A great cozy mystery series is all about humanity’s insatiable curiosity, my dear Watson!
Nearly everyone you meet has been curious about something at one point or another. When a person doesn’t know something but is taunted with just enough details, something in the brain triggers, and they HAVE to learn more. That drive to know what the other person knows, to understand the inexplicable and figure out the answer no one else could is what mysteries are all about. You simply have to tap into that innate human desire and feed the beast.
Let’s start with the basics. Cozy mysteries, commonly referred to as “cozies,” are a subgenre of the Crime genre, so they share many qualities but have very important differences. Essentially, the reader follows a crime from start to finish and experiences intrigue, suspense, and misdirection as they follow the clues along with the protagonist.
The Crime is broken into many subgenres, but we will only touch on the most common. As you will see, the subgenre your story falls into is determined by which aspect of the crime you’re focusing on:
- General Crime—this broad category zeroes in on the criminal. You follow them as they plan the crime, commit it, and then evade detection or capture. An example of this would be the television show Columbo (one of my all-time favorite television shows), which mostly aired in the 70s and 80s.
- Police Procedural—the main aspect of this subgenre is the actual investigation itself, along with forensics. For example, the television show Law and Order and its many spinoffs.
- Noir—instead of focusing on a person, Noir is about the dark, gritty atmosphere surrounding the crime and characters. This would include The Black Dahlia and The Maltese Falcon.
- Detective/Private Investigator—as the name implies, the reader follows the protagonist, whose presence is larger than the crimes, putting them at the forefront of the story. While the crime is important, the detective is the main reason the reader comes back. A perfect example would be the Sherlock Holmes stories.
- Cozies—in this subgenre, the protagonist is on almost equal footing with the setting for the focal point. One major factor that sets the cozy apart is that it involves a likable amateur sleuth in a small town (a cozy place) or similar location who finds themselves suddenly solving crimes. The classic example (and another one of my all-time favorites) is Murder, She Wrote.
So, while cozies mysteries must still involve suspense and clue-gathering, it’s important to note what sets this subgenre apart and what readers expect to see. Ignore these guidelines at your own risk!
The Protagonist should be an amateur sleuth.
Your protagonist will be an amateur sleuth, meaning they will have had no formal training in investigating crimes or police procedures when they accidentally stumble into this new role. What’s important is how they are well-loved in the community and seem natural at investigatory work. They must be educated/intelligent, as well as incredibly intuitive and capable. Your protagonist should have a good moral compass, be active in the community, and have a job or hobby that suits the needs of the story you want to tell. Though they should have their faults, they should be minor—they are just an everyday kind of person like you and me.
Most amateur sleuths in a cozy mystery series are female.
While not required, a majority of these sleuths are women, often middle-aged or older, who are frequently single at the beginning (commonly divorced or widowed). They are commonly considered nosy or busybodies by local law enforcement, though this does not always have to be portrayed negatively, and their sleuthing often puts them in harm’s way. You can either keep the protagonist single or have part of their character arc be dating and possibly finding a new long-term partner. It certainly opens the door for more characters and locations.
The setting is a major factor in a cozy.
Speaking of locations, your setting is the other major factor in readership. A critical aspect that puts a story in the cozy subgenre is that the main location (where your main character lives and solves a few crimes) should have that small-town feel. If you are writing a series (which I highly recommend), this gives you the opportunity for your cast of fun and quirky supporting characters. But don’t limit yourself to your protagonist’s local town.
Keep your cozy mystery series interesting by changing locales and introducing new characters.
You should be introducing new settings and characters to keep the books feeling fresh and non-formulaic. It also adds to the realism of the locale because how many murders could possibly happen in such a small community? (I’m looking at you, Cabot Cove!) To keep the cozy feel when your book takes place somewhere else—even someplace huge like New York City—all you need to do is set the crime where there is a limited pool of suspects, like a dinner party or exclusive art exhibit. Only Murders in the Building is a great example of a modern show that tackled this scenario well.
Your regular crew of friends and foes will be a huge pull when drawing a reader back for more. They will come to love (or love to hate) the various personalities, and even when you write stories in other locations, “coming back home” to familiar faces in a later book gives the long-term reader that warm and cozy feeling. Try using familiar but relatively harmless stereotypes like the confidant, love interest, comic relief, nemesis, gruff policeman, and town gossip.
These characters can periodically be used as victims of lesser crimes, but keep in mind that killing off any main characters once the reader has had time to become attached to them could end up killing off your readership too. In addition, make sure your protagonist has easy access to one of these characters as their law-related contact (police, medical examiners) so they can obtain pertinent information that’s not readily available to the public.
Your series doesn’t need to focus on a murder.
More often than not, the crimes in your books will likely be murders, but that doesn’t always have to be the case. There are plenty of other events your sleuth can investigate; think along the lines of grand theft, arson, embezzlement, kidnapping, or international corruption. As long as the stakes are high, you can tackle it.
Keep the blood and gore to a minimum in your cozy mystery series.
If you are going down the murder route, you must keep it clean—and by that, I mean minimal blood. A single gunshot or stab wound should be as bloody as your crimes get; most often, the murder will happen via alternative methods like being struck by an object, poisoning, strangling, or being pushed onto something or over a ledge. However this happens, it should occur “off the page,” as should all violence and sex. They can be mentioned in passing, but that’s all. The focus of cozies is the sleuthing, characters, and setting, so murders should be discussed only long enough to deliver necessary facts, and then you need to move on. This also goes for any additional murders that occur throughout the book.
Check out this recent blog post we wrote about this topic.
Keep your story light on violence, colorful language, and sex scenes.
That being said, there are a few additional things to avoid. First is foul language. This should be kept to a minimum and should only include the more widely accepted words like “hell” and “damn.” Also, sexual assault should never be your main crime, though a vague mention of it if part of someone’s past is okay. The other two no-nos go hand-in-hand. Avoid physical violence against children and animals at all costs.
The victim in your cozy mystery series should be flawed.
As far as victims go, you will probably have an innocent one from time to time to keep readers on their toes. But very often, the victim should be imperfect. They were having an affair, blackmailing someone, or were otherwise corrupt or involved in illegal activities. This lessens the impact of their death on the reader so they can focus on solving the case. Remember, one of the required features of the cozy genre is to keep the mood light. If you can and want to incorporate humor, all the better!
Repeat after me: serial killers and psychopaths aren’t cozy.
Now for the fun part—the murderer or other criminal perpetrator. Cozies aren’t the place for psychopaths, serial killers, or those who kill for fun. Their motives should be the standard revenge, jealousy, and greed sort, not sexually motivated or for the sake of evil alone. They are most often intelligent, but they don’t have to be geniuses; you need them to be able to elaborate on any unclear details once they’re busted.
Your antagonist should be an average human who did something many think about in the heat of anger but don’t actually act on. This keeps them relatable and makes the reader think about how they would have responded, especially if the murder was from an accidental blow. Obviously, murder is never okay, but it should seem justifiable to the villain when taken to the extremes; they are simply a normal person who found themselves in bad circumstances and get pushed to their limit. They feel they have no choice, even though they did, but they couldn’t face the alternative repercussions.
How to capture the killer:
This extends into their unveiling and capture. At first, they may threaten your sleuth or try to run away, but in the end, they don’t put up much fight when law enforcement arrives to arrest them. Often, they regret what they did, or at least acknowledge it was wrong, but that’s certainly not always the case. And while on the topic of getting caught, it IS necessary for them to be apprehended and brought to justice. This sense of closure is vital to the genre, and your readers will never forgive you if the villain gets away.
A cozy mystery series needs clues galore to satisfy readers.
Regarding the investigation, make sure you leave enough clues for a savvy reader to pick up on—your readers want to solve the crime. It’s one of the major pulls of the mystery genres. Never pull one of those crummy moves at the end where your sleuth suddenly remembers something that was never mentioned (or was dismissed) and makes some obscure connection using information the reader could have no way of knowing. On the other hand, don’t spell out your clues or make them so obvious that there’s no suspense left, or the reader will have no reason to finish the book. Even a single sentence that’s quickly moved on from can be the lynchpin that turns the whole case on its head. The sleuth then has their ah-ha moment where they remember said detail and tie everything together.
Clues should also be sprinkled throughout the story, not clumped up together, with the final clue initiating that lightbulb moment. While cozy mysteries should be somewhat fast-paced, that doesn’t mean non-stop action sequences . . . because then it would be an action story or other similar genre. So, take your time planting proper clues but don’t forget to include twists and turns, plus those beloved red herrings. The rising and falling tension provided by proper misdirection is critical to a good mystery.
Suspects should be introduced as early in the story as possible, including the real perpetrator. Mix them in with a few people who are clearly innocent, give a few of them questionable suspicion, and give others solid motive or means or opportunity. The rest will be what the sleuth has to figure out. Frequently, the wrong person will be arrested partway through, giving the sleuth even more reason to dig harder.
A great cozy has a strong theme.
Another common element with cozies involves theme, and this usually revolves around your protagonist’s career or hobby, though sometimes animals are the thematic element. While we will be going further in-depth on this in a later post, some examples of this are cooking, gardening, books, art, and outdoor activities (like hiking or being a camp counselor). The author Diane Mott Davidson used food, Jessica Fletcher (of Murder, She Wrote) was a mystery author, and author Dale Myer focused on gardening. There are endless possibilities as long as you keep the audience in mind. A great option is anything supernatural, but that would entail blending genres and is something we’ll cover in a different article.
Some parting thoughts:
Finally, a few important notes. Cozy mysteries are intended to be quick reads, meaning no epic sagas. You should aim for anywhere from 50,000–60,000 words, though going just a little above is okay, as long as the story needs it. Many readers will sit down and consume a book a day, so keep this in mind. If you plan on doing a series, write each book so it works as a standalone because not every reader will stumble upon them in order. And when writing your series, plan your protagonist’s character arc to grow throughout the series and not just in the first couple of books, or they have no room left to grow and can stagnate.
Now that you know what makes a cozy a cozy and what avid readers expect to see in the genre, you can get started on your new book/series or can look at your existing material to see if there is something you can add to your world.
Until next time, happy sleuthing!