This article, written by Nancy J. Cohen, is from the September 2022 edition of Nink, the monthly newsletter of Novelists, Inc. (NINC). Nink, which is packed each month with informative articles for career novelists, is a benefit of NINC membership.
Cozy mysteries have been popular since the days of Agatha Christie. Readers enjoy these stories that are a subgenre of the traditional mystery. Detective stories, police procedurals, and courtroom dramas also fall under the mystery umbrella. In a traditional mystery, there’s a murder that must be solved. Missing persons or theft are other possibilities, as long as they present a puzzle for readers to solve. In addition to a whodunit, cozies have distinctive qualities that give them a special appeal.
Elements of a cozy mystery
- Amateur sleuth
- Interesting occupation
- Small town setting
- A sidekick and/or a cherished pet
- Limited number of suspects
- Whodunit with a fair play puzzle (clues are planted that lead to the killer)
- Focus on interpersonal relationships
These are “clean” books that can be read by all ages. They have no bad language, graphic sex, or violence. Love scenes should take place behind closed doors, and murders shouldn’t involve any messy details. Cozies provide a lighthearted read with a happy ending. Nobody gets terribly hurt except for the murder victim, who may be someone we love to hate. Justice is always served, unlike in the real world. This gives us a feeling of control in the midst of chaos. Humor is welcome as are romantic subplots. Readers love series so they’re a must-have for this genre.
Subcategories are popular but not essential. Basically, these make marketing easier and provide a hook for your submission to a publisher. They also feature into your metadata if you are self-publishing your work.
- Culinary cozies
- Animal mysteries
- Crafts and hobbies
- Paranormal mysteries
- Historical mysteries
The average reader for my books is female in the 45 to 65+ range. Satisfying reader expectations is critically important. According to IngramSpark, “The tone of a cozy should be upbeat, optimistic and lighthearted. The setting should be the kind of place the reader might long to live in or to choose for their vacation.” Fans of the cozy genre prefer fast-paced stories with distinctive cover art, punny titles, and interesting locales. Social issues may be included if the tone is maintained.
Taboos forbid any harm to children or pets.
Publisher’s Weekly says, “The heart of why readers love cozies is they know what they are getting. They know they will have a sleuth who is pulled into the crime because that sleuth cares about other people, they know the sleuth’s friends and family will help and hinder the investigation, they know that humor will abound, and they know that in the end, through all the twists and turns, the killer will be caught. In a cozy, there is a happily ever after and justice is served.”
- The setting
- The amateur sleuth
- Recurrent characters
- The victim
- The suspects
- Solving the crime
Choose a setting that has a unique flavor, whether it’s a seaside resort, a small town in suburbia, an ethnic neighborhood, or a mountain retreat. Enrich this locale with regional foods and cultural practices. Make your scenes come alive though the five senses, slang terms, and other details that only a local would know.
Then pick a site for the murder to take place. This is what I call “the setting within a setting.” As a reference, study The Brokenwood Mysteries on TV or the Hallmark Movies & Mysteries channel. Note how each episode in a series focuses on a different venue, such as a winery, a craft show, or a wedding. When you determine the backdrop for your book, you’ll have a built-in group of suspects.
The amateur sleuth
Your sleuth should work in an interesting occupation that offers a chance for readers to learn something new. Here’s where your series can stand out. Let’s say you want to write a culinary mystery. What angle hasn’t been done? Where can you set the stories that nobody else has tried? What will make your caterer different from the rest? Will your protagonist’s voice be funny, cynical, or memorable in some other way? Strive for originality within the subgenre category.
In terms of personality, you’ll want a strong, independent protagonist who takes a proactive approach to sleuthing. They will be a good conversationalist to coax suspects into talking when the police are stymied. Give them a personal motive for getting involved and a reason why they’re unable to let the cops solve the crime.
Readers adore series and they want secondary characters to feel like friends. This includes pets, which fans love. Just make sure never to hurt the animals in a cozy. The sleuth should have a sidekick because you’ll want to do a periodic review of suspects in the story. Other continuing characters can include work colleagues, family members, friends, and love interests. These people will be the source of your subplots.
Who do you want to kill off? Is it someone we’ll love to hate? Or is it a likeable person who appears to have no enemies but harbors deep secrets? Choose your victim and consider if it’s someone known to the sleuth. This would raise the stakes for her to solve the crime, although it’s not necessary as long as she has another reason to get involved. Also, be careful about killing off a favorite recurrent character in a sequel. If you have to get rid of someone, knock off a minor player to avoid offending your readers. Then try to think up a unique method of murder for each book.
Once you identify the victim, determine who might have had a reason to want this person dead. Each suspect should have a secret to hide, whether or not it relates to the murder. Connect these characters to each other so they all know one another. Suspects can lie, contradict their own or someone else’s statements, and rat on each other. But even though each person might seem to have a motive, only one of them is the killer.
Solving the crime
In the first third of the book, the crime occurs and the suspects are introduced. The sleuth realizes these people have secrets to hide. During the middle portion, complications arise to deepen the plot. Clues are planted and false leads followed. Here you can add suspense through techniques such as time bombs, false alarms, and isolation. Raise the stakes with more murders or higher risk to the heroine. Finally, each person’s secret is revealed until the killer is exposed. The sleuth has a confrontation with the murderer and escapes through their own resources.
The cozy market is thriving. Fans will always crave these lighthearted books that provide hours of entertainment. First decide if you’re going the traditional route. Check the publisher guidelines to see if you need an agent, although this is advisable for contract negotiations. Go here to see the approved list from Mystery Writers of America.
Prepare a series proposal along with your submission packet. You’ll be presenting your book as number one in an ongoing series. This might include a profile of your sleuth and story blurbs for the next few sequels. If you have a niche marketing plan, include that as well.
If you intend to self-publish, plan your branding from the start. Cover design, fonts, colors, and book titles should be taken into consideration. Link these across all platforms. Also decide how often and at what price point you want to release your books. It’s possible to do very well with a series this way, but you must constantly promote your work. You’ll have full responsibility for book production as well as marketing, so be sure this is the way you want to go. On the other hand, you’ll have full control over your career, and that has its own benefits. There are extensive posts online about indie publishing, so look for blogs and workshops on this topic.
Issues for the cozy writer
Since this subgenre is primarily, but not exclusively, written by women for women, authors may run into similar battles as romance writers. Cozy authors, while respected much more widely today than when I started writing in this genre, are still less likely to win certain writing awards when lumped into a general mystery category.
Writing a lengthy mystery series comes with its own drawbacks. You have to avoid repetitions in terms of motives and manner of death. It’s important to catch up new readers while not boring your loyal fans. You have to decide how much to age your protagonist from book to book and find personal reasons each time for the sleuth to get involved.
Keeping a long-running series fresh isn’t difficult if you focus on the sleuth’s interpersonal relationships. The reader is almost always more interested in your character’s life than in the crime. Yes, there’s a mystery to solve in each story, but more importantly, which love interest will the heroine choose or how will she deal with her annoying mother-in-law? Also have something new for readers to learn. It’ll make the book exciting for you to research as well.
Cozies will always be popular. Readers seek an escape from reality and an entertaining story where all is well in the end. They know they’re getting a “clean” read, a fast-paced murder mystery, and a glimpse into an interesting occupation and/or locale. This genre will always have its dedicated fans.