Susannah here, enjoying a cup of joe … and avoiding housework...
So, my Wicked people, today I thought we’d have a Mythbusting session. No, I’m not going to use a magnifying glass and the sun to start a campfire, or investigate the potentially uncomfortable results of combining Pop Rocks and soda. Not that that wouldn’t be fun–er, educational!
I belong to a number of different writers’ email loops, and they are sources of invaluable information. But sometimes they are full of misinformation. Or perhaps I should say misperceptions.
Recently on one of the loops someone mentioned the “fact” that cozies are not “deep” and that she was having trouble connecting with her characters and story. This was her first cozy contract, but she had extensive experience writing in the romance and paranormal genres. A couple of people chimed in that they were writing or reading cozies and either implied or came right out and said that cozies were “light,” the implication being that they were shallow.
I’m going on the record right now to tell you that traditional, cozy mysteries do NOT have to be shallow, devoid of character arcs and development, or plot driven to the point that the characters don’t matter. Certainly no Wicked Cozy or Accomplice is writing books like that! I butted in and emailed the author privately and we brainstormed some ways that she could not only get more into her sleuth’s head, but tie what’s in her head to the plot–both the immediate plot (the murder), and the ongoing plot (the character’s backstory and development over the series). So in case this helps any writer or reader get a better handle on adding or identifying depth in stories–any genre–here are some of the thoughts and techniques I offered:
- The key difference between an ongoing series, like a cozy mystery or darker procedural, and a standalone, like a romance, is that the main character’s entire character arc cannot–in fact, MUST not–be revealed in one book. In a romance, you only get one chance. There are two main characters, and they fall in love, overcome obstacles to their relationship, including both external AND internal, and in the end they get together with a promise of a Happily Ever After. The End. These characters may make cameo appearances in later related novels, but their character arcs are essentially completed because subsequent books have new romantic partners as main characters.
- However, in an ongoing series, if the author reveals everything in the first book, or starts the main character from a place where she’s already settled (already happily married, already has children, already firmly established in a profession, completely secure in her place in the community), the author and the story have nowhere to go in subsequent books. An exception to the above would be if the character starts from a place where she THINKS she’s settled or all her demons are conquered, but then something happens to throw that balance way, way off.
- Give the main character some family issues. A mother or father who abandoned her. A sibling with whom she has never gotten along. An interfering grandmother. An awful ex-husband with a new trophy wife. A mother or father who disapproves of what she is doing with her life. A family secret that no one ever talked about, but that suddenly comes to a head, causing strong emotions to come up. This ensures lots of plot and conflict material for future books. And if a relative or someone else from her past gets killed off later, the heroine will have to deal with the guilt that they never reconciled. Or maybe one of these people is accused of murder, and the heroine finds she can use finding the real killer as a means of reconciliation. Does the heroine take some action, thinking she’s doing the right thing, but in the process injures an innocent person and must find a way to deal with her guilt and make things right?
- Give your heroine a deep-seated reason to want/need to succeed. She could have a need to prove her parents wrong–they wanted her to go to law school, but she wanted to open a bead store and make jewelry. Or she could have had a boss or a teacher who told her she had no talent and would never amount to anything, and she has believed it, limiting her success. Or maybe she grew up on the wrong side of the tracks, so it’s vitally important to her to have roots and financial security. Or maybe she has been working at a job that sucks the life out of her but pays the bills, but her real dream is to drive an ice cream truck. Does she have a physical challenge that she has always been told will prevent her from being what she wants to be, and she needs to change her belief system in order to get there? Help the character find a way or ways over time to move closer to her dream(s).
- Use secondary characters as foils for the sleuth’s over-time development. Example: a friend falls for a con man, and the heroine knows he’s dishonest because the guy tells the same kind of stories as her own ex. So helping her friend also gives her some closure with her own issues. Or a member of the community or the sleuth’s mentor figure used to be a stockbroker, but gave it all up to come home to her small town to open her dream knitting shop. By example, the heroine sees that living authentically is possible, which could allow her to grow and develop and make strides toward her dream(s).
This cozy stuff is like any other genre fiction–it just happens at a slower rate over a series. The thing is that whatever character issues you choose, they have to be woven in over the framework of the mystery itself. So the character issues should tie in with the heroine’s success–or failure–at solving the mysteries.
It’s your turn, readers and writers. How much character development do you want to see, and how quickly do you want it to happen over a series? What are some examples of series that make character development a priority (whether or not you agree with the direction the author chose to take her/his character, which is another topic entirely)?
Great insights, Susannah. And you’ve got me thinking about my own series, where I’m always looking to dive a bit deeper.
I’ve only read your Local Foods mysteries, but I think you’ve got a good handle on this! Just keep adding layers in every book by making her face her past, her fears, and her dreams, and Cam will continue to grow. As a reader, I know that’s what I look for when deciding to continue reading a series.
I will admit that the heroine of my first book, Feta Attraction, is not very deep. But I wrote that several years ago, before I started studying the craft and editing romances for other people. The editing is where I really learned about characterization. In my second book, Olive and Let Die, I put some of the above advice to work and the book is far, far stronger than the first, IMHO.
Looking forward to seeing where you take Cam and your other heroines!
Could not agree more. One of the fun things about a series is the time to grow relationships, and have arcing plots. Great post!
As a reader, I love, love, love arcing plots that go on for several books, even as the mystery in each individual book gets solved. That’s what brings readers back–because they (I, LOL!) just have to see what happens next. In my Greek series, I have a very big plot arc that will be resolved (or appear to be resolved–I left myself a bit of wiggle room, just in case) in book 3, as well as some smaller arcs that I can expand on later if I’m lucky enough to have the series renewed beyond 3.
Great advice! I think Lucy Burdette is doing a great job with growing her protagonist, Haley Snow, in her Key West Food Critic Mystery series.
Totally agree. Lucy’s Key West series is one I was thinking of as I wrote this post. Hayley started out as a very naive young woman who made a choice to follow her boyfriend to Florida–of course not a smart choice, but exactly the kind of choice a young, naive woman would make! And over the course of the books she is developing and maturing into someone I want to spend time with story after story. Brilliantly done. Another series where you can really see character development is Cleo Coyle’s Coffeehouse series. There’s a reason those books are so successful. Aside from the amazing recipes, LOL!, we have watched Claire move through different phases of her life, both the ups and the downs. These are just a joy to read.
thrillers are plot-driven, and cozy mysteries are character-driven. Appealing characters keep readers returning for another book, as they grow and change.
I agree, which is why I think romance and cozy mysteries are closely related genres. They approach it differently, but both genres are more about relationships than they are about plot. Although plot is far more important in a cozy than in a romance. It’s the characters that bring readers back for the next installment, not the murder.
Eek! My iPad keyboard cut me off… I started to say your post is full of wisdom! My series has a husband-wife couple as sleuths but they’ve agreed (both reluctantly) to hold off starting a family for a few years. The six mysteries in the series fall into those two college semesters and summers. Plenty of potential for in-law drama, as well as the tension of a wife who wants a whole bunch of kids and a husband who’s considerably older than she.
Ooh, lots of potential for great conflict there, both inside the couple’s relationship and from outside sources. I would exploit the heroine’s need (not her want, but her need) for a child of her own for all it’s worth across the earlier books, then resolve it one way or the other (plenty of places you could go with that) a few books down the line. Good luck!
Thank you, Susannah, for this terrific post. It was very helpful. In fact, after reading it, I immediately added a couple of sentences to my manuscript that helped me cement a point I was trying to make in the story.
I’m so glad this helped! It’s always better to go deeper with characterization, especially with internal conflict. Good luck with your story!
Mysteries aren’t character-driven? Please. If that were true, we wouldn’t be able to name so many famous characters from Sherlock Holmes to Nancy Drew to Inspector Gamache. The characters are what keep us going back for more. The puzzle is solved.
Writers need to stop assuming that other writers aren’t working hard at all the aspects of the craft to make their particular book the best it can be. What we do is hard and everyone I know works hard at it.
See also Kaitlyn Dunnett’s post today on cozies at http://mainecrimewriters.com/kaitlyns-posts/murder-without-the-gore-part-i
I know! I was all, like, uppity and incensed about the posts I was reading on that loop, which is why I felt the need to stick my nose in. I posted on the loop (nobody contradicted me), and I emailed the author who was having the difficulty privately. She seemed to have a small breakthrough after I gave her some of these general examples of ways to add character depth, and we brainstormed some plot points specific to her story, which of course I edited out here.
P.S., I popped over to Maine Crime Writers–very interesting post!
Many good points, and of course I agree. But sometimes your publisher/editor kind of get in the way of following through on some of them. For instance, publishers will offer you a two- or three-book series under contract. How do you pace yourself in developing your main character and revealing her (most often) inner secrets and conflicts, when you don’t know how long you have? And individual editors can sabotage you too. My former editor–the one I kicked to the curb in frustration last year–kept trying to make my characters “nice.” She actually called some of them “mean girls.” Hello? These are grown women, and they’re trying to help another person tone down her act to get what she wants. That editor was trying to shoehorn the book into some cozy mold in her head, and it didn’t–and IMO shouldn’t–work.
I love creating a new protagonist (like a blank slate), throwing some problems at her, and watching how she grows, and opens up to herself and other people. That’s what keeps the writing interesting.
I’m far newer in the process than you are, Sheila, and neither of my editors has requested any substantive changes to my stories or characters (yet!). But I think I know which character of yours you are talking about–she’s prickly, but as a reader I understand her need to prove herself, even though I don’t think we know yet exactly where that chip on her shoulder is coming from (unless you’ve told us and I’ve forgotten). So she seems real to me and I think you were right to fight for her. As for pacing out the arcs (and you have several set in place), my opinion (and again, I’m a newbie, but this is how I’m approaching it in both my series) is that at least one arc should be completed by the last book in your existing contract. So for my Greek series, a major storyline will wrap up by the end of book 3, but I haven’t resolved all the smaller arcs, so if my series gets renewed for 4 and 5, I’ll have someplace to take it. You’ve got your wedding coming up (speaking of the Orchard series), so that will resolve one major arc. But we still don’t know everything about Seth and Meg, do we? Nor do we know everything about your other characters. So I guess as far as pacing, I would say delve into the character’s deepest fear and appear to resolve it, but have it always ready to reappear at an inopportune time. Or resolve an arc for a secondary character. They are usually just as interesting to me than the main characters.
But whatever you’re doing, it’s working! So maybe it’s a trust your own instinct kind of thing, which is serving you well.
Great post. I love character development over a series. The plot twists are fun, but the characters are what keep me waiting for the next book – what will they do now? My own series features a professional, but I’ve tried to keep the character issues (with him and the secondary-protag/love interest/sidekick) at the front of my mind while they are off solving crime.
That’s a great technique, to keep the character issues at the forefront, especially if you can tie the character issues to the solving of the crime. Use your heroine’s fears or scars or secrets to throw up roadblocks to her ability to figure out what happened and who the murderer is. Good luck! Looking forward to reading your story.
Thanks for this post. I’ve just finished the final-ready-for-editing draft of my next cozy, and I’ve struggled with it because quite unexpectedly it took on some rather heavy issues. They were not in my original story plan! I have recently read a couple of issue-driven cozies that made me take heart, but I still wondered about it. As for me the reader, I love light cozies when I’m in the mood for them, and I love heavy cozies when I’m in the mood for them. What’s not to like about a cozy?! 🙂
I certainly lean toward writing issue-driven cozies, and my agent and others have said that’s a growing trend. (Yes, I do read both light and heavy, depending on my mood.) Sort of a “spoonful of sugar” approach.
Issues are good! I love it when a story is about more than just the murder and figuring out whodunnit.
Hear me out on this.
Cozies are light. It’s why I like them. I like their view of the world. They live in a world were all problems, even murder, can be solved. We get happy endings.
Now, that does not mean that we can’t have complex, serious themes and subject matters. We need good characters that I love to spend time with. While it may not sound like it, I am agreeing with you.
Think about it like a Pixar movie. Some of them are deep with some serious issues addressed. But we have fun along the way and we reach a happy ending. I mean, it’s hard to call a movie about a flying house and a talking dog dark, yet Up does have it’s darker moments and some very deep themes. That’s how I view cozies as well.
And again, I would point out that Up has amazing characters we get to see grow. Your point about the character growth is absolutely spot on. I just don’t see why we can’t have entertainment that is overall light but doesn’t delve into some deeper issues before we reach a happy ending.
I liked Up! I like happy movies. I don’t like movies with flying body parts and a total lack of morality. But I think you hit the nail on the head when you mentioned resolution. Life is messy, so it’s very appealing to enter a small world for a few hours and know that things will come out right in the end.
I agree with both you and Mark on this. It is the world view that matters. A set of characters can have an overall optimistic view of the world without being shallow morons. (At least I hope they can, because that’s kind of how I view myself.)
This was an on-point post. As a reader of cozies, it is frustrating when you come across a book that seems to be lacking. Especially if you sense that ,if only a clearly talented writer delved a little deeper into the main character’s choices, a merely ‘nice read’ would have been so much richer. As a fledgling writer, it reminds me of the hard work that needs to be done. Thank you!
Great post, Susannah. Made me think–a lot.
Susannah, thanks for tackling this “light-hearted equals fluffy or pointless” stereotype head-on — it’s one I’ve stumbled across more often than my Erin Murphy has stumbled across dead bodies, and it’s equally distressing!
Another way to add depth: Build in an on-going plot line from the protagonist’s personal life that stretches across the first three books. That’s what I’ve done with my Food Lovers’ Village books, with the mystery of Erin’s father’s death, and I think it adds a layer of complexity to Erin and her relationships with her friends (one in particular) and family that readers connect with.
I call my Spice Shop Mysteries “social justice cozies,” inspired by Cleo Coyle’s Coffeehouse Mysteries and Elaine Viets’ Dead-end Job Mysteries. The world view remains positive, because the characters see themselves making a difference in their communities. And the cozy is ultimately about community.
Thanks for sparking a great discussion!
Hear, hear, Susannah! There are “light” books and “deep” books in every subgenre. I love to both read and write multilayered cozies.
What a great discussion! So, let me see if I understand this pattern or rhythm. It’s probably not a bad idea to approach a new series like a trilogy? Then again, what about publishers who sign two-book contracts for new series? Oh, geez! Where did I leave that paper bag I could breathe into?? 🙂
I got some ideas from your great post, Susannah. In book three, about to come out, my characters’ issues reach a long-anticipated boiling point. I’ll have to come up with some phenomenal ideas to sustain that tension in the next books. I could let their relationship simmer as they concentrate on solving the crime, thinking they’ve buried their differences. But their conflicts could begin to rebuild. As you can see, you have me thinking …
Thank you so much for posting these thoughts! I call mine “smart cozies” but was told by another author at a collaborative signing in front of an audience that my books are not cozies because there is too much character development. Imagine!
That is a amazing!
As always a very useful, thoughtful topic. Thanks for posting.
Susannah, just catching up but wanted to say thanks for the great post! And so spot on.
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