Why Writing a Cozy Is Harder Than It Looks

By Sherry — It finally feels like December

At a recent conference I went to dinner with my editor and two thriller writers. I looked up the two writers before our dinner. They were tough men with great credentials and popular series. And then there was little old me — the cozy writer. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, I know how some people react when I say I write cozies. No one has actually ever patted me on the head and said, “that’s so cute” but I’ve seen it in their eyes. (Read Barb’s great blogs: How I Learned to Relax About Being a “Cozy” Author and Just Write the Damn Books–Part I, Part II, and Part III)

IMG_5023The two thriller writers laughed when my editor told them you couldn’t kill more than two people in a cozy. (And really, is that a thing? Because I’d never heard it and now I think I’m going to have to kill three people in my next book since I’m ornery that way.) However, our conversation got me thinking. So here’s my tongue-in-cheek look at why writing cozies might be harder than writing a thriller.


Our protagonists don’t have mad skills. They haven’t been in the CIA, aren’t Navy Seals, and don’t have any special IMG_4157training. They are more likely to have a bum knee than be a martial arts expert. They are regular people in extraordinary circumstances and often live in small towns.

They don’t have access to equipment. No helicopters, flame-throwers, or automatic weapons are at their disposal. Our protagonists only have their wits and their cellphones (okay maybe they have a laptop and knitting needles too but that’s it).

Access to information — oh, how nice it would be to have my protagonist, Sarah Winston, call her contact at the CIA who’s willing to break the law and share information with her. Sarah would be happy to be able to call someone at the police department but I’ve set up an antagonistic relationship with the police so she can’t even do that. Cozy protagonists have to piece bits of information together to come up with a solution.

IMG_3488Themes — most cozy mysteries have some kind of theme (cooking, clocks, yard sales, apples, farming, etc.) that have to be incorporated into the story. One of the reasons people read a specific book is because of the theme. As a writer I have to balance using enough of the theme to make the reader happy while not letting the theme overwhelm the story.

Methods of killing people — cozy antagonists don’t have guns, knives, or bombs. They kill with household items — a common poison (no biological weapons stolen from a super-secret facility), pitchforks, picture frames. Cozy writers have to be very creative to stay within the expectations of their readers and come up with unique way to kill someone.

The investigation — no one’s going to call Sarah and say, “Sarah, we’ve got a situation and you’re the only person who can solve this crime.” More often than not a cozy protagonist is being told to stay out of the investigation. Cozy writers have to get creative so it’s somewhat plausible (and we trust that our readers will allow us a little leeway) that someone like Sarah can solve a crime.

(Okay, okay, so now I have a confession. I’d love to write a thriller some day full of crazy weapons and secret sources. And I know it will be hard — like all writing is.)

Readers: What draws you to cozies? What other kinds of books do you love?

62 Thoughts

  1. I enjoyed your post, Sherry. Cozy mysteries are my favorite to read. One thing I like is getting to know the characters a little bit more each book. The characters in cozies are fun, curious people. Life isn’t dull with them around!!

  2. I love cozies for the characters. I love to watch them grow. I love to watch the other people around them grow. Recipes, knitting directions, etc. are just icing on the cake.

  3. I think we try to create fictional universes where the reader can identify with the characters and can feel comfortable in the community. Don’t most of us wonder, what would we do if we found a body? Or knew of a crime where the wrong person was accused or even convicted? For our characters, it’s about doing the right thing. (Plus readers know they’ll get a more or less happy ending.)

    1. I walk our dog on wooded trails and always am running scenarios through my head. I’m sure the reality would be much different than the scenario!

  4. Love cozies as long as there is a solid mystery at the core. Find hard boiled, serial killers, and police procedurals off-putting unless there is also an interesting personal story that isn’t too depressing. What can I say? I read to escape the real world. But no more than two murders in a cozy? I never heard that “rule” and I’m pretty sure I’ve broken it, at least in my historical cozies. And yes, writing a cozy that isn’t pure fluff IS hard, and it is even harder to sustain a series. I worry about the current trend of publishers requiring writers to come up with two books in the SAME series every year. Even one a year, well done, in the same series, is a real challenge for most writers. As a reader, of course, I can’t wait for another installment to find out what happens next to favorite characters.

  5. Sherry, this is spot on! I’ve never looked at it this way before (I just knew it was hard and wasn’t quite sure why, haha). Now I’ll feel a little better about why I’m puling my hair out when I sit down at the desk today 🙂

  6. This is so true! We have to rely on our protagonist’s wits to solve the case, and that’s not always easy–especially when she’s being told to mind her own business.

  7. Every genre has challenges. It sounds like you found the right one for *your* skills, Sherry. But write that thriller someday! I love it when an author is daring enough to try something new after success in one place.

    1. All writing is hard — I’m pretty sure I couldn’t write what’s called “literary fiction” — I just don’t have that voice in me. And I am so lucky to have found the sweet spot! We’ll see about that thriller — I hear it calling from the recesses of my mind.

  8. I always find it funny when people say cozies are “not realistic.” While the circumstances may be improbable, the way everyone reacts to them is usually quite real. I don’t understand how two guys punching each other out while standing on top of a train speeding over a deep valley–with hidden nukes on board–is “realistic.”

    1. Excellent point! I guess in a way it’s the same — we expect our readers to suspend disbelief over our protagonists solving crimes in a once peaceful town. So I can believe the two guys punching each other on the train.

  9. I love my cozy mysteries because they don’t make me unhappy but do read mysteries. thrillers, magazines, newspapers and even signs. I always read a cozy when I’m unhappy and my mind is having a hard time understanding todays world. I think you would be surprised if you saw what I actually read. As today I’ve read 180 books and 101 are cozy mysteries. Thanks to all you Wickeds for making my life easier. Merry Christmas to you all and here’s to many more cozies in 2016.

    1. I’m reading a dark book right now, Ruth and my thought has been: I have to read something light next! Wow, that is a lot of books! You have a wonderful Christmas too!

  10. Some people may say that cozies are unrealistic, but I find that the characters in them are usually more fully developed than in many thrillers. Many thriller characters fall into types: the hero with a drinking problem and angst over the death of an army buddy he couldn’t save. Female characters are one-note, damsels in distress. I’ve found that the characters in cozies, male and female, have more facets.

  11. Love this! Another thing about cozies–you have to stay in your protagonist’s viewpoint which can make things complicated–no creating tension by watching the bad guy gear up for his next move.

    1. Excellent point — it is hard to create tension with one viewpoint. I do love what I call waiting for the train wreck in thrillers — where they each keep making their next move. The very best ones make me keep turning the pages.

  12. I started reading copies when my friend Sherry started writing them. Cannot wait to read the next one! Happy Holidays to you and your family!!!

  13. This is great, Sherry! And I didn’t get the body count memo either. I ended up with more than two murders in my first book — hope nobody reports me to the cozy cops 🙂

  14. Cozies are the best! But I do love to read James Patterson, Tony Hillerman and….I could go on and on!

  15. Cozy authors have it WAY harder. I used to read suspense/thrillers and literally got burned out from all the violence and language in the stories. I stopped reading over a year before my sister handed me a cozy. I haven’t looked back since. Not only do you have the restrictions you mentioned, but you also can’t do sex scenes, and if you use more than the words hell or damn, you are really pushing the envelope. I adore and am quite impressed that cozy authors can make me feel tension, excitement, romance, fear, happy, and so many other emotions within the guidelines you are allowed. To me feeling all those things without having to read all the gruesome death and torture scenes, without the intense sex scenes, without dropping the F bomb and every swear word in existence on every page, is a gift to readers from authors who are just as talented, no, even more talented that any other group of authors out there. I say this without exaggeration, if cozy mysteries disappeared tomorrow, I would have nothing new to read. I would keep rereading my collection of cozies. I am grateful there are authors, like you Sherry, that do take the hard road and write cozy mysteries. I admire each and everyone of you. Now, get to work on your next book…and what the heck…kill four people! 🙂

  16. Only two murders in a cozy? Tell that to Rhys Bowen who had way more than that in The Twelve Clues of Christmas.

    I like cozies because of the tone. Yes, we are dealing with murder, usually the murder of someone the main character knows. And yet, they aren’t dark and depressing. If I want dark and depressing, I turn on the news.

    While I’ve started listening to some cop and PI books on audio this year, the only thriller writer I regularly read is Gregg Hurwitz. And his main characters are all ordinary people caught up in extraordinary circumstances. They are definitely darker than what I normally enjoy, but the main character feels very much like the cozy protagonists that you’ve described. Well, except without the crafy/cooking/etc. “hook.”

  17. Sing it, sister! I like to think that we write the reader – that our readers could be our protagonists — and they know how hard it is to solve a murder! Which may be why they love us.

  18. I love this post! The wonderful covers of cozy novels always get my attention. The covers of thrillers, not so much. Some of those are down right creepy. And I like that cozy mysteries have themes. Ones involving food, book clubs or libraries are always my favorites.

    Keep on writing those wonderful cozy mysteries and don’t ever let any of those big shot thriller writers make you feel inferior!

  19. I used to read mostly thrillers or other mysteries with serial killers and such. I like David Baldacci, Greg Isles, and many others. Once I discovered cozy mysteries, I was hooked. I haven’t read anything different for quite awhile. I think for me, I love cozies because they combine mystery, humor, romance, and characters that I would love to have as friends. I love the small town settings and the fact that I can continue to get to know my new “friends”. Of course there is always a character or two that you would love to clobber. With a candlestick, or perhaps an axe?? Ha!! Cozy mysteries are relatable for the average person. The towns and people in the stories make me want to escape into their lives for awhile. I can imagine myself living their lives. It’s pretty hard imagining myself as an FBI agent or a vicious serial killer, or God forbid, the victim!! My life is pretty dull. I’m disabled and mostly housebound, so reading allows me to escape into another life for awhile. Cozy mysteries are a pretty nice place to imagine being.

  20. I love this. Now if cozy writers got paid and promoted the same way thriller writers do…but I digress. I have actually heard three bodies in a cozy is the limit, not two. And the reasoning is that if you kill four or more people, you have a serial killer. And serial killers with their attendant psychoses are not cozy material. *Our* killers murder for revenge or money, or some other *real world* issue, not because they are compelled somehow by their personal demons or voices that aren’t really there. One of the hallmarks of cozies is the lack of excess–and four murders (even three is pushing it) is excessive.

    1. Excellent point, Susannah! I’m working through why my character is killing people in book four. Because as you said there needs to be a reason and one that makes sense!

  21. I’ve considered writing a cozy, but it is just too hard. I’d have to learn to knit or quilt or repair old clocks or cook or run a theater or something. It’s hard enough just trying to learn what kind of flashlight my character uses. And some gun lore. And getting arrested for research. And now I’d have to bake! Kudos to you ladies. I’m going to go oil my gun.

    1. While we would love to have you join the cozy gain, keep doing what you are doing. Your books are amazing! And maybe one day I’ll take you to some garage sales with me and you’ll show me how to oil a gun!

  22. I loved this blog post and also the comments. Cozy mysteries are a wonderful part of my life, so keep those books coming. Looking forward to more in the Winston series, Sherry!

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