Agatha Christie has been called the grand dame of the cozy mystery genre. However, if you think these quaint mysteries aren’t twisty enough, you’d be dead wrong. Cozy whodunits place the murder offscreen but keep the clues center stage. They invite the reader to partner with the amateur sleuth in finding the killer before the last page.
If you’re looking to write one, here are a few tips to drafting a cunning, cozy mystery:
1. Delve into insider knowledge
Double down on the main character’s expertise. A cozy mystery will often have a theme, whether it’s knitting, crossword puzzles, or wines. Often that knowledge comes into play to help uncover the murderer. For example, in the first book of Vivien Chien’s Noodle Shop mysteries, Lana’s cultural background lends a key insight into solving the crime.
2. Weave a web of suspects
A lot of cozies are set in small, quaint towns, like the Chagrin Falls location of Abby Collette’s Ice Cream Parlor series. Such interknit towns are ideal for populating with suspects because their residents often have complicated, long-standing secrets. Not to say that you can’t set cozies in more urban areas—my own Sassy Cat mysteries take place in Los Angeles and still host a tangled web of suspects.
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3. Let loose with the lying
In life, you hope to meet many honest folks. In fiction, though, feel free to load up on people who speak the truth—slanted. Characters should not say what they mean or mean what they say. (This tip ties in with the secretive histories I mentioned in my second point.)
4. Sprinkle a trail of breadcrumbs
What’s a mystery without lots of clues? These can show up in various forms. One way to fiddle with hints is by their presence. For example, objects can be placed in full view but appear camouflaged, like a crucial letter lying alongside other mail. They can also be jumbled together with distractions, such as a vital hint in a slew of belongings. On the other hand, the opposite method is to highlight the absence of something important. For example, a crucial item that should be at the scene of a crime isn’t around.
5. Go fish
Speaking of distractions, make sure to add in plenty of red herrings to that main mystery dish. Diversions will complicate the trail by shrouding the actual murderer. These can be verbal (outright lies), physical (irrelevant clues), or even emotional (triggers to sway the feelings of the sleuth or the reader).
When all else fails, go ahead and throw in another dead body ... but make sure to keep it clean and off the page. Happy cozy writing!