Morality in Mysteries

In discussing the mystery genre, writers often mention how crime fiction reflects the current state of our society. Morality in mysteries is another important consideration. What are the lessons learned by the protagonist, and in extension, by our readers? Personally, I don’t give heavy thought to these notions when I write a novel. Mostly I aim to entertain. My goal in writing the cozy mystery is to help you escape from reality and enjoy a fun, lighthearted tale. But could there be a morality lesson buried in our stories upon a closer look?

In the earlier Bad Hair Day Mysteries, my hairstylist sleuth seeks redemption for a past mistake. When Marla was nineteen and babysitting a toddler, the child accidently drowned in a backyard pool. I meant to educate readers about this preventable tragedy. Guilt drives Marla and motivates her to solve the crime in Permed to Death. When she meets handsome Detective Dalton Vail, this guilt prohibits her from progressing in their relationship. He has a teenage daughter, and she doesn’t want children. She has to forgive herself before she can move on in life. She volunteers for the Child Drowning Prevention Coalition and helps solve murders to bring justice to victims. This is how she atones for what happened and remembers she has a good heart.

Lesson One — You can move on from past mistakes and be a better person.

As Marla and Dalton grow closer, Marla comes to care for his daughter, Brianna. Their relationship still has its bumps, because Dalton also has some emotional baggage to cast away before he can move ahead. But finally, by Shear Murder, Marla has accepted that she’s stronger with Dalton and he realizes that she completes him.

Lesson Two — Finding love can strengthen you, not cause loss of independence or self-identity. 

But Marla is still nervous. As their nuptials approach, she buries herself in solving another case rather than face wedding details and bickering relatives. Finally, she finds the courage to accept her new family with enthusiasm and love. She sheds her fears and looks forward to a new tomorrow.

Lesson Three — We need to accept who we are to ensure a brighter future.

These moral lessons resonate because they’re universal truths. Mostly, the morals in my stories involve the sleuth as she learns to appreciate the meaning of family. The focus is not on the criminal mind or what effect the crime has on the victim’s survivors. Cozy mysteries focus on the sleuth and her life. In this way, her character growth issues reflect the problems we face in the real world.

That’s why I like reading cozies, too. They’re about someone like you or me who is a lot braver and who has the guts to chase down the bad guys. Along the way, we live vicariously in the sleuth’s world and enjoy seeing her relationships grow and change.

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How about you? Do you determine a theme ahead of time, or does it emerge from your writing as you develop the story? Do your tales focus on the criminal’s motivations and the repercussions of the crime, or more on the sleuth’s life in general? 

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Mysteries and Food Belong Together

Mysteries and food belong together. Why is food an essential element to the mystery novel? They belong together like peanut butter and jelly or macaroni and cheese.

Mysteries Food


The joy of food balances the sadness of murder.

At the funeral feast, people gather to celebrate life and to share a meal as a community. Dr. Christine A. Jackson, author of Myth and Ritual in Women’s Detective Fiction, says: “After untimely death unleashes chaos in fiction, recipe rituals, meal routines, and dining etiquette offer a semblance of civility to restore balance.” Participating in a meal gives you a sense of normalcy and a feeling of control after an intense loss. Death represents darkness while food represents light.

Food elicits positive emotions.
We eat comfort foods when under stress. What kind of foods does your character choose? Her food choices can help to reveal character as well as shed light on ethnic backgrounds and regional settings. Food brings back memories that often have a positive connotation. This means food scenes can play an important role in revealing character and illuminating the setting.

Offering a meal can be an expression of love.
We want our children to thrive, and so it pleases us to feed them. This nurturing instinct can extend to the community. One way of showing that we care is to offer food.

People often socialize around food and drinks.
This is especially important in a mystery. Food scenes allow the sleuth to:
• Review suspects with a friend
• Question persons of interest
• Discuss personal issues that deepen characterization
• Vary the pacing by giving the reader a break from tension

Culinary mysteries are a highly popular subgenre.
Food is the antithesis to murder, so what better pairing is there for these stories? In A Bad Hair Day Cookbook, I’ve included excerpts from my books after each food category. These scenes all relate to food, showing how important they are to the mystery genre. Whether or not the central theme in your series centers on food, you’ll be including scenes at restaurants, coffee shops, bars, or inside your sleuth’s kitchen at home. These scenes are integral to the mystery genre, or really, to any work of fiction.

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Tripping Over Timelines

How do you keep track of timelines in your work-in-progress? Do you use graphs, charts, or plotting boards to note the days of the week? When I was starting out as a writer, I kept plotting boards. This was a poster board that I divided into blocks representing each chapter. After I wrote a section, I’d fill it in on the poster for a quick visual reference. These days, I use a chapter by chapter outline in a Word file. I’ll still fill it in after I write each segment. I add the days of the week so I can remember what day it is for each scene.

Tripping Over Timelines

Spoiler Alert!  As I was working on EASTER HAIR HUNT, #16 in my Bad Hair Day mysteries, I hit a major snag. The story begins on the day before Easter. It’s March. My hairdresser sleuth, Marla Vail, is seven months pregnant. Her mother wants to plan a baby shower. Meanwhile, Marla is chasing down her missing friend, Blinky, who disappeared after an Easter Egg Hunt at Tremayne Manor.

How much time has passed since Blinky had gone missing? Was it reasonable to think she might still be alive? Uh-oh, I’d better check on the timeline. This realization led me to a plot twist two-thirds through the story.

clock

I’d been concentrating so hard on the storyline, that I had lost sight of the subplots. If Marla is seven months pregnant, when is her due date? I had to go back to the previous book, Trimmed to Death, to figure out when she might have conceived. Then I printed out a set of calendars from https://www.timeanddate.com/calendar/

According to what I read online, Easter Sunday can fall between March 22 and April 25. In 2008, Easter was March 23 and Passover was April 20. Okay, my story will start on Saturday, March 22. By counting the weeks, I figured out Marla’s due date will be June 15.

calendar

By now, my story had progressed into April. Her mother could hold the baby shower on April 19, the day before Passover. I penciled in other events involving Marla’s friends and relatives. Now I know exactly what is happening, and when. Had I done this from the start, I wouldn’t have had to go back and change each conversation that mentioned these personal issues. I’d like this story to finish before Marla’s baby shower, so that could be my final wrap scene.

Sometimes you get carried away in the rush of storytelling and have to go back to fill in the details. What’s my advice? Get a calendar and follow your story along so you know which week you’re on and how long the action is taking. Sometimes you’ll read an entire murder mystery that takes place over a weekend. In that case, you’d need to keep an hourly account. Either way, keep track of your timeline from the start and save yourself some time-consuming revisions.

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Upcoming Events

March is a busy month, so I’d like to acquaint you with where I will be and when so we can say hello if you’re attending any of these events. The library talks are free but advance reservations are requested.
Saturday March 9, 12-12:45 pm, “Plotting Made Perfect” with Nancy J. Cohen, Room 235 at North Regional/BC Library, 1100 Coconut Creek Blvd, Coconut Creek, FL 33066. Are you stuck in the middle of your manuscript? A multi-published author will discuss character and conflict; plotting techniques; secrets, suspense and subplots; structure and pacing; and writing the smart synopsis.
This workshop is part of “TELL YOUR STORY. IT’S YOUR WRITE!” on Saturday, March 9, 11:00 am to 5:00 pm at North Regional/BC Library, 1100 Coconut Creek Blvd, Coconut Creek, FL 33066. Panels, workshops, and onsite bookstore. The event features South FL residents James Grippando and Charles Todd. It’s free and open to the public. Register here: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/tell-your-story-its-your-write-tickets-54725085203
Wednesday, March 13th at 6:30 -7:30 pm, “Celebrate Women Authors: Local Authors Forum” with Marcia King-Gamble, Nancy J. Cohen, Debbie Reed Fischer, Traci Hall and Flora Doone at Lauderhill Central Park Library, 3810 Northwest 11th Place, Lauderhill, FL 33311. Come and join local women authors specializing in different genres as they discuss their experiences in writing and the publishing process. This event is in celebration of Women’s History Month. Sponsored by The Friends of the Lauderhill Central Park Library. Books will be available for purchase. Register here: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/celebrate-women-authors-local-authors-forum-tickets-56650446009

Sleuthfest on March 14-17. Are you registered for this premier mystery writers’ conference in Boca Raton, FL? If not, there’s still time! Register Here: http://sleuthfest.com
SF2019
Friday, March 15, 9:50 – 11:00 am, “How-To Steps for Becoming a Hybrid Author” with Nancy J. Cohen. Introduction by David Wind. Martinique room.
Saturday, March 16, 9:00 – 10:20 am, “Ending Your Book” with Susan Sussman, Charles Salzberg, and Nancy J. Cohen. Moderated by Lynette Austin. Bermuda room.
Sunday, March 17, 9:00 am – 10:20 am, “Independent Publishing: Self-Publishing for the Professional” with David Wind, Nancy J. Cohen, and Tara L. Ames. Bermuda room.
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Writing the Cozy Mystery: Expanded Second Edition

I’m excited to announce the release of Writing the Cozy Mystery: Expanded Second Edition.
CSB2
Do you want to write a cozy mystery but don’t have a clue where to start? Or are you in the middle of a story and stuck on the plot? Perhaps you’re already writing a series, and you need tips on keeping your material fresh. Writing the Cozy Mystery will help you develop your characters, establish the setting, plot the story, add suspense, plant clues and solve the crime.
This Second Edition contains more examples; additional writing exercises; expanded sections; and seven new chapters including The Muddle in the Middle, Romance and Murder, Special Considerations for Cozy Writers, Keeping a Series Fresh, Writing the Smart Synopsis, Mystery Movies, and Marketing Tips. You’ll find everything you need to know in an easy-to-read, clear manner to write your own mystery and maintain a long-running series. Recommended for cozy writers, mystery fans, and creative writing classes. Just in time for your holiday gift bags!
“Too many writer’s guides focus on style and how to write; but Nancy J. Cohen’s Writing the Cozy Mystery: Expanded Second Edition doesn’t limit itself to literary mechanics alone. This makes it a highly recommended pick for all levels of writers; from those who enjoy mysteries and need a clearer definition of ‘cozy’ and its applications; to writers already well aware of the genre, but who need tips on how to sustain suspense or sprinkle believable clues throughout a cozy production.” D. Donovan, Senior Reviewer, Midwest Book Review
If you are thinking about writing a cozy mystery, read this book first! Nancy lays out all the necessary steps in an interesting and informative way that is easy to follow. This book was an invaluable tool when I wrote my first cozy. Highly recommended.” Catherine Bruns, USA Today Bestselling Author
“Nancy J. Cohen offers clear examples, practical writing exercises, and friendly advice designed to help the beginning cozy author start—and finish!—a saleable book. Even seasoned cozy writers can find helpful hints for building better characters and story.” Diane A.S. Stuckart, aka Ali Brandon, NY Times Bestselling Author of the Tarot Cats Mysteries
“If you want to write a cozy mystery—or really, any kind of mystery—this is the book for you! Everything you need to know in one handy volume.” Victoria Thompson, Bestselling Author of the Gaslight Mystery Series
Digital Edition: ISBN 978-0-9985317-2-4, $3.99, Orange Grove Press
Print Edition: ISBN 978-0-9985317-3-1, $9.99, Orange Grove Press
Cover Design and Graphic Illustrations by
Boulevard Photografica
Print Pages: 130 pages. Word Count: 28,000 words
Nonfiction – Reference – Writing Guide

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Writing the Cozy Mystery: Expanded Second Edition

Publisher: Orange Grove Press
Release Date: Nov. 12, 2018
Genre: Nonfiction
Available Formats: eBook and Paperback
Digital: ISBN 9780998531724
Paperback: ISBN 9780998531731

Do you want to write a cozy mystery but don’t have a clue where to start? Or are you in the middle of a story and stuck on the plot? Perhaps you’re already writing a series, and you need tips on keeping your material fresh. Writing the Cozy Mystery: Expanded Second Edition is a precise reference guide that will help you develop your characters, establish the setting, plot the story, add suspense, plant clues and solve the crime.

This Agatha Award-nominated Second Edition contains more examples; additional writing exercises; expanded sections; and seven new chapters including The Muddle in the Middle, Romance and Murder, Special Considerations for Cozy Writers, Keeping a Series Fresh, Writing the Smart Synopsis, Mystery Movies, and Marketing Tips. You’ll find everything you need to know in an easy-to-read, clear manner to write your own mystery and maintain a long-running series. Recommended for cozy writers, mystery fans, and fiction writing classes.

 

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Reviews | Excerpt

Reviews

“If you are thinking about writing a cozy mystery, read this book first! Nancy lays out all the necessary steps in an interesting and informative way that is easy to follow. This book was an invaluable tool when I wrote my first cozy. Highly recommended.” Catherine Bruns, USA Today Bestselling Author

“Nancy J. Cohen offers clear examples, practical writing exercises, and friendly advice designed to help the beginning cozy author start—and finish!—a saleable book. Even seasoned cozy writers can find helpful hints for building better characters and story. I wish I’d had Cohen’s book before I started writing my own first cozy mystery. Highly recommended!” Diane A.S. Stuckart, aka Ali Brandon, NY Times Bestselling author of the Black Cat Bookshop Mysteries

“If you want to write a cozy mystery—or really, any kind of mystery—this is the book for you! Everything you need to know in one handy volume.” Victoria Thompson, Bestselling author of the Gaslight Mystery Series

“Too many writer’s guides focus on style and how to write; but Nancy J. Cohen’s Writing the Cozy Mystery: Expanded Second Edition doesn’t limit itself to literary mechanics alone. This makes it a highly recommended pick for all levels of writers; from those who enjoy mysteries and need a clearer definition of ‘cozy’ and its applications to writers already well aware of the genre, but who need tips on how to sustain suspense or sprinkle believable clues throughout a cozy production.” D. Donovan, Senior Reviewer, Midwest Book Review

 

Excerpt

 

Plot Twists

I always thought I wasn’t clever enough to come up with good plot twists. Short story writers have the market on this writing technique. Especially in the mystery genre, short fiction often relies on an unexpected twist for its punchline at the end.

So how can cozy writers come up with enough surprises to keep the reader turning pages? Sometimes you can plan ahead. I’ll write a synopsis before I begin writing the actual story. But something happens along the way. The characters, setting, and story elements stew in my brain, and out pops a surprise I didn’t anticipate. This is what I call story magic.

How can you get it to work for you? Review what you’ve written, and note any plot threads that you’ve introduced but failed to resolve. How about that minor character who makes a brief appearance on stage but whose role might be significant? Or the connection between two characters you didn’t expect? Or maybe a new character arrives on scene who upsets the balance among your suspects or your recurrent cast. Who is this person and how do they relate to the plot? To the other people in your story? Why did this person arrive at this time and for what reason?

In other words, pick up on clues that you’ve left for yourself. You’ll be surprised at what you find. If you are taken by surprise, so will your readers be amazed at your plot twists.

surprised

You can go back later and revise your synopsis accordingly. Meanwhile, go with the flow and see where it takes you. You’ll be pleased by your reviews when you have a few surprises along the way. Here are some of mine that are particularly pleasing in this respect:

Facials Can Be Fatal

“The story had more twists and turns than a pretzel. And I ate them all up! It is really fast-paced and kept me thoroughly engaged to the end.” Readeropolis
pretzel

“I recommend this book to those who are cozy mystery fans and enjoy a sleuth mystery with many twists and turns.” Readers’ Favorite

“The storyline is fast-paced and keeps readers guessing to the end. There were several different twists and turns this story could have taken. I was surprised at the outcome.” Socrates Book Reviews

Hair Brained

“You are always thinking and on your toes while reading this book. And when you get to the end and everything is revealed….it will blow your mind!” Cozy Mystery Book Reviews

“The story actually has a couple of mysteries within its pages and all is worked out by the end, but there are a lot of plot twists along the way.” Carla Loves to Read

“There were several twists and turns, plus many red herrings in this book. Just when I thought I knew what was going on, the author threw in a few extra curves to have me scratching my head.” Socrates’ Book Reviews

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Keeping A Series Fresh

Once you’ve written several books in your mystery series, it gets harder to come up with new and interesting material. The story has to engage your senses as a writer if you want to entice readers. You’ll want to avoid repetition such as means of murder and motives. And you need to vary the locales without going too far afield. Probably the most important element is to grow your characters. Let’s look at what you can do to bring excitement to each story in a long-term series.
Growth2
1. Vary the setting within the setting. My Bad Hair Day cozy mystery series is set in fictional Palm Haven, Florida. But each story has its own milieu. Permed to Death, book number one, introduces hairstylist and amateur sleuth Marla Shore in her hair salon when a grumpy client dies in the shampoo chair. Subsequent stories involve a haunted hotel, a sports club, a wealthy family’s estate, a beauty trade show, a wedding and a day spa. Readers come to love the recurrent characters and expect to see them again, so you can’t deviate from the home town too often. I’ve taken Marla and her husband, Detective Dalton Vail, on a Caribbean cruise and later on a dude ranch honeymoon in Arizona. For me, those stories are particular fun, but I can’t do them on a regular basis. Readers like to return to the same environment which becomes a character in itself. To avoid boredom, you have to take the same background and change it up enough to keep it interesting for you and your readers.
2. Avoid using the same murder method twice. Have you poisoned a victim already with a plant potion? Use snake venom next time. Or try shooting, hanging, stabbing, bashing on the head, pushing down the stairs, etc. Avoid repetition and be creative. Also vary the villain’s motives. You don’t want two stories in a row where a jealous lover did the deed. Think of your negative motivators—greed, envy, protection of a loved one, guarding one’s reputation, revenge, righting a perceived wrong—to provide variety.
3. Character growth is critically important. Your protagonists should evolve like people do in real life. Who surrounds them in terms of family, friends, and colleagues? How do their relationships change in each story? What’s the overall emotional journey for your main character? What new person can you add to spice things up? It could be a new friend, an old flame, a secret baby, a new boss, or a romantic interest. Keeping your main character static won’t work. The protagonist must continually adapt and develop expanding goals while letting insights guide her along the way.
Growth1
4. Include a research or historical angle that excites you in a story. In Facials Can Be Fatal, I used excerpts from my father’s true life 1935 travel journal, which detailed his trip to Florida in simpler times. History plays a part in this story that includes tales of shipwrecks and pirates off the Florida coast. For Trimmed to Death, I’m researching olive oil scams. I am an olive fan so learning about this product interests me. Other topics I’ve explored have included the pet fur trade, biohazardous waste disposal, tilapia breeding, the prepper movement, and more. These tidbits of information snag my interest and provide something fresh for readers, too. Avoid info dumps, however, where you have long expository paragraphs with too much detail. Your research shouldn’t show. It should enhance your story.
5. Sprinkle in local issues or social problems that concern you. In Hair Brained, one character tells Marla about the risks to children left in hot cars. This is a big issue in Florida where child deaths from this cause are notable. It’s a preventable tragedy and I include tips for prevention in my story. My books also touch upon child-drowning prevention, another issue in a locale with so many backyard pools. These types of issues provide added depth to your story, but do it in a way that matches your chosen genre. If you’re writing humorous cozies, for example, things can’t get too serious. There are “edgier” cozies, but is this what you’re known for? You want to meet reader expectations. It’s okay to change things up once in a while but keep your author brand in mind and don’t stray too far.
6. Introduce enough of past events and relationships to clue in new readers when they pop into your series later down the road, but not too much that you give away previous plots. You also don’t want to bore your long-term readers, so keep this backstory to a minimum. It’s a delicate line to tread. Each story should feel like a standalone to newcomers but make fans happy to see what’s evolved personally for your characters in this latest book.
Bad Hair Day Mystery logo
It gets harder to find a fresh angle as you get further along in your series. While avoiding repetition, you have to maintain the setting and characters that readers have come to love. What tips do you have to offer? As readers, how do feel about this topic?
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When hairstylist Marla Vail’s best friend is hurt in a suspicious car accident, Marla assumes guardianship of her infant son. No sooner does Marla say, “Baby want a bottle?” than she’s embroiled in another murder investigation. Her husband, Detective Dalton Vail, determines the crash may not have been an accident after all. Can she find the culprit before someone else ends up as roadkill?
“This is Nancy J. Cohen’s 14th Bad Hair Day mystery, and given its vigor, humor and inventiveness, the series has a lot of life left in it.” Florida Weekly
“It is wonderful to watch Marla’s emotional journey from suburban housewife to investigator and, dare I say, Mama Bear.” Back Porchervations
“This is the 14th book in this series. It is the absolute best one so far, and they are all pretty darn good. It is fresh, believable and timely.” Escape With Dollycas Into A Good Book
“WOW- a complicated and intense mystery with strong emotional elements that may make you look closer at your own friendships and personal values.” Laura’s Interests 
“You are always thinking and on your toes while reading this book.  And when you get to the end and everything is revealed….it will blow your mind!” Cozy Mystery Book Reviews
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In case you missed my earlier guest posts, check out these topics:
“What’s in a Name?”
“Chocolate – Healthy or Harmful?”
“Killing Off a Character in Your Book
“Character Guest Post by Marla Vail”
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Writing the Mystery – Howdunit?

When writing a cozy mystery, you need to decide upon crime scene details even though interpersonal relations and not forensic investigations are your story’s focus. Here’s an example of what this means. For my next book, I decided to start the tale at a bake-off contest, but the setting bothered me. Our city fairs are held on athletic fields or a flat stretch of grass in a park. This doesn’t leave much opportunity to stash a dead body.

I was telling this to my manicurist and mentioned that I needed a more interesting setting. She suggested Bedner’s Farm as a possible model for my story. The next day, my husband and I drove north to visit this farmer’s market in Boynton Beach. See my post for a report on this visit. The varied structures and grounds were ideal for my purposes, but I’d move my fictional site nearer to Marla’s hometown. Marla Vail is my hairstylist sleuth and the star of the Bad Hair Day Mysteries.

Bedner's Farm  sheds

Now what? Francine Dodger is the target of the festival’s Find Franny scavenger hunt. I got this idea by looking up harvest festivals online. This drove me to research living scavenger hunts until I had an idea of how mine would work. Think about the five W’s when you’re in this phase.

trophy

Who ends up dead? Let’s say Francine is the victim.

Where is she killed? How does she arrive there? Is she lured on purpose, or it is a crime of opportunity? Did the killer follow her? Determine Where-dunit.

How
does he do it? She could be drowned in a ditch. Water-filled canals line the U-pick rows. But other customers might be milling around there. Will it look like an accident or right away be identified as a homicide? She can fall down a silo. But what would make her climb up there in the first place? Or she could be runover by a tractor.

What knowledge does the killer need? If the murder involves an equipment accident, it’ll have to involve someone who knows to operate the machinery. Ditto the hazards inside a silo. You don’t want to point the finger at a particular suspect like the farmer, because it’s too obvious. Maybe give one of the other characters a secret history of working on a farm or of selling agricultural machinery.
If you poison a victim, who has knowledge about the type of poison used as well as access to it? Is it fast-acting enough for the circumstances, or do you need a slower more insidious death? What are the particular symptoms? Consider your means of murder very carefully when you’re making these decisions so your story will sound plausible.

When does it happen? Think about not only the time of death, but also why not a week or a month ago? Why NOW?

How does the killer get away? Does he have blood on his clothes? Are his shoes wet or muddy? Is he able to blend back into the crowd? How does he act when he encounters the heroine?

Now let’s throw a wrench into the works.

What if it’s a case of mistaken identity? He thought he had killed one woman but he got somebody else who was similarly attired. How will he react upon seeing his intended victim alive and well? This leads to another set of problems. It means he can’t see the victim’s face before he kills her, or he’ll realize it’s the wrong person. So again, we go back to Howdunit?

Once you figure out these details, you’ll have to determine how your amateur sleuth stumbles across the dead body. And this is when the story actually begins.

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