So you want to write a cozy mystery. You’ve come to the right place. Where do you start you ask? Many writers face this same question while staring at a blank page. Let’s tackle this together and see if we can’t come up with the bare bones of writing a cozy mystery.
Before starting on our skeleton I want to explain what constitutes a cozy mystery. In a cozy the protagonist will be an amateur sleuth. Instead of law enforcement personnel, the cozy protagonist could be your local hairdresser, the local baker, a magazine writer, a landscaper or even your local soccer mom.
There will be a private investigator, detective or police officer working the case. More than likely they will not welcome your protagonist’s assistance. The setting is usually a small town or community. You can make up your own or use a real setting. The murder will always take place off stage and in a cozy the reader is two steps behind the detective. An example of what the reader will say: “I should have known that! If only I’d remembered Tom was a landscaper, I could have figured out that he had access to poisonous plants.”
Let’s start with the Cranium – ingredients that are essential to the story. Where do ideas for your cozy come from? Try newspapers or news stories. Don’t just focus on the front page story or television headlines. You might find your story in the smaller sections. Conversations are another good source of fodder. How many times have you overheard people talking while in line at the grocery store or eating at a restaurant? Carry index cards or a notepad to jot down inspiration. Now you’ve got your idea where to next?
Your cozy will need characters. A story happens to and because of someone, so characters are a basic ingredient. There are several ways to do this. One such way is to go online and find a form for building a character. There are some that will be several pages long and some that will have just the basics. You’re characters should be unique and make your reader care about them. Here are a few traits in building your character: vital statistics (name, birthplace, education level…), distinctive features (height, weight, physical features, ethnicity…), make-up (happy/depressed, talkative/quiet…), and occupation (how does he/she feel about their career…) the list goes on and on.
Another important ingredient for each character is goal, motivation and conflict and the best way to discover more on this subject is to read Debra Dixon’s “Goal, Motivation and Conflict.”
Let’s move to our skeleton’s clavicle – setting. Think of the setting as the atmosphere of your cozy, the air your characters breath. This can be a made up town or it can be a real place. In my Trixie Montgomery Cozy Mystery Series I chose to use real towns. All of the buildings and roads that I mention are real places. To do this you need to either be familiar with the area through research or have a map handy. I’ve discovered readers enjoy identifying with familiar places.
Some areas to be aware of in your setting are the location, weather, transportation, population, economical level, and the general crime level. If you choose to make up your town or use a real one it’s important to make it realistic to the area.
Let’s move on to the ribs that hold the important internal organs. What is the heart of your cozy? How will you give your readers a chance to solve the murder along with the protagonist? Clues. What is a clue you ask? A clue is something that is tangible. Clues can be the time of death, alibis, or things left/taken from the scene. Often found at the scene of the crime are clues such as fingerprints, fibers, hairs, blood, or murder weapon to name just a few.
How do you hide your clues? Use the clue as a line in a conversation. Humor is an excellent place to hide a clue. If it’s hidden in a form of a joke the reader will assume the information isn’t meant seriously. Give the reader an obvious clue then hide another one behind it.
Another type of clue that is essential to have is the red herring. And I’m not talking about a fish. A red herring suggest a trail to follow, but in reality that trail leads nowhere and has no significance.
Plotting is another important organ in the ribcage. Everyone will eventually discover their own method of plotting. Someone may ask you if you’re a plotter or a panster. I’ve heard of authors who almost write the book during the plotting phase or there are some who write by the seat of their pants. Which one am I? I’m a panster. Getting down to the bare bones, it doesn’t matter which one you are because plotting is essential.
There are different models of plotting but one of the most popular is the three-act model. In the first act the protagonist’s intentions become clear to the reader. It consists of the first third of the book and will introduce the crime and the conflict as well as the characters, their interactions and the setting. To keep my notes/scenes organized I use Microsoft One Note.
Consider act two as the middle of the book. By this act the tension/conflict should be building. This is where your protagonist will do most of their sleuthing. He/she will have discovered the problem/conflict is not so easily solved. Several failures may occur before the success comes in act three. This is also the point when something in your protagonist’s life considerably changes.
In act three the protagonist will reach a low point and the reader will wonder whether he/she will fail or succeed. The tension/conflict has reached a crescendo at this point. The subplots will be tied up and the sleuth finally has a confrontation with the villain.
Nancy Curteman sums it up nicely. The ending will reinforce the themes of the book – crime does not pay, people are basically good, love conquers all. Perhaps most important, the ending will demonstrate that the protagonist’s world will return to normal after the disruption caused by the climax – the librarian returns to the library, the school principal opens the school term on time, the knitting club resumes knitting. The end of a mystery novel must be short and concise, and must not introduce any new problems for the protagonist to solve.
Now we move to the most important part of our skeleton – the feet. Take your feet and run to the nearest computer and write. Steven King says in his book on writing, “If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all other: read a lot and write a lot.”
Deborah Malone's first novel Death in Dahlonega, finaled in the American Christian Fiction Writer's Category Five writing contest! Deborah was also nominated for 2011 and 2012 Georgia Author of the Year in Novel category. She has worked as a freelance writer and photographer, for the historical magazine, "Georgia Backroads" since 2001. She has had many articles and photographs published, and her writing is featured in "Tales of the Rails," edited by Olin Jackson, as well as the "Christian Communicator." She is a member of the Georgia Writer's Association, Christian Author's Guild, Advanced Writer's and Speaker's Association and the American Christian Fiction Writers.