The Perils of Writing a “Real” Book by Lucy Burdette

Hi. Barb here. Friend of the Blog, Lucy Burdette has a new book out and I was lucky enough to score an advance read. You are going to love Death on the Menu. Here’s Lucy, using her new work as context, asking a timely question that has been much debated on Facebook of late. Plus, she is giving away a copy of Death on the Menu to one lucky commenter below. Take it away, Lucy!

Last winter, I was struck by one of the questions from the audience at Barbara Ross’s talk for the Friends of the Key West Library: “Are you ever going to write a real book?” We think she meant a novel, but a non-mystery. Barbara answered graciously, explaining that mysteries can tackle big issues, and still remain entertaining (i.e., not boring or slight.) We all know that stakes can hardly be larger than murder, and that sorting through what might make a person go to that extreme is challenging indeed.

But we cozy writers seem to be perched on the horns of a dilemma—how real can we be? A couple weeks ago, I followed a discussion that had been stimulated by a question from Sheila Connolly on Facebook. Would you like a little edginess or real life in your cozies? 50% of the people seem to say no absolutely not, we read to get away from real life and its problems. And 50% agreed they would like a little reality. I remember after publishing the fourth book in my Key West series, Murder with Ganache, that I mentioned to my wonderful editor Sandy Harding that this book seemed a little darker and more realistic than some of the others. She told me it was perfectly normal to experience some fluctuation in level of emotional intensity over the course of the series.

My new book, Death on the Menu, has a strong theme about the immigration of Cuban refugees to the US, particularly Key West. This is definitely taken from real life, as we frequently have heard about or even have seen refugees washing ashore on the island. And naturally there is a lot of angst associated with the history of Cuba and its politics. I did not try to jam all that into the book, but it does play into the mystery. I am finding that some people appreciate the depth this brings to the story and others are finding it flat, disappointing, and too political. Probably either perspective is fair, depending on what the reader brings to the book.

So that’s my question for today on the Wickeds. Readers and writers: Should cozy and traditional mysteries attempt to tackle real life issues? Do we write real books? Comment below, or just say hi to be entered for a chance to wim.

About the book: Lucy Burdette, Death on the Menu

Food critic Hayley Snow is thrilled to be working at a three-day international conference at the Harry S. Truman Little White House. But things get off to a bad start when Hemingway’s Nobel prize gold medal (which belongs to Cuba and is on display for this weekend only) disappears. And they only get worse when a body is discovered in the storeroom. Hayley must spring into action before the killer adds another victim to his menu.

“There’s a lot to love about this series—deft plotting, likeable characters, and an ending that always satisfies. But one of the things I love the best is how the author transports her readers to Key West with every page, describing real landmarks and restaurants with such realism that I feel I’m actually there. Magical and delicious fun!”—Suspense Magazine

“Tightly plotted, with plenty of island-style red herrings and mouth-watering food-prep descriptions, DEATH ON THE MENU is also full of friends helping friends, and the sweetness of love.” –Kingdom Books 

Clinical psychologist Lucy Burdette (aka Roberta Isleib) has published 16 mysteries, including the latest in the Key West food critic series, DEATH ON THE MENU (Crooked Lane Books, August 2018.) Her books and stories have been short-listed for Agatha, Anthony, and Macavity awards. She’s a member of Mystery Writers of America and a past president of Sisters in Crime. She blogs at JungleRedWriters.com and shares her love for food with the culinary writers at MysteryLoversKitchen.com. She lives in Madison CT and Key West FL. Read more at www.lucyburdette.com.

Lucy’s links:

Crooked Lane Books: http://www.crookedlanebooks.com/titles/death-on-the-menu/
Facebook: www.facebook.com/lucyburdette
Instagram: www.instagram.com/lucyburdette
Twitter: www.twitter.com/lucyburdette   @lucyburdette
Pinterest: https://www.pinterest.com/robertaisleib
Website: http://www.lucyburdette.com
Jungle Red Writers: www.jungleredwriters.com
Mystery Lovers Kitchen: www.mysteryloverskitchen.com

88 Thoughts

  1. I actually like it when there are real-life issues included with the mystery (and stop slighting yourselves: many of you DO include such issues in an under-cover way). I’ll give 5 stars to a well-written book. I’ll tell my friends they’ve GOT to read one that tackles a real problem.

    1. Any mystery written including cozy ones will always have real stories to them because that’s life, everything is real no matter what you write.if that makes sense.

  2. So many cozies and traditional mysteries now address the challenges of real life, social and political. I remember the shift in the Force when Diane Mott Davidson introduced Goldy Bear–as much a recovering abused wife as a caterer–as an amateur sleuth. She masterfully integrated Goldy’s personal history into every installment of the series. I admit I am not an escapist reader. I like meat to my stories, and more and more, mysteries are delivering that. Brava to you, Lucy, for wrapping a mystery around a timely and important topic.

    1. thanks Ramona, I hadn’t thought of Goldy Bear’s background, but you are exactly right. I don’t like reading gory or frightening books, but like you, I like some meat on the bones too…

  3. I’m not sure that person has thought through the work process that a mystery writer has to go through to write a real mystery. To take the original idea and develop it with all the clues and characters, to keep the reader trying to figure out who did it is not something everyone can accomplish. All the time adding the day to day lives of the people involved and the wonderful communities they develop. You just don’t get much more real than that…

    1. You’re right Diane–of course we agree! Maybe the readers I’m thinking of prefer lighter mysteries, and that’s ok too. Luckily, there are so many good books out now that everyone can pick what she prefers

  4. Here’s to real books! And congratulations on yours, Lucy.I often slide in some meat, as Ramona puts it – but only in the service of the story.

  5. Oh yes indeed, I like mysteries with real and complicated issues of the time. In the hands of a talented writer like Roberta, it makes for a richer story. On my TBR list.

  6. Hi, congrats on the new release, I am excited to read it. That is a great question and of course there can be a big divide between cozy, traditional and the ever popular suspense. I did read all kinds, but choose cozy when I want more of that realistic part to be off stage., similar to the murder. Drugs or meth labs in a small town, of course, but I don’t think I want my cozy to detail the discovery of a van full of ‘expired’ drug mules in too much detail, similar to not needing too much detail about a grisly murder scene. But I do think it is ok to include timely elements (like the inclusion of Cuba/immigrants with its’ recent small opening of borders) as long as it won’t make the book seem too dated down the road.

  7. Mystery is wonderful b/c there are so many forms. I have nothing but respect for mystery writers. Writing a good mystery is tough work; readers know what they want and expect you to deliver it. I do like a bit of reality in my reading – I think it rounds out the character and adds authenticity to her search for truth. Keep doing what you do you!

  8. Yes, with a few qualifications (like, no long descriptions of mangled corpses). In my WIP, I address the explosion of drug arrests in western Massachusetts (up 70% over a two-year period). At the same time, my characters are mourning the loss of innocence, because they love their small town and never saw the problems coming. Now that they know what’s going on, they’re going to act to deal with it (the working title is Nipped in the Bud). The inspiration for this idea? Turns out I have a drug dealer living next door to me. I might never have guessed if a neighbor hadn’t told me (although there were a lot of rather scruffy characters coming and going at all hours).

  9. I have yet to read a mystery, cozy or otherwise, that did not have real life issues. Being a single parent, juggling career and homelife, having a horrid boss, eeking out a living, etc. These ARE real life issues! They don’t need to be political or whatnot. Of course, this is my opinion.
    Writers are the most imaginative people! To figure out the characters, interact them, have murder and mayhem thrown into the mix, then to solve the murder…well, that is no small feat! That IS writing a REAL book!
    I love this series and look forward to reading this new book!

    1. Thank you Deb. Yes, your life is full of reality!! I guess I’m imagining that some folks feel we have enough about immigration, for example, in our world today. They don’t want more of that on the pages of a mystery.

  10. Congratulations on the new book! I can’t wait to read it and my mom rushed out and bought a copy when I told her it was out. I weave issues that impact military people into my books. I hate that someone would even ask that question.

    1. Thanks Sherry. Yay for your mom! I forgot to say that at an event with Rhys Bowen and Hallie Ephron last week, Rhys mentioned that people sometimes ask her the question about writing “real” books. Hallie said the correct response would be “When are you going to ask a real question?” LOL

  11. I agree with debprice60 in her comment above. I think there are real-life issues in most cozies, and that doesn’t bother me. I don’t want politics, especially preachy politics on either side, when I read a book. I think that most of the cozy authors I read are very skilled at writing real books.

    1. Totally agree Christi–no preachy anything belongs in fiction. Unless it advances the character development and really feels as though it comes from a character.

  12. Of course you write real books !I love cozy mysteries because they take place in everyday towns with everyday people. Cozy mysteries are relatable, and adding a touch of real life makes them even more so.

    1. Yes Gloria, I think that’s fair. Cozy mysteries are supposed to be lighter than say, serial killer books–and it’s fair to give the reader what’s promised.

  13. In my opinion, ANY book, if well written, is a real book regardless of genre. I love to read cozies and it is one of my two favorite genre – Amish stories being the other. I think it’s because they are both more to true life to me. They are stories that I can relate to or see actually happening in my neck of the woods.

    That being said, I do enjoy stories that not only entertain and work the brain trying to figure out whodunit before the reveal, but also touch on important social issue or events of present day as long as they work into the story as a brief or subtle note without taking over the story. If done properly, they can add a touch or reality or relate ability to the story.

    Love the story line of “DEATH ON THE MENU” and adore the cover. I can’t wait for the opportunity to read this new book. Thank you for the chance to win a copy.
    2clowns at arkansas dot net

  14. Lucy/Roberta, we are looking forward to seeing you at Windsor Locks Public Library on Wednesday! As the facilitator of a book club that reads traditional mysteries, I definitely appreciate a cozy that features social or political issues because they add so much to the discussion, yet the reader does not have to cope with the gore and excessive violence that so often characterize popular action thrillers. I agree with some other commenters who have stated that they have yet to read a mystery that does NOT include relatable real-life issues. I think the important things are that these issues are not peripheral and are necessary to the story. I’ve heard people say that they don’t read fiction or that cozies are “fluff,” but in many cases nothing could be further from the truth. Through fiction we are allowed to experience life and emotion through someone else’s eyes and in cozy mystery series we get all of the intellectual exercise of solving a crime, plus the enjoyable experience of becoming immersed in the lives of characters who end up feeling like friends. What could be better?

    1. I’m so looking forward to the visit Eileen! You’ve nailed the reason that I love both reading and writing series–feeling as though the characters become beloved friends

  15. I like real issues in a cozy mystery. They make the story and characters more relatable.

    1. Hi Pat-

      You have won the copy of Death on the Menu. Send me your snail mail address at barbaraross at maineclambakemysteries dot com and Lucy will send it right out. Barb

  16. I already have a copy, and I loved this story and the depth of it. I enjoy cozies with a little realness in them, I’ve read cozies with characters with PTSD, drug addiction, gambling addictions, etc. It has to be dealt with respectfully and not glossed over, but I don’t mind the realism in the story at all. Sometimes it makes it more relatable and interesting.

    1. I appreciate your comments so much! I guess it’s a balance between what the author feels she needs to do, and what the readers expect from that kind of book and that particular series

  17. I think if you write a book ONLY to beat the drum on an issue or preach, it’ll be a flat book. But if in the course of your story your characters have opinions and tackle real-world issues, well…so be it. Why wouldn’t a cozy deal with illegal immigration? The only difference between the cozy and non-cozy treatment is the level of darkness.

    And you do write real books. Sheesh!

  18. I think all books involve the issues of the time in which they are set. Crime novels of all kinds are the perfect vehicle to experience lore what societies value. I think the difference is not whether mysteries that are less gritty explore real world issues but rather the focus of those explorations. I think each writer offers a lens on the world and some lenses have a rosier tint in the glass than others.

    1. exactly Jessie–the writer’s lens is what tells the story. I remember so well my new editor at Penguin asking me: “Can you write light?” I assured her I could! But Key West is such a complex setting–there was no way I could gloss over some of the challenges on the island and do a good job of portraying life there.

  19. I read for escapism, but that doesn’t mean that real issues shouldn’t be addressed. I love when I learn about new places and new ideas. Just avoid the gore and guts and the partisan politics.

  20. The people who ask a cozy writer if they ever are going to write a “real book” are not cozy readers, but book snobs. For some reason, they see see cozies as beneath them and choose only to read NYT hardback bestsellers or nonfiction. Aside from murders and related mayhem, cozies have often included today’s issues of homelessness, PTSD, divorce, sexual and domestic abuse, GEDs, feral cats, pollution, economic downturns, alcoholism, anorexia and bulimia, grief, human trafficking, immigration, and retail theft. It takes real writing talent to weave an issue like any of those into a mystery that fits the cozy or classic parameters while it beguiles the reader. Agatha Christie and the other great classic mysteries of the past probably got asked the same question.

  21. I read for the enjoyment of it. If the addition of something pertinent to real life fits the story line I see no reason NOT to add it in.

  22. I think cozy’s can tackle real life issues – I read to escape, but I like to read about every day type people like you find in cozy’s

  23. I have no problem with authors adding in real life issues to their stories. I agree with other posters that I don’t want to be overwhelmed with politics through the story but I think it adds to the story when a character shows depth and has opinions on real life issues. Addressing real life issues makes the story more relatable for me.

  24. I really enjoy this series and think you have always added real life into it. I agree with everyone that I think most cozies do deal with real life issues. Even if it isnt a “hot” topic, every character is dealing with their life. I think the only thing that would turn me off is if the book was nothing but a beat the drum for some topic and had lost the character interaction and story telling I have come to love in cozy mysteries. Thanks for the chance to win a copy. kayt18 (at) comcast (dot) net

  25. I think some “real life” issues are fine to be included in cozies. I just don’t want to read graphic descriptions of how the murder occurred or equally graphic descriptions of. what the body looked like when discovered.

  26. The challenge I have it is that in our hyper-partisan age, everything is political. The Gulf of Maine where my characters work is warming faster than any body of water on earth, except one other. You can argue about the causes and argue about what to do about it, and many people in real life do, but I can’t avoid the effect it has on my characters.

    The issue of Cuba is similar. The relationship between our countries is unique, and the impact on Key West is inarguable, and it would be weird to leave it out of your series, but suddenly you’re in the “immigration” debate, and everyone is crazy.

  27. Yes, it’s real and yes I like it that way. I think sometimes readers (and critics!) don’t realize how much research and skill it takes to write a good cozy with a realistic environment where the main character can go off and do things most of the rest of us wouldn’t do Sometimes I take a break from “standard” cozies because they start to sound repetitive, just changing the craft or location, so I really enjoy those books that bring the real world in a little more without going all the way to thriller. Welcome back, Hayley!.

  28. In our book club, we have readers that want thrillers, mysteries, romances, historicals, relationships and lots of things in between. No member ever refers to any genre as a “real” book. Cozies are a genre and there is a wide range within. Keep writing. Cozies are cozies because they are generally a fast read, construct and solve a puzzle and are entertaining. They will always be a genre within mysteries that satisfy a huge audience! Keep writing!

    1. Hi Doris–you won the ARC of Yule Log Murder. Send me your snail mail address to barbaraross at maineclambakemysteries dot com and we’ll send it right out.

  29. If the book is real you take the chance of alienating some readers. Nevertheless, I think it is your decision. I don’t read cozies to find out about real events, but I probably wouldn’t abandon a series unless I was seriously offended.

  30. I fall into the “I read to escape from real life” camp, which is one reason I love cozies. And when you take on a politically charged topic, that is going to eat into your readership period. Some might not pick up the book. Others might pick it up but never return to your writing again. At least in the US right now, we are almost evenly divided on things, so that’s roughly half of your audience who will disagree with you on something. It makes it hard to navigate some of those issues.

    I’ve read this book, and it was so great to be back with the Key West gang. I need to go visit the island in person.

    1. Yes you must come visit. And yes Mark, there is always a risk in straying away from what’s usually accepted as “cozy.” I tried to use my immigration issue as part of character motivation and backdrop of Key West. We shall see if I succeeded…

  31. There’s a “real life” issue my WIP. I didn’t plan it—it just crept in and became a large part of the plot. I also like some edginess in the cozies I read.

  32. Willing to admit it or not- every book has real life issues in the story.

  33. I think in reality to reason people read cozy mysteries is to somewhat escape the “real” world. However, I do think some ‘real” world can and should be interwoven into books.

  34. I prefer to leave politics out of it for the most part. It really doesn’t add much to the storyline, and nothing to the plot. I read cozies to escape the crud of politics and news…..I know some of it can’t be avoided in books and personal preferences always show themselves, but I don’t need a current events or history lesson for the most part.

  35. In answer to your questions, “Should cozy and traditional mysteries attempt to tackle real life issues? Do we write real books?” yes! Your character Hayley Snow has always seemed real to me so why shouldn’t she encounter real-life issues in her albeit fictional life, and yes you do write real books. You write darn good real books that I love so thank you very very much!! The definition of a book is; a written or printed work consisting of pages glued or sewn together on one side and bound in covers. That’s about as real as it gets! *LOL* I think any book is a real book no matter the genre because there are SO many genres. Goodreads currently lists approximately 28 genres including Mystery with Cozy Mysteries included in that category so once again yes you definitely write real books!! I love your Key West Food Critic Mystery Series!! Thank you!!

  36. In my opinion, mysteries of all kinds, including cozies, are “real” books. Murder is a real-life problem, for heaven’s sake! It’s okay with me if a cozy author wants to include other real-life issues, too. It’s a pet peeve of mine that some people don’t accept mysteries of any kind as real books. Someone I know very well has hinted more than once that I “read too many mysteries”. Not long ago I got her to start reading one of my favorite series. Each time she starts reading one, she says that the book “isn’t very well written.” Each book goes on to be nominated for, or win, awards. (“For a mystery, it was good, I guess.” is her usual response. Makes me crazy!)

  37. I like real issues sometimes. Hayley seems like a real person to me so why not? This series is a favorite of mine.

  38. Murders & motives are real issues, so yes, cozies & mysteries deal with real issues in every book. I am so happy to see this series continue because it is so well written.

  39. I think any medium including TV, comic books, all kinds of fiction and non-fiction can be real and add to our lives. Cozy mysteries and romances differ in always having happy endings. That doesn’t mean that they don’t deal with real problems (like murder). I read a range of mysteries from super-cozy to more realistic. It depends on my mood which I prefer.

  40. I think that all books are real books no matter the genre. Even tho I read to escape, I also like the books I read to make me think. Putting real-life issues in books makes that happen.

  41. I love reading cozies and it would depend what the real life issue is if it should be included in a cozy. I definitely don’t think political issues or feelings should be included in the plot of a book, we get enough in everyday life. I think cozies are definitely real books, it’s my favorite way to escape into another place.

  42. I don’t mind reading about real life issues when they are written with accurate facts that set me to thinking about what problems other people have to deal with and overcome. That being said, I don’t enjoy reading about real life political issues….I see plenty of that on tv!

  43. I’m not into real-life issues. I enjoy light cozies – cute ones with pets are great. I enjoy the fluff.

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