How to Write a Cozy Mystery Novel They’ll Devour in One Day
Who knew tales of blackmail and murder could make a person want to cozy down under a quilt with a cat and a cup of hot cocoa?
Well, if you’re a fan of Agatha Christie, Louise Penny, or Jesse Q. Sutanto, you knew.
The cozy mystery genre is rife with paradoxes just like that one. Sinister crimes committed in quaint locales. Titles that manage to contain baking puns and murder references. Detectives who know the criminal mind as well as they know a primrose stitch.
Well-crafted cozy mysteries are a delight to read. The question is, how do you create the kind of mystery readers can’t get enough of?
You’re about to get all the clues you need to piece the answer together. You’ll learn:
- Genre norms and expectations
- How to craft a cozy mystery plot
- Tips for developing engaging characters
- How to create the perfect setting
- Tricks for plot twists
- Key steps for building a mystery series
- How to get your cozy mystery novel in readers’ hands
Ready? Let’s crack this case.
What Are Cozy Mysteries and Why Are They So Awesome?
Like any other mystery novel, a cozy mystery features a compelling protagonist who’s determined to solve a crime. The plot contains clues, red herrings, and increasingly high stakes, all of which keep the reader actively engaged in solving the puzzle.
What sets cozy mysteries apart, however, is that they’re set in surprisingly comforting worlds and feature good-natured, common person protagonists who may or may not remind readers of their own grandmas. With humor, irreverence, and zero graphic violence, the cozy mystery genre invites its audience to indulge in crime as a make-believe concept.
A cozy mystery doesn’t challenge you to confront the evils of the world. It gigglingly asks you, “What if your cookie-baking great aunt was really good at thinking like a sociopath?”
How Cozies Compare to Other Mystery Subgenres
Here are a few rules that set the cozy mystery genre apart from other crime novels:
The crime is not exceedingly cruel
Admittedly, murder isn’t exactly kind. But in a cozy mystery, it’s at least quick. There’s no torture, sexual crimes, or violence against children or animals. Hostages typically survive. Murder rarely happens on the page, and when it does, there’s little to no blood. Poison is a popular go-to.
Cozy mystery is rated PG or PG13
There’s no strong language or graphic violence. If there’s sex, it happens off page.
Cozies are usually on the shorter end
Cozy mystery books are sometimes as short as 50,000 words.
There’s still tension and suspense. But the humor you see in a cozy mystery is much softer than the cynical snipes of a hardboiled detective novel.
Like any other genre, cozy mystery comes with a whole pile of tropes readers have come to love. Tropes like:
The idyllic small town setting
It doesn’t even have to be an entire town. It could be a ski lodge or a boutique hotel. The setting just has to be unreasonably charming and feature a concentrated population of interesting characters.
Cabot Cove Syndrome
Named for the coastal town in Murder, She Wrote, this is that thing where one little village seems to have a big murder problem. Here comes book sixteen with yet another malicious death in Whimsyhamshire, and still nobody’s like, “Maybe we should move.”
I love it so much.
Amateur sleuth with a quaint career or hobby
Sometimes—sometimes—you’ll see a professional detective in a cozy mystery. But it’s far more common for the protagonist to be an amateur whose life is otherwise filled with interests like baking or knitting or floral design.
On that note, many cozy mysteries create a running motif around the protagonist’s interests or even weave their domestic skills into the investigation.
Key Elements of Cozy Mystery Writing
Now that we have some clarity on the genre, we can get into the fun stuff. Let’s talk about how to write a cozy mystery readers will love.
Here’s a quick list of the elements you need to write a page-turner:
- A compelling plot with an intriguing puzzle
- A setting your reader will gladly disappear into
- Fun and fascinating characters
- Surprising twists
Don’t worry if this feels like a tall order. We’ll walk through each element one by one, starting with the biggie:
Crafting a Compelling Cozy Mystery Plot
There’s no official cozy mystery story structure. You’re free to play around with different structures to find the one that works best for you.
But if you’d like some guidance on where to start, I recommend the Fichtean curve. It’s simple, focuses on building tension, and is flexible enough to offer a lot of creative leeway.
As for how to write a cozy mystery plot that draws the reader in and keeps them hooked, here are a few tips:
Introduce the crime early
Some cozy mysteries open with the discovery of the body, others spend a few pages in the protagonist’s normal world first. Either way, a good mystery never dallies. Get to the crime as quickly as you can.
Establish the stakes
Is the sleuth’s granddaughter a suspect? Is the kidnapper demanding a ransom in three days “or else”? What’s at stake for your protagonist?
Drop real clues
Hopefully, your reader will be shocked and delighted by an ending they never saw coming. But they should still be able to look back and see that the puzzle pieces were all there.
Throw everybody off the scent with red herrings
This creates conflict for your protagonist and makes it harder for readers to see the big twist coming.
Continually raise the stakes
Even cozy mysteries call for growing suspense. As the investigation presses on, heighten both risk and urgency for your protagonist.
Let your sleuth fail
They should pursue a wrong theory or two. Your detective is a genius, but they’re also human. Plus, their wrong turns keep the tension high.
Allow your sleuth to confront the perpetrator
The climax of a cozy mystery happens when the main character confronts the villain. This is an insane approach for an amateur who should really just present their evidence to law enforcement, but that would be a snoozer of a scene.
Character Development in Cozy Mysteries
Cozy mysteries may be plot-driven, but the characters are what keep readers coming back. We actually have an in-depth article on this topic. But for now, here are the must-have players in your mystery novel:
This is your protagonist. Write a sleuth that readers adore, and you’ll set yourself up for a successful cozy mystery series. How do you pull that off?
First, the sleuths in cozies tend to be relatable. Their lives feel ordinary and familiar, aside from all the murder business. That’s why so many cozy mysteries center around an amateur detective.
You also want to establish some credibility and expertise for this person. Why are they so good at solving crimes? What’s their sleuthing superpower and where does it come from?
As for their character arc, don’t worry about crafting a complex journey of inner growth. Cozy mystery protagonists tend to have flat arcs or positive arcs that stretch across an entire series. They don’t change much within a single book.
That said, it’s still good to give them personal challenges and some internal conflict.
Your perp should have a clear and compelling motive for committing the crime. You don’t want to get too dark or psychologically complex with the villain’s backstory.
Greed, secrecy, and jealousy are great motives for cozy mysteries. Save mental illness, depravity, and abuse histories for grittier mystery books.
Cozy mystery victims are almost always unlikeable. This makes it easier to come up with an entire cast of characters who have believable motives to harm the victim.
Develop a full backstory for your victim. For one thing, if they’re dead, all they have is backstory. Plus, a rich history gives the sleuth plenty to discover and a lot of threads to follow.
All the suspects in your cozy mystery novel should have backstories that are entwined with that of the victim. It’s also a good move to give at least a few of your suspects secrets. What hidden shame are they afraid will get out during the investigation?
A good secret can ensure that a perfectly innocent suspect looks super guilty.
Key Side Characters
Don’t forget to fill out the world of your cozy mystery with key secondary characters! This could include folks like:
- Professional law enforcement who either love or hate “collaborating” with your amateur detective
- Family and friends who create either calm or conflict in your protagonist’s personal life
- Any antagonists standing in the way of the investigation
Setting the Scene
We have a full guide for creating a mystery novel setting. The main rule for cozy mystery settings specifically is that the world of your story should seem safe. Even idyllic.
Also consider how the atmosphere can change to suit the scenes. A sleepy little village might make for a peaceful lifestyle, but how do those quiet streets feel when your sleuth is out there alone, stalking a cold-blooded killer?
To really nail atmosphere, check out this “show, don’t tell” guide.
Using the Setting to Enhance the Mystery
Here are just a few of the ways setting contributes to the mystery aspect of most cozy mysteries:
Everyone knows everyone… or do they?
When crime goes down in a small community, you know there’ll be misleading gossip and leaked secrets.
Everybody’s on edge
A New York City detective can duck into a bar to escape the tension of an unsolved case. But there is no corner of your cozy mystery sleuth’s world that hasn’t been touched by this crime. Everybody knows everything.
Strangers make a big impact
Lovely coastal villages and rural hamlets attract visitors. And in a world where folks are used to knowing everything about each other, an unknown quantity like an outsider can add major tension.
The setting supports the crime
Maybe the victim was poisoned with oleander from the community garden. Perhaps the perp has been hiding in plain sight by pilfering wigs from the community theater’s upcoming production of Hairspray.
You don’t really know how to write a cozy mystery until you understand the art of the plot twist. How do you shock your reader without betraying them?
The first step is to gently invite them to make a few assumptions. These could include assumptions about:
- Cause of death
- Likely motive
- Nature of relationships between the victim and suspects
- The intended target (What if the victim was actually an innocent bystander?)
- The intended outcome (What if the murder was an accident?)
These assumptions will lead both your reader and sleuth in a certain direction. A twist occurs when you reveal that the assumption was incorrect.
Now, to avoid ticking off your reader, you have to make sure there are details leading up to the twist that support it. They can be few, far between, and seriously subtle. But they have to be there.
Writing a Cozy Mystery Series
If you’re like the vast majority of authors in this genre, you’re going to want to know how to write a cozy mystery series. Readers love returning to the same engaging detective and charming setting time and again.
Here are some tips for writing a series with real longevity:
Plan for Continuity
Keep all your notes close at hand. Your superfans will remember everything from the color of the bakery shutters to the main character’s middle name.
Little tip: Dabble is great for this. You can create multiple books within a single project. This means you not only have all your past Story Notes at hand, but you can even jump to specific scenes in previous manuscripts with one click.
Keep Characters and Settings Fresh
Readers keep returning to their favorite cozy mysteries because they want to disappear inside that same world and spend time with those beloved characters. But that doesn’t mean they wouldn’t mind a little change.
A series-long arc for the protagonist can help your audience stay emotionally engaged with your sleuth. Let secondary characters make big life changes like having a baby or accepting a new job. Toy around with new developments in your town. Just don’t let the world transform too much.
Add a Series-Wide Plot
Every book in a cozy mystery series should stand alone. But that doesn’t mean you can’t also have a plot that stretches from book to book.
A series-wide plot might be a cold case the protagonist can’t stop picking at. Or maybe it concerns a perp who got away and is bound to return.
Either way, this larger plot typically takes a backseat to the primary storyline in a single book. Maybe your detective learns something new that brings them closer to an answer or the reader gets a glimpse of the villain plotting their next move.
Little by little, you’re building towards a stunning series climax.
Putting Your Cozy Mystery Out Into the World
You’ve got options when it comes to publishing cozy mystery books. You can learn about the different processes in-depth here, but the most common routes are traditional publishing and self-publishing.
However you decide to publish your cozy mystery, share your novel with beta readers before sending it out to gatekeepers or releasing it to the general public. Beta readers give notes on stories from a reader’s perspective.
This is crucial when you write cozy mysteries. You need someone outside of your brain to report on whether the twists were shocking and the atmosphere made their arm hairs stand on end.
That’s why you got into the cozy mystery business in the first place, right? To give a delightful thrill to all those strangers sitting by the fire with their hot cocoa and your charming, spine-tingling little tale?
So what are you waiting for? Get to it! Unless, of course, you still need…
The Perfect Tool for Writing Cozy Mysteries
That would be Dabble—an all-in-one writing tool designed to streamline every part of the process, from your first brainstorm to your final polish.
Follow this link to try all of Dabble’s features for free for 14 days. You won’t have to provide credit card information, so there won’t be any accidental charges if you forget to cancel.
You already know how to write a charming and chilling cozy mystery. Now all that’s left is to do it.
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