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What Readers Want in Cozy Mysteries

After I finished Kagemusha last fall, I decided that would be my last novel. I thought I might try my hand at making narrative video games or drawing comics instead, but I was done with books forever.

That resolve lasted about six months.

When I stopped writing, I suddenly had a lot of free time to fill. I practiced solving a Rubik's cube, took a drawing class, painted watercolors, watched Sweetie blow up evil alien cyborgs...and watched Netflix. On Netflix I found all eight seasons of Murder She Wrote, one of my favorite shows in elementary school.

I hold Angela Lansbury personally responsible for breaking my resolve to stay away from books.

I'm now knee-deep in writing my first cozy mystery. I intended to keep it a secret until it was finished, because too many of my projects fall apart halfway in, but I'm terrible at keeping my mouth shut.

I've been reading cozy mysteries ever since the eighth grade, when my Language Arts teacher introduced me to Agatha Christie. Before that, I was an avid Nancy Drew fan, which is pretty close. Until my early twenties, I was extremely squeamish about crass language and sex scenes in books and movies. I couldn't even watch actors kiss on screen. And I still hate fictional violence and gore, unless there's a point to it like "Look, people, war is bad."

So I understand the cozy mystery audience pretty well, because that audience is me. From my own experience and my perusal of cozy mystery book reviews, here's my understanding of what cozy mystery audiences want.

The Setting

Cozy mystery readers want cozy settings. They want to dream about living somewhere beautiful, charming, and exciting but safe. They want to imagine eating delicious sweets and hearty comfort foods without worrying about their waistlines; working in dream jobs they love without worrying about the bills; and enjoying an unhurried, idyllic lifestyle full of long walks and afternoons sipping tea with old friends.

In essence, reading a cozy mystery is like taking off on a weekend getaway without the bother of traveling, paying for hotels, and fighting with your tired SO over where to go for dinner. Accordingly, these are the three most common geographical locales I see in cozy mysteries.

1) Small towns in the English countryside, a la Agatha Christie and P. D. James.

2) Small towns in the U.S. South. Think church socials, azalea bushes, and Mama's famous lemon icebox cake.

3) Quaint coastal cities in the U.S. Northeast, where the city folk escape to go sailing, walk along the rugged cliffs, and eat fresh lobster and shrimp by the bucketful.

Less often you see the Great Lakes region, tropical islands, and parts of the West known for their natural beauty, like Colorado. Few cozy mysteries take place in flyover country, because nobody dreams of getting away to Cincinnati for the summer.

I consider the heroine's occupation part of the setting as well. Her job determines where she spends most of her time. Heroines of cozy mysteries are often...

  • Bakers
  • Bed & Breakfast Owners
  • Librarians
  • Caterers
  • Florists
  • Antique Dealers
  • Craft Store Owners
  • Etc.

Each of these occupations centers the heroine's life around a leisurely setting that appeals to cozy mystery readers. Who doesn't want to spend all day in a bakery, inhaling those heavenly smells?

These jobs also bring the heroine into contact with a lot of people who can be murder suspects and/or victims. Which brings us to...

The Characters

The heroine must be someone readers want to be: smart, compassionate, and of strong moral fiber. Even more than in other genres, readers need to identify with the heroine, because they're living vicariously through her. Making her unlikeable is not an option. Save your bitter alcoholics, daffy airheads, and blushing wallflowers for other genres.

When it comes to the secondary cast, cozy mystery readers like to read about well-developed characters who could be their own friends and neighbors. They're reading to have fun, so most of the side characters should be entertaining company. They can be eccentric (the dotty cat lady next door), stubborn (the bullheaded police chief), or sometimes annoying (the nosy town gossip), but they must be essentially good-natured folks. Cozy mystery readers don't want to spend their reading time with jerks, unless they get to see those jerks get their comeuppance.

The following traits should be reserved for victims and suspects only: arrogance, meanness, greed, violent tendencies, sexism, and racism. Yes, every real person has dark impulses and terrible vices. No, this is not the right time to harp on how disturbed we all are. Go get that Casual Vacancy stuff out of your system and come back later.

Evil should be punished and good should be rewarded, period. You can invoke pity for the villains, and you can give the heroine harmless flaws, but you can't go all film noir and let the killer walk away unscathed because he's a senator's nephew.

A cozy mystery isn't a portrait of real life. It's a morality tale. It's an example of how people should and should not behave in modern society. We should be kind to each other. We should not poison each other. Cozy mystery readers want to see these morals validated.

The Puzzle

Most articles on "how to write a cozy mystery"—and I've read many recently—will tell you that a cozy mystery should take place in an idyllic setting; feature an amateur sleuth who uses good old-fashioned common sense to save the day; and be free of explicit sex, gore, and profanity.

But weirdly, a lot of the articles skip the most important component of a cozy mystery: the mystery!

If cozy mystery readers wanted nothing but pleasant scenery, spunky heroines, and a cast of loveable characters who never swear, they could read young adult books, inspirational fiction, or Amish romance (a surprisingly popular sub-genre, judging from the number of them in my public library).

They're fans of mysteries instead because they like to solve puzzles. Cozy mystery fans are smart people. They enjoy a good intellectual challenge. They don't read passively, merely tagging along with the heroine while she eats ginger snaps and looks for hidden passages in old houses. They participate actively in the story as if they are the heroine. They're constantly on the lookout for hints, trying to spot holes in alibis and unravel the suspects' carefully guarded secrets.

Reading a cozy mystery is a vacation, but it's also a game. If you don't set up a good game for readers to play, they'll be disappointed.

In my next post, I'll talk about techniques mystery writers can use to construct a fun puzzle. I've spent too long writing this one already, instead of working on my novel.


Kate Lucky (March 30, 2016, 8:13 pm)

Hi TK,

I'm wondering if you would be interested in an ARC in exchange for an honest review of my new cozy "A Grand Murder." Thanks! Kate

TK Marnell (March 31, 2016, 9:54 am)

Hi Kate,

Thank you for the offer, but I don't write book reviews. I critique novels on this blog only when I'm discussing other topics, like story structure and writing style.

"A Grand Murder" is a great title for a mystery starring a piano tuner. Best of luck!


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