WHAT IS THEME?
In the world of cozy mysteries, thematic elements are practically required if you plan on doing a series, but they’re also beneficial for standalones. No, we’re not talking about traditional themes, as in the overall concept or message you want to portray (good vs. evil, love conquers all, etc.). The cozy theme we’re discussing here today is the gimmick that keeps the reader coming back in a series and provides a unique element for your character that builds story ideas for you.
Themes in cozies usually revolve around your protagonist’s career or favorite hobby, but another typical element is animals (usually pets). You can also blend genres to create new ideas. For example, a supernatural cozy mystery could involve ghosts, witches, and countless other creatures or beings.
WHY YOU NEED A THEME
So now that we all know what theme means in this context, why is having one so important? First, let’s just be real. Readers have come to expect that element these days—it has become an essential part of the genre. Aside from that, it benefits you as the author.
Hand-in-hand with the reader’s story expectations is the marketing aspect. As a consumer yourself, there are probably thematic elements you gravitate toward, and your audience is no different. Animals are common in cozies. Oftentimes, the amateur sleuth will have a popular type of pet, like a cat or dog, to endear readers, but there’s a wide world of animals out there to choose from. You don’t even need the animal element in pet form. Perhaps your protagonist is a vet or a zookeeper. If you want to use this type of theme to draw in readers, the fastest way to do that is to use animals on your cover.
The same goes for your sleuth’s occupation (former or current) or their favorite hobby. As noted in our post titled So, You Want to Write a Cozy Mystery Series?, cooking, gardening, books, art, and outdoor activities (like hiking or being a camp counselor) are a few examples of these themes. Not only would you want to put these elements on the cover image, but they make for great titling opportunities. Look at the three titles listed below. Even without a cover image, you have a clear idea of what the book’s theme is.
Death by Donuts by Rosie A. Point
Purrfect Nap by Nic Saint
Murder Mystery Book Club by Danielle Collins
Another good example is my beloved television series Murder, She Wrote. The title indicates that our female main character writes about murders. In the show, Jessica Fletcher is a mystery author who then becomes an amateur sleuth, and in the opening title sequence, we often see her typing. The sequence ends with a notebook cover or computer screen labeled with the show’s title. So even in tv shows, the thematic element is used to market itself appropriately.
DIFFERENT STROKES FOR DIFFERENT FOLKS
Some writers know what their theme is before they ever come up with an actual storyline. They know they want to write a book or series based around a tea shop, so they’re already covered in that regard. But if your idea originated elsewhere, like with a fun character or the crime itself, how do you choose? It’s easier than you think.
There are two important aspects you should take into account when selecting your theme, and the first isn’t even about you. Determine what would work best for your character. If you’re writing a standalone book, this process might be simpler, but if you want to tackle a series, you’ll need to put some extra thought into it. We’ll talk more about this shortly.
The second consideration is your level of knowledge and desire. Do you want to use a theme you’re familiar with, or are you more interested in learning something new?
Perhaps you’ve had rabbits your whole life and want to use your expertise to bring life to one on the page. Maybe you’re an excellent cook or have a green thumb, so you would be comfortable writing about these things as your protagonist’s main interest.
Or you may have always wanted to travel the world but have not had much (or any) chance to do so. You could use this opportunity to explore far-off places. The key here is understanding that you’ll need to do research on anything you aren’t familiar enough with so your story feels authentic. Are you willing to put in the time and effort needed to delve into learning a whole new topic for the sake of your book? Do you have access to whatever tools you need to get the research done?
Going back to the first aspect, you’ll want to pick something that suits your character and the overall story you want to tell. Is the sleuth a young woman who’s still in college, or is he retired with years of experience under his belt? What kind of escapades do you want the protagonist to get into, and what line of business might be best suited for that?
If you want a lot of high-profile clients to be investigated, the sleuth should have sensible reasons to be in that crowd. Your protagonist could be independently wealthy, and her penchant for art brings her into contact with all sorts of high-paying customers and eccentric creators. But you could also get the sleuth into the mix because he’s a caterer and runs large gala events. Keep in mind that your character’s position in society will often have a great influence on whether or not suspects will speak to them.
STILL NOT SURE?
If you’re still struggling to decide on a main thematic element, try brainstorming specific scenarios you would like your protagonist subjected to or involved in. This works well for a standalone but can be even better with a series. Make a list of places the sleuth should visit, specific crimes they will investigate, and different people to meet. Once you’ve done this, think about a commonality or convenient interest that would make your sleuth’s involvement seem plausible.
For example, if he travels the world, having a pet could make things much harder than necessary due to potential flight restrictions, sleeping accommodations, and health issues surrounding animals being permitted from outside the country. So, a theme centered around a career or hobby might be best suited. If you’re looking for a lot of animal shenanigans, a fun pet would be even better than a job-related theme because as long as you stick with locations where the pet can frequently be featured, you can provide plenty of opportunities for them to interact with others or cause mischief.
By now you may be asking, “Why can’t my sleuth be a world-famous baker and ghosthunter who loves gardening and has a pet chimpanzee?”
First of all, chimpanzees make terrible pets, so I don’t recommend them. But all joking aside, there’s no hard rule stating you must stick to one thematic element, though you should pick one to be the main feature. It simplifies marketing so you can target the audience who will love your book. However, less is usually more.
If your story has too many themes, something is bound to get less attention and end up falling by the wayside. Juggling all these elements can be challenging, and might end up confusing the reader. Remember, the theme should highlight and elevate the story, but it’s not the only important factor in cozies—you should be focusing more on a great sleuth, cozy settings, and interesting characters. The theme just helps you achieve those things and helps you develop a more fulfilling protagonist, so I recommend sticking with one or two, especially if you’re just starting out.
A different approach you can take when determining your theme(s) is by what opportunities it can create for you outside the story. Yes, we’re talking about marketing again but not with catchy covers and punny titles. This time, it’s all about website potential and social media activity (for ease and brevity, we won’t go into every possible social media outlet).
Who is your audience? If you plan on writing a hip young protagonist with a sassy attitude and are marketing to a younger generation of readers, TikTok and Instagram are your best bets. But if your sleuth is middle-aged or retired, you will find Facebook is the better option. Learn the platform(s) you intend to utilize and study what techniques work best for each. Once you understand the format, you can get a better idea of what kind of theme might thrive in those mediums.
Does your sleuth run a cafe? Consider sharing recipes on Facebook. People often scroll slower there, leaving more chances for readers to see it and have time to skim the ingredients. It’s also good if you have a lot of additional text.
Is your main character a proud reptile owner and lover? Try using Instagram to post pictures of animals they might like or have intelligent or amusing commentary for. This is also a great option for location images if your character travels a lot.
Maybe your protagonist is involved with the supernatural. You could make a short TikTok video (you don’t have to personally appear if you’re uncomfortable with that) showcasing fun haunted locations.
There are tons of possibilities, as long as you pick something that fits into your social media platform of choice. You can take any of the above ideas and change them around to fit the different mediums. Get creative with your themes, and they’ll practically market themselves!
DO SOME RESEARCH
If you’re still on the fence about the direction you want to take, think about your favorite cozy mystery books and why you liked them so much. What elements drew you in, and how did the author’s thematic choice benefit the story?
You could also try searching current bestselling cozies, then scroll through the list. Look at the top ten to twenty covers and titles. Do any of them spark interest? If your character were to use the same theme, what story would you want to tell? If you find yourself coming up with a lot of ideas for a specific theme, you may want to consider making it your own.
Remember, the characters you create are what make your story unique. Did you discover a coffee shop theme spoke to you, but someone else is already doing that? Do it anyway. Maybe their character is an extroverted male who went to barista school and runs a fancy chain of stores. You could write an introverted female who is a natural-born coffee lover with no professional experience and owns a single location.
Also, don’t forget about using more than one theme and blending genres. With all of the combinations and your unique perspective, you can create a memorable story.
PLAYTIME WITH YOUR PROTAGONIST
As mentioned before, you can try testing out different themes on your character. I have written an example of this experiment below using thematic options to show how they can change your overall story.
For the sleuth, we will use a fifty-something-year-old woman named Melinda. She has returned to a crime scene to search for clues in the death of a wealthy man named Shane Bartlett. His body was found in the home office of his mansion.
Theme #1—Coffee shop owner
The air is thick with the weight of death. Before Melinda can pull out her phone to review the crime scene photos, the door swings open. She jumps up, accidentally knocking a book off the desk as she does, and stifles a scream. Shane’s widow enters, followed by the family cat, then places a mug of coffee on the desk in front of her guest with a knowing smile. Melinda thanks the woman, blows across the top of the liquid, and takes a small sip. Familiar notes of orange and chocolate flood her mouth, followed by the sting of spice . . . cayenne?
Just as Mrs. Bartlett is about to leave, Melinda asks what kind of coffee it is, and the woman confirms her suspicions. A sinking feeling fills her gut. What underground connections did Shane have to be able to smuggle banned coffee into the country? And would they kill him to protect their secrets?
The air is thick with the weight of death. Before Melinda can pull out her phone to review the crime scene photos, the door swings open, and she stifles a scream. Shane’s widow places a mug of coffee on the desk in front of her guest with a knowing smile, then waits. Melinda thanks the woman, blows across the top of the liquid, and takes a small sip. It’s somehow fruity and spicy at the same time—not something she’d ever purchase herself.
Just as Mrs. Bartlett is about to leave, the family cat streaks into the room. He jumps onto the desk, then swats at Melinda, who jumps up; the cat knocks over several books, files, and the cup of coffee as his owner tries to catch him. Feline in hand, Mrs. Bartlett excuses herself, mumbling apologies as she closes the door behind her. As Melinda tries to put the scattered items back in order, she hears a click followed by sliding wood, so she peeks underneath the desk to find a secret panel. Inside the hidden alcove is a golden key.
The air is thick with the weight of death. Before Melinda can pull out her phone to review the crime scene photos, the door swings open, and she stifles a scream. Shane’s widow places a mug of coffee on the desk in front of her guest with a knowing smile, then waits. Melinda thanks the woman, blows across the top of the liquid, and takes a small sip. It’s somehow fruity and spicy at the same time—not exactly her style, but it is an interesting combination.
Just as Mrs. Bartlett is about to leave, a thump from the bookshelf against the far wall draws their attention. After a glance between the women, they go to the shelf where a book has mysteriously fallen to the floor. Mrs. Bartlett recognizes the red leather cover immediately, though there is no visible title, and confirms it belonged to Shane. He would read it in the early morning hours and forbade anyone to ever touch it. Melinda picks it up and opens the cover, but a cold breeze sweeps through the room, whipping the pages until it stops on a blank page halfway through the book. As they watch, crooked letters appear as if written by an invisible entity. A sinking feeling fills Miranda’s gut as she reads the single word.
Using the three examples above, do you see how the overall focus of your story—your theme—can change the direction you take a single scene? Our sleuth is revisiting the crime scene, gets interrupted by the victim’s widow who brings her some coffee, and stumbles across a clue to the crime.
A coffee aficionado might have extensive knowledge on the topic, so you could use that to your advantage like in the first example. In the second, we have brief cat shenanigans (which you could easily expand on as appropriate), which leads to an accidental clue. Finally, what startles Melinda is not a cat but a book off the shelf that was knocked down by an entity—not by Melinda being startled.
Similar elements are used in each scene (coffee, being startled, a book being knocked over, a clue being discovered), but the thematic element can completely change how you go about crafting the scene.
- Consider whether you’d rather write what you know or learn something new.
- Don’t forget that you don’t have to stick with a single theme, but don’t overdo it.
- Play around with the themes that interest you by brainstorming different stories you can write that make the theme fun or relevant.
- Think about what gimmicks you can use based on your theme to market yourself on social media.
- Do some research on current, popular cozies on the market.
- Write down a scene you have in mind, then test out different thematic elements to see what brings more life to the story and makes you excited to write it.
Until next time, happy sleuthing!