Friday, January 14, 2011

20 Tips for Writing the Cozy or Traditional Mystery


Despite the glut in recent years of everything from knitting mysteries to miniature car racing mysteries, the cozy or (preferred term) traditional mystery continues to be a perennial favorite with readers.

Though it has a reputation for being quaint, old-fashioned, and unrealistic, the cozy is actually one of the sub-genres that has evolved the most since the Golden Age of crime fiction. In fact, many of the old “rules” of writing these stories -- including that of avoiding strong romantic subplots -- are no longer even relevant these days.

Though I don’t happen to write a cozy mystery series for Carina Press, I do write a rather popular one for Samhain Publishing -- that would be Holmes & Moriarity series -- so I thought I’d share a few tips.

1 - The main protagonist of a cozy mystery must not be a professional criminal investigator. It’s not accident that these books are all about amateur sleuths with occupations like party coordinator or (ahem) mystery author. The fun of these books is to see an ordinary person caught in extraordinary circumstances without the resources of the police or the private investigator.

That said, for the sake of sanity, the protagonist is often dating a cop or a private investigator.

2 - The cozy mystery typically takes place within a confined and relatively isolated environment with a limited cast of characters. The setting can be anywhere from a grand snowbound country manor in the wilds of the English Lake District to the unfortunate little seaside town where that terrorist Jessica Fletcher used to live.

Yes, the limited cast of characters does make it generally easy to guess who-dunnit, but the charm of these books is more in the journey and not the destination, locked room or otherwise.

3 - Graphic violence is about as popular as the graphic sex and the explicit language. As popular as shows like CSI are, most cozy readers don't enjoy discussion of brain matter and blood spatter. It’s just not…cozy.

4 - Amateur sleuths need to detect with the resources available to them -- just like PIs or police officers. So crimes cannot be solved solely by flashes of intuition, dreams, divine intervention, friendly ghosts -- or blatant coincidences. The sleuth must...sleuth.

Here’s the exception to that rule. In theory the cozy mystery’s protagonist should tie in at least loosely with how the crimes are solved, so if your protagonist is, in fact, an intuitionist, an interpreter of dreams, a nun, or a medium then these methods of revelation will all be…er…relevant.

Except for the blatant coincidence. There’s no excuse for that.

5 - Certain themes are best handled with great delicacy. It’s not true that you can’t address issues such as child abuse, rape, drug addiction, war crimes, and racism in a cozy mystery, but don’t bludgeon your reader over the head with your theme. There’s plenty of hard-hitting crime fiction out there. The cozy reader is looking for something specific in tone and mood. It has to do with the word “cozy.” It’s not just a thing to keep a teapot warm.

6 - A romantic subplot is good. Romance is the best selling genre around, and romantic mystery crossovers are very, very popular.




7 - No explicit sex. I know, I know. I just said romance was a good thing. And I will qualify that. If you’re writing a cozy mystery for the male-male audience or for an ebook publisher, you can enjoy writing a peculiar hybrid of erotic cozy called the “whoazy” (yes, I just totally made that up) but you won’t be selling that bad boy to Berkley Prime Crime. Graphic details, even of a romantic and intimate nature, don't fly with mainstream cozy readers.

8 - Large families and friends offer lots of opportunities for subplots and comedy relief. The cozy mystery is every bit as much about the non-crime-related life of the protagonist as it is about solving a crime. The charm of these books is in the characters and their world. People your stories with lots of entertaining characters who will lead the protagonist to ever more interesting and emotionally satisfying encounters.

9 - Don't forget the cozy trappings. Food, setting, clothes -- this stuff is fun and helps to balance the grimness of violent death. World building is central to the cozy mystery, but unlike in the spec fiction novel, it is not the strangeness of the world you want to focus on, it’s the familiar and recognizable aspects -- and then the effective contrast of violence.

10 - Cozy mysteries sell best as series. Cozy readers like to stick with the characters and worlds they like.

11 - Treat murder with the respect that it deserves. Violent death is not funny. Victims of violent death -- even loathsome victims -- still should not be treated like gag gifts. For one thing, if you treat murder like a big joke, you've just eliminated any tension or suspense from your story.

12 - That said, everything else is fair game. A sense of humor, a playful spirit is good. Cozy readers generally like to leaven the tension of murder and crime with a few chuckles.

13 - The story and the main character must be more than a gimmick. Right before the cozy mystery became persona non grata at so many agent and editorial offices there was a rash of really stupid gimmicky mysteries that were nothing more than desperate attempts to find some new way to dress up the grand dame of crime fiction. At the heart of every cozy mystery is a good story. Readers do not choose these books because they’re desperate to read about stamp collecting, ice fishing, or lace-making. Sure those things can be interesting, but in themselves they are not enough to build a series.

14 - Cozy protagonists are human and fallible. Remember to give your protag a few faults. Sexual addiction and kleptomania...not so good. Addiction to Ding Dongs or a tendency to jump to conclusions, that's fun.

15 - It’s usually best to kill off characters the reader isn’t going to spend the rest of the book actively grieving for. You want the reader focused on the fun of solving the mystery, not angry with you for killing off the most interesting character.

16 - Break up the white, middle class, genteel vibe with interesting supporting characters of other cultures, ethnicities, and orientations. But avoid trotting these characters out like visitors from a freak show.

17 - Bad words are a no-no. Cozy readers take a dim view of potty mouths. The F-word is verboten, and taking the Lord's name in vain will send you straight to publishing Hell. Obviously I’m talking to those of you with an eye on a mainstream publisher. The rest of us can do whatever the fuck we like.


18 - Don’t write a cozy mystery because you think it will sell. Write the cozy because you love the charm and warmth (beneath the murder and mayhem) of these stories.


19 - Respect the reader.

20 - Never kill a cat. Yeah, I’m not kidding. Do not kill pets. It's the Never Kill a Cat rule -- and from the way some of these readers talk, it actually may not be just a rule, it might be The Lost Commandment. Need I say that killing children is even worse than killing pets. Killing anything small is probably not a good idea.

46 comments:

Wynter Daniels said...

Great post! I don't think I could ever write a cozy because I can't seem to keep my characters from having lots of hot sex. The bastards also have potty mouths;-)

KC Burn said...

These are good rules! I tried to write one once (without having the protagonist date someone in law enforcement, which is one of those necessary evils that kinda drives me nuts) but I felt I was distributing clues with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer. Needless to say, it's well-hidden from the light of day. I'll just have to console myself by enjoying yours :)

Josh Lanyon said...

Wynter, that's one of the fun things about writing for the indies. I enjoy writing those whoazy mysteries. ;-D

Josh Lanyon said...

KC, the modern cozy is really all about the fun and the characters. Nowdays most dedicated mystery readers are too experienced to be fooled for long. TV has pretty much destroyed the puzzle aspects of mysteries!

airi71 said...

Excellent post! Great tips. And #20 - so true.

Toni Anderson said...

I nearly choked on my turkey sandwich because I was laughing :)
Great cozy advice.

Elise Warner said...

Well done, Josh. I look forward to reading your Holmes and Moriarity.

Josh Lanyon said...

Thanks, Airi71! Glad you enjoyed it.

Josh Lanyon said...

Hey there, Toni! Anything that helps the turkey go down can't be bad. ;-D

Josh Lanyon said...

I've been writing whoazies too long. I'm nervously double-thinking the wisdom of having written "help the turkey go down."

Josh Lanyon said...

Thanks, Elise. I have a lot of fun in that series as I mostly spend it making fun of writing, publishing, and the mystery genre as a whole. ;-D

jennysmum2000 said...

I really enjoy cozies, Miss Marple was my step after Nancy Drew! All the points you raise are very true. They are safe, sometimes I don't want the grizzly details, either of the murder or of the sex. Georgette Heyer wrote some excellent who dunnits without the sex or the violence.
That said there is definitely a place for the whoazies too. They are different places for different moods. Kit and JX would have shocked Miss Marple, but I love them!
Number 20 is spot on!
Great Blog Josh, thanks.

Julie Moffett said...

Fab post, Josh!! I love cozies because I always know exactly what I'm getting at that moment. Not to say I don't enjoy a wide array of other genres, but sometimes I'm just in the mood for a cozy. Just got a Kindle for X-Mas and plan on loading up some of yours!! :)

Toni Anderson said...

You turkey :D

Josh Lanyon said...

Absolutely, Jan. I enjoy all kinds of mysteries from classic noir to traditional. In fact, I think my next post here might be how Agatha Christie and TV ruined mystery writing for the rest of us. ;-D

Josh Lanyon said...

Thanks, Julie. I hope you find you enjoy my stories!

Josh Lanyon said...

:-D Toni.

Marcelle Dubé said...

I love the cozy, although I also write the grittier mysteries. For me, the cozy is all about character, character, character.

Great post, Josh, and a lot of fun.

Stevie Carroll said...

An excellent list, Josh. My mainstream 'women's fiction' (and if I could come up with a better genre-name for a book that's mostly about throwing a bunch of women together on a voyage of self-discovery, I'd use it) novel has distinct cozy elements, even if my protagonist is a detective on a stress-induced sabbatical.

I love cozy mysteries...

Janni Nell said...

Brilliant post, Josh. Really great information for anyone wanting to write a cozy.

Josh Lanyon said...

I've always been fond of the cozy, Marcelle. Actually, if you examine the traditional mysteries of Agatha Christie, she deals with many a gritty -- even horrific topic but it's done so subtlely that it's easy to take in stride.

Josh Lanyon said...

Stevie, I think the stress-induced sabatical is one of the very best reasons to put a potential sleuth in the path of potential mystery. Sounds like fun!

Josh Lanyon said...

Thanks, Janni! I hope so.

Susan Gourley/Kelley said...

I never thought about the rules for cozies. I like the 'don't kill a cat' rule.

Joanna Terrero said...

Josh, thanks for sharing these writing tips with us. BTW This is a really nice blog. I love the design and the pretty covers.

Josh Lanyon said...

Hey there, Susan. Yes, every genre and sub-genre have their little rules of the game.

Josh Lanyon said...

Hi Joanna! Thanks.

Yes, I love the layout of this blog. Kudos to my blogmates for that.

MaureenAMiller said...

Excellent post, Josh. And "whoazy" I love that! I think I'll consult your post before I sit down to write my next book :)

Josh Lanyon said...

Thanks, Maureen! :-D

Shirley Wells said...

Great post, Josh. I love reading a good cozy but it's just as well I don't write them because I've killed a cat. That sucker had to go. ;)

Will look forward to reading about Holmes and Moriarty!

Josh Lanyon said...

Thanks, Shirley. It's always interesting to read the things that readers say they will and will not accept.

I think I must have some pretty flexible readers given how tolerant they are of my genre jumping.

missywelsh.com said...

I love this post! Between whoazies, #17 and The Lost Commandment I got the laugh I really needed today. Thanks for that. And thanks, too, for making me think my "terrible" attempt at one of these might not be so terrible after all. Odd that I'm cool with having someone read a short PWP I've written, but I shudder to share a little mystery story. LOL :)

Clare London said...

Great post, Josh! Particularly the point about never killing the cat LOL. Seriously, I think you sum it up when you say it's all about the fun and the characters. Which you write so well!

Do you ever get response from readers chastising you about some element in the book? When I've received feedback like that it's always something that hadn't really registered with me - but it's obviously very important to the reader, so I need to take that into account in future :). I think these tips cover mnost of the expectations, and really well.

Rebecca Rogers Maher said...

I love the name "cozy." I've read a few over the years, but this post makes me want to rent a cabin in the woods, light a fire, bake some cookies, wear flannel, and read a pile of 'em for a week straight.

Josh Lanyon said...

Missy, the traditional or "cozy" mystery is actually one of the most respected of literary genres (except by those who despise all genre fiction). Granted, when you add sex to the mixture we lose all credibility.

What IS it about sex that scares people so?

Josh Lanyon said...

Clare, I've come to the conclusion that you can't please all the people all the time. You just have to look at it as...you're the driver and the reader is the passenger. They can comment on your driving, but basically if they don't like the journey, they need to get out of the car.

And too bad if it's a place with no signal and no taxi service.

Seriously, though, after years and years of listening to this stuff I've come to the conclusion that it's just better not to listen to this stuff. ;-D

Josh Lanyon said...

Rebecca, I'm with you. I never saw a problem with the term "cozy," although I do see now that the cozy "rules" are more restrictive than the simple Traditional Mystery.

I do think the spirit of the cozy is very appealing -- which is why it continues to have a devoted audience.

Mahrie G. Reid said...

Love this - restores my passion for the cozy mysteries I write (with a touch of romance.) I write them because I loved to read Nancy Drew, Agatha & Mary Stewart plus more modern authors. I love to write them for the same reasons...my small but dedicated base of readers read them,I think, for the same reason. One of the best set of details of the genre that I've found. Thank you.

Malcolm said...

I'm confused. I've read Hercule Poirot mysteries for years (and Nero Wolfe, and Sherlock Holmes, etc. etc.), and every time I find a blog or discussion about so-called "cozy" mysteries, one thing jumps out at me -- "no bad words." Now I quite understand (and agree) that cozy readers don't want to see f-bombs and the lord's name in vain and sexual references. But I just finished another Poirot mystery called "Death in the Clouds," and in this book, by one of the biggest of all cozy authors ever, is full of "damn" this and "hell" that, sometimes several on one pages. Yet, in many cozy discussions it's stated that "any bad words of any kind are forbidden." Somebody please explain to me why my cozy detective can't say an occasional damn or hell but it's perfectly okay for Agatha Christie.

Josh Lanyon said...

Malcolm, only the most puritanical reader could possibly object to a few "damns" and "hells" in a mystery novel. Those are extremists and not worth listening to.



Josh Lanyon said...

Mahrie, thank you for your kind comment! I'm happy you found the blog useful.

Amanda Ray said...

NUmber 20 is taught in the writing classes I have been in. Thanks for the wonderful tips.

gatorgirl said...

So funny. I randomly started writing one of these the other day and have been trying to find out what a good word count is. I have the 42 year old barre studio owner attracted to the slightly younger police detective. It's tragic, bit I have his wife scheduled to be murdered in book 3. Thanks for the tip on including different ethnicities. The detective in Hispanic, but I'll be sure to diversify the barre clients.

gatorgirl said...

So funny. I randomly started writing one of these the other day and have been trying to find out what a good word count is. I have the 42 year old barre studio owner attracted to the slightly younger police detective. It's tragic, bit I have his wife scheduled to be murdered in book 3. Thanks for the tip on including different ethnicities. The detective in Hispanic, but I'll be sure to diversify the barre clients.

Anonymous said...

Great article! I'm hoping it will kick me back into finishing the cozy I've been writing for two years. My problem with mysteries when I read them is I have no patience and end up jumping to the ending to find out who did it and once I know who did it, I have little desire to go back and read. I'm finding as a writer, it works the same - I know who the killer is, but I have to treat that individual as a normal individual so that the readers don't groan and toss the book in the bin. And since I KNOW who did it, it's hard to plot out the full thing so it is novel length.

But I love the characters so much I just have to finish this thing. LOL

Thia

Paul Nieto said...

Awesome and well written article! it is probably good advice for other genres too. Thank you for posting this