How I Learned to Relax About Being a “Cozy” Author and Just Write the Damn Books–Part I

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?)

Barbara RossI’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.

The Beginning

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.

DeathOfAmbitiousWomanFrontMy 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.”

JohnTalbotIn 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.

CLAMMED_UPI 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.

To wit:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

You can now read Part II here and Part III here.

48 Thoughts

  1. I love this post! I’ve evolved into writing cozies too, so I definitely relate to a lot of this. The first book I wrote (unsold of course!) was a police procedural with a serial killer. Not even close to a cozy!

  2. I’ve always said that the genre I’m writing in is whatever my publisher decides it is. Example: early in my writing career I sold the same exact book twice (the first line folded before publication and returned the rights), once as YA romance and the second time as a middle grades mystery. Today? I’d call my latest a cozy historical. My publisher labels it an Elizabethan thriller. Go figure!


  3. very helpful, and looking forward to your next posts. Currently revising a cozy that went dark on me, pondering keeping or pitching the noir, going traditional mystery, or circling back to cozy, pushing the limits of the genre. It’s the first of a series, so lots of decisions.

    1. Good luck, Margaret — I struggled (and still do) with the same problem. The cozy market is hot right now but you have to decide if that’s what you really want to write. It’s complicated!

  4. This post is so timely for me, Barb. I’ve been thinking about this very topic and wondering why cozies don’t always get the respect they deserve. Is it the name “cozy,” which conjures up images of domesticity and hearth and home, and therefore the stories are not perceived as serious works of fiction, even though they deal with murder and other crimes? I hate that I even have to say this in 2015 in the United States, but is it because most are written by women, and most readers are women? (Hello, Sisters in Crime) I was just investigating ordering a number of my books for signings and was going to go through a particular independent brick and mortar bookstore specializing in mysteries, until I looked at their online catalog and realized that they do not list a single cozy author–not even Cleo or Sheila or Joanne. They carry cozies in the store, but they don’t list them in their online catalog. Explain. So I’ll be buying through another independent bookstore.

    But things may be changing. As more and more cozy authors (and gosh, I hope all of the Wicked and Accomplices are included) hit the big lists, visibility is going to be increased. And with romance, the other genre read primarily by women, getting steamier, cozies are going to be a great alternative for people who don’t have as much of a selection of sweet romances, which are based on relationships and don’t rely on graphic details–sound familiar? Sounds like a cozy, but less plot driven.

    And of course, Joanne Fluke’s Chocolate Chip Cookie Murder is being made into a Hallmark channel mystery movie series. So many possibilities! So I’ll keep writing them, and I’ll keep reading them.

  5. I never thought about that definition by negatives, Barb. But I’ve heard you also say that cozies are stories where everything comes out right in the end (except for the victim and villain, of course). I like that.

  6. Barb, this really strikes a chord as I’ve struggled with a lot of the same issues you describe. I tend to gravitate toward the dark, creepy, psychological mysteries when reading (and like you I swear like a sailor). But I’ve also discovered that there isn’t a limit to what you can do in a cozy – it’s just telling the story differently than your first instinct might suggest. I have to say, I’ve fallen in love with writing them and watching my town and characters evolve. It’s a great privilege, and great fun.

  7. Great post, Barb, and I look forward to reading your continuing posts on this. Sometimes I feel so divided because I started out writing science fiction and then darker serial killer mysteries because that’s what I liked to read. Then one day I decided to try something lighter and wrote a pet cozy. To my surprise, this was the book that took off and gained an audience. So, that’s what I write now. In fact, I just signed a new contract for a new pet cozy series. They are so much fun to write but also just as hard because they have all of the same elements of the traditional mystery. But, I feel like because they’re so much fun, they’re considered “fluff” writing and not taken seriously. Sometimes when I tell someone I write cozy mysteries, I want to add, “Humor is hard to write, people!”

  8. I just finished my second cozy book in my new series for Berkley’s InterMix. My agent suggested I write them because I love reading them. I don’t do horror, thrillers, or dark stuff so cozies are perfect for me. I have a lot of fun writing them.

  9. My computer’s Internet stopped working on my so I’m writing this on my phone. First world problem for sure.

    Barb, you aren’t the first cozy author I love who says they aren’t cizy in real life. I certainly don’t fall into many of the themes. I don’t cook (too lazy), I’m allergic to pets, and I don’t craft.

    However, I live cozies for the things you left out. I’m trying a few of the big sellers of the darker books this year, and I’m finding the swearing and the sex a huge turn off. I like Cozies because they don’t have those things.

    Plus I like them for your other definition. I like a world where everyone except the victim and the villain comes to a happy end. It’s not real life, but I don’t read to live in reality. I read to escape reality.

    As to why so many people look down on them, I think it is because they have a sunny look at life. So many of the winners in any genre are the darker things with the light most enjoyable things being over looked for not being serious enough. Yes, there might be some amount of “by women for women” in there, but overall, I think it is the tone that makes them overlooked. Even the stuff that does go deeper (which I enjoy), will get overlooked for the same reason.

  10. Excellent post, Barb! When I started writing I intentionally wrote what I thought of as traditional … basically, because I didn’t know much about police procedures. And the books went well, I had a rep … but now most mysteries I read and enjoy are classified as suspense or (even) thrillers. I’m itching to write darker. But readers know me as a cozy mystery author. And now I have two series. So … for the immediate future, I’m where I am. I think in the 10+ years since I was first published cozies have gotten cutsier and cozier. Pink and green covers men don’t want to be seen reading. Recipes. Patterns. On the other hand … suspense and thrillers have gotten darker. I’m hoping there’s still room for the traditional … an amateur sleuth who deals with larger issues than who poisoned the pancakes. Will look forward to your future posts …. and welcome back to New England! .

    1. I am the same kind of reader you are, I think, Lea.

      I do think you’re onto something with the observation that dark gets darker and light get lighter. Will have to ponder that in one of the coming posts.

    2. I hope you are right that there is still room for traditionals, Lea! And probably at some point the pendulum will swing back from the extremes.

  11. Thank you for sharing your journey, and I look forward to the following two posts, Barb.
    I found your comment about the genre being defined as what’s not there as opposed to what is there, so interesting. A wise writer friend told me long ago, when describing what you’re writing, don’t mention what it’s NOT, focus on what it IS. Why start out with a negative? I took that to heart, so I can’t wait to read how you address this in the series.

    Women writing about women being read by the largest section of book buyers: women. This seems like a winning formula to riches and admiration, but it’s not, is it?

  12. What Sherry said really resonates with me. I’ve tried to write cozy and, well, my heart’s not in it. Yet I look at the market and think, “Maybe that’s what I should be writing.” But it’s not really what I read (with notable exceptions) and it’s not my natural inclination. So I think that’s why I’m not very good at it (well, I don’t think I’m very good at it). Goes back to following your heart, not the money, doesn’t it?

    But I greatly admire people who do it well.

  13. You already know how much I loved “The Death of an Ambitious Woman,” Barb. But your Maine Clambake series is sooooo good. Love the atmosphere and the characters, and look forward greedily to the next book in the series. Which — by the way — I now have in my hot little hands and can’t wait to read and review for Suspense Magazine. Just keep on writing, girl.

  14. Thanks for sharing the beginning of your journey. Look forward to the middle. BTW, I’m glad you wrote Clammed Up.

  15. SO ironic. I love cozies, thought for sure I could write them easily, and then I wrote a really dark beginning that had to go. Can’t wait for the rest of this series. And, PS, I’d ask for another month lease. And invite me to visit.

    1. I would love to ask for another month, but the owners are arriving for March–and all sorts of wheels are turning back at home. Time to go. Sigh.

  16. (Sorry–I’m late to the party.) I can’t say enough good things about John Talbot. He didn’t approach me/SinCNE just to cast a wide net and see what he could drag in. He was serious, he followed through, and he’s gotten a great list of authors published. That’s exactly how an agent should work.

    I had no clue about mystery genres and read widely for years. But when we moved into our current house, and finally had room to unpack all the books we’d been hauling around the country for years, it became very clear that what I read most often (and saved) were cozies or traditionals. They may not get the big reviews and they’re not glamorous, but people (yes, mainly women) read them, and they buy series. So we’re touching their lives, quietly, and bringing them pleasure.

    Barb, you’re definitely doing it right! (As are the other writers here.)

    1. What a great statement about the power of cozy mysteries, Sheila. I’m realizing that one of the good things about doing this piece in three parts is that it can reflect the comments I receive along the way.

  17. This is great, Barb! I really enjoyed your take on the journey to writing a cozy. My first mystery had a strip club owner and hookers as that was my take on what they meant by having a “hook”. LOL! I like to think we’re all changing the definition of what a cozy is from within and maybe our characters will actually get to bust out an F bomb and get shagged someday.

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