What Makes a Mystery a Cozy?

This is an updated article from 2019. The term mystery or crime fiction covers many subgenres, cozy mysteries being a very popular one. What makes a mystery a cozy? Below are the four most prominent features of cozy mysteries, ones that I incorporated into my YA mystery, A Shadow on the Snow.

COZY MYSTERIES ALWAYS HAVE AMATEUR SLEUTHS.

One reason I think cozy mysteries are so popular is because, in the end, they are underdog stories, and these have huge appeal. The amateur sleuth can come in many flavors, but he or she can’t have any official standing within law enforcement, automatically making them the underdog. However, amateur sleuths do need some kind of advantage or skill they can rely on when they tackle a case. For more details on that special ability, click here for my post, “Three Tips on How to Build a Teen Detective.”

SECONDARY CHARACTERS ARE IMPORTANT.

Many cozy mysteries are series, and readers derive a lot of enjoyment from spending time with characters they regard as old friends. It’s important to develop secondary characters, who add a family feel to the stories.

I had a ton of fun creating secondary characters for Shadow. My main character Rae has just discovered who her father is and that she has a whole herd of relatives. As Rae gets to know her new family, so does the reader.

  • Her worry-prone, protective dad who is the sheriff.
  • Her three half-brothers: Rusty, the quiet, imaginative writer. Aaron, the enthusiastic inventor. Micah, the easy-going, practical first-grader.
  • Her laid-back, unflappable grandmother.

Rae has more relatives but those are the ones I focus on in my novel. Because I’ve created this world of complex secondary characters, I have a great raw material to work with in my next novels. In my second book, maybe I’ll focus on Rae and her cousins or on the young deputies she jams with in a band. Two of my beta readers really liked Rae’s great-grandfather. That surprised me, but I’ll try to work him into future stories.

THE CRIME TAKES PLACE IN AN INSULATED COMMUNITY.

For many cozies, this translates into a small town, like St. Mary Mead where Miss Marple lives, or Three Pines, the hometown of Inspector Armand Gamache. But the setting can be any small, tightly knit community. The members of a community theater, a sorority, or a carnival would all fit in a cozy mystery. In fact, the amateur sleuth’s membership in this community may give her an edge. Such as the teen who is investigating threats at her high school. She would be able to questions suspects in a much different way from the police.

Rae Riley is a newcomer to rural Marlin County, Ohio. It’s the kind of county where a newcomer stands out, and several generations of a family live within its borders. One of Rae’s advantages in such a community is that she can judge people without any preconceptions that might come from knowing someone for twenty years.

Although small-towns might seem cliched, I think a majority of Americans don’t know what small-town living is like and find reading about it in fiction intriguing. This truth came home to me last week. I’d been invited to a Bible study in a town of about 700 people. We were going to meet in an old bank that’s been converted into rental office space. When I got there, I couldn’t find any of the ladies who’d invited me. But I knew one owned the salon across the street, so I poked my head in and asked if I’d gotten the wrong day. She said no. We were starting at 7:30, not 7.

Later the salon owner told me that when I stopped by, she had a couple ladies from a nearby big city waiting. One of them was surprised by my visit, remarking that everybody really did know everybody else in a small town. Her reaction made me smile.

NO GRAPHIC SEX OR VIOLENCE, PLEASE.

Readers of cozies do not want heads rolling down the stairs or couples rolling around in beds. That doesn’t mean they expect a G-rated story. They know someone will be murdered. They know adultery or other plots revolving around sex are likely.  They just don’t want every grisly detail of the murder described or told exactly what the two-timing wife did in the bedroom with her boyfriend. Those details are not essential to solving the mystery.

What are some of your favorite cozy mysteries?

Writing Tip — Cozy Mysteries

candlew-2400240_1920When I wrote my Christmas mystery, “A Rose from the Ashes,” I thought it might qualify as a cozy mystery. What makes a mystery a cozy? At Killer Nashville, a writers’ conference, I attended a session hosted by authors Debra H. Goldstein, Phyllis Gobbell, Maggie Toussaint, Alexia Gordon, Linda Thorne, and J.C. Kenney to find out

Cozy mysteries always have amateur sleuths.

The amateur sleuth can come in many flavors, but she should have some talent or ability or quirk that helps her be successful as an investigator. He could have an insatiable curiosity, or be just plain nosy. She can have a desire for justice or to protect those less fortunate than herself.

My teen detective Rae Riley possesses great determination and persistence. She knows if she uncovers the person who tried to murder her mother twenty years before, she may also discover who her father is.

Secondary characters are important.

Many cozy mysteries are in series, and readers derive a lot of enjoyment from spending time with characters they regard as old friends. It’s important to develop secondary characters, who add a family feel to the stories.

There are three men Rae suspects of being either her mother’s attacker or her father. I introduce each man with his family connections: the professor and his wife, the rich business man and his kids and brother, the sheriff and his kids and mother. The family connections make all the characters seem more real and also give them a history. Readers feel like they’ve entered into lives that have both pasts and futures. Plus I have a lot of fun creating quirky characters.

The crime takes place in an insulated community.

For many cozies, this translates into a small town, like St. Mary Mead where Miss Marple lives, or Three Pines, the hometown of Inspector Armand Gamache. But the setting can be any small, tightly knit community. The members of a community theater, a sorority, or a carnival would all fit in a cozy mystery. In fact, the amateur sleuth’s membership in this community may give her an edge. Such as the teen who is investigating threats at her high school. She would be able to questions suspects in a much different way from the police.

Rae Riley is a newcomer to rural Marlin County, Ohio. It’s the kind of county where a newcomer stands out, and several generations of a family live within its borders. One of Rae’s advantages in such a community is that she can judge people without any preconceptions that might come from knowing someone for twenty years. Her other advantage is that no one in the county knows who her mother was.

No graphic sex or violence, please.

Readers of cozies do not want heads rolling down the stairs or couples rolling around in beds. That doesn’t mean they expect a G-rated story. They know someone will be murdered. They know adultery or other plots revolving around sex are likely.  They just don’t want every grisly detail of the murder described or told exactly what the two-timing wife did in the bedroom with her boyfriend. Those details are not essential to solving the mystery.

What are some of your favorite cozy mysteries?

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