What exactly is a cozy mystery? There are some debates on what separates a cozy from a traditional mystery—and with newer titles, that line gets blurrier and blurrier—but I think the genre expectations we can all agree on are fairly simple: no graphic violence, sex, or language. That’s it! However, there are a few things you can add to take your cozy to the next level.
People may look down on cozies for their lighter tone, cutesy covers, and pun-tastic titles, but there is a beautiful balance in writing a murder mystery that entertains yet never forgets it’s dealing with lives lost and the pursuit of justice.
I consider crafting a great cozy an art similar to cooking: both require choosing the right ingredients and implementing them with care. As a lover and writer of the genre, I think I’ve come up with the perfect recipe for a cozy mystery. And as with cooking, you can adjust these ingredients to your taste. You are writing first and foremost for yourself (or at least I am). Take these genre staples and make them your own!
A 1:1:1 ratio of great setting, unique hook, and relatable protagonist
A generous helping of lovable supporting cast
A heaping scoop of humor
Sprinkle in a bit of quirk
Garnish with an adorable pet
Blend together a great setting and unique hook
I grouped these two together because sometimes the setting IS the hook. When most people think of cozies, they think of gimmicks like knitting and handicrafts, bookstores and libraries, and food-based stories, from bakeries to restaurants to chocolate shops to breweries. And while these are all fun hooks, they run the risk of being generic if the author doesn’t ground that gimmick in the right world for the story. For example, when people think of cozies, they usually picture small towns and idyllic villages. They don’t often think of New York City. But that’s precisely where debut author Olivia Blacke set her cozy, KILLER CONTENT—specifically the trendy Brooklyn neighborhood of Williamsburg. Her protagonist, Odessa Dean, works at a bookstore cafe and the book deals with finding her co-worker’s murderer. But it’s less a workplace-based cozy and more about a fish-out-of-water (she’s originally from a tiny Southern town) trying to make sense of her new world and a senseless death. It’s fresh, it’s fun, and I can’t wait for more books like this.
For my book, hook and setting are also interwoven—Tita Rosie’s Kitchen, a family-owned Filipino restaurant in a small Midwestern town, is the heart and soul of the book and a world unto itself. They feed into each other and changing one gives you an entirely different story.
Add in a character to root for
I hate the term “likable” especially since it seems to only apply to women so we’re going to avoid that word. Let’s go with “relatable.” In the cozy world, readers are not looking for unreliable narrators that have you questioning whether or not you can trust them. They’re looking for someone they can cheer on, someone they want to follow and watch grow from book to book. Someone they could call their friend.
My protagonist, Lila Macapagal, is narrow-minded in what her idea of “success” looks like. She can be naive, selfish, and petty—but she’s willing to put everything on the line to protect her friends and family. Her flaws are tied to her being young and feeling trapped by the lack of opportunities in her small town, as well as her family’s expectations. So while she may be annoying at times, she’s also smart and loyal and ambitious, and does everything in her ability to protect her loved ones. That’s a character with room to grow and that can carry a series. I hope you all feel the same.
Mix in a well-rounded supporting cast
If you’re like me, you sometimes find yourself enjoying the supporting cast even more than the protagonist. And that’s not a bad thing! It means the author has managed to pull together a great ensemble to complement that main character. A great supporting cast is an example of good world-building since the world isn’t limited to the physical setting—it includes those who inhabit it. When I was coming up with the world of Shady Palms, I knew I had to populate it not only with the people in Lila’s life, but also those who offer various perspectives of what it’s like to live there. I needed people who could help Lila gather the information she needed to solve the case. I also needed to come up with people who were unlikely roadblocks and even more unlikely allies. Shady Palms is a wonderfully ridiculous little town and I love it.
Sprinkle with humor and quirkiness, and top with an adorable pet
These are technically optional, but this is a recipe for a PERFECT cozy so I highly recommend adding them in! Cozies are meant to be fun escapes, and who doesn’t love a good laugh and cute animal sidekick? Early readers are already begging for more Longganisa, my protagonist’s chubby Dachshund, in future books, and who am I to say no regarding my most popular character?
So there you have it, my recipe for the perfect cozy mystery. Go forth and write the escape we all need!
Mia P. Manansala is the winner of the 2018 Hugh Holton Award, the 2018 Eleanor Taylor Bland Crime Fiction Writers of Color Award, the 2017 William F. Deeck – Malice Domestic Grant for Unpublished Writers, and the 2016 Mystery Writers of America/Helen McCloy Scholarship. She’s also a 2017 Pitch Wars alum and 2018-2020 mentor. You can visit Mia online at miapmanansala.com.
When Lila Macapagal moves back home to recover from a horrible breakup, her life seems to be following all the typical rom-com tropes. She’s tasked with saving her Tita Rosie’s failing restaurant, and she has to deal with a group of matchmaking aunties who shower her with love and judgment. But when a notoriously nasty food critic (who happens to be her ex-boyfriend) drops dead moments after a confrontation with Lila, her life quickly swerves from a Nora Ephron romp to an Agatha Christie case.
With the cops treating her like she’s the one and only suspect, and the shady landlord looking to finally kick the Macapagal family out and resell the storefront, Lila’s left with no choice but to conduct her own investigation. Armed with the nosy auntie network, her barista best bud, and her trusted Dachshund, Longanisa, Lila takes on this tasty, twisted case and soon finds her own neck on the chopping block…
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