Cozy mysteries are very familiar. You know the stories: the amateur sleuth, solving crimes, in between running her own business and looking for romance. Have you ever thought though, what makes these mysteries what they are? What makes them cozy?
Cozy mysteries, in a way, meet certain unofficial ideas, which make them, well, "cozy". These stories contain similar elements that readers like and even expect. Sort of a cozy blanket of expectation. If you want to write a mystery, and you want it to be cozy, you need to keep these ideas in mind.
So what are these ideas?
Well, before I get into them, a note. These are ideas. In other words, they are not rules, or even rules of thumb. They are just general characteristics that you might see in cozy mysteries you read. You are certain to find many stories that lack some or even many of these ideas. That being said, you should also find that you see these ideas, or approximations of them, in a number of the cozy mystery stories you read. You should also find that, if you use these ideas in your own stories, you will have moved in the direction of making them familiar to readers of the genre.
So here are the cozy ideas:
The protagonist in the story is the main good character. This person is the center of the story and the one who will solve the crime. This person isn't random though. They have some very important characteristics that help with the story and fit the general idea of a cozy mystery.
One important characteristic of this person is that they are female. One idea behind this is to relate to the reader. If the readers of cozy mysteries are women (which in many cases they are), it can make the story more relatable if they read about someone of the same gender. They can understand aspects of her life and what she is going through.
Additionally, having the protagonist be a woman adds differences to the story in terms of relationships and how the protagonist approaches problems than if the protagonist were male. These differences can add depth and interest to the story.
A second characteristic is the protagonist's age. As a general idea, she will be in her 30s. The idea, is that she's not young, in a sense, but she has not reached middle age. She is in an in between place where she can relate to both younger and older characters. She's also at a stage in her life where some things are established, like her career, but other things, like who she will marry, or if she will, still have options open. Additionally, she's also at a stage where she has a mixture of both married and single friends of her own age.
A third characteristic is the protagonist's appearance. Generally, she'll be portrayed in a relatable way. The idea here is to create an image of the character that will be portrayed in readers' minds. The idea is to have someone whose appearance they like, as well as someone that they feel they can relate to.
A fourth characteristic is that the protagonist is single. This adds the element of romance to the story, which can be interwoven into the mystery plot.
An important characteristic for the protagonist is her job. Generally, her job has to have two important criteria: it has to have a flexible schedule and it should not be law enforcement related.
The protagonist having a job with a flexible schedule can be very important to the plot of a cozy mystery. How can she investigate crimes if she works eight to five, five days a week? She needs a flexible schedule so she can look for clues and talk to suspects in the middle of the day. She also needs a flexible schedule so she can have time away from crime solving at different hours.
One way to achieve the flexible schedule idea is to have the protagonist be self-employed. This allows for a flexible schedule and also adds elements from owning a small business (such as a shop, having employees, and the idea of her profession) that can add to the story.
Debra Sennefelder, author of the Food Blogger Mystery series and the Resale Boutique Mystery series, mentions this idea, and also touches on the notion of thinking long-term when picking a protagonist's career. She writes:
"This is one of the reasons I chose to make my protagonist a food blogger. Blogging gives her a flexible schedule and also opens up a lot of opportunity for future plots. I think it’s important to think long-term, a series can run for many books."
Another important idea regarding the job of the protagonist is that it isn't law enforcement related. Remember, in these stories, the protagonist is an amateur sleuth. They shouldn't be a police officer or a private detective. The idea is to add interest to the story, with a novice doing something a professional would, and to add relatability for readers. Readers can see themselves in the "regular person" solving crimes.
Law enforcement relationships
In these stories it is important for the protagonist to have a connection to the law enforcement in her area. How can she let the police know about clues if she can't talk to them? It would be awkward for her to stop some random officer she meets and say, "I know you don't know me, but you know that murder last week? Well, I have some clues."
To accomplish this connection, the protagonist will generally have a friend on the police force. This person can take many roles. They could be a detective, an officer, someone in the district attorney's office, or something else. The main idea is that this person is a friend of the protagonist, is willing to listen and help them when it comes to crimes, and has enough influence on the police force to be heard and have action taken.
To foil this positive relationship, these stories will also generally have an adversary to the protagonist on the police force. This person isn't necessarily an enemy to the protagonist, but they are someone who slows her efforts. It could be that they don't like an amateur getting involved in police work or it could be something more personal. This person is generally portrayed as good in the sense that they believe in law enforcement, but they are also portrayed as a hindrance to the efforts of the protagonist to solve the crime.
Solving the crime
In these stories, it's the protagonist who solves the crime. While she gets help from others, it's her who makes that final connection. In her efforts to solve the crime, one thing you'll generally see is that she uses skills from her occupation or some involved hobby to help solve the mystery. Author Debra Sennefelder, writes the following about how her protagonist solves the crime:
"I like to think Hope Early, my protagonist, is a collector of information most people think is irrelevant. It’s with those pieces of information she’ll make the connection between the murder and the murderer."
In these stories, the crime is murder. It's not theft or vandalism or something else. It's murder.
Murder is a strong element of these stories. It tends to be portrayed as a very defined crime (taking place at a specific place and time and for a specific reason), it tends to be a personal crime (as opposed to one committed without a personal connection) and it tends to be something that leaves clues.
Another aspect of the crime, in terms of the flow of the story, is that it happens very quickly in the story. In some stories you read, the murder will literally take place on the very first page. In other stories, it might be in the first few pages. Generally, it will happen by the end of the first or second chapter.
The idea here is to move the story along. The solving of the murder is the main idea. If there is a lot of background and backstory before that happens, the main aspect can get diluted. Information about these things can be interwoven into the story, but they are done so after the main plot of the story starts.
Edith Maxwell, author of the Quaker Midwife Mysteries, the Local Foods Mysteries and, as Maddie Day, the Country Store Mysteries, among other works, echoes these ideas about the timing of the crime. She writes,
"The murder is the inciting incident for the entire story. If the suspense leading up to a murder in chapter ten is good enough, then later is okay. But the amateur sleuth needs a reason to get started investigating, and unless someone she's close to disappears in a suspicious manner, or there's another reason for alarm, "dropping the body" is useful early on."
This idea touches on another important aspect of the crime - the protagonist will have some connection to it. The protagonist needs a reason to get personally involved in the investigation of the crime. This might come from the protagonist or someone they know knowing the victim, or it might come from the victim being killed at some location related to the protagonist. It might also come from the protagonist or someone they know being accused of the crime. There are other possible connections as well. The main idea here is to give the protagonist an initial reason to get involved.
Lastly, another important aspect to the murder in these stories, is that they aren't graphic. In many cases, the murder will have happened before the reader arrives, so to speak. The first sign that it happened, will be the protagonist finding the body.
Even at that stage, there will often not be graphic elements. The death will be described with little detail and the scene will not be graphic. There will not be descriptions of wounds, blood, trauma or so forth.
The big three: the sidekick, the sage and the love interest
In cozy mysteries, besides the protagonist, there will generally be three other important characters: the sidekick, the sage, and the love interest.
The sidekick is the protagonist's partner-in-crime (solving). This is their best friend. This is the person they go on adventures with.
This person is very important to the story. They are a friend of the protagonist. They support and help the protagonist. They listen. They give advice. They give a person for the protagonist to tell clues to. They also provide another person to help with crime solving.
Author Edith Maxwell, says this about the sidekick role,
"My protagonists each have a close friend, whether sidekick or not. Rose Carroll in the historical Quaker Midwife Mysteries has quirky, unconventional postmistress Bertie Winslow. Cam Flaherty, my organic farmer in the Local Foods Mysteries, has her Brazilian locavore friend Lucinda DaSilva. And Robbie Jordan in my Country Store Mysteries (written as Maddie Day) has her aunt Adele, an energetic senior citizen. The friend is someone each of these main characters can bounce ideas off, someone to gently remind her of her weaknesses, and most important someone to have fun with. The two must care about each other but not have identical goals."
Author Debra Sennefelder, writes,
"The sidekick character is a perennial favorite of mine. When creating the sidekick character for my protagonist, I wanted to make sure he was funny, incorrigible and has access to information my protagonist didn’t have."
The sage is a person who provides wisdom, advice, comfort, and a voice of caution to the protagonist. This person is often older than the protagonist and might take the role of their mother, aunt, family friend or something similar.
This person listens to the protagonist and supports them. They provide a voice of reason and a voice of comfort.
Unlike the sidekick, who supports activities both in spirit and by actually taking part, the sage will be a person who advises against action and says to be careful. They are supportive, but in a different way.
The love interest
A love interest is very important to the cozy mystery story. The protagonist can't work and solve crimes all the time. She needs to go out and have fun.
The protagonist's relationship with the love interest will have a few attributes:
First, it will develop slowly. It might take two stories before they date, two more before they are a couple, and another two before they get married.
Second, it will be cleanly portrayed. Remember this is a cozy mystery. The protagonist has morals and the love interest respects that.
Third, it will be uncertain. There will be an element of wonder for the reader if the couple will get together, how that will happen, and when will that happen.
Fourth, the love interest is generally a supportive person. While he might be a voice of caution, he wants the protagonist to like him. If she asks him to help with something, while he might protest, he will help, even if he doesn't think it is the best idea.
Fifth, unfortunately for the ultimate love interest, he might have some competition along the way. There might be one or more competitors who come and go in the stories. The protagonist and these fellows might go out for coffee a couple of times, and have a few dates, but nothing more. In the end, the love interest will be chosen.
All those other people (but one): the police force friend, the police force adversary, the adversary, the victim and everybody else (but one)
The police force friend and the police force adversary
Both of these people were mentioned above. They are important elements to the story. They can generally be seen as continuing characters. In some stories, the adversarial relationship between the protagonist and the police force adversary will lessen over time as the police force adversary comes to respect the abilities of the protagonist.
This person is not the villain of the story, but rather just a general point of difficulty for the main character. This person is a polite enemy. This is the person who says nice things, but in a way that sounds insulting (e.g. "Your hair looks great. I'm glad you finally decided to color those grays.")
This person causes minor problems and is a general annoyance, but isn't too bad and doesn't cause real problems.
While it may seem strange, this person isn't that important to the story. There are a few reasons for this.
First, this person generally dies very early on in the story. Once this happens, they generally stop playing a direct role in the story.
Second, this person is only examined at a distance. In other words, this person's house is looked at, people they knew are interviewed, places they went are checked, but the person themselves isn't seen or spoken to.
Third, the focus of the mystery tends to be who the villain is. The victim is known. The villain isn't. The attention therefore tends to be on the finding who the villain is.
Everybody else (but one)
There are lots of other people in the story. There are shop owners, acquaintances, the mail carrier, and a number of others. These people come and go and generally fill out the story.
Sometimes these people can serve as literary devices. They might foreshadow things or show some sort of symbolism. They can also be used to speak about social issues or different groups in a subtle way.
This person is the "but one" from above. This person is who the mystery has been leading to. This is the murderer. This is the villain.
Somewhat strangely, the villain isn't too central to the story. One aspect of cozy mysteries, is that the reader shouldn't be able to figure out who the villain is halfway through. Because of this, the villain sometimes doesn't have much attention paid to them until the end of the story.
Generally, when the protagonist makes a list of suspects, the villain will not be on it. Early on, the villain will not seem to have a motive for the murder. Additionally, they will seem not to have much of a connection to what happens.
Generally, the villain is a character who just "floats" through the story. They appear at the start and every now and then, but they don't seem to be that important. They don't seem to be critical to the plot. They just sort of pop in and out. They are almost easy to ignore.
The characteristics of the villain makes their identity a surprise to the reader.
In terms of surprising the reader though, there is one exception: the reader isn't betrayed. Imagine if you were reading part two of a cozy mystery. In part one, the protagonist's mom was a nice, pleasant woman. In part two, she murders someone with a hammer. It doesn't fit right?
In these stories, while the protagonist (and other characters) might be betrayed, the reader isn't. Someone the reader loved from one story, won't be evil in the next.
One reason for this, is that it changes the tone of past stories if there are more than one story. As readers sometimes read stories out of order, if they read story five and find out the mailman is a murderer, how can they like the mailman if they go back and read about how nice he is in story two?
Secondly, betrayal of the reader can cause mistrust of the author. If the reader feels like "the wool was pulled over their eyes" regarding a character, they may not believe character personalities later on.
The town: a tiny hamlet
In cozy mysteries, the setting will generally be a small town. This is important for a number of reasons.
First, everybody has to know everyone else. Cozy mysteries focus on relationships and connections. It isn't possible for the main character to have a connection to everyone in the town, if the town has two million people. It is possible if the town has two thousand.
Second, is the idea of specific connections. The main character has to know the sheriff. They have to know the mayor. They have to know the newspaper editor. The main character often talks to people who have very specific roles, and it wouldn't be plausible for her to know all these people in a large city.
Third, is the idea of "the". There is "the" bakery. There is "the" mechanic. There is "the" doctor. Having "the's" can be very important to a cozy mystery plot. It narrows things down. How can the protagonist find out who fixed the victim's car if there are a hundred mechanics in town? It makes the story too hard. It is much easier if there is only one, and this is much easier in a small town.
Fourth, is the idea of distance and time. Cozy mystery stories sometimes move quickly. The protagonist can visit ten places in a day. This can be difficult if all of those places are an hour apart or she has to spend time in traffic. Having a small town alleviates these issues. Additionally, the protagonist needs to be able to make quick trips to multiple locations. Also, she needs to be able to walk places. This allows her to see the town, come into contact with people, and maybe find clues. This wouldn't be possible if she had to drive everywhere.
Fifth, is the idea of relationship histories. The main character went to high school with the fire chief. Her mom used to date the mayor. The veterinarian went to college with the sidekick. Histories like these can be important elements in the story and are more difficult to have in a large setting.
Sixth, is the idea that place is important. In cozy mysteries, the town of TinyHamletville is important. The characters care about the place. The characters have a history in the place. The characters have a connection to the place. The place almost becomes a character in the story. It can be easier for the characters to have this connection if the place is small and personal.
Seventh, the town will have a quaintness to it. The stores will have signs on shingles hanging outside of them. There will be a town square. There will be buildings that are hundreds of years old. Bridges will have names. Buildings will have names. Trees will have been planted by the town founders. You get the idea. The setting will generally be a quintessential small town. This adds character to the story in a way that differs from a large city.
In an interesting twist on the small town idea, author Edith Maxwell has this idea:
"Small towns are good, but I can think of a couple of successful series where the "village" is a neighborhood in a big city, and that works, too. Think of Leslie Budewitz's Spice Shop Mysteries, for example, which are set at the Pike Place Market in Seattle, or Cleo Coyle's Coffeehouse Mysteries in New York City. Whether town or village, the setting provides a cast of regular characters who recur in each book naturally. Often the protagonist is an outsider in the town, and that makes her a better sleuth."
The three p's of focus: people, place and plot
In cozy mystery stories, there are three main focuses. The three p's of focus are: people, place and plot.
The connections and relationships between characters are very important to cozy mystery stories. They are a big part of investigating the crime and are also important to subplots in the story.
Rather than looking inward on characters, the focus is on looking between them. How people relate to each other, what they feel about each other and how the perceive each other, are all central to the story. Readers learn about characters by how they interact with other characters.
Author Debra Sennefelder has this idea about the protagonist interacting with characters:
"A lot is revealed of a protagonist when the reader sees her interact with other characters. This peeling back the layers of the protagonist helps readers identify with the character."
This idea was mentioned above in reference to the importance of the small town setting. Place is a big focus of cozy mysteries. The characters interact in a place that seems to grow and develop with the characters. The idea of specific buildings, streets, homes, parts of town and so forth are all important to the story. How they look, how they feel, and what they mean to the characters all has an impact on the story.
This is the main idea of the cozy mystery genre: who did it? This is the river that the story flows along. This is what readers are reading the stories for. This is the mystery of the mystery.
The plot in cozy mysteries is a central focus and the main motivation of what's happening. This can be different from other genres, such as romance for example, which might focus on whether or not two characters get together. Cozy mysteries focus on the plot of solving the mystery.
Some story elements
In addition to what's already been mentioned, cozy mysteries also have a number of other elements. Some of them include:
The protagonist is busy. She works. She has a friends. She might have romance. Also, there's that solving a murder thing. She needs some rest.
In cozy mysteries you'll sometimes see downtime for the protagonist. She might have some tea, read a book, play with the cat, go for a walk, or something else. The idea here is to give the reader a break in the action. It can also be a place to review details. Cozy mysteries can focus heavily on plot, and so it can sometimes help to have a break so the reader can gather their thoughts about what's going on.
Lack of action
Epic martial arts battles! Jumping from a helicopter, onto a speedboat, and then to another speedboat! Leaping (in slow motion) from a building, right before it bursts into flames!
What do these things have in common? While they might be in the next action movie you see, they won't be in the next cozy mystery you read.
Cozy mysteries, are, cozy. Because of this, they are not known for their heart stopping action. Some might have no action at all (there won't be a fist fight or a speeding car in sight) and some that have action have very muted action (there might be a three line fight scene with one punch).
A lack of action isn't a detriment to these types of stories; it's just that action isn't part of them.
Details matter in cozy mysteries. Places are described in detail. People are described in detail. Things are described in detail.
The details add authenticity, richness, and character to the story. They can also be symbolic and contain plot elements.
Clothing can be an important element in cozy mysteries. It's not that people are extremely fashion conscious, rather, it's that clothing can reveal character elements.
In a cozy mystery, what someone wears, and how they wear it, can say something about the person. Think of a woman wearing a red dress to a funeral or someone showing up for work in the same clothes they had on the day before. These, and other examples, reveal things about characters.
In cozy mysteries clothing will be noticed and commented on.
In cozy mysteries, you might notice the peculiar occurrence of full names. Characters aren't spoken of by a nickname or just their first name. When they are mentioned, their full names are used. There are reasons for this.
First, it can help the reader be clear about who's who. Sometimes names in stories can be mixed up. Was it Jan or Jane who is the florist? Using full names can make sure everything is clear for the reader.
Second, full names increase the ability to have hidden meanings in names. Maybe a character is named William Anderson, because he has a strong will and a son who will play a role in the story (will and son – William Anderson). Using just first names makes these hidden meanings harder.
Third, it adds uniqueness and character to characters. Authors don't want readers to be distracted with unusual names or names that are hard to say. One way to have unique names, while avoiding this, is to use full names.
This is actually a big element of cozy mysteries and was mentioned above in reference to the murder and the love interest.
Generally, cozy mysteries will be light on content that might seem inappropriate for some. Don't look for curse words or depictions of drug use for example. Cozy mysteries tend to be "safe" stories in terms of content.
When it comes to the end of a cozy mystery, there are few things you should keep in mind.
No reveal until the end
One element that you will see in cozy mysteries is the idea that the solution to the mystery isn't revealed until the end of the story. This means that there won't be some way the reader could have figured out who the villain was before that point. It will also mean that that person won't be a suspect (or at least a strong one) earlier in the story. The person won't seem to have a motivation or a strong connection to the crime.
At the end of a cozy mystery, you might read a summation. This is where the protagonist or the villain details what actually happened. It could be that the protagonist is explaining it to someone, or the villain is telling the protagonist what they did.
The protagonist rescues herself
At the end of a cozy mystery, the protagonist may be in some peril, usually at the hands of the villain. In these situations, the protagonist rescues herself. She fights the villain or escapes from the room or stops the machine or whatever. She isn't rescued. She isn't a damsel in distress.
Two exceptions to this idea are that the protagonist might get some help from one of two of the big three (her sidekick or sage can pop up right at the right moment and hit the villain from behind) and the idea that the police might show up right after she rescues herself.
When the protagonist rescues herself, she will sometimes use her special skills to do so. In some way she'll use something from her job or hobby to get herself out of the situation.
Writing your own cozy mystery stories
As cozy mystery blogger Marie McNary writes, "Cozy mysteries are a great way to escape the real world." As you read through the ideas above you probably started thinking about ideas for writing your own cozy stories.
As you write your own stories, keep the ideas above in mind. Using them, or ideas close to them, will help you make your mystery a cozy one. That being said, remember they are just ideas. You can always write a story that goes against the ideas above and it can still be good and still be cozy. These ideas are just a place for you to start as you develop elements for your own story.
If you are thinking about writing your own cozy mystery, you might start by writing about a few elements as writing exercises. It can give you ideas and help you develop skills for the genre.
Some elements you could write about for exercises are:
• The protagonist. You could write about all the elements of her character. You could describe her, her job, her history and her relationships to others. You could even do some research and learn about a profession or hobby that you don't already know about.
• The sidekick. This person is essential to the cozy mystery story. They mesh with the protagonist, but they have key differences. They might have different personalities or interests. Write about this person's character, and their attributes, and write how they differ from, but still blend with, the protagonist.
• The small town. Think of the setting of a cozy mystery. Think of the town, what it looks like, and what places are there. You might even make a simple map and mark different locations. You could write short descriptions of each.
• The crime. Although it may feel a bit odd to think about how someone commits a crime, this is obviously a big part of cozy mysteries. Write about someone who does away with someone else. Write about their motivation, how they commit the crime and how they try to get away with it.
• The victim. This person can be a bit overlooked in a cozy mystery. As mentioned, they appear at the beginning, and then they aren't there anymore. That being said, learning how to develop this person is important. The story will follow different aspects of their life as the crime is investigated. Write about this person, their life, and particularly, different qualities of their life that could be investigated (e.g. where they went for fun, who they were dating, what places they would never go, and so forth). These ideas will be woven into a story you write and it can be good practice to think about them.
Keep in mind, as you write and read cozy stories, that you can interact with others who like the stories. As cozy mystery blogger Marie McNary mentions, "If you would like to discuss cozy mysteries with others, there is a vibrant cozy mystery community online! Facebook book discussions and groups provide a safe and fun place to interact with other cozy mystery readers, fans, and authors."
About the contributors to article:
Agatha- and Macavity-nominated author Edith Maxwell writes the Quaker Midwife Mysteries, the Local Foods Mysteries, and award-winning short crime fiction. Called to Justice, Maxwell's second Quaker Midwife mystery, is nominated for an Agatha Award for Best Historical Novel. As Maddie Day she writes the popular Country Store Mysteries and the new Cozy Capers Book Group Mysteries. Murder on Cape Cod will release in January, 2019.
Maxwell is president of Sisters in Crime New England and lives north of Boston with her beau, two elderly cats, and an impressive array of garden statuary. She blogs at WickedCozyAuthors.com, KillerCharacters.com, and Under the Cover of Midnight (midnightinkbooks.blogspot.com). Read about all her personalities and her work at edithmaxwell.com.
Debra Sennefelder, author of the Food Blogger Mystery series and the Resale Boutique Mystery series, is an avid reader who reads across a range of genres, but mystery fiction is her obsession. Her interest in people and relationships is channeled into her novels against a backdrop of crime and mystery. Her website is debrasennefelder.com.
Marie McNary runs an interactive cozy mystery community called A Cozy Experience. You can find out more at cozyexperience.com.
About the author:
M. Sakran is that guy who walks those dogs. He is usually found standing by the side of the road while one of his dogs plays in a ditch and the other wonders why he isn't getting a treat right now. When not catering to canines, he tries to be a writer. He's had over ninety items published, including a collection of poetry called First Try, and has also self-published an eBook called Understanding: poems with explanations. You can find his poetry related blog at msakran.wordpress.com and his website at msakran.com.
A dish of meat and assorted vegetables originally invented by Hungarian cow herders. These herders, or gulyás, were of humble origin and concocted their cauldron cooked meals out of supplies they packed on their long journeys - millet, lard, onions, salt, bacon, chilis, and occasionally cow meat. Over time, as regional travelers were exposed to it, the dish evolved with additional spices and available vegetables, eventually spreading to upper classes. In modern society, it ranges from haute cuisine to a lower class hearty meal based on whatever is in the cabinet.