Cozy Up

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.

31 comments

  1. “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.”

    I think this is useful in other genres as well. I think it’s one reason series are so popular. The reader wants to get back with hir friends and see what trouble they’ve gotten into this time.

    1. Definitely. But for the cozy it’s almost the raison d’etre. The murder is just the excuse to get them to do more fun/interesting things.
      I mean, there are three murders in the refinishing mysteries. What do people like? E!

  2. OT: I’d like to request alpha readers for my An & Mattan story. I’ve been putting it out in chunks on my blog (the whole thing is there now), but I’m expecting that I’ll be able to send out a reasonably clean rough draft copy to someone by this weekend. (Which means, now I’ve actually got to do that). I have Calibre, so I should be able to send it out various formats.
    I know it has a lot of work to do before I release it to the general public, but I’m not really sure at this point if I should polish it, or put it on the back burner and let it simmer for a while.
    http://jasini.wordpress.com/an-mattan-part-1/

      1. I have a story where the two characters and their dog find a dead body in plastic near a dumpster. Now– to make it a cozy– I would have to make it a story on the level of personal to personal… than say a drug hit. (I was thinking of using this as a traveling cozy mystery).. So say they found the body, the police tell them to stay in town, and part of the cozy would be exploring the town and the other part would be finding the slightly off killer. Does this sound right?

              1. Yea– the dog is odd– and you know how dogs (like certain bloodhounds) like to roll in dead things– it is like that– rolling on top of the garbage bag of a dead body

                1. Oh, ok. “lying across the bag moaning” kind of gave the image that it was upset for the dead guy. Now, if it’s like my dog, who would lie on her back and wiggle back and forth as she kicks her feet in the air, then yeah, I can see that.

  3. Thank you for explaining the cozy.

    So, if my setting supernaturally predisposes people to murder, if my detective is a contract killer, if the motive for the crime is Ds being Ds, it is probably not a cozy.

    1. Only if your detective/contract killer is (when not working) a sweet young thang (or nice easy going fellow) with friends and family and pets. Probably need to throw some endearing habits in as well. Perhaps shocked and indignant that something so nasty could happen _right here! At home!_

  4. Hrm. I guess what I’m writing isn’t a cosy. :/ It’s LIKE a cosy, but it contains things that it shouldn’t. Like yes, a gang guy is involved, but… it’s actually personal, so personal he’s abandoned most of his normal associates to “do it himself.” The couple are really spies in their old lives, and now just want to be normal. But things keep happening, and it’s funny, and the wife is pregnant, and the town is full of weird nosy people… Do you keep a house that you find a body in? Is it really a murder, or did the old man have a heart attack? What was HIS past? I have no idea where it’s going right now, but it appears that David and I have similar word counts. I’m behind because of the power outage this morning. Grrr. Not snowpocalypse, but a nastly ice/wind storm and about 4 inches of snow.

  5. I’m not sure; but I think by your definition, “Murder on the Aldrin Express” is a cozy — which is NOT a description I would’ve thought to use (despite the Christie nod in the title). The death occurs on Mars. The investigator is the captain of the ship that transports the explorers back to Earth. He is forced into this role when his crew discover evidence of foul play in the death. And the major “action” in the story is this irascible captain interviewing the suspects, every one of whom has reasons to dislike him. As a side plot, his first officer (the narrator, in a Watson/Archie role) must face the fact that one of the suspects is his former lover who broke up with him so she could go to Mars.

    A hard science fiction cozy… Hmmm…

      1. It was in Analog September of last year. If you missed that, you can find it in Year’s Best Science Fiction Volume 31 in July, and Year’s Top Short SF Novels 4 in November.

        Yes, I’m still in shock over those…

  6. Also, this helps me understand how the ‘children detective’ fiction I used to read worked.

    McGurk, for one, seems to meet the definition of a cozy presented here. Wait, expect maybe for the core thing about ordinary people remaking and reordering society and civilization by being people.

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