Nine Essential Elements of a Cozy (How to Write a Cozy Mystery 101)




Tone and Theme:

There are a number of conventions within the cozy mystery world that distinguish the cozy from the traditional mystery: the amateur sleuth, the small, closed setting, the relatively bloodless murder, the absence of sexual content and strong language, but nothing distinguishes a cozy from all other forms of mystery and suspense fiction more than tone and theme. You can get away with subverting pretty much any cozy convention if you still get the tone and theme right.

Cozies are confusing. They are stories centered around murders yet still feel-good. They are fast-paced yet not thrillers. They are a study in contradictions.

To understand the cozy, it is essential to understand why readers in general love mysteries. Close behind romance, mystery and suspense fiction is the most popular genre with readers the world over and has been throughout the modern era.

Despite mysteries being centered around a horrible happening, that is not why readers love them. There are enough horrible happenings to read about in real life. Mystery readers do not want real life. They would abandon any book in disgust if the killer never got caught.

The killer getting caught and paying for his crime is the point of the whole book. Bad things happen in cozies, but unlike in real life, when all too often the perp walks free, proportional justice is always served.

In the world of the cozy, the punishment always fits the crime. A cozy can feature any secondary theme that fits your fancy, but the primary theme must always be “beware your sins will find you out.”

Cozy readers are not focused on the crime; they are focused on solving of the puzzle that gets them to that satisfying end when the baddies get their comeuppance.

Traditional mysteries are also all about the puzzle, but they don’t mind getting a bit dark and gritty along the way. Cozies do not do dark. They do not do gritty. And that is the one unbreakable rule of writing one.

Cozies must be light, bright, and feel-good. That often means cats, cupcakes, knitting, and country fairs. It doesn’t have to. Cozies can incorporate an endless array of elements, but those elements must never delve into the dark (even the witches in cozies are paragons of sweetness and light), and the central theme of proportional justice must forever remain at the heart of the story.

Subgenre:

Closely related to tone and theme is subgenre, each of which has its own set of conventions and specific reader expectations. The main subgenres of cozy mysteries are culinary, animal, paranormal, historical, and crafts.

Cozies that fit neatly into at least one of these subgenres will be considerably easier to market, so consider incorporating appropriate elements from at least one of these subgenres right from the start.

Learn more about cozy subgenres.

 


Cozy mysteries are (almost) always written in series with a recurring amateur sleuth at the center of the action.

Amateur sleuths in cozy mysteries are usually female and should be both relatable and likable to the typical reader (a middle-aged or older woman). The cozy sleuth is usually in her thirties or older (most often older), but this is not a hard and fast rule.

The sleuth does not have any background in criminal justice or law enforcement; instead, she relies on her life experience and her understanding of human nature to tease out clues and solve crimes. She is competent, independent, and an excellent communicator.

She is most frequently single (most often divorced or widowed), and finding love again is a common ongoing secondary story arc in cozy series.

The sleuth is generally assertive (and at times downright nosey) but rarely simply for the sake of being a busy body. She should have a genuine and ethically-driven motivation, even if that motivation is simply to see justice served. Often the reason she embarks on an investigation into a crime is far more personal, and either the victim or the accused will be tied to her social circle in some significant way.

The sleuth is a flawed character and makes mistakes, but she always owns up to her mistakes when forced to face them. She must be an imminently trustworthy character with a flawlessly functioning moral compass.

The sleuth often has either an occupation or a hobby that ties into one of the common cozy mystery subgenres: culinary, crafts, animals, paranormal, etc.

Creating a likable and capable sleuth is the first and most important step in writing a cozy mystery.


Start with these questions:

Male or female?

Age?

Ethnicity and cultural background?

Former and present occupation(s)?

Relationship status and significant family relationships? Significant friendships? Does this person have a nemesis?

Personality?

Quirks? Enthusiasms/pet peeves? What makes this person unique?

Strengths of Character? What makes this person admirable?

Weaknesses and disadvantages? What makes this person relatable?

What are the crossroads this person is facing at the start of the series?

 


In cozy mysteries, especially long-running series, the setting can be almost as important as the sleuth.

Cozies can be set anywhere, but the vast majority are set in small towns. There are several reasons for this: Small towns allow the writer to visit and revisit a limited cast of supporting characters. Small towns create a somewhat closed environment where everybody knows everybody else’s business, which makes an investigation carried out by an amateur more realistic. Small towns also have a nostalgia factor that appeals to the many cozy readers. Cozies may be all about murder but of the kinder, gentler sort with the scent of gingerbread wafting on the breeze and kittens cavorting under the lilac bushes.

A cozy can also be successfully set in a single close-knit neighborhood in a larger city (think a village within a city) or any semi-closed setting such as a cruise ship, resort, boarding school, etc.

The setting is often more completely described in early books and in decreasing detail as the series progresses as the typical reader moves from book to book in the series.

Within the larger setting of the small town, there are often “sets” where action repeatedly takes place, such as the sleuth’s workplace, home, parks, restaurants, theaters, community centers, etc. These also may be described in more detail early on and gradually become familiar to readers working their way through the series.

The sleuth’s workplace—cafĂ©, bookstore, knitting shop—is often the epicenter of the action. This serves a secondary purpose of reinforcing the subgenre expectations. For example, the culinary cozy must incorporate cooking, and the animal cozy must include pets as significant elements

Setting is integral to subgenres. The historical cozy or paranormal cozy will need more descriptive settings since bygone eras and fantasy realms are outside the experience of the reader and require more explanation.

Learn more about worldbuilding for cozies.


The Supporting Characters:

The supporting characters in the cozy series are essentially part of the setting and pop in from time to time to further the finding of clues but often simply serve as local color. Supporting characters frequently have their own mini-story arcs, which continue throughout a series.

Common roles played by recurring characters in a cozy are sidekicks (one or more characters who routinely assist the sleuth in her investigation), the nemesis or rival (always obstructing either the investigation or the sleuth’s personal life), the love interest, the sage (doesn’t actively help in the investigation but provides a valuable sounding board and “voice of reason” for the sleuth).

A common device is to give the sleuth someone in her inner circle who is either a law enforcement officer or a detective. This allows the sleuth to gain access to information she would not have as a private citizen.



 

The crime in a cozy is most often a murder, but it doesn’t have to be. Whatever the crime of choice, the description of the crime scene is never graphic. Common causes of death are poisonings, a knife in the back, a single gunshot wound to the head, and other fairly bloodless murders. The “accident” that turns out not to be an accident after all is also common in the cozy.

Other crimes of choice: kidnappings, missing persons, extortion, thefts, and sabotage. The one off-limits crime for cozies is anything involving rape or sexual assault. Almost any other crime that doesn’t involve a child or an animal as the victim can be adapted to cozy treatment.

This brings us to the victim. 


Unlike suspense thrillers or gritty traditional mysteries, the victims in cozies are often extremely unlikable. Very often, the murder victim in the cozy may not have deserved to die, but it was their own unscrupulous or cruel actions that touched off a series of events that led to their demise.

The cozy victim often has a list of people who might want them dead for various reasons.

The unlikable victim is not obligatory to the cozy—sometimes the victim got caught up with the “baddies” through no fault of his own—but more often than not, the victim isn’t someone we feel very sorry for. By definition, a cozy is a feel-good read. The cozy reader, above all else, wants everyone to “get what they deserve.”

Children and animals are off-limits when it comes to inflicting bodily harm. Very vulnerable characters can become victims of nonviolent crimes but are not generally portrayed as being traumatized by their ordeal. For example, the villain might abscond with the sleuth’s puppy, but the puppy comes back safe and sound and just thinks he went for a ride.

In cozies, any recurring supporting character may fall victim to a nonlethal crime, but in a cozy, characters never end up dead after the readers have had time to become attached to them.

A frequently used plot device in both traditional mysteries and cozies is the “mid-point second body,” where the sleuth’s prime suspects turn up dead halfway through the investigation, and the sleuth is forced to start over.

Sometimes, the midpoint is not marked by a second murder but a crime of lesser magnitude, which either reveals new information about the initial crime or somehow exonerates one of the suspects.

 


The suspects in the cozy are most often friends, business associates, or family members of the victim. The perp in a cozy never turns out to be an itinerant serial killer. All the suspects, including the perpetrator, must be introduced early in the investigation.

When creating suspects for your cozy crime, they each must be given a means of having committed the crime (right place, right time, right resources) and a motive (a reason for wanting to commit the crime in question).

Quite often, several of the suspects have something to hide (sometimes completely unrelated to the crime in question), which causes lies and inconsistencies in their stories. The lies must be unraveled before the truth is revealed.

It is very useful to give each suspect two parallel stories: what actually happened and what they tell other people.

A big part of the sleuth’s job is motivating both suspects and witnesses (and sometimes victims in nonlethal crimes) to tell the truth.

 


The investigation typically follows a try/fail cycle with an unexpected event throwing the whole investigation into disarray at the midpoint.

Most of what the sleuth finds out should be immediately revealed to the reader, with the exception of withholding not the clues but the conclusion the sleuth reaches from analyzing the clues prior to the big reveal.

The sleuth herself does not solve the mystery until shortly before she reveals the perp.

A mystery convention is to have a final confrontation with either a prime suspect or the perp that puts the sleuth in peril right before the killer is caught. This is not necessary, but it is frequently done.

The next to last scene in a mystery is generally the sleuth laying out her case for either law enforcement or the loved ones of the victim. This is sometimes referred to as “the drawing-room scene,” after golden age mysteries where the detective would call everyone together into the drawing-room and unmask the murderer.

Typically following the arrest of the killer, there is one final scene (often quite short) where the sleuth and her compatriots return to a state of tranquility.

 



The investigation is made up of a series of clues that the sleuth must put together like pieces of a puzzle. These clues may be revealed in a variety of ways, including:

Physical evidence observed or recovered at the crime scene.

Physical evidence discovered at a second location.

Investigating the victim (asking around, cyber investigation, etc.)

Interviewing the victim (if nonlethal crime.)

Identifying witnesses and collecting eye-witness accounts of the crime.

Identifying possible suspects and then narrowing down the lists.

Interviews with associates of the most likely suspects.

Interviews with the suspects themselves.

Confirming (or exposing) the alibis of the suspects.

Investigating the suspects (asking around, cyber investigation, etc.)

Tailing the suspects.

Revisiting the crime scene with fresh eyes.

Rethinking all assumptions in light of unexpected events.


A common mystery convention is the insertion of a “red herring,” a finding that appears to point to the guilt of a certain suspect yet turns out to be insignificant or misleading in the light of subsequent information.

The sleuth may temporarily fall for the “red herring” when it is presented, or the misleading clue may simply be presented for the reader to fall for without the sleuth even interacting with it in any meaningful way.

It is useful to scatter clues into scenes where other things aside from an active investigation are happening. It is also useful to present a significant piece of information alongside a couple of other meaningless details.

Every clue the sleuth uses to reach her conclusions must be there for the reader to also see. Part of the fun of the mystery is trying to reach the solution along with the sleuth.

Caveat: beware of making your clues too easy to spot and your sleuth a dufus. Your reader should say, “I can’t believe I didn’t see that,” not “I can’t believe she doesn’t see that.” 





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