A guest post by Jessica Baker
To start, what is a cozy mystery?
Cozy mysteries are lighter than traditional detective fiction. The genre was popularized by Agatha Christie, who created classics like And Then There Were None, the Miss Marple series, and of course, Poirot. Malice Domestic, an annual mystery convention, even named an award after her.
Cozy mysteries, often called “cozies,” lack the graphic violence and excessive gore that darker detective fiction have. There’s no explicit sex scenes. Cursing, if there is any, is kept to an absolute minimum. Children and animals shouldn’t be harmed. Some cozies are suspenseful, but they aren’t usually the kind of stories that give you nightmares after reading them. Romantic elements may be present and many are geared towards women. A lot of cozy authors also write romance because there are similarities between the genres. Some are historical, some have magic, and some are just set in the modern-day.
Cozies should be an escape from reality. They aren’t as heavy as other fiction and aren’t usually geared around current events. As a result, they are generally lighter to read when life gets too overwhelming. They provide puzzles for the reader to work through and end on a positive note where the killer is always caught.
Some questions I asked when I was initially plotting out Murder on the Flying Scotsman were:
Who is the main character? Who is with them? Who is the killer? Who is the victim?
What is the murder weapon?
When does this take place? The murder weapons available vary in different time periods.
Where does this take place? Is it a locked room mystery or does it take place in a small town?
Why was the victim killed? Why does the main character investigate?
How was the victim killed?
The main character, usually female, is an amateur sleuth after something forces them to look for the real killer. They are always curious about the murder that takes place and the smarter they are, the more engaged the reader will be in the story.
Sometimes he or she might become a professional detective in later books or may date a police officer, but the main character usually has some other career that translates into their investigations. The job is usually something like baker, librarian, or seamstress. In my book, Lady Thea is a socialite and it affects how she behaves and what she knows about murders.
Cozies are more often character-driven and the series usually has the same main character, even if the books aren’t directly related in an overall arc. This means that many cozies don’t necessarily have to be read in order.
Suspects and Red Herrings
Generally, the first person accused of the murder in a new cozy series is a close friend or relative of the to-be detective. Sometimes the sleuth themselves might be accused. They might be the only suspect that the police have and the sleuth makes it their mission to prove otherwise. The evidence gathered and the motive might lead to that accused person, and the protagonist may think that they’re guilty. Those are usually the red herrings since they fit so perfectly that they couldn’t possibly have done it.
Cozies often take place in small towns or have a closed pool of suspects. If you think about Murder on the Orient Express, the list of people who had the opportunity to commit the murder was limited to who was on the train. In And Then There Were None, only someone on the island could have committed the murder.
When should the murder take place in the story?
Since a cozy mystery is not a suspense, it’s not necessary to wait until the end to have the first murder. It might be the first thing that happens in the story, especially if that is the catalyst for the entire plot of the book. Most people prefer that the murder takes place in the first few chapters. After all, that’s what they came for.
When planning the murder and the killer, it should be something that can be traced back to the beginning. The murderer shouldn’t come out of the blue. They should always have an actual motive, even though the motive isn’t always apparent at the beginning. They don’t have to be someone who is front and center in the protagonist’s life, but they should appear early in the book and usually, the reader shouldn’t have too much cause to suspect them.
Clues that point to the identity of the real murderer should be scattered throughout the whole mystery. Half the fun of cozies is solving the murders with the amateur detective.