Given how much I've been thinking about the subgenres lately, I have decided to do a series of posts on my philosophies (opinions?) regarding the writing and publishing of each. I'd like to look at what makes the entries in a particular subgenre work for the reader (and publisher) or not. The following observations are based on observed sales patterns, listening to/reading Internet chatter in various listservs, talking to readers and librarians, and so forth. Do with these tips as you will. Today I introduce...
THE COZY: A PLEASURABLE ESCAPE WITH MURDER
There is something wonderful about a good cozy, which is the ultimate in escapist reading. Lately I've seen some attempts at more "edgy" cozies, and I don't think they work, really. People look to cozies to give them a sense of an alternate, cuter, more comfy world. The murder (or other crime, but usually murder) thus is mostly a plot device on which to hang the antics of the characters and various social groups, such as the local parsonage, the bed-and-breakfast, the library, or the county historic preservation bureau.
What makes a good cozy? Well, here goes.
1. SUBURBS/THE COUNTRY ARE BETTER THAN THE CITY. While we have a good many devoted urbanites in our world, there's no denying the romance of the country, where meandering streams and quaint old architecture provide that much-needed feeling of escape. Of course, as a less-populated locale, the country or the village is bound to have fewer people to witness the crime, which makes for good sleuthing and quaint settings as the detective goes about his or her business. I think many city people think about escaping to the city, but few suburbanites/countrydwellers think about escaping to the city - in fact, when they do visit the city, they are usually very happy to be home afterwards. Since a cozy is all about escape, give them a nice place to escape to. Even in the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency books, which are set in Gaborone, Botswana - a city - Precious and J.L.B. go back to their very clearly suburban home.
2. IT'S ALL ABOUT FRIENDSHIP. A cozy isn't the place for a loner detective. Whether we're city dwellers or country dwellers, we're all saddled with annoying, dramatic, needy, or just plan infuriating families. Our escape from our families is our friends, and the cozy protag needs to have a nice network of friends, along the lines of the women in Sex and the City. The friendships need not be syrupy or dull; certainly friends can and do (and should) serve as foils or reality checks to one another. Having that sense of friendship/community is part of the cozy mystique; and in the cozy series that the supporting cast is particularly important.
3. LOW ON THE VIOLENCE, PLEASE. Yes, of course we need a good murder, maybe even a few of them to keep the plot moving along. These should generally take place off stage - I don't think cozy readers particularly like sense of torture (as in some of the more lurid thrillers). When central to the plot, a description is acceptable, but I find this is usually best done in a clinical context, with the sleuth reading a medical examiner's report, or having the wounds described in non-purple prose. Remember, violence is too much of an ugly reality to have a major place in the cozy, escapist world of the cozy.
4. FLIRTING, YES; SEX, NO. COLORFUL LANGUAGE, YES; PROFANITY, NO. Think of the cozy cast as being a bit like the kids of High School Musical or some other non-threatening fare. Certainly everyone likes a bit of flirting, a game of cat-and-mouse, misunderstandings, and all those other unavoidable things that are part of the love quest. The chase, as we all know, is much more fun than the conquest (for readers, at least--and I would argue for the players as well); as Keats said, "Heard melodies are sweet/ Those unheard are sweeter." Sex is a messy, messy thing; much too complicated for the cozy. If intimacy happens (as between an old married couple, though really - who wants to see THAT?), keep it offstage, with the violence (preferably not in the same place). As for profanity, remember we are in the delightful world of the cozy. Readers don't want a lot of reality intruding via streams of four-letter words. I know this whole profanity thing is a huge source of controversy -- novelists can, and do, go on for paragraphs, pages, months, years -- about why their characters curse. They'll do what they want, of course, but if I'm reading a cozy manuscript and I see profanity, the first thing I'm thinking about is how I'd edit it all out.
5. A GOOD CRAZY HELPS. In a city, the local crazy person is a sort of scary threat...I don't know too many urban dwellers who make it a habit of engaging in delightful conversations with the homeless. But in the much "safer" world of the country village, a good eccentric provides humor, opportunities for cryptic-but-oh-so-revealing pronouncements, and the like. I also think that cozies somehow allow for a bit more of the supernatural - you know, local legends, sightings of apparitions on the moors, wandering spirits. The bit o' supernatural (never necessary, but sometimes fun) usually adds to the sense of place and history and can make for some fun moments, as long as the cozy itself doesn't turn into a weird sort of book that starts out grounded in reality and ends up on the astral plane by the end.
6. CONTROL THE SUGAR. There's sometimes a tendency for writers to make their cozies into saccharine, syrupy reads that induce cavities and cringing. I mean, a protagonist named Mimi with two French poodles named Fifi and Pipi, living in a village called Petit Paris sur Mer is probably too much for even the fluffy set to take. Love is nice, but it really doesn't need to be dripping off every page of your manuscript; let's not forget that a cozy is not only NOT utopian, in some ways it is subversively dystopian. Negative emotions and acts are as common in the country as in the city; the cozy detective's job is to uncover the truth behind the veneer, which is exactly what elevates a good cozy into a crime novel.
As always, don't wear out your welcome. Keep it tight, fast, pleasant (even with those messy murders included), and leave us wanting more. Think of the cozy as a vacation setting. We love going there for a week each year, but if we had to live there, we'd probably be bored, and get tired of it real fast.