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.