Saturday, April 30, 2022

Elements of a Cozy Mystery by Nancy J. Cohen

Elements of a Cozy Mystery by Nancy J. Cohen

A cozy mystery is a subgenre of the traditional mystery. It’s a whodunit featuring an amateur sleuth, a unique setting, a limited number of suspects most of whom know each other, and a murder mystery to solve. These stories are “clean” in that they do not contain any explicit sex, violence, or bad language.

 So how is a cozy different from a traditional mystery? It’s all about reader expectations. Fans of this genre expect a lighthearted story with distinctive covers, punny titles, and interesting locales. Elements include, but are not limited to, characters, crime, clues, cooking, crafts, canines, cats, cultural quirks, and chuckles.

Characters involved in these stories include the amateur sleuth, suspects, and a recurrent cast. Readers adore series and they want the secondary characters to feel like friends. Meanwhile, the sleuth should have an interesting occupation that offers a chance for readers to learn something new. She needs to have an inquisitive and determined nature, so she will pursue the truth. It helps if she’s a good conversationalist to get people to talk and is clever at ferreting out relationships among the suspects. These characters should each have a secret that relates to other suspects.

The sleuth’s occupation may involve cooking or crafts, both very popular tropes among cozy fans, but this isn’t a necessity, and a fresh approach is always welcome. Pets also serve as cherished characters. Whatever animal you choose, never hurt the pet. That’s taboo for cozies. Children and animals are not to be harmed. Make sure the sleuth has a friend or family member that can act as a sounding board. You’ll want someone she can confide in because you want her to do a periodic review of suspects in the story.

Settings are another important element. Your cozy can be set in a small town, seaside resort, or other setting enriched with regional foods and unique cultural practices. Your reader will want to feel they are there through your use of the five senses, popular slang terms, and other details that give your setting its own flavor. This is the overall series setting.

Narrow this further to include the sleuth’s occupation, work environment, and colleagues. Then pick a locale for the murder to take place. This is what I call “the setting within a setting.”

As an example, my Bad Hair Day series takes place in southeast Florida. Marla Vail, my sleuth, own a hair salon and day spa. When she’s behind the chair as a stylist, she has the perfect opportunity to listen to gossip or question potential suspects. Meanwhile, each title centers on a different locale with a particular focus. “Shear Murder” involves a wedding party at fictional Orchid Isle. “Perish by Pedicure” has a murder at a beauty trade show.  “Killer Knots” is my cruise ship mystery. “Styled for Murder” involves a home renovation crew. You see how the setting within the setting varies for each story.

Regarding the murder, the reader wants a puzzle to solve. You have to play fair and offer clues leading to the killer. Then you misdirect the reader with false leads and red herrings. Just remember to keep the tone light. Cozy fans expect a fun story with characters they care about and a happy ending where justice is served.



Nancy J. Cohen writes the Bad Hair Day Mysteries featuring South Florida hairstylist Marla Vail. These books have won numerous awards along with her nonfiction titles, Writing the Cozy Mystery and A Bad Hair Day Cookbook. Nancy is a past president of Florida Chapter of MWA. When not busy writing, she enjoys reading, fine dining, cruising and visiting Disney World. Visit her at








Susan said...

I read your book when it first came out, Nancy, and found it very helpful.

KM Rockwood said...

The definition of a cozy mystery has certainly evolved from when I was introduced to Agatha Christie, and an entire generation of new authors has created a huge offering for an eager audience.

Jim Jackson said...

Hi Nancy -- I had the pleasure of reading an early version of the second edition. Lots of good stuff even for non-cozy authors.

Shari Randall said...

Reader expectations are so important. Thank you, Nancy!

Kait said...

Great blog and such a nice synopsis of the cozy genre!

Margaret S. Hamilton said...

I'm revising to meet reader expectations. It's like selling a house.

Nancy J. Cohen said...

It doesn't seem as though I can reply individually, so thanks for having me here. I am glad you have found my book to be helpful if you've read it. And yes, reader expectations are critically important for this subgenre.

Marilyn Levinson said...

Excellent advice, Nancy. And I've always followed one bit of advice you gave me years ago—let the romance develop slowly.

Debra H. Goldstein said...

Thanks for stopping by WWK with such great comments. Having read your book, I know your post is only the tip of the iceberg to what you imparted in that book about cozies. (and no, there is no way on this site to reply individually to comments).

Molly MacRae said...

Great information, Nancy. Thanks for sharing it on Writers Who Kill today.