The cozy mystery takes a gentler, character-focused approach to crime. Read 7 tips for writing cozy mysteries:
What are cozy mysteries?
Cozies are a subgenre of crime fiction that became popular during the 20th Century.
In this subgenre:
- Adult themes associated with classic ‘hard-boiled’ detective novels, such as explicit sex, profanity and violence, are absent or mostly implied
- Sleuths are often more relatable than their gritty, cynical counterparts in hard-boiled novels (for example, the amateur sleuth who solves a crime by engaging in an integrated way with the community is a common protagonist)
- The protagonist is often a woman who might be dismissed (or underestimated) because of age, appearance, occupation or another detail that makes them a non-stereotypical detective
Terrie Farley Moran, writing for Criminal Element, describes Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple (a popular character in Christie’s mysteries from the late 1920s to the 1970s) as a forerunner of the subgenre:
The classic forerunner of the cozy mystery is Agatha Christie’s Miss Jane Marple, an elderly spinster who sees and hears all that goes on around her and very often solves a murder or two while never missing a stitch in her knitting.Terrie Farley Moran, ‘What is a Cozy Mystery? A “Traditional” Mystery?’, available here.
Keeping the above elements in mind, here are some clues for how to write cozy mysteries:
1. Remember the human impacts of crime
Cozy mysteries traditionally involve close-knit communities, often in countryside locations.
As Agatha Award-winning mystery author Amanda Flower puts it, cozy mysteries are often ‘small town stories in which an average person, like me, could solve a crime and bring justice to a family after a murder.’
When working out any mystery, but particularly a cozy mystery, outline and profile the characters within the community.
Think about how a death or other crime impacts each member. How does each person react? And what piece of information about the victim could each person share? For example:
- Family members
- Old school friends
- Former or current lovers
- Colleagues or employers
Each of these connections could offer your investigator a different facet for piecing together clues.
2. Build a close-knit community
Cozy mysteries often feel comfy and familiar due to their small community settings. Series have recurring cast members who we grow to love or dislike.
Mystery author Louise Penny’s books ‘straddle the line between charmingly small-town mysteries and big-city police procedurals’. Yet the small-town setting of Three Pines provides her protagonist, inspector Gamache, a community setting where characters reappear, develop, and become like old friends to the reader.
In a cozy mystery, having a small community as a setting means:
- There are more potential suspects and sources of information for the sleuth
- It’s easy to build parallel characters arcs and subplots that add layers of intrigue to the story.
3. Give your sleuth useful links
How does an ‘average person’ (as Amanda Fowler describes the typical cozy mystery protagonist) acquire key insights necessary to solve a crime?
Solving crime typically requires forensic or other specialist skills.
As Cozy Mystery List says, often the protagonist has special links to either someone closely involved in the investigation itself, or has specialist knowledge themselves.
Perhaps your sleuth is friends with the town historian who unearths little-known links between key suspects or families.
Perhaps they have a friend or significant other in the local police force.
Think about how your protagonist’s connections aid (or also hinder) their progress.
4. Find your story’s unusual angle
Many cozy mysteries are loved because they provide a fresh angle on a loved genre. For example, Alexander McCall Smith’s The No. 1 Lady’s Detective Agency series is set in Botswana. It features the protagonist Mma Precious Ramotswe, who is the first woman private investigator in the country.
Laura Childs’ ‘Tea Shop Mystery’ series follows a protagonist, Theodosia Browning, who runs a tea shop between solving mysteries. This gives Childs the opportunity to share asides about tea-drinking culture.
In each instance, these cozy mysteries feature unusual or interesting settings, protagonists or side-topics.
5. Mine the news for cozy mystery inspiration
Cozy mystery author Donald Bain describes coming up with the plots for cozy mysteries as particularly challenging.
Bain makes a useful suggestion: Find news articles, particularly crime stories, for inspiration.
For example, when we google ‘small town crime’ we see this news headline:
‘Crazy! Politician can be buried in his Mercedes!’
This headline alone could spark ideas for the central crime in a cozy mystery. Reading it over, we could ask extra questions to develop the plot, such as:
- Who is the politician?
- How did he die?
- Why is he buried in his Mercedes?
- What is mysterious about the circumstances of his death?
- Who wants to get to the bottom of this story?
6. Create a three-dimensional ensemble
Cozy mysteries delight many readers due to their detailed ensembles of characters.
Take, for example, this reader’s otherwise-critical review of Laura Childs’ Death by Darjeeling:
Some things I enjoyed were the descriptions of exotic kinds of tea, & the charming city of Charleston, South Carolina (where the story takes place). I like the idea of an ensemble of characters who work in the tea shop & share a sense of ownership & camaraderie.User Kathie H, Goodreads, available here.
In creating a community for a cozy mystery, think about how characters differ:
Who has left a town and returned? Who’s lived there all their life and feels stifled? Who has lived there forever and can’t imagine living anywhere else?
Even simple differences between the ways characters feel about their hometown can begin to create backstories and vivid, diverse parts.
7. Create quirky characters
In cozy mysteries, characters may be more comical or unusual.
The 90s hit show Murder She Wrote starred Angela Lansbury as a widowed, retired English teacher who becomes a mystery writer. Part of what made the show so successful was the many colourful characters of Cabot Cove, the small coastal community where the show takes place. [This clip gives a good idea of the eccentricity, conflict, and drama.]
In writing a cozy mystery, don’t be afraid to insert similar moments of silliness and humour. The genre emphasizes the twists and turn of crime over gritty realism, after all.
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