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Writing a cozy mystery: 10 feel-good suspense tips

What is a cozy mystery? How does this mystery subgenre differ from other mystery types? What can you learn from Agatha Christie and more recent mystery bestsellers? Find out.

In a recent Now Novel writing webinar, we sat down with cozy mystery author Catherine Coles to chat about writing this popular mystery subgenre. Read 10 tips for writing a cozy mystery novel or series, drawing from this conversation and other sources:

Writing a cozy mystery? 10 ideas

  1. Learn how cozy mysteries differ
  2. Explore ordinary people being extraordinary
  3. Create inviting tone and mood
  4. Create clues and red herrings
  5. Avoid graphic language and imagery
  6. Explore intimate settings
  7. Create comforting community relationships
  8. Center an ethics of care
  9. Give human motivations for bad deeds
  10. Know your cozy categories

Let’s dive in and look at how cozy mysteries differ from other mystery subgenres:

1. Learn how cozy mysteries differ

What is a cozy mystery? This feel-good mystery subgenre typically:

  • Favors gentler, warmer tone and mood
  • Often (but not always) involves an amateur sleuth (rather than the typical hardened pro of a hardboiled detective novel)
  • Centers characters and community more than violence (sex and violence occur off-stage)
  • Has charm, quirkiness and/or romance, typically favoring the rural or picturesque over the urban and gritty

There is a useful definition of cozy mystery here by a mystery-lover and blogger, Danna.

In our interview with cozy mystery author Catherine Coles, the author shared what drew her to cozies after writing romance, touching on some of the elements that makes cozies comforting:

I did think about writing romance novels again, and my eldest daughter said to me, ‘Mom, all you watch is crime’ […] For some reason my go-to comfort series is always the BBC adaptations of Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple books. And just something about that historical era, the beautiful accents, the little, wonderful cozy village scenes in those adaptations comforts me, and she said to me ‘That’s what you need to be doing.’

Catherine Coles, interviewed by Romy Sommer, Now Novel subscriber webinar (Wednesday 9th March, 2022).

2. Explore ordinary people being extraordinary

Edgier mysteries often feature detectives and other figures who are already extraordinary. Veteran law enforcement pros, for example, who have acquired a meticulous understanding of criminal motives and behaviors (and are no strangers to violence).

A crucial detail for writing a cozy mystery is your protagonist is more likely to be the Jessica Fletcher (Murder, She Wrote) type: An unassuming (yet shrewd) investigator.

Cozy mysteries, like Cinderella stories, invest in the inspiring idea that an ordinary person can rise to do or be anything, given luck, insight, and willpower.

Mystery author Amanda Flower, writing for Publishers Weekly, says about the ‘everyperson’ protagonist trait in cozies:

I fell in love with the small town stories in which an average person, like me, could solve a crime and bring justice to a family after a murder. The cozy lesson is an average person can make a difference. It doesn’t matter if the protagonist is a knitter, a librarian, or a gardener—that person can solve a murder.

Amanda Flower, ‘What Exactly is a Cozy Mystery?’ May 18, 2018, Publisher’s Weekly.
Agatha Christie mystery author quote on crime revealing character | Now Novel

3. Create inviting tone and mood

What does it mean when a mystery (or anything else) is ‘cozy’? It is ‘snug, comfortable, warm’ (by the original definition of the word).

What makes tone and mood inviting, warm and welcoming?

  • Clear, to-the-point language: You’ll find many cozy mystery reviews lauding the book being a ‘light’ or ‘quick’ read
  • Humor and affect: Two feel-good elements that lighten a cozy’s overarching tone and mood

Take, for example, the opening paragraph to Nita Prose’s The Maid which was named an Amazon Best Book of January 2022:

I am well aware that my name is ridiculous. It was not ridiculous before I took this job four years ago. I’m a maid at the Regency Grand Hotel, and my name is Molly. Molly Maid. A joke. Before I took the job, Molly was just a name, given to me by my estranged mother, who left me so long ago that I have no memory of her, just a few photos and the stories Gran has told me.

Nita Prose, The Maid, HarperCollins (January 20, 2022)

Already the story checks many of the boxes for a cozy mystery:

  • An unlikely, unassuming sleuth/protagonist (a hotel cleaner)
  • Clear, easy-to-read language with punchy sentence length
  • Humor and affect: The narrator immediately introduces the irony and absurdity of her occupation sharing her last name, and shares relatable emotional details about key personal relationships
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4. Create clues and red herrings

An enjoyable aspect of reading a cozy mystery is, of course, puzzling over the evidence and trying to decide which character you suspect most of a murder or other misdeed.

Writing a cozy mystery typically involves creating two types of plot detail special to mystery: Clues and red herrings.

Writing clues in cozy mysteries

Following the snug and gentler themes of this mystery subgenre, clues in cozy mystery are not typically gory and forensic. Less blood samples and grisly bodily matter, more notes, statements, secrets, and inference about mysterious objects.

For example, in the opening paragraphs of Agatha Christie’s first book in the Miss Marple series (now often referred to as a cozy series though the books came before the term), the narrator, the Reverend Leonard Clement, incriminates himself on the first page, supplying a possible motive (his dislike of the victim, Lucius Protheroe):

I had just finished carving some boiled beef (remarkably tough by the way) and on resuming my seat I remarked, in a spirit most unbecoming to my cloth, that anyone who murdered Colonel Protheroe would be doing the world at large a service.

My nephew, Dennis, said instantly:
‘That’ll be remembered against you when the old boy is found bathed in blood. Mary will give evidence, won’t you, Mary? And describe how you brandished the carving knife in a vindictive manner.’

Agatha Christie, The Murder at the Vicarage, Collins Crime Club (1930), p. 1.

Later in the novel, clues include a woman carrying a mysterious suitcase into the woods in the dead of night, and a confounding note seemingly left by the victim.

Clues aid the reader in:

  • Identifying possible culprits and thus solving the mystery: The Reverend’s words in the opening pages of Christie’s novel make him an easy early suspect
  • Feeling suspense at the appearance of intriguing signs and objects: For example, wondering why a woman would carry a suspicious suitcase into the woods at night

Bryn Donovan supplies 25 ideas for mystery clues here (some may be more applicable to cozies than others).

Creating red herrings in mystery stories

The term ‘red herring’ as we’ve previously discussed refers to a misdirection planted to keep the reader guessing.

For example, if a murder victim had a knife wound and the sleuth found a collection of ornamental knives in a suspect’s home with one missing, this could be a ‘red herring’ designed to make the collector appear suspicious.

In the Agatha Christie example above, the Reverend’s dislike of Lucius Protheroe (and intimation his murder would benefit society) is introduced on the first page to misdirect the reader’s suspicions.

Kathryn Schleich has a useful checklist on the purpose of red herrings in mystery stories.

5. Avoid graphic language and imagery

As described above, cozy mysteries typically avoid graphic violence and profanity. If characters curse, they’re more likely to use minced oaths (‘Oh my gosh’) than curse words Biblical or anatomical.

There is a tendency towards tongue-in-cheek euphemism over violent or abrasive language.

For example, when Molly Maid finds a dead man in the early pages of The Maid in one of her hotel’s suites, this exchange with reception ensues:

‘Why are you calling reception? Call Housekeeping.’
‘I am Housekeeping,’ I said, my voice rising. ‘Please, if you could alert Mr Snow that there’s a guest who is … permanently indisposed.’

Nita Prose, The Maid, p. 16.

Murder, She Wrote is a fantastic series to watch (despite being an older example of cozy mystery) for how to cover darker themes (theft, fraud, murder) with cozy and campy tongue-in-cheek humor.

6. Explore intimate setting

Another core feature in writing cozy mystery is how often it takes place in an intimate, close-knit community.

When we chatted to Catherine Coles, she shared:

Sometimes the setting is like a character all by itself, so whether you have a historical setting or you’ve got a village, it’s got to be a closed community of some type to make your cozy mystery believable. So you’re in a village, or you’re onboard a boat […] some sort of closed environment so there is only a certain number of suspects.

Catherine Coles, interviewed by Romy Sommer.

Besides limiting the possible scope of the case and number of suspects, choosing an intimate setting has other benefits, too:

7. Create comforting community relationships

Writing a cozy mystery often entails placing an unlikely, amateur sleuth in a quirky, three-dimensional but small community where there are friends, lovers and secrets in ample supply.

Many readers describe cozy mystery protagonists and their friends and sidekicks as feeling like dear friends. Readers tend to enjoy the way this gentler subgenre places human relationships (and ethics of care) in the foreground.

Take, for example, Louise Penny’s fictional town of Three Pines in her Chief Inspector Armand Gamache cozy series. Author Rick Riordan writes on Goodreads:

I usually think of cozies as gentler in spirit than the rock ’em, sock ’em hardboiled noir mysteries, often set a small town or rural setting, with little to no violence on stage, and most of the plot centering on the puzzle of whodunnit. Think Miss Marple or Murder She Wrote.

Still Life certainty falls within that framework, but what makes it stand out is its strong sense of place (Quebec), third person omniscient narration (we know what most of the characters are thinking most of the time) and its lovingly crafted portraits of life in a small town.

Rick Riordan, Goodreads review, available here.

To create a believable, intimate setting:

  • Give every character, even the walk-ons, their own distinct voice
  • Create a sense of characters’ history – who has loved, bedded, fallen out with whom? What has been the talk of the town, and who has what reputation, good or bad?
  • Pay attention to details of place, the specifics of what ‘ordinary life’ here is like

One needs to have a sense of community, place, the ordinary life, for murder to not be empty and statistical but rather a human story with affect and rootedness in place.

Catherine Coles cozy mystery author quote on setting | Now Novel

8. Center an ethics of care

A core way cozy mystery differs from what Riordan calls ‘rock ’em, sock ’em’ novels is that it tends to center on an ethics of care.

Murder may be the result of deep animus or desperation, but in this subgenre it happens in a community where people still care and have enough faith in humanity to ‘do the right thing’, ensure the culprit is uncovered, and restore order/harmony by the end of the book.

Part of this is ensuring that victims aren’t so relatable or well-liked that their being murdered or otherwise abused could come as a disappointment or shock to readers. As Catherine Coles said:

You need to understand the genre. You need to know that these are not going to be books where you are going to find bad language, […] and usually the person who dies towards the beginning of the book is a bit of a rotter. Because if it’s somebody nice, people are going to think, ‘Why is that person dead?’

Catherine Coles, interviewed by Romy Sommer.

9. Give human motivations for bad deeds

A key difference between writing cozy mystery and, for example, horror, is that in cozies criminal deeds tend to have very human motives.

In horror, evil may be evil for evil’s sake. A sadistic or demonic entity may inflict pain and suffering simply for their own sake or out of some kind of dark, primal compulsion.

Cozy mystery typically restores ‘evil’ to its human dimension – it arises out of a nexus of desire, personal history and terrible choices.

Typically one comes away from a cozy mystery that involves a murder understanding why the culprit carried out the crime (for example, the adultery plot in the first Miss Marple book).

Bad deeds, like kindness, are rooted in ordinary human emotions, choices, flaws and reactions.

10. Know your cozy categories

If you’re thinking of writing cozy mysteries, it helps to understand the various categories within this subgenre, as books are often organized by these on Amazon and other marketplaces:

Animal cozies

These are cozy books which either feature furry sidekicks or where animals are the star of the show.

Historical cozies

Historical cozies, like other historical fiction, have period settings (for example, 1920s England or further back in time like Jane Steen’s Scott-De Quincy series set in the 1800s).

Crafts & hobbies cozies

These are cozy mysteries where the sleuth typically has a hobby such as crochet, quilting, or another creative pastime.

There are other cozy mystery categories, too. Amazon also has a helpful guide on how to self-categorize your book.

Spend some time browsing subgenre categories and think about how authors indicate topical appeal in cover design choices and more.

Are you writing mystery? Do you have a particular favourite cozy mystery novel? Share your thoughts in the comments.

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By Jordan

Jordan is a writer, editor, community manager and product developer. He received his BA Honours in English Literature and his undergraduate in English Literature and Music from the University of Cape Town.

2 replies on “Writing a cozy mystery: 10 feel-good suspense tips”

Hi Susan, I’m not sure who ‘DiAnn’ is but thank you for your feedback, blessings and joy to you too. Thanks for reading.

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