Writing a Cozy Mystery
As fun and easy as they are to read, writing a cozy mystery is a whole other game. They are intricately woven with character growth, theme, clues, and the classic red herrings that can sometimes be hard to balance all at once. This post is here to help you dissect what makes a cozy mystery great so that you can craft one yourself
Most cozy mysteries are centered around a central theme or a hybrid of theme and genre. These themes often have to do with businesses or trades and create complete sub-genres within the genre of cozy mystery. Most notable might be culinary mystery, where the amateur sleuth has some sort of connection with the culinary world. The sleuth could be a food blogger, a baker, a restaurant critic, a restaurant owner, or part of any other number of culinary field related jobs.
If you can think of a job and a reason it might interest a reader, the cozy mystery theme probably exists. I know there are fashion and seamstress mysteries. There are: Historical, Animal, Holiday, Hobby, Profession, Paranormal, Senior, Religious, and any number of subset genres within those themes.
Themes that I, personally, would like to see come to the market are Geeky and Punk/Alt Fashion cozy mysteries for the millennial generation. I want to read (or, write!) a book about an artist at comic-con. I want to read (or, write!) a book about a tattoo shop owner.
Go ahead and see if you can blend this with any other theme that you might want, such as fashion and paranormal like the Annette Blair mysteries. Or, you could tie religious with bed and breakfast. As far as I know, LGBTQ isn’t a theme often addressed that could use some love. Whatever floats your boat might also float a reader’s boat, too!
There are certain themes that must be kept in order for a book to be considered a cozy mystery. One such theme is that the protagonist has to be an amateur sleuth. Catching a killer is NOT what the protagonist wants to do with their Sunday afternoon. Maybe they’d rather be sipping mimosas at brunch or crocheting cute stuffed animals. Instead, someone died near them and they feel it is up to them to catch the killer responsible, either through love, guilt, or a cat like curiosity.
Another thing to remember about your character is that they often have some sort of relatable past that the reader can identify with. A lot of times this shows up at a death in the family or a recent divorce. The trope is over used. Try something new. Make it hurt.
Watching the protagonist slowly overcome that kind of hurt gives the reader not only a reason to cheer, but tells them they can overcome pain, too.
Do not forget your wonderful cast of side characters! There is almost always a quirky best friend, a family of issues, one or more sexy suitors (and offscreen sexy time), and a whole town of bright characters and possible murderers. Personally, I love the crazy old lady trope. I can’t get enough of gun toting grandma! Also, cop friend guy is smoking hot. These tropes are overused, but they’re popular for a reason. Play with that.
Like it or not, the setting is almost a character in its own right when it comes to cozy mysteries. Towns have history, layout, and surprises around every turn.
Decide where you want to set your cozy mystery. Is it the traditional small town? Or, are you familiar with a bog city? Like it or not, small towns are almost always easier to use because it’s easier to create your own small town. A lot of work can go into creating a big city from scratch and using places that already exist might infringe on someone’s rights (I really don’t know the complexity of the law when it comes to writing fiction about real places).
Drop your small town on a map. I almost always choose rural places near bodies of water because that’s the kind of setting that I grew up in. If you like mountains, do it up. If you’re a desert kind of gal, get it on. Just make sure you’re familiar with the climate and the culture of the place in question. For example, I know that Northern New York can get three feet of snow in one night and that almost no one drinks sweet tea.
Next, create your history. How will that history affect your story? Is there a beloved mascot, like Lil’ Sebastian of Parks and Rec? Is there a founder with a dark past? Or, were there pirates that once upon a time settled on nearby islands? Wait, you can’t take that last one. I want it.
Once history is somewhat fleshed out (it doesn’t have to be perfect), drop some of your characters into it. Give them homes, businesses, and neighborhoods. Mrs. Crabapple runs the local market and is home by six PM sharp every day and Beatrix Cantwell owns the salon and drinks at the Frog Prince after hours, that kind of stuff. Knowing these things makes writing come easier when you finally sit down.
Someone has to die. Duh!
In cozy mysteries, this is almost always off screen. It could be the piercing scream you hear during a black out. It could be the cold body in the walk-in freezer. No matter what, someone has to die. It is the bread and butter of cozy mystery.
Smaller crimes don’t carry the story as well because they don’t carry as much weight with them. The loss of life, even for someone unlikable as they often are, is the highest crime that can be committed. More importantly, the cops are often looking at the protagonist or someone close to them. The race is on to find the real killer and save the day.
First of all, you need someone to kill. The victim has to be closely related to the plot. Buying a house or commercial property? Kill the realtor or the former owner! Business competition? Kill them and blame the protagonist! See what I mean? The stakes are higher than ever and there’s little to no confusion as to why the protagonist is ankle deep in some shady crap.
Now, decide how they die. Your internet browser history is going to be super questionable after this, but no worries. They make t-shirt that explain that. Make sure how you kill your victim is not only fun, but feasible. I once killed a character with fumes from a running truck, but didn’t realize that the location was too ventilated and all of my readers HAD to point it out to me. In the next story, I drowned someone in a punch bowl and asked my readers WHAT NOW?!
Two more steps remain. The Who and the Why. I’m not talking about dope bands from the sixties. No, I’m asking who killed your victim. What was their motivation? It can’t be too obvious. It has to be a reason that unfolds slowly through the story. There could be a diamond smuggling ring, or a man figured out his fiancée was part of a long con that included a string of dead ex-husbands.
Spur of the moment kills are often messy and too easily figured out. The moment of passion leaves behind hair, fingerprints, and all sorts of other incriminating evidence that the police can find. Also, it’s usually someone they know. By stepping outside of this box and looking for a more intricate motive for murder, you’re not only making it harder to figure out, but you’re entertaining your reader.
Just don’t make it too hard. You don’t want your reader to feel cheated after they put in all of that work.
This is a two part feature, but it is probably the part that a lot of writers get hung up on. The easiest way to fix this is to know absolutely everything before you start writing. Sorry. It sounds like a lot of work, and it is, but it is also the most sure fire way to make sure you don’t trip yourself up.
Clues point directly to the real story, the real killer. They have to be for the reader to find. But, you can’t take it easy on them. Right alongside the real clues, drop a red herring and shine the spotlight on it.
The beaded fringe might have belonged to the seamstress (pointing directly at the poor girl), but the dress it had been on meant a lot to the daughter of the woman whose life was destroyed after a cancelled wedding. See how that intricate story element was presented, but not readily identifiable? More clues down the road will push toward that story element and away from the red herrings, but not by much.
In order to figure out how this will work you will have to lay them out. First, create all of the actual details that pertain toward your story. Note when and where they might be found in the story. It’s okay if the story evolves and that changes later. Once you have all the actual clues lined up, you have to set up the red herrings.
Make sure they are presented side by side, or seem to be one in the same. List all the ways the protagonist could misconstrue the clues, list the ‘clues’ that flash like red beacons and overshadow the real clue. If it helps, create a bubble chart. Write the clue you plan on dropping and connect what the clue hints towards, for both the real clue and the red herring. A single clue should look kind of like Mickey Mouse!
Once you feel the breadcrumb trail leads in a sufficiently labyrinthine pattern towards the truth, you are ready to move on to the next part, actually plotting the story you’re going to write.
This is going to be a cinch! You already have much of your story laid out. All you’re doing at this point is laying a filter over your details so that they are presented in a certain light. For mysteries, I like to use a Three Act system. Act one contains exposition. In a first book that would not only be the murder, but the introduction to the protagonist and their life. Act Two is comprised mostly of the protagonist fitting in time to be a nosy busy body, pretending to be interested in certain deals to garner information or creeping in hedges late at night.
Yo, to each their own. This Act will be full of false starts, romantic tension, and a bit of law breaking. The protagonist or the people in their life will point fingers in the wrong direction, leading them closer to the truth in a wildly round-about way. They will also have to work with sexy cop buddy or down to earth guy willing to break the law just for her (Tropes, yes. But fun nonetheless).
Act Three is the climax. Something drastic has happened. The final clue has been presented. Or, the protagonist figured out who the real killer is and is setting up a trap. Go ahead and keep twisting the plot. Just don’t get too wild with it. You want your reader to have a face palm moment at the end.
“I knew that!” The said as they slapped their forehead in shame.
Here comes the harder part.
In order to better know what is happening in your story, create another plot. I know. This is work intensive. I’m sorry, but it’s worth it if you’re committed to the cozy mystery genre. This plot will detail the things your protagonist DOESN’T see happening. This could be what the suspects are doing when the protagonist isn’t lurking in their hedges. It’s what the killer is doing to hide their guilt. Knowing these kinds of things helps you to write a story with little to no plot gaps.
You’ll thank yourself later.
Go on! Write that story!
When the first draft is done, don’t send it out to all of your beta readers. Select a small few. Even one is fine. Listen to what they have to say. Go one and fix those issues as you see fit and hand it to the next wave of readers. These readers have fresh eyes and the mystery part of your story is still a surprise to them! You want the mystery element to be there each time you run a wave of readers because that’s what the story is. It’s a mystery!
Now, about that Printable!
Click CozyMysteryPrintable for the DOCX.
Click CozyMysteryPrintable for the PDF.