There are specific elements of a story that delineate a standard mystery from a cozy mystery. When writing in the mystery genre, its important to understand your target audience, and create a world that is enjoyable to the reader. This week’s Killer Nashville guest blog by Ann H. Gabhart explores the world of the cozy mystery and gives advice of how to make your cozy stand out. Take an inside look at her fictional town of Hidden Springs and see how her novels Murder at the Courthouse and Murder Comes by Mail take cozy mysteries to the next level.
Cozying up to Mystery
By Ann H. Gabhart
I cut my reading teeth on The Hardy Boys mysteries. Those stories made me want to be a detective too. So, at age ten when anything seems possible, I grabbed a pencil and started writing my first book starring me as a mystery-solving sleuth. Even then, I knew writing fiction meant you could make things up. That let me make my fictional self smarter, cuter and much less shy than my real self.
Since I still enjoy reading mysteries, it’s a little mysterious that I had twenty-eight novels published before one was actually labeled a mystery. Over the years, I slipped plenty of mystery threads into my stories, but Murder at the Courthouse was my first full-fledged, let’s put murder in that title, mystery.
You’ve probably heard the writing advice “to write what you know.” I’m not sure exactly how that’s supposed to work with mystery writers. Personal experience with murder can be deadly! I’m relieved to say I don’t know about murder, but I do live in a world where the baser human emotions of greed, anger, envy, hate and fear are often on display and can sneak into all our thoughts at times. Those feelings magnified can push a person down some wrong paths toward crime, even murder. When that happens with your fictional bad guys, then a writer can come up with a good guy character to solve the mystery.
I didn’t totally ignore the write-what-you-know advice with my mystery. Most of my books have small-town settings. That’s because I’m a country girl. Take me to a big city like Chicago or New York and I’m lost. But drop me down in a Main Street, two stoplight town and I’m right at home. That’s why, when I stepped onto the mystery writing trail, I created the small town of Hidden Springs where murder isn’t supposed to happen but does. That small town setting put my Hidden Spring mysteries into the cozy mystery genre.
Online I discovered at least fifteen varieties of mysteries from cozies to noir which were labeled as gritty mysteries as far from cozies as you can get. So what makes a cozy cozy? First and especially true with my Hidden Springs books is that small town setting with the kind of colorful characters a reader expects to find on those Main Streets. In a cozy mystery, the murder takes place off page. Bodies are found, but generally the victim is either a character nobody liked anyway or someone the reader barely knows.
That is true in my stories even though my hero does land in some dangerous situations. It’s not all only a puzzle for my hero, Michael Keane. In the first Hidden Springs mystery, Murder at the Courthouse, Michael uncovers some disturbing secrets from the past to solve the mystery. Then in Murder Comes by Mail, evil comes to call on his small town bringing more suspense and perhaps more bodies too than are usually found in cozy mysteries.
Normally a cozy sleuth is an amateur who stumbles into mystery, perhaps a middle-aged woman running some small business like a book shop. But sometimes a writer doesn’t read the rules until after she’s written the books. That must have happened with me because Michael is a good-looking deputy sheriff in my little town of Hidden Springs. Also, romance rarely plays a big part in cozies, but Michael is carrying a torch for a woman he thinks will never marry him. While the mystery is the main thrust of the Hidden Spring books, Michael and Alex’s seemingly impossible romance is a continuing storyline for readers.
But perhaps cats are why my mysteries ended up on the cozy mystery shelf. If you check out any bookstore’s mystery section, you can pick out the cozy mysteries by the great covers that often feature a cat or dog. My covers have a different cat for each story – Two Bits, the barber’s cat in Murder at the Courthouse, and Grimalkin, the cat on the mailbox in Murder Comes by Mail.
So if you happen to take a fictional visit to a small town where murder and mayhem happen, it’s likely you have stepped into a cozy mystery. A few smiles and thrills later, the killer will be unmasked and you can feel safe in that little town once again. At least, until the next cozy episode of murder.
Ann H. Gabhart is the bestselling author of many novels, including the 2015 Selah Book of Year, Love Comes Home, her Shaker novels and The Heart of Hollyhill series. As A.H. Gabhart, she writes the Hidden Springs Mysteries set in a small town much like her hometown. Ann and her husband enjoy country life on a farm in Kentucky. Learn more about Ann here.
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