Romance and Mystery

by Sheila Connolly

Last month I spent four manic days in New York with 2,500 romance writers.

I joined Romance Writers of America over ten years ago, based on the recommendation of a college classmate I talked to when I had just finished my first manuscript and had no idea what to do next. I knew she was (and still is) a writer. She told me to join RWA. I was so new that I didn’t even know that groups like that existed, much less that they had local chapters that I could join and meetings I could attend.

I confess: I write romance. With ghosts.
I confess: I write romance. With ghosts.

I’m still a member of RWA, although a few years later I kind of slid sideways into writing mysteries, where I feel more at home. But a couple of years ago I dusted off one of those early romance manuscripts and self-published it, and then followed it with two more, so I guess now I’m writing romance as well as mystery, much to my surprise.

Times Square--portal to another universe?
Times Square–portal to another universe?

Which is why I decided it was time to go back to an RWA conference. This year was being held in New York, at a big Times Square hotel, and I was told this is The Big One that everyone wants to attend. Off I toddled with my overweight suitcase and my Little Black Dress, ready to invade enemy territory.

Guess what: romance writers look a whole lot like mystery writers, only there are far more romance writers. And they talk—long and loud—about writing. Non-stop. I had conversations about craft and publishing and career at breakfast, at the bar, in the hallways, and just about anywhere else (not the ladies room, though).

I went to the conference with the goal of figuring out how romance commands a larger market share than mystery. Is there some magic trick of promotion? Or are there simply more people who like to read about people falling in love and walking happily into the sunset, hand in hand? Hey, in most murder mysteries there’s a HEA, when the criminal is caught and justice prevails—but there’s no passionate clinch and promise of a glowing future with The Right One.

To be fair, many mysteries (especially the kind we Wicked Cozies write) include an element of romance. There’s usually a guy on the scene, or maybe even two. But he or they kind of take a back seat to our heroine catching a killer; at best they get equal time. The search for justice trumps emotion?

Mark Twain is usually given credit for saying “write what you know.” But the less well known Joel Chandler Harris, the author of the Brer Rabbit tales, said, “Write about what you know and care deeply about.” Romance writers care about what they’re writing, no question. So do mystery writers. There’s room for all of us (though romance writers take up a bit more space than mystery writers).

Truth time, Wicked Cozy readers: do you read romance and mystery? Would you like to see more or less romance in your mysteries?

45 Thoughts

    1. ‘m still boggled. Barbara Freethy, the queen of self-publishing (both her out-of-print titles and new releases) has sold literally millions of books, and she was one of the keynote speakers. She looks like a normal person–she’s not a diva, nor does she have an entourage. The only thing that makes her stand out is that she started early, when the self-pubbed market was new and wide open. She saw the opportunity and grabbed it, and she already had a strong group of followers. It would be difficult to duplicate this now that everyone has jumped on that wagon. But she’s not alone in her success!

      As for romance vs. murder–maybe there are more lovers than killers? And I think (personal opinion) that most women fantasize about finding their perfect significant other, no matter what their existing romantic status. They’re less likely to fantasize about solving a crime.

  1. It seems to me (just my humble opinion) that when a writer focuses on romance, it becomes either sleazy or sappy. I think it’s very hard to be “literary” in love. Now murder – that’s another thing. The range of motives and emotions seem to be endless. But then again, maybe I’m just not experienced enough even though I’m a senior (young at heart though – LOL). But feel free to challenge my point of view. It’s the thing that makes writers who they are.

    1. Marian, I’ve felt that way in the past. I don’t read “pure” romance–I want a plot, and I want something to happen. I think we as mystery writers have the best of both worlds–we can have a solid story as well as a romantic element, and both can have satisfying endings. The trick is to balance the two.

      But given the state of the publishing world, I don’t think we can afford to look down our noses at romance books and writers, because there are three times as many of them as of us–and they sell a heck of a lot of books.

  2. Ha! I was going to write about a similar subject next week 🙂 I too attended RWA (Sheila and I had some lovely long chats–not all about business, LOL!), and I joined RWA well before I joined Sisters In Crime or before I was eligible for Mystery Writers of America since my local RWA chapter meets less than an hour from my home. RWA focuses heavily on education–both the craft and business elements of writing–so it’s a great place to learn and keep learning. And yes, RWA people will talk writing 24-7 and never get tired of it. It’s a passion.

    Interestingly, I heard a fair amount about cozies at the conference. There were a number of cozy authors there, including Sheila and me. Cozy people can coexist quite happily within the romance world and are readily accepted (as are sci-fi, fantasy, paranormal, and other subgenres). Romance writers are a very inclusive group. Some of the romance genres are quite closely related to cozies–romantic suspense, inspirational, and sweet romance. Not sure a romance writer would be as readily accepted in mystery/thriller/crime fiction circles. Maybe, if she were writing romantic suspense, but she better be successful. Mystery seems to be a tougher crowd to break into. Maybe because we’re–naturally suspicious? LOL! Just my observations.

    So what did I hear about cozies at RWA? Well, a number of publishers, including Kensington, are actively looking for them–for their e lines. My guess is that most new cozy writers are going to be cutting their teeth with digital publication. A couple of Kensington editors actually asked for “steamier” cozies! Yes, you read that right. But I would bet dollars to donuts that those will go to the digital line first. St. Martin’s also wants cozies. I know of one cozy author who went digital first, and her publisher is putting her into trade print for her next books, but only because she sold 100,000 copies of the first few titles in the series. So the sales bar is fairly high to make the leap.

    Which brings me to my final point (for now, LOL!). Romance readers still read print, but they read A LOT electronically. The ease of downloading a book–and the anonymity of doing so–means that romance readers can read get a new book and read it anywhere, anytime, and nobody knows what they’re reading. I only have one book out so I’m not sure my data is all that meaningful, but up till now I have sold 76% of my books in print. So there’s a dichotomy between romance and mystery in how books are getting into the hands of consumers.

    And yes, I have a romance written (with series potential–meaning I seeded in enough single women/men who could get their own stories), but it needs some overhauling. My plan is to self-pub it/them.

    1. I agree with all your points, and I heard much the same things.

      I was surprised when my publisher finally decided to allow us writers to access our sales data, to find that the Berkley numbers for my cozy series was consistently 60% print/40% ebooks. I had gleaned the impression from various sources that the ebooks made up a smaller percentage. Or maybe that’s what publishers wanted us to think?

      I also took a moment to look at the numbers sold for my Relatively Dead romance series. While I haven’t compared the results to the Berkley numbers, I will say that the third book in that series, Defending the Dead, showed a significant increase over the earlier ones in its first month of release, so I think the audience is building.

      I do think having an existing reader base makes a big difference–at least our mystery followers are willing to take a look (readers, do you agree?). For a new author trying to break into ebooks, it’s not easy.

      I came away with the impression that I should be more involved in the RWA community than I have been over the past few years–there are opportunities there. And it’s not “them versus us.”

      1. From my reader perspective, I think of Defending the Dead as an historical mystery romance…I like mysteries/cozies because of the puzzle to solve. (My scientist/forensic hat). I imagine that your audience is building because success begets success and the marketing for the third book in the series could build on that. (My marketing hat)

  3. P.S., remember that not all romance is explicit/graphic. There are lots and lots of fade-to-black romances out there, as well as ones where the hero/heroine don’t consummate their relationship until after the book ends. It’s more about character/relationship building–and romances are NOT easy to write. As mystery writers we rely more on plot. Romance writers have to sustain three or four hundred pages of story on mostly emotion.

    1. Plus it seems that a lot of romance writers turn out books every month, or every other month. Incredible volume.

      If you look at RT Reviews these days, it’s clear there is an entire spectrum of explicitness, from sweet and chaste to no holds barred. Readers can choose their own comfort level.

  4. My books include a romantic element. I think it adds a extra dimension to the story. And as Sheila said people love to fall in love. I’ve had a few comments from people who don’t like a side of romance with their mysteries but most of my readers seemed to like it.

  5. I like mysteries with a touch of romance, but not enough to detract from the plot. Main characters have lives outside of sleuthing…jobs, soccer practice, cooking, gardening. All these components make them fully realized characters.

  6. I like my mysteries with romance as this is part of real life. I used to read *pure* romance but I found the plot to be the same and then I gleamed onto mysteries where I could get the best of both worlds.

    Thanks for the interesting tidbits learned at RWA. I did hear that some of the publishing houses that didn’t do cozies are now looking at them as well.

    1. I agree–romance is part of ordinary life, and ignoring it seems artificial. I admit I was always a little uncomfortable with Hercule Poirot or Miss Marple or Nero Wolfe, because they had few personal connections with anyone, much less romantic interests. Sherlock Holmes? Not clear, but maybe.

      I’ve covered all the bases for cozies (no, that was not calculated–it was what the characters wanted). In one series, there’s a wedding coming up; in another, a couple has moved into a house they bought together; and in the third, there are two possible guys in the wings, but my heroine is in no hurry to pair off with anyone–she’s got too much to figure out about her own life (and she’s the youngest of them all).

  7. I also suspect writers are more willing to read romance along with mystery, but i wonder about the readers who aren’t seeking a writing career? I read rather widely, so i read both. I’m also a member of Connecticut Romance Writers (CTRWA) as well as SinC and MWA.

    As a writer, I’ve always adored SinC Guppies, but it’s all online. Writers meeting face to face is intellectual catnip. It’s like “seeing Par-ree.” The closest mystery groups to my home meet two to three hours away. CTRWA allows me to talk to other writers, as well as consider them close friends with whom to grab a quick meal. That kind of relationship means a lot in this solitary work. Plus, geographically close friends who share your interests? Catnip, again.

    Also, as Susannah says, RWA’s online education courses come with a long track record of excellence yet remain up-to-date career training. I’m delighted to see the mystery groups offering more courses. Frankly, there’s plenty of cross-over between the romance training and the mystery-writing training, as RWA experts teach us character building and character motivation in mystery.

    I think Sheila’s onto something. Falling in love is a common fantasy among women, even after it’s happened and the Happily Every After (More or Less) is in progress. 🙂 Solving a murder isn’t a common deeply held dream.

    IMO, commercial fiction seems to speak to longing. A lot of cozies pertain to domestic arts we don’t have time to craft ourselves. Settings we can’t visit and adventures we can’t have except on the page.

    However, I’ve lately begun to see cozy sleuths as a variation on the Walter Mitty or SuperHero dreams without capes and costumes. Think about it … the mild-mannered caterer/florist/farmer/chef/knitter has a secret identity in which she restores balance to her society and then returns to her regular life.

    1. All good points. We as writers are a tribe, and we all speak the same language–that’s why it’s fun to get together. When we talk about the “voices in our head” or “the character made me do it,” most people will label us as crazy. When we say that to a writer, whatever the genre, they know exactly what we mean.

  8. Hi Sheila, I was amazed at the changes in security RWA instituted at the NY Literary signing. My last venture to RWA NY was in 2013 and I had been able to enter the ball room early so that I could leave calling cards and chocolate at the seats of the attending authors I knew, liked, or reviewed. I couldn’t even badge my way past that bunch of security folks (all retired NYPD or Staties).

    It was fun “bumping” into you so unexpectedly also. Turning away from Linda O and almost bouncing off you was quite a shock to my noise jangled nerves.

    Cozy authors come in all flavors, most of my favorite ones all have that element of romance in their books. Let’s face it, every amateur detective needs her sidekick. Having one who is also their romantic interest just makes the books so much more fun to read.

    I guess I’ll be seeing you at RWA-NY2018 when the circus returns to the Big Apple.

  9. Hi, Sheila,
    Interesting post. 14 of my 51 traditionally published books were romance novels. The “voice” I used in the six I wrote for Bantam’s Loveswept line (right before it was discontinued in 1998–not my fault, honest!) is almost identical to that I use in my Liss MacCrimmon mysteries, as is the setting. Personally, I like a little mystery in my romances and a little romance in my mysteries, both the ones I write and the ones I read. It seems to me that many mystery readers, however, want to stick to reading mysteries and are likely to regard romances, often without having read any, as “bodice rippers” (HATE that term!). In some ways not much has changed about people’s attitudes since my first romance novel was published in 1993. FYI, nothing against RWA, which does a great job of encouraging and training new writers, but if you want the most in-depth information on the publishing industry, the organization you want to join as a published novelist is Novelists Inc.


    1. Hmm…I did join Novelists Inc. a while back (recruited by a romance writer, no less), but I haven’t been active for a while. I should look into that again.

      I will say that the much-maligned “bodice ripper” authors don’t do themselves any favors when they continue to use covers with a man and a woman with no heads, whose clothes seem to be falling off in defiance of gravity (did Regency men tan?). Just leaf through any copy of RT Reviews and it’s obvious. Or maybe they’re the only ones who are paying for ads these days?

      1. Ah, but do romance writers have any more say in the covers than we do? I know I never did. And, sadly, here it is 2015 and I’m still stuck with headless women for my Mistress Jaffrey Mysteries. At least for the December title, the headless woman is holding a dagger.😊


      2. Too true. The publishers think headless people sell? But then, cozy writers have kittens and puppies crawling all over their covers, thanks to the publishers’ art departments.

      3. I could be wrong, but I think the headless romance models came about because publishers didn’t want to pay models for the right to use their faces, which costs more than just bodies. And yes, per my traditionally pubbed romance writer friends, they have basically no say in their covers. Or titles, for that matter.

    2. I’ve been hearing quite a bit about Novelists, Inc. lately (prompted by changes to RWA’s Published Author Network, which is a whole ‘nother can of worms). I’m going to check out NInc. I would respectfully disagree that RWA is totally skewed toward beginner writers, though I know many who will disagree with me. I have been the VP of Programming for the last two years for my RWA chapter, and I’ve worked hard to get a wide variety of workshops at every level for our monthly meeting (we usually have 3 sessions per meeting). Recent topics have included advanced plotting techniques, newsletters, street teams, Facebook parties, a presentation by a Publisher’s Weekly reviewer, and how to put together a great PowerPoint presentation. I learn something from every speaker, and the well-published authors in our group (of which there are a pretty good number) are always willing to talk advanced shop amongst ourselves. We don’t spend all our time giving assistance to newer writers–though we do some of that too because it’s just good karma to pay it forward. That being said, I have heard that NInc., with its stricter membership requirements, is where more and more professional writers are headed. I’d be interested to know what they offer as far as programming and whether the anti-traditional publishing bias I’ve heard about is true.

      1. I haven’t been part of the New England RWA chapter for several years (although I did run into a number of people I knew at the conference in New York), but I would agree that it’s not skewed–unless you count the established authors mentoring the beginners. Meetings when I attended always drew around 40 people, and included a number of names most of us would recognize from bookshelves. I found it a very supportive group, with a great range of programming (and a local conference).

      2. I see how RWA helps writers of all levels. When you get your first rejection for your first novel, you get to go PRO, which helps with those on the agent trail or who’ve published and are seeking deeper marketing advice. When you make low four figures from your writing, you get to be a part of PAN, which I think meets secretly in the Oak Room at the Plaza. #Kidding #Maybe #MaybeNot

        The national magazine Romance Writer Report (RWR) is full of craft, publishing business news tips, and inspiration. Sometimes, though, after I read it, I wanna hide in a corner with my Teddy bear, but I remind myself I write about crime, not falling in love. No stress there, right?

        Other chapters do things their own way, but CTRWA meetings are like single-day conferences, really. Go first thing in the morning for the critique session or the PRO meeting. There’s the group meeting followed by lunch, then THREE programs. One is the main speaker, another is a shorter craft or technique-oriented subject, and the other is a presentation from one of our pubbed authors. We have the room until 5 pm, so you can write if you want to stay, or just catch up with pals. If you don’t have the energy for the whole day, no problem: just show up for the programs.

  10. Hi Sheila, I think you have a good balance of romance and mystery. I have read books from all of your series – my favorites are the Diva series, the Orchard series and the Relatively Dead series. I think the romance in the Relatively Dead series is about as much romance as I would like. I like the mystery part more than the romance, but it isn’t real life without those relationships of some kind. Even Hercule Poirot fell for a few women, but sadly, never got the girl. It added to the mystery, though, because in one story she was the thief and it made you wonder if he was going to let her get away with it! Just nothing that will steam up my reading glasses. That’s TOO far! Lol. Thanks for many, many hours of fun, escape and reading pleasure!

  11. I have Goodreads and Amazon reviews that say, “too much romance” and ones that say, “not enough.” Personal taste is such a huge factor with our audiences.

    I think part of the fantasy of many mysteries is that if something terrible happens, someone will relentlessly and single-mindedly pursue justice. Too much personal story interferes with this fantasy.

    On the other hand, part of the joy of a series is revisiting the developing lives of familiar characters. So it’s a balancing act, in my opinion.

  12. The only romance I’ve read recently has been because Joanne Fluke and Laura Levine had stories in romance anthologies. Honestly, they wrote the stories I enjoyed the most. The pure romance often got a little boring, although I could get into some of the stories.

    I’ll stick with my mysteries, thanks. And I don’t mind the romance there as long as it doesn’t take over. I’m reading for a mystery first and foremost.

  13. Would it be tacky for me to bring up Connecticut Fiction Fest in this discussion of romance and mystery? Next month, Sept. 11 -13. 🙂 However, Hank Phillippi Ryan is the keynote with luminaries of crime fiction like Hallie Ephron, Jessica Andersen, and Miss Susannah herself teaching workshops. Here’s the link: You can also find the workshop schedule on that page.

  14. I used to read quite a few romances but stopped when all the stories started sounding the same. I still read two or three romances a year. I don’t mind some romance in my cozies as long as the romance doesn’t take over the story. I have to say, though, that I am not a fan of the love triangle in mysteries!

    1. I agree if it’s stuck in just as a ploy. The only time I’ve used it (or plan to later) is in the Irish series, where my heroine is offered a clear choice between very different men, and when and if she becomes interested in one or the other, she will learn something about herself. No Stephanie Plum confusion!

  15. Hi Sheila and Susannah -It was great to meet both of you at RWA! I love attending the conferences because I learn so much about other’s processes and results.

    See you in NC in October?

    Very interesting blog. I write both romance and cozy mystery so I’m used to the diversity of genres in the pool.


    1. It’s nice the way writers share information, isn’t it? I’m still getting used to having a foot in each camp (mystery and romance), so I’m happy to hear others’ stories. And yes, I’ll be at Bcon!

  16. I started in Romance, not because it’s my favorite but because, as you said, Sheila, romance writers talk about craft non-stop. And, boy howdy, did I need to learn craft before I could tackle a whodunit! Besides mysteries of all kinds, I read romantic suspense, especially Carla Neggers’ Maine and Ireland series (remember that recent post in WCA about “does location count?”!). I also like a good “small town” series like Mariah Stewart’s Chesapeake Diaries series. I write romance, too, the Lakeside Porches series from Soul Mate Publishing, set in the Finger Lakes of Upstate New York– same setting and some common characters as in my new Tompkins Falls Mysteries. –kate

  17. Here you can discover the best Mystery Romance in Amazon Best Sellers, and find the top 100 most popular Amazon Mystery Romance. For non-U.

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