Woo hoo! End of week 2 of all things mystery. Hope you’ve found some great reads! And now for some great writing tips!
Today let’s welcome Elizabeth S. Craig. You know her – the one who tweets all the writing and industry posts and puts them all together in a searchable data base? The one who also put together a spreadsheet of all the freelance cover designers, editors and formatters? And don’t forget all the cozy mysteries she’s authored!
Cozy mysteries are fun to write, have dedicated readers, and are popular with publishers. Cozies, sometimes called traditional mysteries, are a subgenre in a large field of mystery subgenres. They’re primarily defined by their use of an amateur sleuth, lack of gore and profanity, offstage murder, and focus on the whodunit puzzle. These mysteries are frequently (not always) humorous, character-focused, set in small-towns, and are part of a series.
But there are challenges in writing them. I’m going to cover six common challenges for writing traditional mysteries and some ideas for getting around them.
Challenge #1: Incorporating a popular hook or theme into your mystery without having it take over the book. If you’re writing a cozy mystery for traditional publishers, then you’re probably going to have a theme for your books. Popular themes for cozies include crafts, hobbies and food. These themes are intended to add flavor to a book without completely overwhelming the mystery. You can better keep your theme in the background if you use it as a tool for telling your story. Consider using the hook to set up the murder (a conflict at the guild meeting), or to introduce interesting or unusual characters (who gather together at an event that the hook makes possible.)
Challenge #2—Working with amateurs. In cozy mysteries, the murders are investigated by a gifted amateur. What this means for the writer is that you’ve got to come up with a brief and plausible reason for this sleuth to get involved with a murder investigation. If the sleuth has a stake in the outcome, then the reader will, too. Did he have a personal connection to the victim? Is the sleuth a suspect? Is someone close to the sleuth a suspect?
Another problem the mystery writer will face while working with amateurs is that they won’t have access to all the information that the police will have at their disposal. You’ll want to make sure that either the sleuth is able to obtain insider info from the police (time of death and method is really enough—an overload of details isn’t needed) or else you’ll need to make sure the sleuth already knows the basics…maybe he discovered the body and saw the knife sticking out of the victim. No forensic data needed.
Challenge #3—The number of suspects. A cozy mystery will run about 75,000 words. Suspect numbers can get a little tricky. You’ll want enough suspects to ensure that the killer’s identity is a surprise, but not so many that the reader forgets who they are. I usually like five suspects, killing one in the middle of the book. One of my editors prefers four or fewer.
Challenge #4—Making it fair while keeping it a mystery until the end. The clues need to be scattered throughout the book, but the reader doesn’t need the equivalent of a neon sign pointing out the clue. Find a way to lay the clue but to distract attention from it—maybe another suspect arriving on stage? A sudden argument between the sleuth and another character? Or even a red herring that seems like a more important clue (the discovery of a will, etc.)
Red herrings should also be fair to the reader. It can be frustrating when a red herring lasts from the book’s beginning to its end and then peters out when the sleuth realizes it’s completely unimportant. It might be better to lay many red herrings and have new ones crop up when others are disproved.
Challenge #5— Working within the strict genre guidelines while ensuring the story is engaging. These stories are fairly gentle, although they should be fast reads. This contradiction is a challenge to work with. Unlike other mystery genres, you won’t see a high body count, forensic investigation, or sex and profanity. Instead, you’ll need to keep the readers engaged through the puzzle itself and the characters. The people populating your story need to either be characters the reader wants to spend more time with or else need to be people that the reader is intrigued by and wants to learn more about.
Subplots can help to move things along and add more flavor to the book. Where your reader has to wait until the end of the book for the mystery to wrap up, you could have a subplot go through an entire, satisfying arc before reaching the novel’s conclusion.
Challenge #6–Keeping it fresh. If you’re writing cozies, you’re probably writing a series. The important thing with series writing is to keep the readers engaged and your stories fresh. We’ve all read series where the author has recycled an old plot and stock characters. There are different ways to keep your series from going stale. One is to have your main character grow through the series (personally or professionally or both.) You can also experiment with secondary characters—bringing in new characters to interact with your protagonist and either antagonize or support him. Writers could introduce a completely new element with each book—a new setting, new relationship, or a new challenge facing the protagonist.
Do you write or read mysteries? What challenges do you see for writing one?
She’ll be giving away one of her books so please tweet and comment for a chance to win!
Elizabeth’s latest book, Hickory Smoked Homicide, released November 1 and her next book, Quilt or Innocence, releases June 5. Elizabeth writes the Memphis Barbeque series for Penguin/Berkley (as Riley Adams), the Southern Quilting mysteries for Penguin/NAL, and the Myrtle Clover series for Midnight Ink and independently. She blogs daily at Mystery Writing is Murder.
Writer’s Knowledge Base–the Search Engine for Writers
Thanks Laura, Thanks Elizabeth. I love reading cozies, and if I ever wanted to switch genres, I would love to try this one. They sound like fun.
They’re a lot of fun, Anne–hope you’ll give them a try someday!
I’m always so admirative of authors capable of creating mysteries! There’s definitely alot that goes into it and be witty and sly enough to string the reader through the clues without giving anything away. Loved this!
A lot of it is sleight of hand, too–drawing attention to a red herring and away from a clue. A fun challenge! Thanks for coming by.
Thanks for sharing the tips. I’m always amazed at mystery writers who can plot out a mystery and keep us guessing.
Natalie–I think we enjoy it as much as the reader enjoy reading it!
Apparently I knew absolutely nada about cozy mysteries. Thanks for the great tips, Elizabeth. 😀
Thanks for coming by, Stina!
That whole “making it fair but keeping it a mystery” is what holds me back from writing cozies. Every time I try, the solution is glaringly obvious – I can’t even figure out how to keep the sleuth form figuring it out too soon, short of making him/her a nitwit. Yeah, that needs some work.
Louise–It sounds like you might need to throw in some more smokescreen. Your suspects could all lie *and* tell the truth. Everyone could have something to hide. There may even need to be an additional body to send the sleuth off in another direction. I hope you’ll keep trying! 🙂
The puzzle is the fun part. And challenging to do right, I’m sure.
Elizabeth is awesome!
The puzzle is the best! And thanks, Alex. 🙂 You’re awesome, yourself!
My newest novel, ADELE (The Rabbi’s Mother: Book One) is the first cozy I’ve written, and i admit that all of the challenges you mentioned were there. That said, the sheer fun of it makes up for the difficulties, and I think that element of zany joy is something that carries the reader along.
Coming soon: ADELE by Anna King (ebook)
Congratulations on your latest release! Glad you’re enjoying cozy writing, too.
Thanks Elizabeth for the very helpful post. Although my books are not cozy mysteries, my MC is an amateur who has to learn to overcome with the help of his friends as he goes along. Its part of the character arc. Have a great weekend!
There are mysteries in many genres, aren’t there? Thanks for coming by, Stephen!
I think a lot of these tips can be applied to any kind of mysteries. I love reading and writing them even though mystery is usually just one element of my stories. Thanks so much, Elizabeth!
Thanks so much for hosting me today, Laura!
I admire anyone who can write a mystery!
I like mysteries a lot. Though I haven’t written any, I’d love to try it. Awesome post, as always, Elizabeth!
Thanks, Laura! Hope you’ll give it a go. 🙂
I love reading mysteries, and my current wip is a mystery. Elizabeths tips have helped me so mulch. Thanks, ladies!
Thanks for saying so, Julie! Let me know when your book comes out…I’d love to read it.
I’ve written two cozies, available on Amazon.com. It’s fun to take your list of suspects and give each motive, opportunity and means, then choose one to do the deed.