by ML Erdahl
Dos of Writing Cozies
- Do learn how to write. Skip this step at your own risk or be forced to deal with heartache, because once you are armed with the proper knowledge, you’ll have to rewrite an entire novel. There are numerous books on the subject, local writing associations, and conferences that are dedicated to teaching potential authors the craft of storytelling. These sources teach important fundamentals such as the three story act, the development of characters, the importance of setting, as well as the all important writing commandment Show Don’t Tell.
- Do read various cozy mystery authors. Win-win! You get to read your favorite cozies, but tell everyone that you’re doing it for research purposes. The best part—it isn’t even a lie. Reading authors in the genre help you develop your own instinct as to what belongs when imagining your own story.
- Do imagine your main character’s personality in extensive detail. If you are passionate about baking, maybe make that your main character’s profession. Dog walking, innkeeper, tour guide, bounty hunter, and my own main character Crystal Rainey’s profession, wilderness guide—the options are endless. However, a character isn’t defined by their job alone. Are they brave and determined? Foolhardy and adventurous? What idiosyncrasies do they have? Think of the television show Monk—Tony Shaloub’s character suffered from OCD, but that personality difference made him memorable. My main character can’t lie under pressure. When confronted by a suspect, she invariably suffers a brain freeze, and can’t come up with convincing lies. It isn’t an ideal trait to have if you’re an amateur sleuth nosing around in other people’s business, but it makes for some humorous interactions.
- Do develop your setting. Is it a quaint fictitious town? Then populate it with quirky, fun characters and interesting businesses. Maybe there is a grouchy old man missing an eye, but every Halloween he puts on an eyepatch and decorates his home to look like a pirate ship while handing out full-sized candy bars. Dig deep and flesh these characters out, because they will become like old friends to the reader, who look forward to their appearance time and time again. Remember my advice about reading other authors? Carlene O’Connors Death in an Irish Village is a prime example as to how the reader can be transported to a new location with an author’s words. I wanted nothing more than to sit in the pub, eating brown bread, sipping Guinness, and watching the murder case unfold. The setting is important to imparting the cozy in your mystery. Make a reader snuggle up with your book and imagine interacting with your cast of characters wherever your story takes place.
- Do introduce the murder victim and summarily kill them off. Don’t be shy! Just finish them off in whatever manner you please to get the mystery started. Ideally, this needs to be in the first ten percent on the novel. The murder is a call-to-action for all cozy readers, who want to solve the murder along with the amateur sleuth. Engage your audience so they can begin looking for clues alongside the sleuth.
- Do get your main character started by laying out a trail of clues—or are they red herrings? Whether it is a juicy bit of gossip, a suspect caught lingering around the scene of the crime, or news wheedled out of law enforcement, information will be interpreted by your main character. Some of this will be true clues that assist in solving the crime. Other tidbits may be either misunderstood by your sleuth, or sometimes intentionally left by a suspect to throw them off the trail (Remember—If the clue giver turns out to be the murderer, they aren’t above a little deception to cover it up!). These pieces of evidence not only propel the story forward, but keep the readers pondering the meaning of each new hint you choose to share with them.
- Do culminate your cozy murder mystery with the solving of the crime. There is no secret how cozy mysteries will end. The main character corners the suspect and ensures they are turned into law enforcement. The predictability of the outcome isn’t the point. The important part of the story is the journey you took to get there. If you’ve pulled this off perfectly, the reader will close the book with a smile and say, “Oh, I didn’t see that coming, but it makes so much sense!” This feat of writing is accomplished by synthesizing the clue drops and red herrings into a satisfying climax. If you’ve laid a false trail, reveal why it wasn’t the real deal and how the reader could have determined that. Most important, you have to leave a realistic way for the reader to have sussed it out. After all, that’s why they bought the ticket for this ride in the first place.
Don’ts of Writing Cozy Mysteries
- Don’t get complacent when motivating your main character. One of the common complaints about cozies is, “Why is the main character even investigating in the first place?!” Seriously, who stumbles onto a dead body, and declares, “How fun! I want to get involved in this situation.” However, while all genres benefit from what is called a suspension of disbelief from its fans, you can’t get lazy. Cozy readers will accept an amateur sleuth investigating and solving a crime, but only to an extent. As an author, it is your job to make it plausible that your main character needs to solve this particular crime. Is their bed and breakfast shut down until the murder is solved? Are they the primary suspect? Both of these could be strong motivators. If you gloss over this step, the reader may give up on the story even if it continues into a masterfully written mystery.
- Don’t reveal the murderer to be an obscure character that the reader will need to flip backward in the book to recall. This infuriates cozy mystery fans, and they won’t pick up your next book. If your murderer is Susan Smith mentioned briefly on page eight, I don’t blame them for giving up, either.
- Don’t let the crime steer the story in a dark direction. How do you keep a macabre subject like murder in the proper tone? Have the crime happen off-scene. The protagonist can stumble upon the body, or hear about it from other characters. This spares the reader from experiencing the act itself. I loved CSI-Las Vegas as much as the next person, but the main character of a cozy is an amateur sleuth, and doesn’t have access to police resources. Therefore, don’t have them sift through a gruesome murder scene looking for clues. If you start going into grisly details or forensic procedures, you are venturing towards the police procedural genre.
- Don’t include explicit sex. Intimacy can be part of a cozy, but needs to happen off-camera. This can be accomplished by cutting a scene before the characters retire to the bedroom and picking up at the breakfast table the next morning. A good reality check—If you’re embarrassed for your parents to read your material, you might have wandered into the romantic suspense genre.
- Don’t be trite. There are a lot of cozy mystery tropes that readers have come to expect. Cuddly pets, love triangles, cops who threaten the sleuth for being too nosy, overheard conversations, etc… If written well, these are classic hallmarks of the cozy genre. If they are done poorly, they come across as tired cliches that make for a boring read. Therefore, ponder how to either put a unique spin on the topics or even breaking the trope altogether. Maybe the main character’s best friend is an absolutely atrocious baker and everyone politely chokes down her cookies throughout the entire book. An example from my series is my main character’s cat named Elf. Instead of being a sweet part of the setting, Elf (Evil Little Feline) is capricious and constantly swiping at people with his claws. Despite this, Crystal loves her cat, which shows her character as being a big softy, like we all are with our own pets. This slight twist of the sweet cozy pet trope gave it fresh life, while also feeling comfortable to the reader.
If you make the leap from reader to author, I urge you to check out a local writing association, and start connecting with others through social media. The writing community is possibly the most positive, supportive bunch of people you will ever meet. Complete strangers will offer advice, encouragement, and support, and often end up being life long friends.
I hope these tips help when you decide to put pen to paper. If you have any questions or comments, feel free to reach out to me at email@example.com or through social media.
Award-winning author ML Erdahl lives amidst the trees of the Pacific Northwest, where he pens humorous cozy mystery novels set in the wilderness he has spent his lifetime exploring. The only thing slowing him down is when his adorable rescue dogs, Skip and Daisy, demand to be pet and cuddled on his lap while he types. When he’s not wandering the mountains, you can find him gardening, reading, or searching for the best coffee in Seattle with his wife, Emily.