What goes into a good cozy mystery novel - Authors A.I.

Alessandra Torre
November 2, 2020

cozy mystery image

Crime and Mystery novels (including thrillers) generated more than $700 million in sales last year and were the second most popular category of books after Romance, according to Book Ad Report. So, what makes a great mystery novel? And what do readers expect inside those pages?

The answer varies depending on your subgenre. Subgenre is most easily defined as a smaller category inside a larger category. For example – Historical Mystery is a subgenre of Mystery. And subgenres can have sub-subgenres. Like Historical Cozy Mystery.

The most popular subgenres in the Crime and Mystery genres are:

  • Detective Novels (follows a detective as he/she tries to follow clues and catch a villain)
  • Cozy Mystery (amateur sleuth solves a crime, often with the help of friends. No gore, sex, or profanity)
  • Police Procedural (the protagonist is a member of the police force and must solve a crime)
  • Caper Stories (usually from the point of view of the criminal, and they sometimes have a humorous aspect)

These subgenres might sound similar, but if you read popular novels in each of them, you’ll quickly learn the styles and norms of each. In the most recent First Draft Friday, I invited two USA Today bestselling Cozy Mystery authors to share a behind-the-scenes look at the Cozy Mystery subgenre and how that subgenre dictates the author’s choices in plot, characters, settings, and storytelling.

We had a fascinating chat — check it our fun 30-minute chat above! Among the topics we touched on:

  • The elements a Cozy Mystery cannot have
  • How setting is often a character in itself
  • How plot arcs unfold over several books
  • The ways an amateur sleuth can continually find mysteries to solve
  • How to plant clues without giving things away
  • The different elements of a Cozy Mystery cover

Plus, we answered live questions from the audience. If you enjoyed the chat, please be sure to subscribe to our new First Draft Friday podcast or join our Facebook group for authors. And, if you’re now craving a good mystery, read samples and explore Sara and Tanya’s books here:

Sara Rosett’s novels (on Amazon, Kobo, Apple Books and Nook)

Tonya Kappes’s novels (on Amazon and Kindle Unlimited)

And please join us in our next First Draft Friday chat, with contemporary romance author Penny Reid, who will share her self-edit checklist for authors.


Transcript of the conversation

Alessandra: All right, we are live. Hello everyone. I’m Alessandra Torre with Authors AI. This is First Draft Friday, I’m with Sara Rosette and Tonya Kappes. And we are so excited to talk about the mystery genre today, genre expectations and what those mean and what they mean for cozy mystery and the mystery genre. So, welcome both of you guys. Thank you for joining us today. I’m just going to pass the mic to each of you so you can introduce yourself. Tonya, do you want to go first?

Tonya: Sure. Thanks for having me. I love being here and I love being a member of Author AI. It’s a great, great organization and excited to see that take off in the New Year. But anyway, I am a cozy mystery author. I’ve been writing cozy mysteries for over 10 years now. And I started thinking that I was writing romance, but when one of my girlfriends said, Oh, there’s a dead body, are you sure you don’t write mystery? I think, oh, maybe I do because there was no handholding, no kissing, nothing. I didn’t really know what cozy mystery was until I was introduced to it and that’s exactly what I had written. I’ve been self-published this entire time as well. Also, one of my self-published series was picked up by Harper Collins as well as two other traditional publishing houses. I used to write paranormal with witches; that’s how I started out. But then, as I got older, I found that I just like writing the traditional cozy mysteries a lot better than the witch mysteries or the witch cozies, so I’m just straight cozy at the time… current cozy, yeah.

Alessandra: Perfect. And we’ll talk about what all those different things mean, so the difference from one sub-genre to another. Sara, you want to go ahead?

Sara: Yeah. I love cozies. I love mysteries. I’ve always wanted to write books and that was just… I knew that if I wanted to write a book, which I did, I would write a mystery. And so, that’s always been my favorite thing. So, I’ve been publishing, my first book came out in 2006 and it was a cozy mystery. There are 10 books in that series about a military spouse and that was published traditionally. And since then, I’ve done more indie books, and I have a couple of series that I write that are cozy. I’ve also moved into like a historical mystery, which is very close to a cozy, but there are some readers who don’t want to read the historical; they just want the contemporary because most cozies are in a contemporary setting. So, they’re not interested in going back to 1923, which I just don’t understand, but that’s okay. So, that’s a little bit about me and I just loved writing the cozies and the mysteries because I love the puzzle aspect of it. And then, I love like getting to know the characters really well and coming back to the same characters again and again.

Alessandra: I’m a romance author by trade, I also write suspense, so I’m not familiar, very familiar with the cozy mystery versus mystery versus historical. So for those watching, can you give us your definition of a cozy mystery and how it differs from another type of mystery? What makes something a cozy mystery?

Tonya: Well, since I ride contemporary cozy, my cozy mysteries are set in either… well they’re all set in a small town and all of mine are Southern, so they have a Southern flavor. So, there’s always the amateur sleuth, which you want to think of like Miss Marple or Agatha Christie books. Something on TV would be like “Murder She Wrote”; those type of it’s of amateur sleuths. So the sloth… because I have seven series and 85 that are published, but my split current sleuth that I’m working on now is a, she owns a campground in the middle of the Daniel Boone National Forest. Most of them can be like faking, you know, crafty type of things, so the cozy mystery sleuth for me is about the setting. The town is just a much a character as the characters are. And I always have a quirky character in all the cozy mysteries as well. So to me, it’s just about the small-town amateur sleuth.

Sara: Yeah, I think the thing that sets the cozy apart from other mysteries is the small closed setting. Like you’ve got this little group of suspects, you have a murder happens and you’ve got these small group of suspects that it’s got to be one of these people. It’s very Agatha Christie in that way. And then, you know, you have your amateur sleuth. And I think the other thing that sets a cozy apart is the tone. It’s very light. It’s usually got some humor, maybe a lot of humor and you’re not going to get like this really dark gritty look at like, there’s no emphasis on the violence like how the person died. It’s a puzzle. It’s like, Oh, how are they killed? Not like, Oh, isn’t that so gruesome?

Tonya: Yeah, you don’t show it on the page.

Sara: No, you don’t have that. And then there’s like a couple of things that cozy readers don’t want, and they don’t want cussing violence sex on the page, things like that. They’re very like what you might call clean books.

Alessandra: That makes perfect sense. So, this is just wandering a little into genre expectations. And it’s funny; I wrote a dozen books before I really learned about genre expectation. And I think I was kind of like Tonya, like I fell into romance. I wasn’t planning to a romance novel, but suddenly I had a romance novel. So for those listening, genre expectations are a set of expectations that a reader has when they open your book. And they formed that expectation because oftentimes the packaging. So if your book is packaged like a cozy mystery, then they’re expecting to open a cozy mystery. And then, when they’re reading that cozy mystery, they have certain expectations, like Sara said, no sex, no core, a happy tone, a small town, maybe small cast of characters. So have we covered pretty much all of the genre expectations for cozy mystery with what you all just said?

Sara: I think so. I mean, I think you definitely have to have the clues. Readers, they want the relational what’s going on in this small town, but then they also want the mystery too. Would you add anything else?

Tonya: Well, I would say that also there is a romance generally in the books. It’s behind the scenes. So, sometimes the sleuth might be dating the local sheriff or or someone that works in the courthouse or something that they can help get clues with or something like that. So the romance is off the page, and you never see them go to each other’s house at night to sleep in the night if they’re not married. You might see like a cute little romantic dinner, but then it stops at that. They might go back and forth back clues or he might be saying, well, my sleuths are all women, so the romance, he might say, you’ve got to keep your nose out of this. I want you to stay safe. So that’s how we kind of amp up the heartbeat of it to get, you know, but also, I think that your sleuth in the cozy mystery has to be likable also by the reader. Because why do they care if the reader is, you know, really going to pick her nose or gossip, as we like to say, because normally that’s what the main character or amateur sleuth is; they’re kind of nosey. And so, the reader in a cozy mystery has to really connect with that sleuth some reason to be behind her to want her to solve it. I think that’s another big aspect of the genre.

Sara: You also have to have the clues leading up to the mystery, like the who done it because your mystery readers don’t like it if you don’t give them all the clues. So, you have to hide them so that they’re there, but that they’re easily overlooked. So if you don’t have the clues, and you just have this big reveal and you’re like, “Oh, so-and-so is the killer” and there was no way for them to get there, then they’ll be really upset.

Tonya: And each mystery has to be solved in that book. Like there could be no cliffhanger on that book. The only thing that you can really do to thread the books is the relationships that would be like your subplot arc or your secondary characters, or maybe even, you know, they meet the romance they meet in the first book, but their romance starts to blossom throughout the series. Every mystery has to be solved or that particular book.

Alessandra: And we just had a great question from the audience. So David said, “How do you map out the clues? Do you create an outline in advance?” First of all, do you both outline? Let me ask you that. And do you know who the villain is as soon as you start writing the book?

Tonya: Well, for me, when you write a mystery, you really have to kind of plot it backward. I mean, you have to know. So for me, I know who died, why they were killed and who the killer is. And then, I have like the mid-point, the turning point, so I know what needs to happen there, but then other than that, that’s pretty much all that I plot. I’m not a real big plotter, so that’s about the only things that I applied are those thing… and the clues that I needed to sprinkle in through the plot. And I know where those clues will go, but I always had at least three or four suspects outside of the killer, or maybe one of them might be the killer, but generally, it’s outside of the killer.

Sara: Yeah. I’m very similar. I have to know who’s going to die who the victim is, how they’re killed, who the murderer is and then who the suspects are. And so once I have that, then I can kind of structure the story. And I do have like a loose… I don’t do the real detailed, like, you know, 500-page outline. Mine is much more like, I need to hit the points, and I know that the body’s going to be discovered here, and then we’re going to have this person who’s going to be the first respect and that she’s going to find out that this person didn’t do it because they have an alibi. And so, I know the high points and that’s how I do it, and I usually know the clues as well.

Alessandra: What about red herrings? Do you know the red herrings you’re going to place? Or do you intentionally try to convince the reader that Aunt Bethany is the killer when it’s really the neighbor?

Sara: Yeah.

Tonya: Yeah, you do. And a lot of times like as I’m writing it, I’ll think of the red herring. I’m like, Oh, that’s really good, and then I will go place it somewhere. Or if I think of a red herring, or if I think of something that would have tied in and if I’m 40,000 words into the mystery, and I’m like, Oh, that would’ve been a really good clue to plant. I’ll go back and plan the clue in what I’ve already written so it in with this clue in the back. They all… like, I just have like make ones and then I have little clues along the way.

Sara: Yeah, I do the same thing, very similar. I kind of know where I need to put them. And I think of them kind of as false trails that I’ll go, “Oh, they’re going to get a phone call and it’s going to come down this trail.”

Tonya: Right.

Alessandra: Margaret asks what are your favorite ways of hiding clues. That’s a tough one.

Sara: A really good way to hide a clue is to put it really early in the book because sometimes you’ll have something happen and then you have the murder. And a lot of times people don’t remember what happened early in the book, and then lists are great. Like you have, they walked in and they saw blah, blah, blah, blah. And the really important thing is like the fourth thing out of six.

Tonya: Yeah. I would agree. I like to plant them at the beginning before the murder happens in just passing and just maybe some dialogue or maybe she looked and saw something and it just in passing. And then what happens with my sleuth is at the end, which is like having her, Oh, no moment and putting the puzzle pieces together; she remembers way back when, and then the reader, I was like, Oh my gosh, I should have known back then.

Sara: Yeah, and sometimes if you have something happened, something that’s really important, but then you have something else bigger and more exciting happen like right after it, it kind of takes the reader away.

Tonya: Yeah.

Alessandra: You all talked about… so first question, what’s the typical length because when you’re talking about at the beginning, and then in the end, what is the normal length for a cozy mystery?

Sara: Mine run about… I always aim for like 55 to 65,000 words, but a lot of times mine go 70-ish. A traditionally published cozy I think is around like 75,000 to 85,000 words, but to me that feels a little long, so I tend to go shorter when I do my own.

Tonya: So I’ve always written mine between 50,000 and 55,000. And so, when Harper Collins picked up one of my self-published series, they only wanted 50,000 words. So I was like, Oh, this is easy. So, you know, I always say, well, if it was good enough for Harper Collins and William Morrow, then it’s good enough for me. So, when I took another traditional deal with Crooked Line, they wanted 80,000 words. I’m like, “That’s just a bunch of fluff. My readers are not used to fluff.” They prefer a fast-paced kind of murder that maybe lasts three days; we’re in, we’re out, and you’re going to escape the world. So, that was really difficult for me so we ended up settling on like 65,000 words. And again, I just like it was a lot of fluff.

My sweet spot is about 50, sometimes they run about 55 because I do add recipes or various things that the sleuth does. I had a sleuth who owned a lapidary, so there were beading bracelets or different types of beading necklace patterns in the back of the book and things like that. So generally, the actual word count itself of the mystery is about 50,000 words.

Alessandra: What you just said caught my interest. So, your typical plot runs like over three days from start a book to finish a book. It’s like a three-day timeframe; is that the same thing for you Sara?

Sara: Mine are usually a little bit longer, but they are maybe like a week, not long, not months, pretty short time.

Alessandra: That’s interesting. In my suspense novels, it’s normally, it can be months or weeks, yeah, that’s interesting to see. Also, you all talk about a small cast, right. And I know a lot of cozy mysteries are in series dealing with same sleuth, so are you introducing a fresh cast in this small town? Because I’m thinking the five people they know can’t all be killers in each different books. So, is it kind of like they’re encountering the first cast of characters in each book? Or do you have recurring characters that obviously a spouse or something, but I was curious how that works?

Tonya: Well, I write in a Camper and Criminals cozy mystery series, and she owns the campground like I was saying. You know, people need to do their laundry, and so her campground doesn’t have a lot of the accessories for that. So there’s a local laundry club and it’s called the Laundry Club. It’s a Laundromat. And so, it’s a fancy Laundromat where people have… there are couches, and there’s a TV, and there’s a coffee station, and four best friends from the town hang out there. And so, they also have a little book club. And so those have been kind of become my four sleuths. They’re called the laundry club ladies. And so, I can also take them out of the campground and they can go camping where also I tried, since I’m from Kentucky and I use an actual national park where the setting is there’s a lot of history to the dang for the national park. And there’s actually like real treasure hunters who come to my area to find this treasure that’s called the John Swift Treasure that was actually just featured on the history channel.

And so, they go and they try their hand at that. And so, when they found one of the treasure hunters dead, of course they go back to his camp and snoop around. So, I always introduce different scenarios where they go into different things, like they do a reenactment. And every year they still do a reenactment of a battle that was there, and when one of the re-enactors gets killed with one of the bandits’, you know, not on accident. So I introduced different people in the town, but they’re not necessarily going to be in other books. Like, when they go to question people, they’re more than just this cast of characters that live in the town. And so, there are murders everywhere, but they just happened to be nosy and gossipy, so I wouldn’t they put their nose in it, you know. And then they’ll like, say, “Oh, you know, I overheard so-and-so say this,” which they’re like, “Oh really?”

And so, the local sheriff was like, “Please don’t be nosy. Please just stay out of it,” but they just can’t help themselves. And they have a police scanner, so they are always at the crime scene. And they don’t know these people, but one of them is the local church’s wife, so she’s like, “Oh, we can go take them food”. And they’re like, you know, just keep getting on the gossip. And you know, something they might say is, “Oh, you know, you need to stop gossiping.” They’re like, “Penny, we’re not gossiping, we’re praying for them.” That’s how my mind thinks that they just get put in different scenarios and just wave in different characters that you’re never going to obviously meet again in the series.

Sara: Yeah. I think like I always have a core set of, you know, the spouse, the best friend, you know, a couple of people that are like the core, and that’s one of the problems with the cozy is like, if you have a small town, it does after a while become unbelievable that there would be so many deaths in this one, small town. So you either have new people come in or you may send your characters on a trip somewhere. I’ve got a series that I write, it’s about a location scout in England, and so she needs to travel to these different places to scout locations for Jane Austin movie adaptations. So you can go to this country home and get involved in a mystery, or she can get involved in a mystery in this little village. You want to give yourself enough space that you’re not limited to maybe just one small town with like a population of a hundred because that might be small. So, you want to make sure your vision is a little bit big enough that you can include other things.

Tonya: Yeah. And you can always look back at like the Miss Marvel books, you know, she was always one somewhere, you know, so that’s when she happened to find out a death. And so you know, you just kind of think of things that you can take from that. Like, like I said, the campground, she’s in an RV, the next one is completely in a different area where they went on a trip, so yeah.

Alessandra: Those are great. So for those of you all writing down tips, when you build your world from the start, be sure that you give yourself room. I love her idea of her being a campground because it makes sense that there are continually fresh people, you know, or having a job where you’re traveling because yeah, you will run into… yeah, that was… Starting this chat I was thinking, and I have looked through a lot of your books that I’ve read the different descriptions. I was thinking, how is this one housewife coming into so many deaths, you know, it doesn’t make sense? Now it make perfect sense.

Tonya: And the thing is, is that when you do, are you new are starting the series or writing a series; cozy are all series. They’re not just one book and done. And so, you really need to think at least three books ahead because they kind of come in threes, and that’s really kind of how the traditional publisher buys a book is they want three generally in the series. And so, when you are… so I knew by like book three she was going to get with the sheriff or I knew by three, this was going to have be happening. So you do need to think beyond the first book and just that fun cast of characters or you know, kind of know their character because also, your sleuth has to grow as well. It can’t just be like, she knows everything in the beginning; not at all. I mean, she has to also have to have the character arc over those first three books. Now, after those first three books is when you determine the success of the series for myself. Sara might be different, and then if you want to continue on.

Sara: Yeah, that’s how I do it.

Alessandra: I have a few questions from the audience. So Kaley said; “Are your books plot driven or character driven?”

Sara: Oh, I think that originally, when I first started writing mysteries, I was very focused on the plot. And the longer I’ve written them, the more I realized as a reader, I’m more interested in the characters. That’s what I want to read about in other mystery, so I feel like there’s like a fine balance because cozies are very episodic. Like Tonya was saying, you do have to have some sort of arc. And so, maybe it’s not a huge, robust hero’s journey, but you do have them growing and changing over time.

Tonya: And for me, mine are pretty much character-driven because they’re Southern characters. I have Southern speak and Southern twain that they’re just so colorful that, you know, all my readers when I would ask, “Oh, well, who would you like to know about?” They’re always wanting to know about that secondary character; that’s the funny way. And they want to know like the background of those characters as well that they had gotten so invested in those characters that they’re really excited to see what they’re going to do to help with the plot. And so, I think for me… and the town is just as much of a character as… like the small shops, the local shops, the local people the local setting is as much of a character as… like the hiking trails that, and the cascades and the cliffs and the colorful nature of the seasons in my camping book are just as much of a character to take the reader along as the characters are themselves.

Alessandra: All right. Maureen said, “Do you always have a murder or can it be something else, like a dark spell and a paranormal cozy?”

Tonya: I had always done a murder because I feel like that’s what my readers are accustomed to for me, although I know people have done some really successful non-murders. So when I did my paranormal, I did a crossover between one of my paranormal series and just a regular cozy series where my cozy sleuth had gotten married and she took her vacation in the paranormal world in their town. And it was not a murder, but it was also just the small novella crossover. That was just something fun for my readers for that Christmas time. So, I’ve always done a murder, and just because I just accustomed to that… I don’t know if Sara has or not.

Sara: I usually always do a murder. I did a Christmas novella once. It was more… I think it did actually have a murder in it by the time I got done with it. I feel like the murder is the thing that will compel people to get involved in what happened. Because if you’re threatened or someone you love is a suspect; that gives you a really strong motive to get involved and I feel like you need that because already cozies are a little… you have to suspend your disbelief anyway, so you need a really strong reason to get somebody involved. And so, I feel like a murder is like, it’s the worst thing that could happen to your community. And if somebody you love is accused, then you definitely have a reason to get involved.

Alessandra: So we only have three minutes left. I would love to talk covers just before we leave. So typically, a reader can recognize a cozy mystery because of the cover, but I’d love you to show us the cover and then point out what elements of that cover are traditional for cozy mystery versus another genre of mystery.

Tonya: Well, I didn’t bring any of my traditional cozies. This was my Caper series; it’s easy on the eyes. It’s kind of comforting. But as the series progressed, then obviously I did a Christmas one, which cozy mysteries readers love holiday-themed ones, and as well as this is the one that just came out, so there is a skull, as you can see. But these are not the traditional type; they’re more of what the shop owns. Like my girl, she’s a caper, so yeah, so these fit it, but if they’re like a bakery or it might be the inside of the bakery or something like that. And also, animals on cozy covering are super popular, which I have those too, but just got this particular series for my books.

Alessandra: So always cartoon? I mean…

Tonya: All of mine are cartoon, yes.

Alessandra: Okay. They’re very colorful.

Sara: Yeah, very colorful.

Tonya: Yeah. Sara, what are yours?

Sara: For the traditional, this is the first book that I had published a traditional, and the traditional goes, the coverage has more detail on them. And I think it’s because when this came out, we didn’t have as much emphasis on thumbnails and online buying. This is really looks good on a shelf in a bookstore…

Alessandra: I’m sorry, Sara. To clarify when you say traditional; do you mean that that is a traditional cozy or you mean not as a traditional mystery?

Sara: Yeah. This is a traditionally published cozy mystery.

Alessandra: Cozy mystery, okay. S

Sara: It’s just very like cute, compelling, charming places that you would want to go visit, you know, things like that. And then, I’ve thought this was funny that Christmas, this was a traditionally published Christmas Cozy. And then this one is one of mine. You can see the details are a little… like, the images are bigger. It’s easier to see. So when you make it smaller, it’s easier to see in thumbnail in bright colors.

Tonya: So like this one, it’s a mail carrier series so you can see the bloody hand print. My sleuth is a mail carrier and she’s 50, so she’s older. And so, she has a cat that goes on her route with her.

Sara: Yeah. I was going to say with this one, I was like, the dog has to be on the cover somewhere. There’s a dog, I’m just not like the dog is the speaking character in the book, but cozy readers, love animals. So I was like, that’s got to go on the cover.

Tonya: Yeah. And I was telling Sara, you know, I write in a camper, it’s my office, and I also have a cat that looks just like this cat. And I get camper stuff in the mail from readers all the time, and my cat gets toys all the time from readers; they all resonate with them.

Alessandra: I love that. I have to say guys, like, I feel so inspired to write a cozy mystery now. Like my head is in it. Yeah, it would be the worst thing. I mean, genre hopping is not helpful to success, but I love everything that you all have said, and I really appreciate you sharing this information because anyone who’s interested in the mystery genre or cozy mysteries in general, I think this has been really valuable. So, thank you guys for your time. We’re already out of time, so I appreciate having guys.

For anyone listening, this live chat is First Draft Friday. It was brought to you by Authors AI. If you are listening on a podcast or YouTube or Facebook, please like and share this post, and follow us if you can. And if you’re interested in another First Draft Friday, we’ll be back in two weeks. Our next guest is Penny Reid, and she’s going to be giving tips on self-editing for authors, so I’m really excited for that chat. And thank you, Tonya and Sara. I meant to share their website if you’d like to read either of their books, both of their books. Sara, what series would you suggest that readers start with of yours?

Sara: For cozy I would say go with Murder on Location.

Alessandra: Murder on location. Her website is Sararosett.com, and start with Murder on Location. And Tanya?

Tonya: I would suggest the Camper and Criminals cozy mystery series.

Alessandra: Camper and Criminals Cozy Mystery series. Is that right?

Tonya: Camper and Criminal.

Alessandra: Camper and Criminal, sorry, that’s a tongue twister. And her website is tonyakappes.com. And that was another thing I noticed with covers, the titles, a lot of them they’re cutesy titles, right?

Sara: Puns, puns are big

Alessandra: A lot of puns. Yeah. Yeah, on binge books, we have a carousel that’s like punny titles or something. All right, thank you, guys. Happy Friday, and thank you audience for joining us and we’ll see you guys in two weeks.

Sara: Thank you.

Tonya: Bye

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