Most of us have read a cosy mystery at some point. There is something warming and endearing, almost comforting about the genre. When we get to the end (and in many stories, we’ve already guessed the baddies), we feel satisfied that the goodies are still good, and the baddies are going to prison. But what are the essential components of a cosy mystery besides suspicion and secrets? What can Agatha Christie and other cult cosy mystery authors teach us about writing better mysteries? Below, are listed my 7 Essential Rules for writing your own engrossing cosy mystery.
1. Know the Different Types of Mysteries Inside Out
In cosy mystery stories, the term ‘mystery’ is normally associated with one or more individuals wishing to keep something a ‘secret’ from being common knowledge. This hidden truth or truths are normally the essence of a cosy mystery, and it is down to the main protagonist (in the case of my books, Pippa Welbury) to uncover this truth for the common good.
In the more traditional murder mysteries which many of us have read, such Agatha Christie’s famous Murder on the Orient Express, the identity of the killer and their motive and connection to the victim is the driving mystery. However, cosy mystery stories do not always have to involve murders; they can be something as mundane as a missing Cornish pasty, or a deserted boat being washed up on a beach. Other secrets which you could use include:
- Who stole what.
- Who had the affair.
- Who was the blackmailer.
- Why did someone wish to do something.
It is the secret that forms the journey through which the readers is taken, and in most cases, the truth behind the mystery (e.g. the person that pinched the Cornish Pasty) is typically concealed until towards the end of the story.
2. Brainstorm the Best Cosy Mystery Story Ideas with Others
Great cosy mystery stories might include many clandestine happenings and revelations, and the true art of a writer is to weave these realistically into the story-line and keep a handle on them. It can be a great help when I brainstorm my ideas with family and friends (more often than not, my long-suffering husband!). By running my ideas past them, you can get a different, and quit often, a better perspective of the idea. But, brainstorming doesn’t have to be specific. For example, you could easily ask someone how they might feel about a hypothetical situation were they to be placed in it. See what reaction you will get – you’ll be quite surprised how other people’s opinions on a situation can differ.
Deeper brainstorming can be used to link events, people and places, even thinking ahead to future stories. In the case of mystery stories, consider the secrets that certain characters would wish to hide, and how far they would go to do so.
3. Use the Core Elements Expected of the Genre/Location
Won – that’s a bit of a mouthful. What is meant here is, for example, if the cosy mystery is set in a canal-side location, use characters and props appropriate to that location. We could use the country pub, the lady of the local manor, a boat-yard, passing boat-travelers etc., landscape artists etc.
If the mystery is set in a sea-side resort, you could include a chip-shop, a caravan site, a visitor center, and even an art shop. You could include local characters such as fisherman, wanna-be smugglers, and even retired pop-artist. Anything, as long as it is appropriate.
Every genre has common plot elements that reassure the reader that the locality is realistic and is appropriate. Use these elements as props and signs, and use those characters to colour the plot and be an integral part of the mystery.
4. Drop Hints and Clues Throughout the Mystery
Dropping clues in a mystery story (whether red herrings or real) is a great way to ensure that your reader is kept on their toes. By nature, humans love to solve mysteries, so give your readers the potential to say “I knew that was the reason”, or “She was always going to be the murderer”. In other words, get personal; give you reader the opportunity to invest their own crime-solving skills into your story by allowing them the clues which will encourage them to make deductions.
Clues, at their most basic, are bait for the reader. They are the ingredients which they lap up to try to solve the mystery before it is announced at the end of the book. Clues can also be used to motivate your main protagonist to persevere and solve the mystery; without them, how could this ever happen?
So, think carefully about the clues you will release to the reader. If they are too obvious, they will be unproductive and may even put your reader off from future books.
Make hints and clues realistic, like:
- An article that the murdered dropped near the crime scene.
- A glimpse into two characters’ hidden relationship.
- Overhearing a snippet of conversation.
- Uncovering a piece of information that points the finger of blame at a character.
Whatever clues you use, try to make them at least, slightly ambiguous; leave enough doubt for the reader to think that there may be other ways that the clue can be explained away.
5. Give Characters Strong Motivations to Solve the Mystery
Most cosy mysteries concentrate on the discomfort of the reader not knowing something. Finding out the ‘why’ or the ‘who’ is often in itself a strong motivation for a mystery to be solved. However, by including an even stronger emotional or personal investment, the story can come alive.
The first story that I ever wrote was as benign as could be; a passer-by stole a Cornish pasty from the window sill of Pippa Welbury’s cottage. Hardly a sinister nor important crime. The theft was made more ‘personal’ by giving it more value; it had been the first pasty that Pippa had ever baked. In fact, it been the first baking that Pippa had ever done. This motivated her far more to find out who the thief was, even though the pasty had little monetary value.
Secondary characters can also be used if they are similarly driven by a shared purpose. They may have contrasting or even conflicting motivations to solve the mystery. These motivations can be used as threads of secondary stories which can be returned to in the future – your readers will still remember them.
6. Use the Location Setting and Atmosphere to Add to the Mystery
Great mysteries contain more than charming, challenging plots. Other elements can be drawn upon to build suspense and create an atmosphere to draw the reader in. A great example of this is in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s novel ‘The Hound of the Baskervilles’, where he uses the setting and circumstances around Sir Charles Baskerville to manipulate the reader’s senses into almost believing that they are with Charles on the moors.
Agatha Christie was an absolute trail-blazer in this skill; I can almost smell the musty upholstery, or the horse’s stables in some of those country homes that she took me to.
Cornwall was used as the backdrop for The Cornish Coastpath Mystery Series as I both knew and loved the area, and it also offered me a picturesque and atmospheric setting for my cosy.
The setting can also be used as a source for clues which can be loaded with significance to the tale. Similarly, use the setting to tease and confuse the reader into believing red-herrings.
7. Study Top Mystery Writers (and keep reading cosies)
In any genre, it’s always useful to read past and contemporary authors. An Agatha Christie novel could show you how to create a shrewd, Poirot-like investigator. A cozy mystery series like Alexander McCall Smith’s The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency or Elizabeth Spann Craig’s Myrtle Clover mysteries could show you how to write mysteries with warm friendships and quirky characters at its heart. Marion Chesney could readily demonstrate the use of avarice and envy through a number of her books. And if you want further inspiration, I would recommend Dorothy L. Sayers for wonderfully colourful locations.
Finally, one golden cosy mystery rule that I would like to donate to you as a free extra:
Never, I mean never, harm an animal!
Thanks for reading
Jenifer J. Paffett