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Writing A Cozy – What is this thing?

I’m sure I covered “what is a cozy mystery” in a lot of other … slants, before.

But you see, I was trying to find a good book on how to write cozies, and thought I had found one.  When it got into how to design the ecology for your cozy, I thought “What the actual?” and decided to do this series.

So, welcome to “Writing a Cozy” — and we’ll start by defining what a cozy is, because every time I mention cozies people think it means something like “Books that make me feel cozy.”  Um… no. It’s a subgenre of mystery.Cozies, a term kind of covalent with “malice domestic” is a mystery defined by a greater emphasis on the interpersonal relationships of suspects and investigator than by the forensics or gruesome details of the murder.

In fact, once upon a time, the short hand for murder mysteries was “mysteries like Agatha Christie’s.” Or perhaps “amateur detective mysteries.”

They are not exactly the same these days.  You see, when I started getting interested in writing mysteries back in the 90s, most how to write a mystery books started out with “Cozies aren’t real mysteries” and “real mysteries are solved by police, not amateurs.”

And those of us trying to write cozies got told there was no market for them.

As far as I can tell this was one of those decisions that publishers made because they decided that a genre didn’t reflect well on their intellect or something. The truth was that there was a market for cozies, just like there was a market for every other kind of mystery.  In fact, the cozy mystery market might have been bigger than the other sub-genres combined.

At some point, this being the time when publishing houses still liked to make money, it became clear that there was still a market for cozies. And that the market for mysteries had decreased considerably once they stopped publishing cozies.

Therefore, they started publishing cozies again. But they couldn’t admit that they had been wrong, so the first run at bringing back the cozies was the craft mysteries.

The first few of these were so patently obvious (puzzlewise) that they were practically non-existent.

This brought a new tenor to cozies, often with a strong romantic sub-element.

So,w hat is a cozy these days?

Well, the definition holds: it is a murder mystery where the murder is not presented in graphic detail, and the important thing is the puzzle, the clues of which are often found in the relationships in a tight-knit small group.

What brings the reader back to the series — and all of these ARE series — again and again is not so much the puzzle (though some of us get very upset if the puzzle isn’t there or is too easy) but the characters, their relationships, the setting, and whatever the specialty of that series is?

Specialty?

Well… There’s all sorts of cozies.  First there are the descendants of craft mysteries: craft mysteries (natch), culinary mysteries, small town mysteries, cafe mysteries, bakery mysteries and other food mysteries, cat or dog mysteries, but also book club mysteries or “profession mysteries.”

In these the main character is almost invariably a woman, and there is almost invariably a very strong romantic component, often with a policeman or someone else who can pull the character into further mysteries.

Historical cozies can run the gamut from cozy type — one of the series I was following was a housemaid in Victorian England who marries a Lord, so the romance was very important, and she was your quirky female detective, like in a modern cozy — to more serious efforts, involving either historical personages or historically believable settings and murders.  But if it’s the people you come back to the series for, they’re still cozies.

Now, if the main character is, say, an elderly spinster, obviously the romantic element isn’t as present… kind of. The point of the mystery is often to save a lover pair or make them free to marry. And yes, it’s permissible to have an elderly main character.  It’s even permissible to have a family be the “detective” in your books, and collaborate in the solving. Or perhaps a group of friends.

I’ve even read a halfway decent one where the detection while mostly a young woman’s voice, was done by her large Catholic family.

The important thing in cozies is the human interest, secondary only to the murder puzzle, and heck, sometimes overshadowing it.

The other important point is to make sure your main character has a reason for being able to solve the murder. I might be because the murder centers on a favorite hobby, or it could be because they know their city so well that they understand things someone else wouldn’t spot (for small town mysteries.) Or of course, they have a way to communicate with their cat or dog, that allows them to know who the murderer is (don’t knock it, the Cat Who mysteries were a long running very successful series.)

So, whatever your hobby or your main interest, you can turn it into a cozy mystery.  This is all the easier because the genre can be written in a very formulaic way.  Now, it doesn’t need to be, and of course, you probably will want to put your stamp on your work.  But the good thing about formulaic sub-genres is that you can write them with training wheels until you learn to write solo.

If you think you might be remotely interested in the sub-genre, check out the to-read list below (culled strictly from my own preferences and the vagaries of my memory.) [Yes, I am using my Amazon associates number, so if you use the links below I will get a small kickback. But it wont’ cost you any extra.]

The Hollow: A Hercule Poirot Mystery

The Gazebo by Patricia Wentworth

Other things that are cozies, but unusual ones include the Janet Evanovich Stephanie Plum mysteries.

I’d like to link more, but apparently Kindle Unlimited doesn’t keep a list of what I’ve borrowed and since when I’m on a cozy kick I treat them like popcorn, I don’t remember any. I’m sure the minute I start looking for new reads, I’ll find a dozen I’ve already read, but the current kick is space opera, so it will be a while.
Anyway, next post: the cozy structure.

 

66 Comments
  1. Thx for explaining what a cozy IS; my understanding from seeing the word in context was fairly foggy.

    November 20, 2019
    • Ditto. The “craft” sub-sub-genre was pretty obvious, but I didn’t have a grasp of what set its superset apart.

      November 20, 2019
  2. dakorillon #

    How are cozies different from shows like, Bull, Lie to Me, the Mentalist, Psych, etc? There is a mystery to solve, and the main character is not a police professional, and the relationships are fairly important. And does someone have to die? Or can it be another type of mystery like a theft?

    If there is a group, and part of them are police, and one not, and all of them work together to solve things, is that a cozy? or a police procedural, even if there isn’t much “procedural” or even a body on the scene, just behind the scene? Or just a mystery? Or a thriller?

    The whole mystery thing, when it’s not a traditional mystery story, ala Sherlock, is a mystery to me. Maybe that is what you will be outlining in the next post?

    November 20, 2019
    • snelson134 #

      “Cozy” refers to the setting as much as anything else. It’s a mystery set in a typical American small town or English rural village, where the detective is not a professional. One usual element of the plot is that people won’t believe it’s a murder in such a peaceful locale.

      November 20, 2019
      • Not necessarily. That’s a subset, actually. The “Small town” cozy. It’s not required.
        It can be people don’t believe it’s murder because they don’t know as much about oh knitting or baking.

        November 20, 2019
        • I suspect most of the Angela Lansbury, “Murder She Wrote” show’s episodes would qualify as cozies. I seem to recall we rarely saw any bodies in the show. And the amazing thing is Cabot Cove had a higher murder rate than the entire Chicago metropolitan area.

          November 20, 2019
    • dakorillon #

      Okay, so commenting on myself: I just read the “What a Mystery” post, and it looks like what I’m talking about would be an “almost cozy police procedural”, how would you list that on Amazon? What categories? So as not to tick people off for being the wrong genre?

      November 20, 2019
      • Columbo, maybe?

        November 20, 2019
        • Columbo is not a cozy. It’s not quite a procedural, but I think it was for its time.

          November 20, 2019
          • I meant as an example of “not a cozy, and has a cop, but hits some of the same notes.” For the “how the heck would I tag this thingie so that folks who want to read it would find it and not be mad at me” question.

            Columbo is quirky, yes, but definitely not quite the same taste.

            November 20, 2019
          • And the Sherlock Holmes series probably don’t qualify either, as Holmes was a professional “scientific” consulting detective. And London wasn’t exactly a small town.

            November 21, 2019
    • The other way around. There is a group and there MIGHT be a policeman, but he’s not central or even on the team, just peripheral, like through romantic involvement.
      For shows? cozy is Murder She Wrote. Or whatever that show was with the two gardening chicks. Rosemary and Thyme?
      How would you list the other kind? Mostly as mystery and then rely on keywords. I wouldn’t call it a procedural unless it takes place IN a police dept.

      November 20, 2019
      • Obviously I didn’t read far enough down in the comments. Thank you!

        November 20, 2019
    • Oh, and you CAN have another crime, like theft. But for some reason it doesn’t do as well. As a cozy-pop-corn-reader I can tell you that you must at least think a murder has happened, or I don’t take it seriously.

      November 20, 2019
      • dakorillon #

        Okay, I have a story 60K (words at the moment), there are 2 MCs. One is a police detective, one is a found-junk artist, there are 2 secondary characters that work for the police department. It’s in a big city. There is a murder, but it’s not really important to the plot, other than that it gets the artist MC more involved than he would be. It’s more about catching the art thieves (who did commit the murder) before they “get out of town” (so there is a time element). The artist character is VERY quirky. There are not really an interviews on scene. And the police tech has very little to do with helping. So, I really don’t know where that would fit….Oh, yeah, and there is a VERY slight urban fantasy/science thread that runs through it. (NO vamps, weres, elves, etc)

        Is police consultant a sub genre with tags? I really don’t know how to list this when I finish it. Thanks.

        November 20, 2019
        • snelson134 #

          If one of the characters is a serving detective, you’re going to end up in police procedural unless you plan on having him fired at the end of the first book. That can work; there’s at least one British mystery TV series on that premise.

          November 20, 2019
        • I don’t think police consultant is a sub genre with tags. Depending on who has most of the time/head space it MIGHT be a cozy, but I’d have to read it to know.

          November 20, 2019
          • dakorillon #

            Half the head space is the Artist, Half the Cop. It’s a bit odd. Anyway, it’s been in your inbox for about 2 years now. Doubt you’ll ever get a chance to read it. But, I have some things to work with now. Thank you for the answers.

            November 20, 2019
            • er… my inbox is a dark space. Seriously. If I don’t remember to download it that week, it gets forgotten and buried.

              November 20, 2019
              • dakorillon #

                Sorry, I just realized that I didn’t say that very well, I wasn’t dissin’ you. I know how messed up your health/life has been the last bit. So, no worries, I was just acknowledging that it wasn’t going to get read! And with this thread/blog I now have a direction to go. So, sorry if the lack of face/emojis gave the wrong impression.

                November 20, 2019
                • meh. No, it’s just difficult to convey to people “If it’s really urgent, I’ll read at least part of it, but you have to keep nagging me. Once it falls below my awareness, it’s gone.” … I need an assistant.

                  November 20, 2019
            • I’ve read it. It’s quite good. When is the rest of it coming? Also, you can have mysteries that aren’t police procedural but still involve the police – yours is not procedural in that it’s not revolving around the police solving the case. I’m not sure it’s cozy, either, but the detection is centered more around the artist, and as Sarah pointed out, that’s one way to keep the series going, having the police drawn into it via relationship as you have done.

              November 21, 2019
      • Synova #

        Joy in the Mourning, Dave Freer’s book, has a murder that turns … okay, total spoiler I guess!… turns out to be more complicated than that.

        The detective is a parish pastor, female, big city girl moved to the back of beyond to a small fishing village.

        It involves a number of quirky “characters”.

        November 20, 2019
        • Yeah, but it’s PRESUMED to be a murder. And yes, it’s a cozy. A great one.

          November 20, 2019
      • Mary #

        That’s all mystery. There have been mysteries around other crimes, or even about non-crimes, but those tend to be either short stories or children’s.

        Go figure.

        November 20, 2019
    • Or can it be another type of mystery like a theft?

      I just read the Spade & Paladin mystery short stories by Kristine Kathryn Rusch and loved them. Only one has a murder. All the rest have other crimes. The puzzles are fun, and an essential part of the stories, but I read them because I love the character Spade.

      November 20, 2019
  3. snelson134 #

    “It’s even permissible to have a family be the “detective” in your books, and collaborate in the solving.”

    This used to be fairly common in the kids/YA market. Early Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew, a series I had growing up called “The Happy Hollisters”, etc.

    November 20, 2019
    • snelson134 #

      And that series is available on Kindle.

      November 20, 2019
    • Enid Blyton’s Five Find Outers

      November 20, 2019
  4. “…told there was no market for them.”

    This is a CODE. It translates as: “There is an unrealized market here.”

    And that means… go for it, if it seems at all sane. Be the “inrush current” and benefit.

    November 20, 2019
  5. Hunting Guy #

    Personally I’d broaden the definition. To me, a cozy is a light read with some light drama, minimal sex, and enjoyable. It is a quick read without any hard thinking.

    It can be any genre.

    For me, a perfect example in SF is the Union Station series by E. M. Foner.

    As always, YMMV.

    November 20, 2019
    • I don’t really care if you’d broaden the definition. THIS IS WHY I DID THIS POST.
      I’m not talking about “A cozy read” which your definition would fit.
      I’m talking about cozy as a sub-genre of a mystery.
      I’m sorry, but this is sort of like if I said “Space Opera is a sub-genre of science fiction” and you came back with “Nah, I’d broaden the definition to any complex human plot in a setting with lots of space.”
      We’re all happy for you, but publishing categories have MEANINGS and just because you call a spoon a fork or a Gzbt it doesn’t mean it MEANS that. Meaning is a shared thing.

      November 20, 2019
      • Uncle Lar #

        Not to pile on, but this is a blog primarily for writers and in a nutshell meanings matter. Miscategorizing the work you’ve just uploaded to Amazon can cost you dozens to hundreds of potential readers simply because your most excellent book did not ping their search query.
        So, we can have all the discussions we wish on definitions, but for purely business reasons understanding what the accepted genre are is a critical element of successfully marketing your works.

        November 20, 2019
        • To that, Uncle, I would add – did ping their search query, and the writer is forever removed from consideration because they LIED about the category. (Not necessarily deliberately lied, just fumbled – but the impression is nearly always the worst one.)

          November 21, 2019
  6. Uncle Lar #

    Cozies have always been popular with readers. And lend themselves to association with other mystery genre such as police procedurals. Think the TV show Castle.
    The cozy format makes for some very popular TV and movie adaptations. The classic Murder She Wrote for example. Hallmark TV actually has an entire channel, Hallmark Movies & Mysteries, devoted primarily to a plethora of cozy series based on everything from librarians, to chefs, photographers, crossword puzzle creators, and the list goes on.
    Charlaine Harris, probably best known for the books that became HBO’s True Blood series, had several straight cozy series. She began incorporating increasing levels of urban fantasy ultimately resulting in not only True Blood, but also Midnight Texas which itself became a TV series.

    November 20, 2019
  7. Reziac #

    I write down in one of the cracks… it’s space opera, except really small: setting is space opera but story is centered around a few people and how they solve their difficulties, mostly personal and only rarely galactic. There might be a war going on over yonder, but we rarely see it. Finally came to me that the only sane description was “Cozy Space Opera”.

    November 20, 2019
    • LOL. I don’t think that exists. It’s just space opera. Arguably I’ll be doing that with the Rhodes mysteries.

      November 20, 2019
      • Reziac #

        Nonsense, of course “Cozy Space Opera” exists — I just invented it! 😀

        Now, getting Amazon to agree…

        November 20, 2019
        • Synova #

          Honestly? I bet there’s a market. It might be a little hard to find the market, but I bet that there is one. It might need to go in the regular cozy category with the paranormal small-town-witch cozy mysteries (those exist, right?). Bubble helmets and the psychic alien “cat” or maybe some half-alien children who frequently get into very human but unexpected difficulties. “Mommy! Suzie just walked through the wall again!” Going on vacation by moving your house.

          Green Acres on a colony world…

          That might need to be the alien cat solving mysteries while Zsa Zsa’s character laments that she has to walk all the way over to the wall and push a button to get dinner because they’re roughing it and attempting to create an actual society among not-always-enthused-and-usually-busy colonists. Each mystery can center around her current attempt to put on a soiree or garden party.

          Listening to my mother-in-law talk about the future recently I realized that what seems appealing about Star Trek to a lot of people is that it’s not even slightly challenging to the average person and everything is magically clean and food comes out of the wall. Like the Jetson’s.

          November 21, 2019
    • Carrington Dixon #

      For that matter, even though the later Skylarks were the size of a small planet, the total crew and passengers summed in the lower single digits. Or in some of Campbell’s Arcot, Morey, Wade and Fuller stores those five are the only speaking roles. (Pay no attention to the suns tossed about and the planet annihilated.)

      November 21, 2019
    • mrsizer #

      Ruby Lionsdrake and Lindsey Bourker (same person) writes Space Opera Romance (among other things). I like it.

      November 22, 2019
  8. Would you consider Dave Freer’s Joy Cometh With The Mourning (https://www.amazon.com/Joy-Cometh-Mourning-Reverend-Mystery-ebook/dp/B00OZFSOR2/ref=sr_1_fkmr0_1?keywords=joy+comes+in+the+mourning+dave+freer&qid=1574272158&sr=8-1-fkmr0) a cozy? It follows most of the tropes, except for:

    1. Not being part of a series (I think it was planned to be a series)
    2. A certain plot twist that I am not going to spoil.

    November 20, 2019
    • Uncle Lar #

      I would definitely say it is, though as you point out it does break a few of the rules.
      The thing is, those rules are guidelines, not a straightjacket.
      As for being a series, I would hope so, but Dave is struggling to build and pay off the Freer homestead, and Baen keeps throwing collaborations at hime that they think are more profitable.

      November 20, 2019
      • Dave Freer should collaborate with Larry Correia. Might pay off the tractor rental with something like that. ~:D

        November 20, 2019
        • Uncle Lar #

          Can’t say I would disagree.
          Unfortunately it seems Baen has Dave partnered up with Eric Flint for the most part. Guess it’s for the best that Dave has broad shoulders and a strong back.

          November 20, 2019
        • Depends on who is publishing it and doing the accounting.

          November 20, 2019
      • Yes, Joy is a cozy.

        November 20, 2019
  9. There are elements of cozy mystery in my Luna City series: the identity of a long-buried skeleton in an unexpected place, the whereabouts of several buried or lost treasures, the theft of some nose-bleedingly expensive Lalique lamps – and all (or most!) are solved through the devices of amateurs who know their town, and their own craft very, very well. The local chief of police is only peripherally involved, usually.
    But now I have a mind to create another cozy-style mystery for the next installment…

    November 20, 2019
  10. And many times, the titles are puns or word-jokes that tell the craft/hobby/setting. “Desserts to Die For,” “The Purr-fect Murder” and so on. (At the moment) they also have either a cartoonish cover, or a painted-picture look.

    MomRed loves browsing the mystery shelves. But she prefers harder-edged mysteries.

    November 20, 2019
  11. Carrington Dixon #

    It is important to remember that all these categories are have fuzzy edges where they bleed into adjacent categories. The whole ideas is to tell the potential reader, if you like X you will (probably) like Y as well. Thus, if you like Miss Marple, you’ll probably like Poirot — and Wimsey and Cadfael and … The Father Brown TV episodes are cozies; the Chesterton books not so much. Holmes might fit–except that Holmes is a category all by himself. (And Homes as few recurring characters; an attribute shared with the Father Brown books.)

    November 20, 2019
  12. Okay, I have this story where a policeman on holiday in Amsterdam finds an abandoned shoe. And then he finds the foot that goes in it.

    Cozy so far?

    But then his robot girlfriend calls in backup, in the form of a rain of giant spiders made of guns. So I think the cozy mystery part kind of goes out the window at that point. ~:D

    November 20, 2019
    • Space Opera.

      November 20, 2019
      • Okay, fair point because there’s aliens too. And the opera is also fair, there’s a blonde named Brunhilde in it. ~:D

        November 20, 2019
    • BobtheRegisterredFool #

      I’m going to be confused about what genre mess in progress at least until I figure out the plot, and probably long after. So I wondered briefly, a time or two, if it is a cozy, but I’m pretty sure psychotically paranoid thriller is much more accurate.

      November 20, 2019
      • I don’t know, Bob, being a psychotically paranoid serial goldfish killer might be a hobby that people would be interested in reading about. I mean, they read about werewolves and other monsters, right? So… psychotically paranoid people might do the trick?

        November 20, 2019
  13. Since WordPress doesn’t have like buttons… YAY! I really enjoy your How-To series!

    November 20, 2019
  14. Randy Wilde #

    apparently Kindle Unlimited doesn’t keep a list of what I’ve borrowed

    Not a KU subscriber, so I can’t verify, but I thought I had read that this can be done from the “My Content and Devices” page by changing the listing from “Books” to “Kindle Unlimited”.

    November 21, 2019
    • I thought so too, but it’s not showing them.

      November 21, 2019
      • Hmm. I don’t have a list (except of what I currently have out, of course). But if I click on a title, I get a “You borrowed this book on…” message. (On my Fire 7, it appears in rather small print under the title in the upper left corner.)

        That seems to be device dependent, though, so the information might be stored locally. I sometimes have a short one delivered to the Kindle for PC; if I later return it and click on it again on my Fire, I don’t get the message.

        November 21, 2019
  15. “but the current kick is space opera”

    Have you thought about (or done and I’m too dumb to find) this same kind of explanation of what comprises a Space Opera? I would be interested in reading that too.

    I don’t think I’ll be writing a cozy anytime soon, but you never know where my scattered brain will take me next, so it’s entirely possible. Unfortunately, I’m having issues getting my brain to work on one thing long enough to FINISH it. I seem to be having a little luck writing a few things in parallel, switching between them as my attention span shifts. In the past I’ve resisted doing that because I thought it would be too hard to keep track of characters and plot lines etc. but so far it seems to be working… somewhat.

    November 21, 2019
    • Mary #

      Action and adventure IN SPACE!

      As opposed to being on a planet, which is planetary romance. (The “chivalric romance” sort of romance, not the “love story” sort of romance.)

      November 21, 2019
  16. lpdbw #

    If you enjoy reading cozies, you may like the Meg Langslow series by Donna Andrews.
    I laughed out loud through the first one, Murder with Peacocks.

    November 21, 2019
  17. c4c

    November 22, 2019
  18. Loyd Jenkins #

    Having been a fan of cozies for decades now, both in print and on television, I look forward to reading this series of posts. Maybe I’ll have enough fun to write one.

    November 22, 2019

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