Cozy-ing Up to Readers: A Genre or a Flavor?

What is a cozy? It’s a fabric thing you put over a teapot or boiled egg to keep it warm. Duh.

*Hears frantic off-stage whisper, listens, blinks*

Oh, sorry. Wrong cozy. You mean like a cozy mystery, which has one or two crimes, lots of cute, a little flirting, a small setting, and a happy conclusion where the bad guy/gal is caught, the mystery solved, and the detective wins her quilting/baking/bookstore contest or whatever? Or what the British call an “Aga Saga,” after the brand of stove that warms the room as well as the food? It’s a comfortable family story with problems that can be dealt with, some personal growth, and you feel better after reading it. If you are familiar with Jan Karon’s Mitford novels, those are an Aga Saga.

One thing I think all “cozy” stories share is scale. They are not universe-saving dramas, not world-shaping political thrillers, not city-spanning police procedurals with a cast of hundreds (think David Weber novel, but with police instead of the Royal Manticorian Navy.) Cozy stories of any genre are human-scale, cover a limited time, and focus on one town or county. There can be multiple passing minor characters, but the focus is on two or three major characters, and their daily experiences.

One definition says that a cozy novel [] has a sense of isolation, meaning that the characters and story are not part of a larger world. Thus small town, rural county, an inn or B&B at a quiet seaside or mountain resort, a country house (British-style), or a single extended family (but not too extended.) Again, the sense is small.

[Mybookcave] suggests that the protagonist be an average, normal person. A caterer trying to make ends meet, a woman who refinishes furniture to pay the bills, a middle-aged Episcopalian priest in a small town in North Carolina, a middle-aged Anglican priest going to her new parish in Australia, a widowed or divorced innkeeper in New England … I’d argue that you can have a little magic or a few fantasy elements, but they have to be small – a family whose baking never burns, or a lady with a garden that seems immune to rust/blackspot/leaf blight/aphids. Humor, gentle and often situational, is a must. However, the Writers’ Digest guide to sub-genres says that the detective in a cozy mystery is usually an eccentric outsider, so there’s that.

Goodreads has lists of books as “cozy fantasy” and “cozy mystery.” Most I’ve never heard of, but that doesn’t mean anything.

I don’t think I’ve written anything that counts as “cozy,” unless it is the little short story “Martha’s Son” describing Martha O’Neil and Jude Tainuit weathering a storm in her house. Nothing really happens, but the reader learns about the characters.

At best, I think everyone agrees that the setting is small, the feeling is “comfort read,” and the story is complete in itself.

Image Credit: Author. Felis Domesticus being exceedingly cozy.

17 thoughts on “Cozy-ing Up to Readers: A Genre or a Flavor?

  1. And then there’s cozy post-apocalyptic…where I first heard it actually

      1. Some of the female-centric cozy/craft mysteries manage to raise the male love interest/spouse to the level of co-protagonist. I think the Goldie Bear books got there. There’s some 1920s-set indie mysteries with male protagonists which maybe qualify, I’m not sure. (The one I’ve seen ads for was about Elderly Brit With Title, whose 12-yr-old nephew or grandson does the Watsoning).

      2. Thank you for clarifying, but it seems that from your samples that 80+% are female? So, they are less like romances, even if their may be a little romance. Just trying to nail down the vibe.

        1. Cozy mystery and western-themed(1) SFF appear to be largely written by and targeted to female audiences and therefore are probably 80%+ female leads as you speculate. Cozy apocalyptic was once described to me as having been predominantly a male-written, British thing about upper middle class men who start out with pipes and cardigans and might not get to keep them.

          The only reference I’ve seen to cozy horror was one guy on twitter namechecking the films of a couple of posh-sounding old-timey actors, neither of whom exactly radiated testosterone on screen. Basically, to the extent that there are cozy subgenres where you might find male protagonists, you’re unlikely to find John Rambo, Conan the Barbarian, or Detective Riggs involved.

          (1) Eastern themed works, like Beware of Chicken, seem to riff on Asian slice-of-life stories, which do often have male protagonists, but more salt of the earth, regular-guy-with-special-powers types.

        2. Tiffanie, you’re right about the examples. I don’t read cozies in general, because of a lack of time, so I mentioned what I know personally. There are a lot out there, and I suspect that once you get away from mystery and romance, you start finding more male protagonists.

          Mysteries are the best known, and the largest, and one reason those often have a female MC is because to get them published, there had to be a schtick. That was “crafts or cats” for a while, so you have quilters, knitters, librarians, bakers, florists and gardeners, and those tend to be aimed at women. That initial condition really steered the sub-genre. I suspect the traditional publishers also push for female protagonists, because of sex-parity and “grrrrrrl power” and so on, even in non-romance fiction. But that’s a rant for another day, and doesn’t answer your point.

  2. I come down on the “flavor” side of the balance.

    I don’t write “cozies” in my big fantasy novels, but at moments of small scale or intimacy, there is definitely a bit of a cozy flavor among the primary characters. It tends to come out in bits of humor, rueful appreciation of a circumstance, a recognition that things are interrelated and that the small scale is what can be easiest commented upon — that the small scale is “human”, and that grandiosity/important events/the perversity of reality, etc., are not what grounds the world.

    Characters may step up and do grand things, but it’s often to reap small-scale (but very much longed for) human-sized rewards. The “Back again” of “There and back again”.

  3. There are cozy fantasies too: Legends and Lattes being the example that springs to mind.

    Despite the D & D cast, the stakes are low and our heroine is reinventing herself as a coffee shop owner.

    But! The stakes aren’t low for the characters. For them, it really is important.

  4. I think that the Magus Leonid Vetch stories that I’ve been writing for the Fantastic Schools anthologies might qualify as cozies. Vetch is an everyman character and even though he lives in a large city, his “world” is limited to the school where he teaches. Some big things happen in the stories, but they aren’t his focus, they are interruptions to his routine. He’d much rather spend time with his absinthe and technical journals, and wooing Matron Eleanor from the school down the road.

  5. Cozys really aren’t my thing, but I greatly prefer them to what I saw in the B&N today. One of the featured selections had a marketing blurb on the front cover declaring that it was about lesbian necromancies in space.
    Heck, I only saw one copy of one book from Baen. (And Eric Flint has shuffled off this mortal coil.)

    I recall never going to the bookstore without wanting to go over my budget. I’ve only been three times in the past year, and each time, I’ve left empty-handed.
    (But mainly thanks to indy , my TBR pile is huge, and mostly virtual.)

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