by Barb–sad because we’re leaving Key West in three days (or maybe perplexed is a better word. Why are we returning to the frozen north?)
I’ve wanted to write about how I feel about being an author of cozy mysteries for awhile, but it’s always been a complicated and evolving issue. So I’ve decided to split the topic up into three blog posts that I’ll put up during my next several turns here at Wicked Cozys.
I didn’t start out to write a cozy. I started out to write a mystery. All my life I had read widely in the mystery field, without really differentiating by sub-genre. I cut my teeth on those amateur sleuths Nancy Drew and Miss Marple, who despite her maiden state, is the grandmother of all of us authors of amateur sleuths. I read Dick Francis and Ross Thomas and John D. MacDonald and Dennis Lehane and Dorothy L. Sayers and Janet Evanovich. Admittedly, it was a simpler time. I found most of my books through recommendations from friends and relatives, as well as friendly independent bookstore clerks and librarians. Megabookstores and online retailers hadn’t yet created such a strong need for subcategory labeling to help you find a book you would like.
I knew I wanted to write a series. I loved the books of P.D. James and Ruth Rendell’s Wexford series. I loved watching characters change over time, and returning to find out what was going on in their lives. I was particularly taken with Rendell’s Kingsmarkham, it’s strong sense of place and how it evolved from a sleepy market village to a sprawling suburb with a highway on-ramp and a diverse population. Even Christie’s St. Mary Mead evolved, sprouting a housing development after the second World War. To me, it was all magic.
My first mystery, The Death of An Ambitious Woman, had a professional sleuth as its protagonist, a female police chief, but it was also very much a village mystery. Which was one of the many reasons it was so hard to sell, though it was eventually published by Five Star/Cengage.
We’ve told many times on the blog how our agent, John Talbot, approached Sheila Connolly, who was then President of Sisters in Crime New England, to see if any members had an interest in writing a spec proposal for a cozy mystery series. I was very interested. Because of my love of series, I knew I wanted a multi-book contract, something Five Star didn’t offer. I wrote to Sheila behind the scenes and asked her if she thought I could do it. She pointed out that my first book had a lot of cozy elements. With her encouragement, I called John. We batted some ideas around, and chose “clambake.”
In that first call, John said, “You know what cozies are, right? Amateur sleuth, small town, ya-da, ya-da.” I’m not sure John actually said “ya-da, ya-da,” but he definitely ya-da, ya-da-ed the definition of a cozy. I assured him that I did and set to work writing the proposal.
During that period, I read a lot of books that were actually defined as “cozy mysteries.” I read books by our own Sheila Connolly, and by Leslie Meier and Kaitlyn Dunnett/(Kathy Lynn Emerson). I read John Talbot’s most successful cozy author, Cleo Coyle and Kensington’s most successful cozy author, Joanne Fluke. I was inspired by all of them. I also read several frankly terrible cozies. I won’t name any names, but ones I couldn’t finish. Ones that made me dread going to bed because I would have to open them.
I was undaunted. What area of literature doesn’t have some absolutely awful books in it? None is the answer. And, as I’ve learned over and over, my absolutely awful book is your favorite and vice versa, because the role of personal taste is huge. Besides, though I had tried to keep a professional distance from my proposal, I was falling in love with my characters and my setting. I really wanted to write these stories.
John sold the series to Kensington, and I started writing Clammed Up in earnest. I still hadn’t processed what it meant to be the author of a cozy novel, but now I was paying attention–and starting to panic. It’s interesting that neither of the things I was panicking about affected the story I was writing.
- If the author is the brand, and the brand is the author, I was in deep trouble. People might describe me in a number of ways, but nobody, including my kids, would ever describe me as cozy. I’m a city girl at heart. I have no pets, I don’t do crafts. I swear like a sailor. I don’t even cook if I can avoid it. Ulp.
- The image of cozy mysteries worried me. So often they’re defined as what they are not. You know, it’s a traditional mystery, with an amateur sleuth, but with no sex, gore or swearing. That drove me crazy. Here I am writing 70,000+ words, and the genre is defined by what’s not in there, instead of what is. It bugged the heck out of me. (Or the hell out of me, as I really would say in my real life.)
So the rest of the posts in this series will be a description of my journey with the two personal challenges above, how I evolved, and how I feel about these issues today.