As an amateur author, I ‘employ’ my long-suffering husband as a proof-reader for my cosy mysteries, despite him being a spy/action/fantasy type-of-reader. However, practice makes perfect, and truth be told, he is getting pretty good at it. More recently, it has become a bit of a sideline for him to question the plot-line as well as some of the character’s motives. He has even ventured to point out how he would have reacted in certain situations. This is great for me as it leads me to repeatedly return to scenarios and rethink parts of my plots.
So, recently I had a discussion with him about what makes a great cosy mystery. When I say that we had a discussion, I mean that we went out for a long walk with the dogs, and I talked while we walked…
…and I learned two things:
- Don’t ask a man about cosy mysteries, as they just don’t get them!
- Don’t take notes whilst walking – when I got home, I could hardly read them.
However, despite this, the conversation was highly useful. I was able to sit down that same afternoon and pen a list of what makes a great cosy mystery. So, here goes.
The main character, like Pippa Welbury in my Cornish Coastpath Mystery Series, should not be a person who is too perfect. She should be likeable, clever, mischievous, have a sense of humour, and at times, be a little insecure. BUT, and it is a big BUT, the main character, like Pippa, should still get things wrong from time to time. In The Chocolate Eclair Mystery story, Pippa approaches a character for information and unfortunately jumps in with both feet which is a bit of a trait of hers. Needless to say, she gets little from the encounter other than a knock-back.
Characters, especially the main ones should be quirky, likeable, and not take themselves too seriously. Essentially, I like my main characters to be fairly normal, like a neighbour, and more importantly, a little like the reader. Pippa is just like this, but I’ve also allowed her to be a little lacking in confidence; often she needs to turn to others for help and advice.
This leads me nicely onto my next point; the reader should be able to visualise characters as the plot develops, without their personas being too complex so that they take over the story.
It also makes for interesting reading if some of the characters have a hidden history which can be exposed over several stories.
Of course, the main character should have a side-kick such as a best friend. Pippa has two close assistants; Benjamin, her dog, and Kate her best friend. I have also given her several other supporting characters which she can draw on from time to time. However, one, or some of these individuals should be instrumental in assisting the hero/heroine in solving >em>the mystery.
Finally, there should be a supporting cast of colourful characters which brighten the story and can be used (through red-herrings) to muddy the investigative waters. They can also be used to come and go across several stories, and make the reader feel that they are part of the local community.
To me, the location of the story is almost as important as the characters. Cosy mysteries should take place in a central locality, one which the reader will, over time, get familiar with. There should be a community which the reader can almost visualise and become a part of as they read. The key here is to keep the locality small and familiar. For my Cornish Coastpath Mystery Series, I chose Cornwall, as I know it so well and I love it so much; I do hope this comes out in my books! I would like to write a series of stories about the other area of England that I love, which is Cumbria; another walker’s paradise.
In my stories, I try to be as descriptive as possible without detracting from the story-line. I like to make my locations almost romantic, with a retrospective, almost rose-tinted view. A term which is currently being used both positively and negatively is ‘gentrification’. I like the word, and I think that cosy mysteries should take place in communities and locations which are gentrified, and where the characters are all active members of the community.
Finally, I like to use the weather to reflect my character’s moods. As Pippa is based in Cornwall, and she and Benjamin love to walk, they get to experience soooo much weather.
We’ve got our characters, we’ve got our location, now we need a great mystery. Cosy mysteries should be believable and, within reason, down to earth. What I mean by this is that it is easy for me to imagine a mystery, but I often find difficulty in laying the breadcrumbs which lead the story to a conclusion. As an example, I have had a story running around my head for a while now about an accidental death of a local teacher at a music festival.
The teacher, a well-respected local, likes to, shall we say, dabble with the content of her smokes. At the festival, she suffers a heart attack having bought and smoked something unidentifiable. I have returned to the story time and time again, and cannot deliver a viable route for Pippa Welbury to solve the mystery. I will get to it, but I keep putting it off! Anyway, my point is that the mystery must be solvable in a believable manner, and potentially one that might have possibly been predicted by the reader. Moving on, cosies should be comfortable; there should not be too much death, blood or gore, and definitely limited cruelty to cast, and none at all to animals. I tend to write the murder or mystery aspect of the plot ‘off-stage’ so that I never have to describe it in too much detail.
Having said that, I like to include the occasional un-likeable character which I can use in my less-cosy scenes. It also gives me the mechanism to ‘convert’ the unlikeable character to a hero at some point in the series.
Finally, I like to develop several of the key characters by giving them a slight mystery which keeps the reader guessing across several stories, and they also double up as red herrings in stories.
Finally, I come to the best part, the plot. Here I can let my imagination run riot and introduce all manner of entertainment. One of the most enjoyable aspects is in the long-running development of cosy mystery characters, and the way I set them up for future stories. Another aspect which I aim for (but don’t always achieve) is to occasionally place the characters in a position of mild risk; this heightens the stake for the hero/heroine.
I also like to introduce some real-world problems to the main characters to make them seem more ‘human’. With one of my characters Pippa Welbury, there is her omnipresent lack of funds, as well as her eternal search for a love-interest in her life. I also include positive aspects such as her mischievous streak, and her ability to always see the best out of a situation. I think that for a character to solve a mystery, the author must give her/him the skills and the inclination in order to be successful at this. One exception to this is where I use the skills of the supporting cast to do this.
Finally, I think that the plot should be short; something that the reader can finish in a weekend. Many readers do not have the time to invest in a two or three hundred page story, so I like to write stories which are short, punchy, entertaining, and fun.
So if you have ever fancied writing a cosy mystery, give it a go, but just remember, don’t rely on your husband for a good review!