Editors Blog

4 Things You Should Know About Writing a Cozy Mystery Novel

When you think of mystery novels today, you might think of stories filled with in-depth police procedure and cringe-inducing violence. But you might be surprised to learn that the bestselling mystery novelist of all time is still Agatha Christie—and her timeless mysteries are quaint stories that leave all those gory details to the imagination.

True, crime fiction as a whole may have grown grittier by the year since Christie’s Miss Marple character gained popularity in the 1940s, but a subset of modern mystery novelists are finding success by bucking that trend and spinning tales that hearken back to the Golden Age of detective fiction.

—by Zac Bissonnette

The cozy mystery (sometimes simply called a cozy) is a subgenre of crime fiction that gives readers a chance to delight in vicariously solving a murder—without graphic violence or sex. Protagonists are typically amateur (and usually female) sleuths solving small-town crimes with old-fashioned detective work rather than forensics. These unlikely heroes are often small-business owners who find themselves drawn into detection by crimes impacting their work; sometimes their investigative efforts are aided by a significant other with police connections.

Natalee Rosenstein, senior executive editor of Penguin’s Berkley Books, traces the renewed interest in the genre to the early 1990s. “With the breakthrough of Lilian Jackson Braun’s Cat Who series, the market for cozies really opened up,” Rosenstein says. “There was a great untapped market for cozier mysteries that was really not being met.”

Cozies offer readers the kind of escapism that harder-boiled detective stories simply can’t. Marilyn Stasio, who has been the Crime columnist for The New York TimesBook Review since the late 1980s, recently wrote: “The abiding appeal of the cozy mystery owes a lot to our collective memory, true or false, of
simpler, sweeter times.”

And the genre’s resurgence has opened up new opportunities for authors for whom success in other genres has been elusive.

Jenn McKinlay was, by her own description, a “washed-up Harlequin romance writer” when she decided to craft cozies. It took two years of writing and rejection before she signed with Berkley Prime Crime to create the Decoupage Mystery series. The first book was published in 2009, but after three books with lackluster sales, the series was cancelled.

By then, though, McKinlay had learned a lot about what makes cozies work—and moved on to a new series with Prime Crime starring the owners of an Arizona cupcake shop: The Cupcake Bakery Mysteries. She followed that with three new series: the Library Lover’s Mysteries, the Good Buy Girls Mysteries and the Hat Shop Mysteries. In all, Prime Crime has published 16 of her cozy novels—seven of which have landed on The New York Times bestseller list.

“My husband sleeps really well knowing I am much better at killing people off than I am at making them fall in love,” McKinlay says.

If you’re considering venturing into cozy-mystery writing, here are four things you should know:

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1. Cozies have evolved.

Sheila Connolly, TheNew York Times bestselling author of three cozy series including The Orchard Mysteries, says that while Christie and Dorothy Sayers inspired her (and most of her colleagues) to write in the genre, the pacing of cozies has changed over the years. While detection is still at the heart of the story, that plot must move along with more driving action than the genre used to demand. Today’s readers aren’t content to simply follow along while a sleuth interviews suspects in hopes of solving a crime; they want to feel compelled to keep turning pages long after bedtime.

The good news is that today’s cozy authors also have a broader range of subject matter to work with to pull that action off. “Cozies can really be about anything, as long as the writer understands and respects the readers’ desire to not have explicit or gory violence,” Rosenstein says.

McKinlay jokes that writing the part well can give readers the wrong impression. “I get these emails [from readers] that say, ‘Your books are so nice and proper,’ and my husband’s like, ‘You’re the most foul-mouthed person I know!’”

[Learn 5 Tools for Building Conflict in Your Novel]

2. Series are the way to go.

Virtually all cozy mysteries published today are part of a series with recurring characters (some publishers even offer deals based on one complete novel and a proposal for a full series). Creating a series that’s anchored around a hobby or craft is a great way to break in: recent popular series include the Book Collector Mysteries by Victoria Abbott, the Vintage Kitchen Mysteries by Victoria Hamilton and the Chili Cook-Off Mysteries by Kylie Logan.

3. Sales are steady, but moderate.

“The market for cozies today is very strong and growing, as evidenced by all the bestseller lists,” Rosenstein says. Still, that doesn’t necessarily mean six-figure sales (or advances). Generally, paperback original cozies sell in the $5,000–10,000 range, and first-time cozy authors typically receive an average advance of $5,000 per book for a three-book series. Of course, breakout titles have seen bigger numbers on both sides of that fence. McKinlay’s first Cupcake Bakery mystery, Sprinkle With Murder, has sold nearly 25,000 paperback copies since its 2010 debut, according to Nielsen BookScan.

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4. Genre-specific support is available.

All authors can benefit from the support of fellow scribes, and a great way to find that help is through a writing group. Sisters in Crime (sistersincrime.org), one of the leading networks for mystery authors, offers a Guppies program that provides resources for new mystery writers—including those
of cozies.

Zac Bissonnette is The New York Times bestselling author of How to Be Richer, Smarter, and Better-Looking Than Your Parents. His latest, Good Advice From Bad People: Selected Wisdom from Murderers, Stock Swindlers, and Lance Armstrong, will be released in April.

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brian-klems-2013Brian A. Klems is the online editor of Writer’s Digest and author of the popular gift book Oh Boy, You’re Having a Girl: A Dad’s Survival Guide to Raising Daughters.

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