or not? If your victim was likeable, it can raise the question why anyone would murder them. For the motives to be believable, it might be good for your victim to have a dark side. On the other hand, if your victim is too unlikeable, you may find readers aren’t as motivated to find out who killed him. A good antidote to this is to have high stakes for another likeable character . . . maybe the murderer needs to be tracked down because the sleuth’s best friend is a suspect.
I like to start out with five suspects. It’s a good number for me to work with because it’s not so many that the readers will get confused and not so few as to make the perpetrator easy to guess. A variety of suspect motives is fun, particularly if you have a good red herring, or false lead, that makes readers believe the motive is one thing (revenge), when actually the killer’s motive is something completely different (greed).
The sleuth will need a good opportunity to question all the suspects in a fairly natural way, since she’s not with the police department and can’t detain or interview them officially. It’s nice to change the locations for these conversations to help the story’s pace and offer some variety. One good way to do this is to incorporate the story’s theme into at least one of the interviews. If you have a quilting mystery, for example, consider having one of the suspects at the local quilt shop picking up materials for his mother.
The middle of the book:
Book middles can be challenging in all genres. I like to solve this problem by including a second victim. Even better if the second victim is the suspect who seemed most-likely to be the killer. Then the sleuth embarks on a second round of interviews with the remaining four suspects.
Unveiling the killer:
You’ll want the sleuth, above all, not to do something obviously stupid or reckless here or else you may lose reader support. But your sleuth will have a confrontation with the bad guy at the end of the story. Maybe the sleuth’s sidekick got held up. Maybe the killer followed our sleuth home and forced her into her house. She’ll find a way out of the mess and justice will be served.
Points to remember:
The theme or hook of the cozy:
Many, but not all, cozies use a special series hook or theme. These include crafts, cooking, hobbies, occupations, and animals. If you don’t have a lot of time for research, plan on using one familiar to you.
The quirky recurring characters:
Colorful supporting characters are part of what make cozies fun and inject humor into what can be a dark subject.
Small town settings are especially popular. Is yours a mountain village? A beach town? If you’re going for a larger city, you can still keep the closed feel for the story by centering the story’s action around a particular place . . . a library, a restaurant, or a craft shop.
A dog or cat never hurts:
They’re great for covers, readers love them, and they can help make your sleuth more likeable.
Cozy mystery readers enjoy series:
Is your book premise sustainable for the long haul?
If you’re a cozy mystery reader, what aspects of the stories do you enjoy? If you write them, what have I left out? Do you have any questions I can answer? Thanks to Christy for hosting me!
Elizabeth is the bestselling cozy mystery author of the Southern Quilting mysteries, the Myrtle Clover Cozy Mysteries, the Village Library Mysteries, and Memphis Barbeque mysteries for Penguin Random House, Midnight Ink, and independently. Follow her on Twitter where she shares writing links @elizabethscraig or at her blog where she offers tips for writers!
She lives in Matthews, North Carolina with her husband and is the mother of two.