How To Write a Cozy Mystery

—-Lea Wait

So – you want to write a mystery? You don’t know too much about police procedures, or regulations for private detectives, or the law, but you enjoy settling in with a good book in which the bad guys are caught and the good guys (and gals) win out in the end?  Writing a mystery might just be your cup of tea.

Or thimble of arsenic.

Why not try? Traditional mysteries, also known as cozies, are in the Agatha Christie tradition where, it’s often said, “more tea is spilled than blood.” They’ve been popular for decades, and, despite today’s increased popularity of suspense and noir books, are still selling well.

Their readers and authors are predominantly, but not exclusively, women. They even have their own conference, Malice Domestic, held each spring just outside of Washington, D.C., and their own awards: the Agathas, named after you-know-who.

The first book in my Shadows Antique Print Mystery series, Shadows at the Fair, was lucky enough to be a finalist for a “best first mystery “Agatha, forever giving me a place in the traditional mystery world, and giving me some qualifications to give advice about the genre.  So — here goes!

How do you know a mystery fits this sub-genre?

The protagonist of the cozy is usually a woman. She’s not a law-enforcement professional of any kind, although she may have a friend who is. She’s a moderately idiosyncratic adult female who lives a full and active life, has an interesting profession or hobby, and has at least one (preferably more) unresolved personal issue in her life. (An ex-husband who’s a pain, a difficult child, an alcoholic parent;, a secret past. — anything of this sort will do.)  Most important, she has an amazing ability to be in a place where others are murdered — and to always have a logical and justifiable  reason to get involved in solving the crime herself.  (A friend of hers is accused of the murder? The body is on her property? The victim is a business associate? Or former beau?)

Those are the basic components of the cozy. The author (you) still can’t ignore basic rules regarding the relationship between busy- bodies (that’s your protagonist) and law enforcers. You can’t invent forensics, whether CSI does or not. There are books to help you, or, ideally, you can consult with someone in your local police force. State laws vary. And if your case involves the Feds, you’ll need to get that straight. Your readers take their mysteries seriously. They’ll know the rules, and you’d better, too.

You’ll need at least three, but no more than six, possible suspects for your murder or murders (two murders are better than one.)  Each suspect should have MOM.  (A mother is fine, and can even complicate the plot, but in this case we’re talking Motive, Opportunity, and Means.) Your sleuth’s job is to unravel all of that. 

Although a book with a professional crime fighter as protagonist often opens with a body being found, a traditional mystery usually involves you with the characters first. The first murder occurs perhaps 20-30% of the way through the book.

The murder is not described in detail, nor is any sex that might occur.  (Your protagonist doesn’t have to be celibate, but she does have to draw the shades.) If you want to add a second murder, about 60-70% of the way through the book is a good place for that to happen. It also helps keeps the middle of the book going, just about the time you and your readers are feeling a bit bored.

You’ll need an action scene at the end, during which your protagonist will confront the villain, put herself in danger, and, of course the murderer will be caught and all dangling plot ends will be tied off. This should happen very close to the end of the book — a few pages before you turn off your computer.

One more thing. No matter what, no cats or children must die.

Now you’re ready. I’ve shared all the secrets.  All you have to do is write the book.  See you at Malice Domestic next spring!


5 Responses

  1. Fun and thorough, Lea! Thanks!

    I’d like to second the connection to real law enforcement personnel. I doubted my mentors when they told me to contact the local authorities for procedure, but I’m so glad I did. I’ve been working with the same cop, now an inspector, for 16 books. He tells me stories that I can turn into my own, and makes sure whatever procedure I do have is correct, or plausible. And by the way, the department gets credit for community service, so it’s win-win.

    See you at Malice!

  2. Write on Camille! I’ve found a lot of people think that because a book is fiction, anything goes. They forget that (unless the crime is set in a fantasy or sci-fi world) the rules of the universe and of law enforcement don’t change just because someone has written a story.

  3. Thanks to Lea for providing the skeleton for a cozy, or traditional, or amateur sleuth mystery. Of course, this basis has to be fleshed out by a distinctive authorial voice, as well as character development, quirks, issues, setbacks, a believable world for the characters to live in, and so on. Perhaps even deviations from the formula will find a place.The mystery is an enormously elastic form that can encompass all this and still be a novel of manners, a morality tale, or just a place for the reader to relax with people s/he would like to know. And after all this, order is restored in the end.

  4. An excellent summary of what makes a “cozy” achieve proper cozy status! One of the most amusing problems that develops over the course of a series is explaining how such a normal main character trips over so many dead bodies. It’s always fun to read the passages when a defense is offered — either a claim that it hasn’t been SO many bodies — or a character admits that life just seems to be filled with murder.

    If you’d like to follow my progress through writing my first cozy mystery novel, I have a blog dedicated to all the twists and turns from my first steps to some necessary side trips, and soon — I hope — progress of the first draft. One of the secrets is identifying what approach matches your inborn style of creative thinking. I’m reviewing the books that I’ve consulted and software that has helped me.

    I’d love to make friends with other cozy readers, writers, and bloggers.

  5. why can’t a cozy mystery has an infant death eg being poisoned, if it is not a violent death. I have just finishing writing such a mystery, now I am worried about what you said here.

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