How to write a cozy — at least the way I do
When I was a wee mystery writer, knee high to a closed room, I found myself mystified by the books on how to write mysteries. All of them told you that amateurs didn’t solve mysteries, the police did because they were PROFESSIONALS.
Advice on how to write mysteries, all consisted of “go riding with the police. Ask the police questions.” Etc. Ad Nauseum.
Even police procedurals were insufficiently procedural for these kill joys (many of them mystery editors.) Because that’s not how policemen solve crimes.
Now I don’t know about you, ladies, gentlemen and that dragon who just wandered in, but I don’t read mysteries to get a full dose of “how policemen really solve crimes.” If I wanted to do that I would read true crime, or police blotters. I read mysteries to engage with characters and to be exposed to the insight of “normal people” solving a serious crime and restoring order to the world.
I confess since I’m a little of a rebel that after reading all the books on why I should not write cozies I wanted to write cozies more than ever: it was my chance to thumb my nose at the professionals and authority.
I think there’s a little bit of that in all of us. Whether it’s likely or not (and why is it not likely? We have seen murders solved through sheer coincidence, just in the news) we all want to think that the wisdom of normal people can restore order to the world after a murder-level disruption.
So, that would be sort of my definition of “what’s a cozy” – it’s a book about normal (and usually engaging) people solving a murder.
I will note that NYC’s attempts to throttle the cozy in its cradle didn’t work. Eventually, the cozy niche was filled by craft mysteries.
Right now, under the “cozy” category on Amazon, there are “Craft mysteries” “Women investigators mysteries” “Mysteries involving animals” and “funny mysteries.”
The category is still underserved (there are fewer of these than some types of SF/F and that’s a relatively smaller category.)
Is there a market for cozies?
I don’t know. Look, there used to be. Massive. They were mostly people like me, who read these like you read popcorn. Sometimes seven a day. But then the supply dried up, and a lot of us moved on. OTOH we’re still going and checking the lists every other week. I think if you come up with something fun and just “new” enough there is a market. It might take a little while to find you, but when it does it will pay off.
So, how do you plot one of these, a lot of you have asked.
First, note that what you’re writing is not your average plot – it shouldn’t be that tight. Part of the fun of the cozy is to hang out with fun/quirky/interesting people and to get to know them as if they were your friends. So, while every action should – sort of – feed the plot, there’s room for more stuff that serves the funny; serves the enjoyment of the company of these characters.
In fact, most modern cozy plots aren’t as tight as Agatha Christie. In Christie’s time mysteries were mostly puzzles. She humanized them with friendships/love affairs (there was usually a couple of lovers to root for), domestic interest.
However, if you can, use the extra bits to distract the reader from the real murderer.
Okay, let’s set this in motion, shall we. Let me show you how I plot a cozy. (I’m not sure how others do it.)
First, pick a crime. Remember in cozies you don’t give the grizzly details or dwell on the body. The crime, OTOH can be fairly weird. (In cozies like in sitcoms characters can be terminally strange.) Most of the time the crime is murder (for some reason other crimes feel less “serious.”) BUT the murder can be done by hanging the character upside down from the edge of a ravine and putting poisoned socks on his feet. You know what I mean.
Once you’ve come up with an interesting enough murder method/location/whatever, consider why it might have been done there or in that manner.
At this time, it’s good to remember that “the mob/organization/whatever” solution is not really good for cozies. Cozies should be personal.
Let’s say a teenager is found upside down, with poisoned socks on his feet. The poison was absorbed through the skin.
Who had a grudge against him that involved socks? Easy. Make him a college student, and there’s this roommate whose socks he stole. We can make the roommate a chemistry major, too.
You can run with that as a solution, or you can add another level of twist, by making the roommate’s girlfriend the one who committed the murder, after finding out this man then snuck the socks into the clothes she took to wash for her boyfriend.
In either case, you don’t want to make it too obvious.
So you need to buy yourself a whole case of red herrings.
First, whoever is solving this crime – say, the young woman who is in love with the roommate (but not the girlfriend) should have weird incidents happen. Say someone keeps leaving her weird messages to “give it back right now.” And she thinks it’s this bottle of the poison used on the socks that she found in this guy’s room.
You can escalate this all out of proportion, but in the end it will be something silly and unrelated, like she borrowed a book from someone else and never gave it back.
Meanwhile while she’s tracing down everyone that knew the dead guy, including his family, she will find one or more persons who seem bad enough to have left her the threatening notes.
Both the threatening notes and the widening investigation gives you a chance to “widen the circle” of interesting characters.
Two notes: be true to science, forensics, etc. Nothing ruins a bit of fun more than coming across something that is demonstrably wrong.
Also, have fun. Build your mystery as a world YOU’d want to live in. If the series succeeds, you’ll be!
But what if you don’t know who committed the murder? Well… sometimes you don’t. It’s easier for me if I know and can willfully direct suspicion away from the right path. But that doesn’t mean it’s the only way to do it.
Sometimes as your character is going around and interviewing people, you’ll get a sense of “that one. He did it.”
It’s just that unless you’re already somewhat experienced, as reader or writer, if you are finding out who the murderer might be you will waste more copy. In the end you’ll have three or four chapters that don’t fit.
On the other hand, they could be the beginning of other books, of course. It depends on how YOUR mind works.
The only other caveat I’d have is that at some point, either when you’re plotting, when you’re writing or after you’ve written, when you’re editing, you take a calendar and plot the mystery by days and where people were. This is because for some reason in mysteries, I end up having characters that can be in three places at once, which is pretty embarrassing.
There are other “rules” and I can go on with this next week, if you want. (By “rules” I mean things that make it easier to have the readers enjoy your cozy mystery.)
But for now, I think that’s it.