How To Structure a Cozy Mystery
I’m going to give you a basic outline for a cozy mystery.
But before I do so, because I know that writers can be like ducks: they come out of the egg, they see something moving, and they blindly follow — I resemble that model myself, sometimes — let me tell you that you can pull this thing apart, twist it, fold it, spin it, and mutilate it and still come out all right.
Say you want to start with the second murder? Go for it. I’ve seen it done. Or you want to have the murder be the narrator? Well, read The Murder of Roger Akroyd, and if you can do it that well, be my guest.
This is just a map if you are lost. It doesn’t replace the terrain. It only gives you major cities. If you follow only it, you’ll get somewhere predictable, but that’s better than being nowhere at all.First realize I’m teaching you what people expect of mystery cozies in the 21st century. Unfortunately this is not Agatha Christie level. Also, unfortunately, most of us are not Dame Christie. And also in the 21st century, and for various reasons, some of them publisher arrant stupidity (also known as Tuesday) the sub-genre of cozy is female-dominated. (Not necessarily in readers, because, heck, no one knows what readers are.) It is also though of as an intensely female-read genre. And here I’m going to shrug at the whole thing.
Sure, I’ve met a ton of female readers of cozies. After all they are my tribe. Also, sure, a lot of males read them — I know, I have male fans for my cozies.
But, Sarah, what in the cursed bastions of peanut butter hell, are you telling us this for?
Well, it’s kind of funny you bring up peanut butter. Remember the peanut butter cup commercial? You got peanut butter on my chocolate!
Cozies right now have a huge component of romance. MOST of it “traditional” or “Sweet” which is to say non-explicit. At least, I read a lot of this stuff, and the only explicit sex I’ve found is in police procedurals.
I have this theory that the cozy mystery genre caters to a lot of romance readers who were run out of romances when the genre went soft-core-porn exclusively. And I suspect that romantic element also attracts a number of male readers, but i won’t disturb them by saying it too loudly. As I was reminded yesterday in my blog comments males are far more romantic than females. They just don’t usually sign on to the whole soft-port-from-intense-and-imaginary-female perspective. They are more visual, less verbal creatures.
But however it happened, there is a strong component of romance in cozies. Almost always your female protagonist falls in love with/is courted by the local cop. You can see the convenience to the author, right? (A male protagonist falling in love/being courted by a female cop would be hilarious. Haven’t seen it. The gay versions have happened, I’m sure, but it’s a niche I don’t read.)
So, be aware I’m going to put that in the outline. And shut up. It is what it is. Sure, write your cozy with not a hint of romance, not even among the suspects (if your detective is an elderly spinster.) Maybe you’ll sell a million. Maybe you’ll sink without a sound. Your path, your choice.
1- Start by introducing your character. No, don’t give us a description. Have your character do something that defines her (using her throughout for convenience, since most of the protags in this subgenre are female.)
If she collects tropical fish, have her buying the biggest, brightest fish she ever saw.
If she’s a knitting fanatic have her choosing wool or something like that.
The point here is to make your character someone your readers would like to know/spend time with. She doesn’t need to be particularly sane, or well put together, but she must be interesting.
And sure, if you want to start with her saving the cat or the dog. But only if that ties into the theme 😉
At this point we meet the love interest, who might be the local policeman, or someone who knows more of law enforcement than your character.
Note in typical romance fashion they usually don’t like each other much.
2- The murder happens.
The murder should happen in a closed group of friends or family or neighbors. I mean, if it’s in a big city it’s in a close knit group. Not all the clients of the yarn store, but those that are subscribers and get special access. Not all the people who buy tropical fish, but those who buy THIS kind of tropical fish, which require expensive equipment.
The exclusion can also be geographical or whatever. But the group must be small and acquainted with each other 9though your investigator might be new.)
The reason for this is obvious when we get to the inquiry process.
3- For some reason your character has special knowledge.
This could be as inside-baseball as knowing it was the wrong tropical fish (I know NOTHING about tropical fish, btw) or how fanatic tropical fish collectors get. Or it could be as “generic” as she saw something she can’t tell the police, either because it’s not clear or because she wouldn’t want to rope in a person she’s sure is innocent.
So, she’s going to investigate.
BTW by now we should have already seen or heard of the murderer. No, you shouldn’t make it obvious. But it’s important, to avoid the elephant from the ceiling feeling. If not, we should see her or meet her early in the investigation phase. (Yes, it can be a him too, do I need to tell you that?)
At this point it might become obvious to everyone but your protag that love interest is interested.
4- Investigation process.
This is mostly going around and collecting info from the limited number of suspects. “Where were you on the night of so and so?” “How do you feel about the poor murdered corp?” “Have you ever danced with a manatee by the pale moonlight?”
Two things to remember: your character is NOT a police officer. She can’t just go up to people and say “Tell me all you know, you ‘orrible ‘orrible person.”
If you start asking logical questions and setting up the answers, you’re going to bore the living day crud out of the reader.
FORTUNATELY your character needs a good excuse, which means you can get each of these encounters to be sad or funny or whatever you want for the book. I get poor Dyce in the most horrible jams.
This is also useful for the fan dance. (No, it doesn’t involve manatees. Why would you even ask that, you weirdo?)
The fun dance is what every mystery writer does. You give the relevant fact in the middle of a flow of detail that has no relevance whatsoever. Nine times out of ten, the reader glosses over it. Go read Christie, and analyze it. She’s VERY good at it.
If your character has to ask this person about yarn for an imaginary scarf, in the middle of all the stuff about it, there might come something about how she’s only seen Himalayan goat wool once, and the person who bought it… now, who was it, it was one of these three people. But as to the yarn your character wants, no, she doesn’t have any of that, etc.
She will be warned off, possibly more than once, possibly escalating by love interest. More often than not, while WE get he is worried about her, she thinks he’s a pain/doesn’t trust her.
5- This step is very not mandatory, but often it is done. There is someone who is thoroughly repulsive, or perhaps charmingly suspicious, and whom the MC suspects. This person is right at the top of the list. Carry this on to the next item.
6- The second murder happens. This is also very optional, but often happens. If you had a lead suspect, he/she is the one who dies.
This leaves you without a suspect and forces you to re-think all your clues.
Even if this wasn’t the main suspect, it narrows your field. You now have two sets of suspects, and are only interested in the intersection.
7- Frantic investigation.
Your killer has killed again. They will do it once more.
This is the time for sneak attacks on the investigator, if you’re going to have that. Investigator survives, of course, but has a fire lit under her. (well, sometimes literally.)
So she’s going to see all the main suspects/witnesses again.
8- The brainstorm. This often is when your main character will figure it out. (Make sure you’ve given them enough puzzle pieces and also played fair with the reader on them. Well, fairish. You’re fan-dancing. you’ve shown everything, but they might not known what they’ve seen.)
9- The leap
This is when your character decides to do something to prove/disprove the brainstorm.
This can involve seeing how the suspect reacts to a cake baked with orange essence from a particular bottle, or a message with “fly, all is discovered.” It can even involve direct confrontation.
Careful, this is one of the times the book might go against the wall. Try not to make your character invincibly stupid, okay? There is a difference between leaping before you look and going: “Oh, he is heavily armed, and I’m going to meet him alone in the woods, with absolutely no one knowing where I am.” I recently stopped watching a mystery series because dear LORD that woman was DENSE. If your character is doing something stupid, have her be sure he’s not armed, for reasons. Or that he’d never hurt HER for reasons, or whatever.
10 – Woman in peril.
This is absolutely NOT mandatory. Absolutely NOT mandatory. However, it is not rare to put a protag in danger at this point and have the love interest rescue or arrive just after she rescues herself, thereby showing his interest.
Normally there is no defined relationship at the end of the first book, other than “I like you and we’ll explore this.”
But you can go as fast or as slow as you want to.
And that’s it. I am open to questions.
I also have clue zero what else you want to know about how to write a cozy mystery, so if you ask me questions, there might be more posts on this series.