Ask almost any reader to explain what defines a mystery novel and most will respond with definite characteristics they feel should be present in this popular genre. However, ask the same reader to explain the elements of a “cozy” mystery and you may see a look of confusion creep across their face. So just what makes a mystery “cozy?”
The most fundamental elements in cozy mystery are fairly easy to define. First of all, there will be a basically bloodless crime that may happen “offstage.” In other words, by the time our amateur detective arrives on the scene, the dirty deed has already been done. Now, our sleuth, who is usually female, must solve the mystery because of circumstances she cannot avoid. In other words, the crime involves her directly in some way. This is true with any mystery, but in a cozy, many times the reasons behind her involvement are much more personal. Other signs that you’ve cracked open a cozy involve a small, confined setting; the lack of profanity and sexual content; a protagonist with an interesting hobby or job; and memorable, quirky characters. Also, many cozies are drawn with a touch of humor. Some go further, actually adding some giggles to the usual nasty business of murder and mayhem. Now let’s look a little more closely at each of these elements.
One very important trait of a cozy mystery revolves around “location, location, location!” Cozies take place in confined settings, thereby drawing upon a small cast of characters and suspects. In other words, the killer can’t be someone passing though town who simply decides to “off” a few of the town’s gentle citizens! The “investigation” needs to involve only the characters presented within this setting. You can use a small town, a ship, even an old hotel or isolated castle. This restricted location keeps the mystery contained – and the world out. Since cozies are not police procedurals, many times the setting will actually cut down on official involvement. For example – a woman goes to visit an old friend who has turned an old Victorian-styled church into a bed and breakfast. Someone staying at the inn is murdered while a storm rages outside. The bridge to town is washed out, leaving our protagonist, the surrounding characters, and the murderer caught like rats in a trap. Of course, since our characters can’t get out, the police can’t get in. Now the fun begins! One caveat: if you draw law enforcement into your story, you need to be as accurate as you can. Again, police in rural towns may not be as “by the book” as say, detectives in New York City, but don’t fudge the details past the limits of believability. For my “Ivy Towers Series,” I consulted an actual deputy sheriff who worked in rural areas of Kansas. This helped me to “keep it real” for my readers.
Addressing the overwhelming glut of mysteries on the market with language and sexual scenes that would have caused my grandmother to “swoon,” brings a mixed bag of opinions from mystery authors and readers alike. However, I believe cozies should be “gentle” mysteries. In keeping with this idea, no “harsh” profanity or lurid “boudoir” passages should be present. Usually, cozy mysteries are selected by readers who specifically want to avoid graphic words and images. Of course, in an inspirational cozy, this point is non-negotiable. No profanity allowed at all! In fact, various inspirational publishers have different standards. One publisher bans the use of “Holy cow!” while another has no problem with it. In my book, “There Goes Santa Claus,” upon finding a dead Santa Claus that has fallen off his roof, Amos Tucker greets the sight with “J-Jumpin’ Jehosaphat, Ivy. I think we just killed Santa Claus!” Many of today’s contemporary mystery novels might have offered language a little more colorful!
Now, on to s-e-x. Cozies should contain little or no sexual content. In inspirational cozy, there can be romance, but sex only occurs between married couples – and it definitely happens offstage! Remember the old black and white movies where the couple kissed, the camera swung away from them, and in the night sky behind them fireworks exploded? You got the idea without the embarrassing details!
A current trend in cozies gives our amateur detective an interesting hobby or job that adds an element of interest. Of course, this isn’t always true. Although Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple was an interesting character, her creativity expressed itself most clearly in her mental acumen. However, today’s heroines can be hairdressers, interior designers, cooks, quilters or may be characterized by some other specific professional or personal involvement. And “county coroner” doesn’t work here. It’s difficult to make that funny. In my “Curl Up and Dye” mystery series, my protagonist, Hilde Higgins, is a hairdresser – for funeral homes. That’s about as dark as you can get. One side note: I came up with this idea because I was joking with my agent one day about all the “hooks” being used by mystery authors. We agreed that the hairdressing sleuth had been done. My mention of someone who worked in a funeral home brought the revelation of another author who was already writing a similar series. As a joke, I mentioned a hairdresser who works for funeral homes. The concept got burned into my imagination and the “Curl Up and Dye” mysteries were born.
Another “cozy” element involves likeable, “quirky” characters drawn with humor, who appear to have something “mysterious” in their backgrounds. These characters can all be possible suspects. Be careful though, not to paint a picture of someone who seems completely innocent and then surprise your reader at the last minute by making him the murderer. Mystery fans, including cozy mystery fans, ask you to play fair. Hints must be dropped and clues must be scattered! And whatever you do, pick up all your clues by the end of your story and explain. Mystery buffs don’t like to be left hanging. Never forget a cozy mystery is still a mystery and as an author, you must play by the rules.
In conclusion, cozy mysteries are stories presented as gentle gifts to be unwrapped while the reader snuggles under their favorite quilt and sips hot tea or cappuccino. Inspirational cozies should not only warm the heart but should also touch the spirit. They will never shock the reader or cause them to upend their cappuccino. (A little laughter might cause a small spill – but in a cozy, this reaction is perfectly acceptable!)
Nancy Mehl lives in Wichita, Kansas with her husband Norman and her very active puggle, Watson. She’s authored twelve books and is currently at work on her newest series for Bethany House Publishing. The first book, “Inescapable,” releases in July of 2012. All of Nancy’s books include a touch of “mystery.”
Her cozy mysteries include: (The Ivy Towers’s series) In the Dead of Winter, Bye, Bye Bertie, For Whom the Wedding Bell Tolls (which won the Carol Award for mystery in 2009), and There Goes Santa Claus. (The Curl Up and Dye Mysteries) Missing Mable and Bumping Off Binky. *All of these cozies are available as ebooks.
INESCAPABLE ~ Lizzie Engel is used to running away. At eighteen, she left her Mennonite hometown, Kingdom, Kansas, with plans never to return. But five years later, the new life she built is falling apart. Lizzie knows she’s being followed, and she’s certain the same mysterious stranger is behind the threatening letters she’s received. Realizing she’ll have to run again, the only escape Lizzie can manage is a return to the last place she wants to go
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