My very first writing conference was Killer Nashville, and I was scared to death. After all, I envisioned the other attendees as real writers, many published, many successful. I was only starting my writing journey, but knew I needed to learn more about the craft of writing and the publishing industry and that I needed to get to know other writers.
I had heard about the conference only a week or so before it started, so I had time to register, but didn’t have time to talk a friend into going with me. I had to put on my big girl panties and brave it alone. Little did I know everyone (newbies and experienced authors alike) would be so friendly. All of my fears were my own insecurities and projections.
Almost everyone at Killer Nashville asked about my writing project. I knew my book was a mystery, but I wasn’t sure of its sub-genre. As I chatted about it with someone, she said, “Oh, it’s a cozy.” I simply agreed instead of admitting I’d never heard of such a thing. Since that conference I’ve found many people (including writers) aren’t aware of this popular sub-genre even if they’ve read cozies for years.
A cozy is fun. It’s a fast-paced, feel-good read that, when you put it down, you can hardly wait to get back to it. Clues (as well as a few wild-goose chases) are given so the reader will want to solve the mystery along with the sleuth. The victim is not someone with whom the reader has a real emotional attachment—he’s the villain after all—so the reader isn’t dismayed by his/her death. There are twists and turns as well as surprising revelations but, in the end, justice always prevails and the sleuth is the heroine (or hero).
The cozy’s heroine is usually an amateur sleuth (think Jessica Fletcher). This is a role she’s just fallen into because she’s intelligent, intuitive, and inquisitive. Someone she knows usually connects her to the crime or she was nearby when it happened. Often she solves the crime to protect someone important to her. The sleuth is likable, though flawed in a way that is not going to offend the reader. (She eats in bed, is always late, smokes, gossips, smacks chewing gum, or has some other character defect to which the reader can relate.)
The sleuth has strong relationships, though not necessarily romantic. She has lots of friends, family, and acquaintances that feed her missing links to solve the mystery. These characters are often eccentric, annoying, or amusing—just like people we all know. Frequently the protagonist has a friend or spouse who knows facts about the crime that aren’t yet public. This could be a member of the police force (or the sheriff), the medical examiner, the district attorney, a nosy neighbor—you get the idea.
The cozy’s sleuth usually has another job—solving crimes is just something she does because somebody has to do it. She might be a business owner (florist, bookstore, hotel, caterer, etc.), doctor, lawyer, chef, librarian, journalist, tour guide, pet sitter, and so on—or she might be retired with extra time on her hands. Instead of or in addition to a profession, a cozy might center on hobbies such as crafts, puzzles, sewing, needlework/knitting, quilting, golf, tennis, gardening, and genealogy, among others. Some cozies have a theme like the holidays, animals (cats, dogs, horses, birds, etc.), or even religion.
There is often a romantic subplot, but no explicit sex scenes, and there is little, if any, profanity.
The murder in a cozy isn’t described with a lot of details. It usually happens before the book begins or at the very beginning. Sometimes there are multiple murders, but even they are usually off the page. They’re described in general terms—no blood and gore.
A cozy is often geographically specific, usually in a small town or village, but may also be in a “closed” setting like an office, hotel, train, etc. My first novel is set in a well-known medium-sized city (Nashville), but is limited to a specific section of town. My second book centers on a popular historical site. My third is set in an artistic venue.
Of course there has to be law enforcement—but they are often short-staffed, kidnapped, out of town, or otherwise unavailable which is why a small town setting works so well. Procedural accuracy is often overlooked in this genre and the police seldom take the protagonist seriously. A lot of cozies are written as a part of a series because a series allows the reader to become emotionally involved with the recurring characters on an ongoing basis.
The real measure of a cozy, in my opinion, is whether or not it’s a book you’d want to read while snuggled in to your favorite chair on a cold, rainy afternoon—a book that when you finish you’ll have a smile on your face and will wonder when the next one will be published.
Kay Elam is a late-blooming author who lives near Nashville, TN with her fabulous husband, Greg. Her first book is a mystery titled MURDER BY GRAMMY (formerly Murder on Music Row), represented by Sara D’Emic of Talcott Notch Literary Services. It is the initial offering in the Music City Mystery Series. She invites you to visit her website at http://www.kayelam.com/blog.
(The Killer Nashville Guest Blog series is coordinated by KN Executive Director Beth Terrell (http://www.elizabethterrell.com/). To be a part of this series, contact Beth at firstname.lastname@example.org.)