Delicious treats, quirky characters, helpful pets, and amateur detectives. These are just four things you'll often find in the wildly popular cozy mystery genre. When you want to curl up with a good whodunit but you don't want the gritty vibe and violence of a thriller or realistic murder mystery, then you'll want to pick up a wholesome cozy mystery.
But reading one of these fun novels is one thing. What if you want to write one? Well, I'll help you do just that in this article on how to write a cozy mystery.
- What a cozy mystery is (and what it isn't).
- What to do before you start writing.
- Tips on how to write a cozy mystery readers will love.
Table of contents
- What is a Cozy Mystery?
- Cozy Mystery Books to Read
- Know Your Market
- Tips for Writing a Great Cozy Mystery
What is a Cozy Mystery?
Cozy mysteries have most of the earmarks of other mysteries. They're centered around a crime (usually a murder). They feature a detective protagonist (much of the time it’s an amateur detective). And they have a cast of dubious characters, any one of which could be the criminal.
However, it's more about what's missing from one of these mysteries that defines it as cozy. While a regular mystery may feature the murder in detail, not skimping on the violent imagery, a cozy mystery will generally skip over the violent parts.
You'll often find that profanity is also missing from these types of mysteries, as readers are looking for a more wholesome read that still has plenty of intrigue and suspense.
In short, a cozy mystery is a fun and themed whodunit without the violence and profanity often found in its gritty counterparts.
(Looking to write a traditional mystery? Check out our article How to Write a Mystery.)
Common Cozy Mystery Tropes
Understanding the tropes of your given genre will allow you to write a story that will resonate with readers. So in this section, I'll list just a few of the common tropes or attributes of the cozy mystery genre.
- Small Town Setting – Small, tight-knit communities are usually the backdrop for cozy mysteries. This allows gossip and rumors to drive the plot.
- Starts With a Crime – Like other mysteries, these stories usually start with a crime (90% of the time it’s a murder). Sometimes, the crime even happens before the story's timeline starts. The protagonist could stumble across the dead body to start the drama.
- The Victim is Usually Unlikable – Having an unlikable victim provides a wide pool of potential suspects. It also (kind of) makes the crime a little easier to accept for the reader. Pro Tip: The perpetrator is usually unlikable, too.
- The Protagonist is an Amateur – It's rare that you'll find a cozy mystery where the main character is a professional detective. They may be a retired detective, but it's more common for them to have no official experience solving crimes.
- The Clues Are There – Part of the fun of reading a cozy mystery is trying to solve the crime. As such, most authors make sure to give enough clues so that the reader can find out whodunit. But it shouldn't be too easy!
- Pets and Baking are Go-Tos – Given the lighthearted vibe of these stories, you'll often find adorable pets that might help solve the crime. You'll also find a lot of baking-themed cozy mysteries where delicious food is described in detail.
- Not Much Blood and Gore – As mentioned earlier, you won't have much blood and gore in these stories (if any). Cozy mystery writers use enough detail to get the point across without grossing out the reader. Likewise, you’ll want to stay away from the more heinous crimes humans are capable of. Crimes against children, sexual crimes, torture, and hurting animals are all things you won't find in a typical cozy.
Cozy Mystery Books to Read
The following novels and series are all great to check out if you want to write a cozy mystery series or novel. Reading books in your chosen genre is essential for understanding how to please readers with your writing.
- The Poirot series or Miss Marple series by Agatha Christie. (Although technically written before Cozy Mysteries were an official genre, some consider Christie the mother of cozy mysteries.)
- Still Life by Louise Penny
- The Nancy Drew series by Carolyn Keene
- Dial A for Aunties by Jesse Q Sutanto
- The Unexpected Mrs. Pollifax by Dorothy Gilman
- Books Can Be Deceiving by Jenn McKinlay
- Chocolate Chip Cookie Murder by Joanne Fluke
Know Your Market
While reading in your genre is important before you start writing, knowing your market is also a vital step if you want to be commercially successful in the cozy mystery genre.
While there is a Cozy Mystery category on Amazon, there are other subgenres that could be a better fit for your book. Then there are subgenres like Amateur Sleuth that you often find cozy mysteries in.
Now that you can only select three categories (you used to have the option to select ten), you need to make sure all three of them will work well when you release your book.
So in order to position your book for success, it's best to do your research beforehand. This will help ensure that you include the right tropes, commission the right book cover, and that you get the most bang for your marketing buck when you release your book.
Researching the Cozy Mystery Genre
There are two ways you can do this research: manually and with my tool Publisher Rocket.
The manual method involves studying the top-selling books in each potential Amazon category. Check out this article for a more in-depth look at how to do this.
Unfortunately, this method, when done right, will take at least a couple of hours. With Publisher Rocket, you can get it done in less than half that time. That's because the tool pulls up-to-date information from Amazon and presents it to you in a way that's easy to understand.
It helps you research categories, check competition, and find customer search terms used for books like yours. It even helps you gather keywords for use in Amazon Advertising.
Check out Publisher Rocket here to learn more.
Tips for Writing a Great Cozy Mystery
Once you're armed with the necessary info to give your book the best chances of success, it's time to start the writing process. These tips will help you make the most out of your writing time, no matter your writing style.
Determine Your Setting and Theme
Before you start writing any prose, it's a good idea to know your setting and the theme of your cozy mystery. As mentioned above, most of these stories are set in idyllic small towns. You'll often find that these towns are near the beach, in the mountains, or near lakes or rivers.
Cozy readers want to escape to quaint towns to solve a murder mystery, so keep this in mind as you develop your setting. Even if you decide to set it in a city, you could mimic the small-town feel by having the story take place in a gated community or a secluded suburb.
Setting and theme often go hand-in-hand, so they're good to think about together. Here are some common cozy mystery themes you can't go wrong with:
- Culinary Mystery – Usually set around a type of food (cakes, cupcakes, pasta, pizza, etc.). Often, the cause of death is poisoning! The protagonist may be a restaurant owner, a baker, or simply someone who loves to cook.
- Animal – From dogs and cats to birds and horses, these animal-themed mysteries are great fun for animal lovers. You'll often find that the star animal of the story helps to solve the crime.
- Vacation – Who doesn't love a good vacation? But imagine you got pulled into an exciting murder mystery while on holiday in an exotic locale. That's essentially what this theme revolves around.
- Marine & Seafood – Often set in a port town, marine-themed cozy mystery books usually focus on a murder that happened out at sea, and there are plenty of swarthy sea goers that make great suspects. Don't be surprised to find descriptions of delicious seafood included.
- Garden – Anyone with a green thumb could be a suspect in these themed mysteries. But it's rare that anyone will be caught red-handed. Still, it's often the main character's passion for gardening that helps them finger the correct suspect.
- Arts & Crafts – Painting and murder go hand-in-hand in these cozy mysteries. Exploring the merits of good art or delving into a new hobby may lead the main character to the clue she needs to solve the mystery.
Develop Your Characters
One reason cozy mysteries are so fun is because of the cast of quirky characters. Your main character should be likable, complex, and human. The suspects should all have the reader believing that any of them could have committed the crime.
While not every character needs to be three-dimensional, don't be afraid to take some time developing your secondary characters. If you spend too much time on one character over another, the reader may start to suspect that it's the villain. However, this is also important to keep in mind if you want to mislead the reader in this way.
Pro Tip: Check out our article on character quirks for inspiration.
While in this type of genre fiction the focus is more on plot than character growth, you'll still want to give your protagonist some sort of character arc. They should have a clear goal and an internal conflict that they overcome by the end of the book. You can also give them a love interest, although this is not a requirement for a cozy mystery.
The murder or crime that drives the plot should also create stakes for your protagonist. If they don't solve the murder, they could end up in prison, lose their business, be shunned by their friends and loved ones, or even die themselves. This creates a more engaging reading experience in any type of mystery writing.
Consider Pace and Plot
When a reader curls up with a cozy mystery book, they expect to spend a little time getting to know the characters. This is part of the fun.
That said, you'll want to strike a balance when it comes to story structure. If the pacing is too slow (too much focus on the characters), then the reader will get bored. Too fast (too little focus on the characters), and the reader will feel like they haven't had enough time to get to know the players.
Luckily, there are several plot structures that can help guide your hand. Even if you don't plot out your mystery story before you write, keeping the key elements of a tried-and-true story structure in mind as you write can help you strike that balance the typical cozy mystery reader is looking for.
Check out our plot structure hub to learn more.
Keep It Real (To a Point)
Unlike other crime fiction stories, cozy mysteries feel like they're one degree of separation from happening in the reader's life. Although the characters are quirky, most of them feel like they could be real. Likewise, the protagonist is often a normal person without any detective training or specific skills that would come in handy when solving a crime.
In order to ground your cozy in reality, include normal, everyday things in the story. These characters are not special agents. They have bills to pay, mouths to feed, and relationships that need tending. By intertwining the mundane with the exciting, you can engage the reader while also putting them into the main character's shoes.
Give the Reader What They Need to Solve the Crime
One of the hardest parts of writing a cozy mystery novel is including clues without being too obvious about it. You want to give the reader the ability to solve the crime, but you don't want to make it too easy.
This means lots of red herrings, important information hidden in plain sight, and a soft touch when it comes to clue placement.
Set Up the Next Book
If you want to make a living as a writer, you'll want to write in a series. However, it's important that you solve the primary crime in each book. Readers of this genre don't appreciate massive cliffhangers, so make sure to resolve the main storyline.
However, that doesn't mean that you can't create a subplot that isn't resolved in the book. In fact, this is the best way to leave a reader satisfied while also wanting more.
In most cozy mystery series, you'll find that the main character stumbles upon a new crime in each subsequent book while other, less vital through-lines extend the narrative throughout the series.
When you're done writing your cozy mystery book, it's time to get it out into the world. Unfortunately, this is easier said than done. Before you hit publish, you need to make sure you have a professional product to give readers. This means having your book formatted for eBook and print. While there are many ways to do this, most of them are time-consuming or expensive.
This is why I created Atticus, which is an all-in-one writing and formatting tool. You can choose from a list of pre-made formatting options or create your own in just a few clicks. Atticus does the rest.