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6 Steps for Writing a Cozy Mystery


You might have noticed that true crime keeps rising in popularity, and suddenly almost everyone you know is an armchair detective. To keep up with society's ravenous appetite for solving crimes, more people are writing mysteries to reach this passionate and eager demographic. If you want to try your hand at writing a mystery, a cozy mystery is a great place to start.

What is a cozy mystery?

A cozy mystery is a subgenre of crime fiction that gives readers the opportunity to gather clues and solve a crime without confronting the violence, gore, and sex that often occur in crime fiction. While cozy mysteries might center around solving a murder, the murder takes place off the page, and it usually does not occur in a violent or bloody manner. Killings in cozy mysteries are more likely to involve poison, cut brake lines, a suspicious fall, or some other kind of "foul play."

Since cozy mysteries give readers the chance to solve crimes without being exposed to excessive violence, blood, or nightmare-inducing details, many people read their first cozy mystery as pre-teens and teenagers.

Key components of a cozy mystery

  • Protagonist: An amateur sleuth (usually female) who works to solve the crime
  • Setting: An idyllic small town or close-knit community
  • Tone: Does not include gore, excessive violence, or sex scenes
  • Formulaic: Good always wins in the end; justice is served; story closes with the murderer/bad guy in jail

Step 1: Create your amateur sleuth

A realistic and relatable protagonist is essential to any good cozy mystery. If you want to keep readers engaged in your story, readers should be able to envision themselves as the amateur sleuth in your story. In cozy mysteries, amateur sleuths are usually female, but they certainly do not have to be female.

Demystifying Amateur Sleuth Story Writing

To start creating your amateur sleuth, think about what qualities you want (and need) your amateur sleuth to possess and build outward from there. If your amateur sleuth is an adolescent or teenager, figure out how she will have the freedom, time, and money necessary to solve the crime. Perhaps she lives with a single parent who works late and leaves money on the kitchen table each morning so the protagonist can order dinner.

If your amateur sleuth is an adult, he or she needs to have a flexible job that isn't too time consuming or demanding. Cozy mysteries are usually set in small, close-knit communities, so if your protagonist works at the local bookstore, coffee shop, or restaurant, she will interact with local townspeople and hear gossip and learn clues.

Now that you know your amateur sleuth's age and the logistics for how he or she will gather clues, start writing a backstory for the character. Let the character reveal herself to you as you write. Without even realizing it, you might discover why she is so inquisitive and what experiences have shaped her into your ideal amateur sleuth.

Step 2: Identify the central crime

More than one crime will probably occur in your cozy mystery, but there will be one inciting crime that occurs early in the story to get the action started. Many cozy mysteries center around a murder, but the central crime could be burglary, arson, or any crime that leaves clues behind and isn't gruesome.

Write down a list of possible crimes that might occur in your protagonist's small town. If you're trying to decide between multiple crimes, remember that your protagonist needs a believable reason to investigate the crime. Readers need to relate to the reason that the protagonist keeps investigating even if it is complicated, exhausting, or dangerous. For example, let's say your protagonist Anna works in the local bookstore, and she closed the shop the night it was robbed. The thieves stole valuable first edition books and the safe Anna's boss keeps in his office. Anna has multiple reasons to want to solve the crime:

  • First, she cares about the store and loves books and can't handle the thought of someone disrespecting those old first editions.
  • Second, since she was the last known person in the store, people around town are starting to whisper and even the cops seem to think she had something to do with it.

She starts sleuthing around in an effort to clear her name.

Step 3: Create character sketches

Cozy mysteries tend to include many local townspeople from the community, so create character sketches for the townspeople and for the criminal(s). This can be a fun exercise—as you develop characters, consider the interpersonal relationships between characters and who might have a motive to commit the central crime.

Cozy mysteries always include red herrings, so make sure you include a few characters with questionable characteristics or possible motives that readers will erroneously identify as potential suspects. Include a good mix of likable and relatable characters and untrustworthy, unreliable characters who get caught in lies. Remember that criminals usually look just like regular people, and good criminals can fool most people.

Characterizing Your Character

If your central crime is a murder, make sure that you create a backstory for the victim. It's essential that the victim is three dimensional and not just a dead body that you're using as a story prop. You have to create a Goldilocks victim who possesses the perfect balance of traits, because you need to ensure that readers care about solving the murder. He or she needs to be likeable but not too likeable, because you don't want readers to feel devastated that you've killed the person off. If you make the victim a deplorable person, no one will care that they died and readers might not feel the need to continue reading.

Step 4: Develop your setting

The idyllic, small community setting is one of the things that sets a cozy mystery apart from other mystery subgenres. Classic cozy mysteries are typically set in small towns where everyone knows everyone else and half the people in town are related to each other. However, if you want to set your story in a big city like Atlanta or Chicago, you can still write a cozy mystery that takes place in an intimate neighborhood within the larger metropolis.

To make your setting feel like a place readers want to visit someday, consider basing it on a place from your actual life. You can base your setting on your grandma's tiny town where you spent summers as a kid, or you can base it on a beach town you visited once for a weekend. If you are a visual person, consider drawing a map of your town so you can bring it to life. Sketching a map can also help you remember physical details like whether the hardware store is across from the bookstore or behind it.

Step 5: Create an outline

Writing any kind of mystery requires planning, because you need to weave clues and red herrings throughout the story in subtle ways that readers might not notice the first time they read the story. Once you've identified your supporting characters and you know what your central crime will be, create an outline to keep track of clues and red herrings.

You don't need any fancy template to create your outline; you can just use the standard outlining skills that you learned in seventh grade English class. However, there are plenty of outlining tools available online if you want to try storyboarding with one of those. Twine is one online tool that can help you keep track of where your clues lead and which clues lead to dead ends.

As you write your outline, remember that justice always prevails in cozy mysteries. Regardless of the specific details in your story, you know that the story will end with the bad guy (or girl) in handcuffs. Your amateur sleuth will succeed in finding the criminal and ensuring that the close-knit community feels safe once again.

Step 6: Start writing

Once you have a solid outline, it's time to start writing. Writing often feels more legitimate if you envision that you are writing for one particular person. Since cozy mysteries use clean language and don't include violence, gore, or sex on the page, you might want to imagine that you are writing the story for your 13-year-old next-door neighbor or your prudish great aunt. If you wouldn't want Great Aunt Sally to read a particular passage, that's probably a good sign that you need to cut that scene and find a way to dilute that scene's spicier aspects.

As you write, refer back to your character sketches to remember the relationships between different characters, and use those relationships to convey information to the reader. Use dialogue to reveal critical information about the crime and your characters. Dialogue can be particularly useful for catching a character in a lie, particularly if your protagonist happens to overhear conversations that contradict things the characters told the protagonist directly.

The six steps above will guide you as you write the first draft of your cozy mystery. If you get stuck at any point in the process, just review the steps again, and make sure you keep your language clean and your crimes bloodless.

Header image by masharinkaphotos.

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