Cozy Mystery Guideposts: Start with an Amateur Sleuth!

Posted by September 25th, 2013

cozy_postMystery subgenres are usually self-explanatory: police procedurals feature detectives in uniform and historical mysteries are set in the past. But there’s one category that stops writers in their tracks: “What the heck is a ‘cozy’ mystery?”

Here’s our Book Country definition:

Cozy Mystery is a subgenre of mystery, usually set in a small town or village. Cozies are characterized by their lack of explicit sex and violence. The protagonist is usually a likable female amateur sleuth, who is often viewed as an annoyance by the local police.

To elaborate on our definition and help you decide whether you should “shelve” your book in the cozy section of our genre map–here are a few hard and fast rules about the cozy mystery subgenre:

Amateur Sleuth

Start here! You need an amateur detective, most likely a woman, who will get swept up into the mystery. Age can vary: on one end of the spectrum we have 28-year-old Lee McKinney, heroine of JoAnna Carl’s chocoholic mysteries, and on the other one Elizabeth Spann Craig’s octogenarian sleuth Myrtle Clover. No matter the age of the heroine, we need to like her and like spending time with her. After all, she’ll be the narrator of the story, as cozies are usually written in first person point of view.

Know Your Heroine’s Craft!

The protagonist is deeply involved in a hobby or occupation: cozies are set in bakeries, embroidery shops, flower shops, book shops, quilt shops–you name it. Readers take pleasure in the detailed descriptions of the heroine going about her day, so you have to be able to write about her craft or hobby with confidence. Also, the key to the mystery is often related to the heroine’s expertise in some way, so you’d better do your research! Many of your readers enjoy the same hobbies so they’ll know if you’re faking it.

Clear Motivation

Since your protagonist is not a professional detective or law enforcer, you need a reason to keep her involved in the investigation. She has to be proactive–that is, actively look for the criminal–or else she is not the real protagonist. That’s why you have to give her a good reason to hover over the crime scene. Perhaps she’s implicated, and she needs to prove her innocence? Or someone close to her is? Or she thinks she’ll be the next victim? Raise the stakes and give your character motivation for sleuthing.

Help from a Detective Figure

There is a mystery and a sleuth that’s set on resolving it. There’s one problem: although the sleuth is crafty and resourceful, she doesn’t have the necessary forensic knowledge to catch the killer. Or even if she does, she doesn’t have access to the crime scene and know details about the progress of the investigation. That’s why you need to dream up a sidekick who knows a thing or two about crime solving. Perhaps the heroine has a friend in law enforcement? Or becomes romantically involved with the local sheriff or crime reporter? To ground your cozy and make it realistic, you’ll need a supporting character who’ll provide intel and feed the heroine clues that will help her solve the crime.

Supporting Characters

Cozies are often set inside small towns (or communities of like-minded folks in larger towns, such as the San Francisco’s bookbinding community in Kate Carlisle’s Bibliophile mysteries). In addition to a detective figure, give the protagonist a solid group of friends, colleagues, and potential/former suspects. A lively community really helps a cozy mystery pop. If you write a series, your reader will appreciate returning to the supporting cast of characters with every book.

Pace and Violence

Finally, pay close attention to the pace and violence levels. Less is more. A great cozy has a gentle pace. The reader should still want to turn the pages, but without the heart-pounding pace in a thriller or even  another genre of mystery. The majority of the violence (and especially the blood) happens outside the page. Yes, it’s a murder, there should be a body, but the focus isn’t on the gore, it’s on the people as they solve the crime.

Happy sleuthing!

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3 thoughts on “Cozy Mystery Guideposts: Start with an Amateur Sleuth!

  1. J.M. Griffin

    I enjoyed reading this article. I write cozies and find that leaving sex and gore out of the equation brings my readers back time and again. There’s enough of both out in the world, I can leave them out of my stories. 🙂

  2. Adele Gibbes

    Glad to stumble upon this article. Lots of great advice. I am the cozy mystery writer of the Playhouse Mystery Series, the first book ‘Murder in State Park’ centers around a playhouse in the Black Hills of South Dakota

  3. Jessie Haynes

    Thanks for the helpful article. I’m a romance ghostwriter that’s considering writing my own fiction in the mystery genre, and am exploring cozies. Guess I just have to decide if I want to say goodbye to explicit sex in my own stories, which may not be a problem. Very interested in learning more about the cozies market and readers.


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