How do you plot a mystery? Ask ten different authors, and you’ll get ten different responses. Everyone’s method is unique. However, genre conventions dictate that certain reader expectations must be met. When writing cozy mysteries or traditional mysteries, readers expect a puzzle to solve, an amateur sleuth, a collection of suspects, and an exciting climax where the killer is revealed.
After being asked how to write a mystery innumerable times and giving workshops on the subject, I decided to compile my knowledge into an easy-to-read, concise guide that will take the aspiring writer along the path to publication. Writing the Cozy Mystery also contains tips for the seasoned author, such as how to organize one’s materials and maintain series continuity.
Where do you start? How do you create a series from the ground up and then keep it fresh? How do you keep track of characters, places, and plot threads? What can you do to entice readers to come back for more?
Having written twelve books in the Bad Hair Day mystery series featuring South Florida hairdresser Marla Shore, I am hoping my advice is well taken. I stumbled into writing mysteries at the beginning of my career in the romance field. The fourth futuristic romance I wrote for Dorchester, Keeper of the Rings, contained a mystery. A holy relic is stolen from a temple on the planet Xan, and only the exalted members of the Synod—the high priesthood—had access to the altar. What does each member have to hide? Enter the amateur sleuth, archeologist Leena and her protector, Taurin. Together they go on a quest to recover the artifact while discovering passion along the way. What else they find is a discovery that will rock their world.
I loved writing this story, and even though a murder isn’t involved, it contains most of the elements for a cozy mystery: an amateur sleuth, a group of suspects who know each other, a confined setting, and motives for mischief. As one question is answered, more takes its place. Thus my introduction to the mystery genre came about through happenstance. If I could plot this tightly woven story, why not write a straight mystery series?
Following many of the same steps outlined in Writing the Cozy Mystery, I developed my series. Would I do anything differently today? Yes, I’d plan for the long haul, because now you’re not dependent on a publisher’s whims like I was back in the day. Modern writers have alternate means of getting published. I didn’t know contract to contract if my option book would be picked up, whereas today you know your series can continue through one distribution route or another. Kensington dropped my series after nine books. I was fortunate to find another publisher, and I’ve just finished writing the twelfth Bad Hair Day mystery. As long as readers want these stories, I’ll continue to write them. So my advice for you is to lay the proper groundwork and build a community where your readers will be happy to stay for many series installments.
Writing the Cozy Mystery
Do you want to write a mystery but don’t have a clue where to start? Or maybe you’ve begun a story but are stuck on the plot? Perhaps you’re already writing a series, and you need tips on how to keep track of your material? Writing the Cozy Mystery is a valuable guide on how to write a traditional whodunit. This concise tool will show you step-by-step how to develop your characters, establish the setting, plot the story, add suspense, plant clues and sustain your series. You’ll find everything you need to know in an easy-to-read, clear manner to write your own whodunit.
Print Edition * Amazon * International * BN Nook * Kobo * Apple Books
Nancy J. Cohen writes the Bad Hair Day mystery series featuring hairdresser Marla Shore, who solves crimes with wit and style under the sultry Florida sun. Several of these titles have made the IMBA bestseller list. Nancy is also the author of Writing the Cozy Mystery, a valuable instructional guide for mystery writers. Her imaginative romances have proven popular with fans as well. Her titles in this genre have won the HOLT Medallion and Best Book in Romantic SciFi/Fantasy at The Romance Reviews. Active in the writing community and a featured speaker at libraries and conferences, Nancy is listed in Contemporary Authors, Poets & Writers, and Who’s Who in U.S. Writers, Editors, & Poets. When not busy writing, she enjoys reading, fine dining, cruising and outlet shopping.
Website * Blog * Twitter * Facebook * Goodreads * Pinterest * Linked In
(Click image to see at Amazon.)
I’ve read your “how to” book and can recommend it highly. I was never that organized, and I’m still having to look up details when I start the next book in any of my series. Sometimes I get a surprise, such as a throwaway line in one book that meant I’d have to deal with a romantic suspense hero having a kid!
Nancy J. Cohen
Yes, Terry, you never know when one piece of information will stimulate an entire plot thread.
I liked reading about your journey to mystery writing, Nancy. Mine was much the same, and I have to say I’ve read your how-to book and its very good. I recommend it to everyone I meet.
Nancy J. Cohen
Thank you, Maggie, I appreciate your support for my nonfiction title. I am amazed that you can work on three series at once and all in difference genres. I’m eager to read your new paranormal mystery.
Thanks for a great book Nancy. Even though I write historical fiction, everyone likes a little mystery worked in a story, and your book gave me great tips to add that to my writing.
Nancy J. Cohen
Yes, this is true, Linda. Mystery adds suspense to any genre story.
I bought and read your book tonight. It was like having coffee with a friend so, thank you very much. (No powdered cream for me, thanks!)
As a voracious reader of cozies, and a new writer of them (but not to writing in general), I have two questions that haunt me to distraction.
First, how important is originality? So many cozies seem to follow a specific formula, use very similar character types, similar problems, etc., The same goes for the theme. How many more foodie books can fans handle? How many more cats or quilting themes? I want desperately to have some originality but I have to admit, it’s tough! What makes a cozy an excellent one? (Other than great storytelling, that is.)
Secondly, and it goes along with the first question, do you find any difference in fan loyalty when it comes to the hero being male or female? Are fans more comfortable with female sleuths or is there a cry for more male protagonists?
Given your success, I would really value your opinions.
Nancy J. Cohen
Jack, there is interest in more male sleuths as long as you stick to the genre conventions. As for originality, certain tropes are popular. It’s your characters and setting that will distinguish them from others in the same subgenre.