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!