Hi, I have a guest post today over at the Writers Who Kill blog on the “Elements of a Cozy Mystery.” If you’re a writer with an interest in this genre, these tips will be helpful. Or if you’re a reader who wants to know more about the writing process, this will give you a glimpse behind the scenes.
When writing a mystery, it’s crucial to tie up any loose ends by the end of the story. You don’t want to leave readers hanging on what some incident or snatch of dialogue might have meant when they finish the book. There are several ways for you to keep track of these plot threads.
You might make a list of all the questions that will arise in a reader’s mind as you write the story. Or you can create this list as you do your first read-through revision. If you write a synopsis, that’s another way to keep tabs of what’s going on. Once you’ve finished the first draft, read through your synopsis and make sure you’ve resolved all the plot points. If not, fix them during the revision process.
Here’s an example of some loose ends from Easter Hair Hunt. A brief story blurb will fill you in so you can follow these questions.
When hairstylist Marla Vail attends an Easter egg hunt at historic Tremayne Manor, she’s only there to fix hair for a client, Bonnie “Blinky” Morris. But when she’s asked to comb the grounds for leftover goodies, Marla discovers more than just a few dyed eggs. The dead body in the bunny costume is definitely not having a good hare day. And Blinky seems to have disappeared down a rabbit hole.
LOOSE ENDS – Spoiler Alert!
Where is Blinky?
Why did Blinky give her costume to the dead guy?
Who stabbed the victim and why?
Where and what is the murder weapon?
What does the autopsy report say?
How did the Faberge egg end up in the grass next to the body?
Who is stealing artifacts from the house? Is the motive money or spite?
Why did Connor Tremaine deed his property to his wife and leave nothing to his son?
I write a synopsis up front as a writing guide. I’ve just gone through the one for Styled for Murder, my next Bad Hair Day mystery, to make sure it matches the story changes I made along the way. Whoops. It appears I’ve left too very obvious loose ends and forgot all about them. One factor is part of the killer’s confession, and another relates to a subplot with a secondary character.
Re the subplot, I left a hint in a conversation but have no idea what it meant. I can’t find an explanation for this statement anywhere in my character profiles or plotting notes. Do I eliminate this snatch of dialogue, or do I come up with a reasonable explanation? I chose to leave it in and explain what this character meant later on. That’s what I get for not keeping better track of each detail. I didn’t keep my list of loose ends for this story like I usually do, and that would have helped. All is not lost, though. I can write them out during my next revision pass to make sure everything is solved.
This is also why a story needs multiple views. We need to make sure all the questions have been answered by the end. Even our editors and beta readers sometimes miss things that our fans will point out later.
During the Discovery phase of your novel, which I discuss in my post on Five Stages of Writing, you’ll begin formulating the characters. If you’re writing a mystery series, you may already know the protagonists and recurrent characters. So now you have to determine the suspects that are specific to your WIP (work-in-progress).
As a plotter and not a pantser, I’ll create these characters before I begin writing. This means knowing their goals, motivations, and conflicts as in Debra Dixon’s excellent text on the subject. I’ll assign each person a secret with a motive for murder. At this stage, I may not know which one is the killer because it could be any of them. Or, the person I pick to be the killer might turn out later to be a red herring.
Here’s an example of how I develop my characters. This guy is one of three judges for a bake-off contest in Trimmed to Death.
Alton Paige, food critic, has a pudgy face and a rotund figure that reminds Marla of a dog. He’s a bit of a philanderer. Alton extorts money from restaurant owners in return for a good rating.
Oops, I have an Alton and an Alyce, one of the contestants. Watch out for similar names when creating your characters. I will change the judge’s name. In the next round, I fill in his secrets and start working on his relationships to the other characters.
Carlton Paige, 44, food critic, has a pudgy face and a rotund figure that reminds Marla of a dog. He’s a bit of a philanderer. Carlton accepts gifts from restaurateurs. In return, he gives them a high rating but only if warranted. The word to describe him would be smarmy. His wife, Sally, who accompanies him on his food jaunts, spends most of her spare time at the gym. She’s always criticizing his lack of restraint in eating…and in other things. Since she’s having an affair with her personal trainer, she overlooks his marital transgressions. Secretly he has an inferiority complex, being the younger brother of three siblings and on the plump side even as a kid. He strives for recognition. Food has been his means of consolation. He’s worked his way up in journalism and aspires to be editor of the entertainment section. Carlton’s reputation is all important to him, and he resents the attention being given to upstart bloggers like Alyce Greene (a contestant in the bake-off). Her blog is eroding his ratings and putting his job in jeopardy. He has to learn self-respect in order to refuse bribes and move ahead in his career…or to realize his worth in his current role.
Carlton Paige, 44, food critic, has a pudgy face and a rotund figure that reminds Marla of a pug breed of dog. He’s a philanderer whose sensual attitude in life appeals to women. Carlton accepts gifts from restaurateurs. In return, he gives them a high rating but only if warranted. The word to describe him would be smarmy. His wife, Sally, who accompanies him on his food jaunts, spends most of her spare time at the gym. She’s always criticizing his lack of restraint in eating…and in other things. Secretly he has an inferiority complex, being the younger brother of three siblings. He strives for recognition. Food has been his means of consolation. He’s worked his way up in journalism and aspires to be editor of the entertainment section. But this won’t happen unless he gains readers. He resents the attention being given to upstart bloggers like Alyce. Her blog is eroding his ratings and putting his job in jeopardy. What will he do to protect his reputation and his readership?
Sally Paige, Carlton’s wife, knows Francine Dodger, another contestant, from the gym. When Carlton complains to her about Alyce, he suggests Sally should discredit her to Francine. But Sally hesitates to approach Francine because the food magazine publisher knows about Sally’s affair with her personal trainer. And while she overlooks her husband’s marital transgressions because she’s unfaithful as well, she still loves Carlton. How far will Sally go to protect her husband and her marriage?
You see how each round adds another layer? These people will come alive when they walk onstage for the first time. I don’t bother with long biographies. I’ll see how they move and speak and act when I meet them on the page. What matters now are their motives for murder. If you want to get a better handle on their physical descriptions, search for images online at the royalty-free sites.
After you have a profile on each character, it’s time to connect them to each other. These interrelationships are crucial for a cozy mystery, because the focus of this subgenre is on personal connections among the characters rather than on forensic details or police procedure. More on this next time in Writing the Mystery – Whydunit?
NOTE: This post topic was originally published in Feb. 2017
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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.
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. Why is food an essential element to the mystery novel? They belong together like peanut butter and jelly or macaroni and cheese.
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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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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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. GIVEAWAYS Cozy Mystery Bonanza Choose from 40+ free cozy mysteries in a limited time giveaway, including a copy of my book HAIR RAISER. https://books.bookfunnel.com/cozymysterybonanza/b1nj1qfi4p Booklovers Bench Enter to win a free book from our Prize Vault at Booklovers Bench: https://bookloversbench.com/win-a-free-book-march-2019/
I’m excited to announce the release of Writing the Cozy Mystery: Expanded Second Edition. 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 Order Your Copy Now: Apple Books Amazon Print Amazon Kindle BN Nook Kobo Universal Link Booksellers and Librarians: This title is available at Ingram. Note: Amazon will not link the 190+ reviews from the first edition, so I need ALL NEW REVIEWS on the book’s Amazon page. Please take a few minutes to say how this book helped you if you find it a useful read. CLICK TO TWEET
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Publisher: Orange Grove Press
Release Date: Nov. 12, 2018
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-nominatedSecond 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.
“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
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.
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:
“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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