Cozy mysteries tend to be shorter books with fun, light plots. They often feature kooky characters and hobbies such as knitting or collecting teapots. They frequently have sleuths who get themselves in unlikely situations and are, well, a cozy, comforting read with little to no cursing, on the page sex, or on the page violence. They also have a huge fanbase who love all of these things, but who also love a good plot and good writing.
But what do a good plot and good writing mean for a cozy mystery?
Basically, the same thing it means for any book. A plot with highs and lows. A plot that takes the reader on a bit of an emotional journey. Writing that pulls the reader in and lets them experience the story rather than being told the story.
I write cozy mysteries, but I also work as a developmental editor for a number of other cozy mystery writers and small publishers. In this role, there are certain short-cuts in plot and writing that I see pop up over and over.
Someone died, somewhere, but not here.
As I said in the beginning, cozy mysteries are cozy. Cozy mystery readers don’t want to see all the blood and gore that you might find in a thriller or suspense novel or even another type of mystery.
This doesn’t, though, mean that they don’t want to be present when the body is discovered. They do. And who should do the discovering? The protagonist/sleuth.
Having the discovery of the body be completely off the page, as something that has happened rather than is happening in the timeline of the book, isn’t something I see a ton, but I do see it and it is such a huge no-no, that it has to have a place on this list. The discovery of the body is, in almost all mysteries, the inciting incident. It is the big event that sets the protagonist on the course of her journey. As such, it is something readers need to see for themselves. Don’t wimp out. Show them the body.
Clues are delivered. Not discovered. Not sought out. Delivered.
This is an issue I do see a lot.
Our sleuth has decided that she is going to solve this mystery. It must be done! Then…? Nothing. She goes about her life, running her coffee shop or her bed and breakfast and does absolutely nothing to go out of her way to actually act on solving the crime.
Luckily for her, though, the writer has her covered. The writer nicely sends all of the suspects and clues to her, so they turn up easily in her regular life. She doesn’t have to lift a finger, not even to make a phone call. It’s all just dropped in her knitting basket or fudge pan for her to trip over. Sweet! Mystery solved, and she didn’t have to break a nail or even fire up the Volkswagen.
Don’t do this. Readers want to read about characters who are active. Characters who make things happen. Put your protagonist out there and get her moving!
Bad things happen. None of which is the protagonist’s fault.
First, let’s acknowledge that bad things have to happen. There have to be setbacks for our sleuth or the story will be one, long (or feel long) read. Most writers who are past their first draft of their first manuscript get this, but what I see with even more experienced writers is the temptation to keep their protagonist blame-free.
Bad things happen, but they aren’t her fault. No, not our protagonist. She’s just sitting there in her antique shop gathering those clues that the writer so nicely dropped in her lap, and something happens completely outside of her control to mess all of that up.
Maybe the clue is in the form of vintage washbowl, a washbowl that proves our killer was related to the victim. Then bam… some customer walks in and bumps into that bowl and destroys the one piece of evidence that was going to prove this connection. Oh… bad luck, but not your protagonist’s fault.
Yeah, no… Don’t make it bad luck. Don’t make it the result of some other character’s random actions.
Make at least some of the bad things that happen be a result of what the protagonist did and connected to that protagonist’s flaws.
Flaws… your character has to have them, and you need to use them.
As a writer, you know that characters are supposed to have flaws, but having a flaw isn’t enough. Those flaws should be used to cause trouble for that character.
Maybe our protagonist just can’t say no. So, when a friend asks her to go to happy hour, she does, even though she knows she has to go back to her shop and work on inventory. Happy but tipsy she goes back to the shop and bumps into the bowl herself.
The protagonist and her flaw of never being able to say no caused the destruction of the bowl. She has no one to blame but herself.
Which leads us to the next two mistakes I see far too often…
Crisis? What crisis? It’s all good here.
Crisis is a plot step that comes just a little before the big final facedown. It’s the scene where your protagonist really messes up. She doesn’t just drop the bowl. She accuses the wrong person publicly and in a way that causes major grief for our protagonist. Or she reveals a clue that gets her best friend arrested, a friend she knows is innocent.
She does something that leads to an event so bad that it appears all is lost.
There is no coming back. Her friends hate her. She is going to lose her business. The wrong person is going to jail. Something bad and big. (And referring back to issue #3, it is brought on by something she did. She is the cause of all of this.)
Why do we need this? Because without it, life is just too easy for your character and when life is too easy, the book is boring and zzzzz… you lose readers.
So, before she names the killer, give her a setback. A big setback that she honestly doesn’t think she can get past. A setback so big, you (the writer) aren’t sure you can get her past it. (Then put on your big boy or girl writing pants and do it.)
Protagonist sad? No, because all good.
The plot step right after the crisis is the dark moment. The dark moment is your character’s reaction to the fallout from the crisis, and if the crisis is missing, then the dark moment is too.
The dark moment can be brief, or it can be longer, but readers need it to know that your character is truly in a bad place. So we can see and experience her struggle.
So, she fingered the wrong person? So, what? She just goes about her day.
If she doesn’t feel bad about the crisis, it isn’t really a crisis at all. She also has no reason to do anything else. She’s good… it’s fine… we’re done.
We don’t want that. Readers don’t want that. Readers want to see your character overcome some kind of adversity. Readers want to live the high of seeing that character rise up from a low and fight back, to win when we didn’t think she could.
To get that high, you first have to let the character go low. Let her feel bad, even for just a page.
There you have it, the top five mistakes I see when working as a developmental editor for cozy mystery authors and small publishers.
Have more? Add them in the comments.
Join Lori for her class Plotting and Planning: How to Write a Cozy Mystery with Lori Devoti ~ October 29 – December 23 .
Right here at SavvyAuthors!
Lori Devoti worked for three different newspapers in two different states before deciding to stay home with her children and begin writing fiction. The author of urban fantasy, contemporary romance and paranormal romance, Lori has been a finalist for many awards including the Romantic Times Reviewers Choice Award. She lives near Madison, Wisconsin with her husband and children as well as two dogs.
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