I Write Cozies, Not Cutesies

by Barb, in Key West where it’s been “freezing”–50s at night–and all the locals are bundled up in parkas and –shock of shock–wearing socks!

If you follow me here or in other places, you know I’ve always waved the cozy flag loud and proud. It wasn’t a choice I consciously made, but when I found out my second published novel, first in the Maine Clambake Mystery series, would be positioned as a cozy, I decided to embrace the label and not try to dodge it as I’d seen some other authors do.

The phrase in the title of this post was proclaimed by Jessie when the six Wickeds were together for a long outdoor lunch on a beautiful day in October, discussing the plight of another cozy author. (Important note: Not one of the Wickeds.) Despite years of success, she’d recently moved to a new publisher, as so many have over the past couple of years.

The editorial comments she was getting from her publisher (Important note: Not any of the Wickeds publishers) were challenging to implement, but more important, were insulting to the entire concept of cozies. With every “note” her book was becoming less–less nuanced, less layered, and much less interesting.

We’ve all heard rumors of these cozy “rules” for years, but I had never seen them consciously deployed. To wit:

1) There can only be one body.

2) The victim must be annoying, sneaky or shifty so they “deserve” it. (I reject this one completely. No one deserves to be murdered, particularly not for cutting the line at the Post Office or criticizing someone’s baked goods.)

3) There must be a sidekick and the sidekick must be funny.

4) You can’t have multiple points of view, multiple timelines, or multiple anything besides suspects.

5) The vocabulary must be simple, dead simple. Readers should never encounter a regionalism or understand a word from context.

It seemed like our friend’s editor had a stereotypical idea of the cozy. Worse, it seemed like the people at this publishing house had a condescending attitude toward cozy readers.

It is true that cozies are the comfort food of the crime fiction world. But like good mac and cheese, cozies don’t have to be bland, or made the same way by everyone, every time. And it’s not true, in my experience, that cozy readers read the books because they are incapable of reading anything “more challenging.” They choose to read the books, often in times of stress or simply at the end of a long, busy day. On most cozy online boards when fans discuss the other things they read, it runs the absolute gamut.

So what makes a mystery a cozy?

Those of you who’ve followed me know I don’t like seeing the genre defined by what’s NOT in the books. You know–little swearing, no graphic violence or sex. After all, before I write a word, my books contain none of those things. Yet my editor won’t accept 300 blank pages. There have to be words that add up to a story. It’s true that some readers are specifically looking for the absence of such elements, but most readers are looking for the presence of something, not just the absence.

What are these readers looking for? And, important to my writing journey, what am I trying to do? To say?

The answer came to me as I listened to a podcast where Tom and Lorenzo tried, with difficulty, to describe their love for the movie, “The Big Sick.”

At the beginning of their very positive review, Tom says, “At it’s heart it’s just a light family medical drama.”

But later, after some analysis, responding to Lorenzo, he says, “I feel bad saying it’s light. I think you’re right. I say it, too. But I think it makes it sound like it’s not nuanced. I think when we say light, we mean deeply humanistic. Everyone is afforded some level of dignity and voice. It’s a really pleasing experience for the soul.”

(You can find the entire review here. The part about The Big Sick starts at 46 minutes.)

When I heard this, I thought, “Yes!” Everyone afforded their own dignity and voice. A pleasing experience for the soul.

I haven’t quite achieved that yet, especially the “everyone” part, but that is where I’m trying to go.

As far as I’m concerned, my contract with my readers is this: There will be a crime. There will be a solution. You will want to turn every page. It will be a pleasing experience for your soul.

Everything else is up for grabs.

Readers: Discuss. Cozies. Cozy readers. Reader expectations. The Big Sick. Go!

103 thoughts on “I Write Cozies, Not Cutesies

  1. Perfect description of a cozy, Barb.

    Cozies have multiple depths, too. There are the simple storyline ones meant strictly to entertain- I read them if I’m sick. Then there are complex storyline ones that have hard issues either as part of the plot, or as a subplot. The only thing that sets these books apart from non-cozies is the lack of on-page violence, sex, and highly colorful language.

    As for an editor who wants to dumb down a story based on stereotypes – I hope the author bolted from the fold.

  2. Well said! I expect a great cozy to have some depth, some nuance. Without that, the plot and characters would just be boring and not worth reading. It’s sad to hear that a publisher may be trying to “dumb down” some cozies.

  3. (I think I’ve had that editor.) I agree with all you’ve said. I think cozies tap into some fundamental human and community values, without hitting you over the head with them. Of course, they’re also entertaining, and often soothing, because you know things will work out in the end. But the characters should be real, and flawed, and sometimes inconsistent. And for a while it seemed that every funny, quirky sidekick had red hair.

  4. Barb, this is such a great post—great points, great message, great delivery. I particularly love the discussion of defining something by what it is rather than what it’s not—and then defining purpose and mission and….. All great.

    • I get the occasional fan e-mail that says, (in its entirety), “thank you for not including any swear words.” I don’t mean to be ungrateful, but I always think, “What about all the words I did include?”

  5. This was fabulous. I couldn’t agree more with anything you said. Why do I sometimes feel like I have to defend myself on why I choose to read cozies? They are great books, period, for all the reasons you mentioned. And I particularly like the Wickeds’ cozies because the stories have depth and substance. I learn new things and they’re just great reads. Period. (I can’t wait to finish up my 2017 review commitments so I can get back to them!! Almost there.)

    Anyway, thanks for this post. Very nicely done, just like the Wickeds’ cozy mysteries.

  6. I did not see The Big Sick, but The Girl did and she loved it.

    If cozies have a “lightness,” it’s the lightness of hope. You know that everything is going to be “okay” by the end of the book. The bad guy will be caught and order will be restored.

    Sometimes I am in the mood for darker, where things aren’t so clear cut. But sometimes, you just need to know that things are going to be “okay.”

    And those rules are ridiculous, especially the ones about simple language and no multiples. That simply dumbs down the story, which is insulting to readers and authors alike.

  7. Thank you! I hate feeling like I have to apologize for reading–and writing–cozy mysteries. They are not lesser works in any way. I see cozies moving away more and more from the “I can solve any problem just by baking a batch of cookies” formula to real heroines who are real people with sense and responsibilities. Brava to the authors who write these books with protagonists–like Julia Snowden–that you’d want to be friends with.

  8. Thank you, Barb!!!! I love this line from the movie discussion: I think when we say light, we mean deeply humanistic. That’s why cozy readers read our books — it’s why I read anything. Real people face difficult and extraordinary circumstances every day. Our characters do too.

  9. Thank you for this! I appreciate that you touch on more serious issues in your mysteries that are local to Maine. Having spent many vacations in Boothbay I do recognize locations but had not realized some of the issues that you raise. (I took out the issue because I realized it was a spoiler!) So, yes I think mysteries that are cozy can raise awareness.

  10. If there is only one body, what about my running joke for years about the second body that turns up with 100 pages to go?

    Seriously, sometimes I want light and fun and to laugh. Sometimes i want something more nuanced. I know which authors are which and I read accordingly. But all fit under the umbrella cozy, and I love them all.

    Simple language? That would just get boring to the reader and turn us off.

    • Not everyone has the knowledge you do about the range of cozies out there. That’s why they depend on reviewers like you.

      I agree about the language. I need some complexity in plot, character and writing to stay engaged in the world of the book.

  11. I have published 25 cozy mysteries, all but 3 of them with NY mainstream publishers. Never once have I had an editor cite any of these so-called rules to me. And frankly I can’t think offhand of any cozies I’ve read (hundreds, if not thousands) over the years that paid any attention to them. That editor is an idiot.

  12. I read widely (cozies, thrillers, private investigators, police procedurals, romance) and I come back to cozies because the characters call me back. And I never apologize for reading them or for writing them either. I enjoy following the characters on their journeys, love learning new things, and in Barb’s case: visiting traditions that I had growing up…clambakes with my cousins!.
    Just because the book covers might be cute doesn’t mean the books don’t address real issues. The protagonists are often dealing with finding new careers, dealing with ageing parents, adjusting to life in a new community and oops somebody was murdered. The protagonists are women who are strong, independent, and smart.
    Great post Barb!

  13. In my opinion, you hit the nail on the head on cozies. cozy readers. and reader expectations.

    As a cozy reader, I don’t want bland or where every writer has to follow to same outline to write a book. I want excitement, curiosity as to who did it and why involving twists and turns in the plot before you get to the answers as well as development in characters – so much so that we want to see them again in another book.

    I definitely enjoy cozies but like most readers, it’s not the only form of reading that I do. There are times though when nothing but a cozy will fill the void or distraction that I need. I know that one of the objectives to writing is to get published. However, I applaud authors that can stand true to their work and not cave to this unrealistic pressure to “conform” as stated above and stay true to what a cozy is meant to be.

    • “I want excitement, curiosity as to who did it and why involving twists and turns in the plot before you get to the answers as well as development in characters – so much so that we want to see them again in another book.” These are great goals for a cozy writer.

  14. Great post. I’m glad I never saw those 5 rules. i think our books are called cozies because they evoke a cozy feeling in the reader—and the writer.

  15. Oh, everyone needs to see The Big Sick. My husband and I rarely go out to the movies just the two of us and we made an exception for The Big Sick.

    And that movie is a great comparison point for cozies because they both possess intimacy. Characters who are entwined with each other, and in the movie, this intimacy is set within larger scene pieces teeming with other people which only highlights the connections the characters make with one another.

    I think that’s the real magic to cozies – there are real emotional stakes. It’s one of the reason people really loves cozies and cozy series. Once you’ve entered the world, you feel like a part of it. It’s intimate.

  16. I like your description of cozy. Mine is on the borderline as it has some sex, a few bodies, and a little swearing. The Big Sick was a very good movie, quite unlike what seems to be out there–superhero stuff.

  17. You nailed it in this post. When I started reading cozy mysteries, I was in a high stress litigation job which required a considerable amount of travel. I discovered cozy mysteries and biographies were two types of reading that completely released my mind from my work. Well written cozies offer complex tales written in a way that may feel simple, but isn’t, but they do read quickly because the story motivates the reader to turn the pages. As an aside, you’re a master of the field. Your books only improve as the series progresses showing how well you handle the craft.

    • “Well written cozies offer complex tales written in a way that may feel simple, but isn’t.” So true. Also, as you say, they require some complexity to completely envelope you and take you out of your current circumstances. Thanks so much for your kind words.

  18. Cozies are like comfort food. Enjoyable, easy and fun. They still need substance to be satisfying. I don’t care to read about blood, guts, gore and dismembered bodies. There is too much of that in reality.

  19. What I like about cozies (beyond the no heavy sex scenes) is the well-developed characters who GROW from one book to the next in a series as well in the course of the individual books. Have to get back to looking for volunteers to staff the shelter, so this is as much discussion from me as you will get.

  20. Thank you for this post. I am one of those readers who read across a variety of genres and the description of a cozy that the editor offered does not interest me in the slightest. When I read a cozy, I am looking for not only an engaging mystery, but I want a connection with the main character and the supporting characters. I want them to be people I choose to spend time with. Thanks to all the Wickeds for your books, and please keep writing!

  21. Absolutely great blog. And all the comments from readers are wonderful. I wonder what that publisher’s “real” issue is. Bored with life? A need to kick someone?

  22. Great post, Barb. Love your definition of a cozy. Makes me proud to write them! I had to laugh about the vocabulary comment though–I had a reader complain in a review that I used too many ten dollar words in my book. I don’t know where I got the money to buy all those expensive words…

  23. Thank you, Barb, for putting this out there. I think part of the “cutesy” issue is cozy book covers. We joke about cats on the cover, but I’ve had some feedback on my cover that confused me, and made me realize that readers may also be confused. When I worked at the library, often patrons would show me cozies and ask if they were written for children. Some covers do “read” more cute than their contents.

    • I think that’s true, Shari. I think of the covers as a type of branding, so readers can spot more “books like this one.” But I also know a lot of my male readers favor the ebook versions. I wonder if someone’s done a study?

  24. Terrific essay, Barb, and it goes to a subject I’ve been grappling with for some time now. Not just with how to write and market my own books, but also with those by others that I pick up to read. Most books marketed as “cozies” are as you describe: light but nuanced and humanistic, a pleasing experience for the soul. But more often than I’d like, I can’t make it through twenty pages of a book because of its clichés, saccharine-sweet or dastardly evil characters, cutesy setting, and unrealistic plot. And I believe it is this latter subsection of cozies (no doubt the result of the kind of editor you describe your friend as having) that is watering down the definition of the cozy as a whole. Which is a shame.

    • I’ve thought about this, too. I mean there are bad books in every genre, but with cozies readers sometimes do over-generalize from the bad books to everything. (I recognize that “bad” is in the eye of the beholder, and many readers love series I think are dreadful.)

  25. Editors like the one you describe will kill the genre’s popularity eventually. I already have one friend who thinks cozies are simply dreadful and refuses to consider reading them. We were discussing a book I was reading a book that was published in 1975. I felt I was reading an adult book for the first time in a long time. The author actually expected me to know or be interested in history, art, mythology, and post WWII geopolitical events. The vocabulary, descriptions, and characters were rich and complex. (Looking up a word is very easy with the internet or e-readers!) It was so refreshing. It the end, I had to admit that there were a lot of badly written cozies out there and that I choose books very carefully as a result.

  26. I’ve always considered Agatha Christie’s books, for the most part, to be cozies. There’s little that’s cutesie about Dame Agatha.

  27. I stopped reading some series because they were too silly. I expect cozies to have great characters, a location that seems real even if it is fictional, and, if they’re featuring a craft or job some realism in describing it. Some cozies even handle serious social problems. They just aren’t super negative about it.

  28. Only one body! Where’s the fun in that! And Marian Babson, one of my great favorites, is definitely a cosy writer. Even with that book in which there were, I think, 26 bodies. That might be excessive. . . but still.

  29. As a librarian, I recommend cozy mysteries for patrons who like to “solve” murders, but don’ t want the hardcore violence or heavy sexual content. I love cozy mysteries because they’re well written, easy to follow and just fun to read! (As much as murder can be “fun”). This blog is terrific for learning about new authors in the genre and I’ve recommended quite a few to our patrons to check out. Wave that cozy flag proudly! Thanks for the great books!

  30. I only started reading cozies last year. As a reader I will read pretty much anything but I never had much interest in mystery until I discovered that mystery is at the heart of every good story. After I’ve read some dystopian YA about how we are on a crash course for environmental collapse, I jump to a cozy to feel better about humanity. Sure somebody dies but there is always a puzzle to solve and satisfying justice in the end. And as a writer it’s a genre I’m eager to explore. In fact I think all my cozy reading has infected my current novel. I think some of the “rules” might have found their way in there. But I’m certainly not slavishly following them. That would be boring.

  31. I agree with the posts above. I am right there with Katerina just above. I stumbled upon copies using Good reads and have not looked back. I read pretty much anything, but cozies are what grounds me and reminds me of family and community. I don’t worry about the number of dead bodies (I even like the ones where no one is murdered), sidekicks and certainly disagree with being treated as simple minded I want a well written story with mystery, strong characters with a great community and/or family and a realistic plot. Kep writing your great books.

  32. Bravo! I love being a cozy author, but I despise the idea that there is only one mold. My stories are nuanced. Or, at least, that’s my goal. How well I succeed is up to the reader. Each character is an individual who behaves differently in different situations. I touch on social commentary, without preaching, because I don’t think ANYTHING gets small towns as riled up as social issues. And, unlike national issues that play out on FB and Fox and MSNBC, in a small town, those issues get thrashed out in coffee lines and at the grocery store, and over the back fence. In a tight knit small town, where neighbors take care of neighbors, frustration over the difficulty in resolving social issues can bring strong emotions to the forefront. Conflict drives characters and stories. Resolution of that conflict is one of the things that draws us all to cozy mysteries. It is, after all, fiction. And that means, in a cozy, that it all gets neatly wrapped up in the end to the satisfaction of the characters and the readers. The social fabric of the community is restored. None of us need cutesy or sappy or airhead investigators. But all of us need justice. And at the end of a crazy day of turmoil a cozy might just be your cup of tea!

  33. The reason I went with the small, new press for my Nautical Namaste series was that another editor told me I had to dumb down the social/racial/ ethnic differences & change names because international names are “too hard” for readers. And, to be a cozy, the characters weren’t allowed to have sex. Ever. Banter, but never make it past a kiss. Um, no. Oh, and my heroine needed to be dumber so the readers could laugh AT her & feel superior. No. One reason I like your books is your characters are smart, the relationships grow, and I have to think to keep up!

  34. Thanks, Barbara. Good post! I wrote a cozy and it was published as a “traditional mystery.” I was so new, I was just glad to be published. But I am also a reader and I really love to read cozies. I agree with all you wrote in this blog, but also I’ve thought about it for me, and well, I was an adopted only child and family was something really important to me. Many cozies are series books and I get my “Family fix” by reading these series whose characters have become like family to me. I have a feeling there are other readers who do not have my background, but feel the same way about family. By the way, I love all your books. I just finished Fogged Inn and can’t wait to start Stowed Away.

    • Thank you so much, Coco. I agree the “family feeling” whether from a family with blood and legal ties, or one created out of loyalty and friendship, is a strong pull for most cozy series. Our sleuths are rarely “lone wolves.”

  35. I am a retired English teacher. I have spent much of my life studying and teaching great literature. I love cozies. I would hardly think that, as a reader, I would need to have a novel simplified. I’m sure I am just one of so many intelligent, well-read women and men who enjoy cozies. Thank you for defending them. I would feel the same for Romance. Write on, beloved authors!

  36. I enjoyed your post, Barb, and the thoughtful responses it elicited. Cozy mysteries are quite popular now (maybe because the news is so grim), but the term “cozy” is off-putting to some people. I wonder who coined it.

    • You’re right that the term cozy was originally a pejorative. It comes, eventually, from Raymond Chandler’s classic essay, “The Simple Art of Murder,” in which he derides the English amateur detective’s “cozy lodgings.” I don’t know at which point it migrated from insult to brand.

  37. Have been mulling this over since reading your post. Like others have commented here, I love (even rely on) reading cozies to unwind, distract myself from small and large anxieties, be drawn into created worlds with engaging characters and descriptions and plot twists, and experience satisfying closure within a few hours’ read. But the murder emphasis always bothers me. I so wish there were equally wonderful cozies that don’t require killing someone off. I’m one of those who appreciates rule #2 of the “cozy rules.” I confess I do find it easier to accept the murder when the person killed is obnoxious, or turns out to be the Bad One. Sure, no one deserves to be killed (love your example of the brat who cuts in line), but there’s enough trauma in our lives with real deaths and murders, I don’t want to be so emotionally involved with the victim that the real-life heartache I’m trying to escape hits me from the mystery I assumed would be safely cozy.
    There’s one mystery series (not a WCA’s) I was enjoying, even tho it pushed my limits of violence. But then, a central character was brutally murdered, unnecessarily as far as I’m concerned. (There were better ways IMO to accomplish that plot twist.) It put me in shock. I put down the book and haven’t had the stomach to pick it up again, tho I really liked the first few I’d read. So let me encourage you fantastically talented writers to see if you can write a cozy without a murder. Or would it then no longer be a cozy?

    • Ruth, so funny you should bring this up. I have just completed a story where there is no murder–but there is a mystery. I won’t tell you which one, because it’s a spoiler, but look for it over the next year.

  38. Barb, what a great post. Thanks for identifying the issues happening now! I have a new publisher (whom I really like), but she insists cozies have one POV. Can you give me any arguments I can use (I’ve been trying to locate titles by major authors that use multiple POVs) to convince her that not all cozies are single POV? I know most are that I read, but I also know they don’t have to be. Thanks for ANY help!

    • Jessie’s Murder in an English Village (written as Jessica Ellicott) has two POVs–one from each of her sleuthing pair. It’s in hardcover and historical, so I don’t know if your editor will count it, but c’mon, what’s more cozy than “English village?”

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