How to Create a Cozy Mystery
Curl up on the couch to make a feel-good mystery for the ages using this guide to cozy mysteries.
When I was a bookseller, I had a customer who would buy these little paperback books in stacks of five or ten every time she came to the bookshop. She was an older woman, retired, whose main hobby now was curling up with a good book, and her favorites? Cozy mysteries, sweet little mystery stories starring bakers and writers and, in one of my favorite instances, a very nosy cat.
But what exactly makes a mystery “cozy?” And how do you incorporate those elements into your story to create a novel in this adorable genre? Here’s what you need to know about this subgenre.
What is a cozy mystery?
So the “mystery” part of a cozy mystery is the easiest part to explain: there’s a puzzle in the story that our protagonist and the audience must solve before the book ends. Most often it’s a murder mystery, but that’s not always the case; you may be watching the case for a heist, fraud, kidnapping, blackmail, or some other interesting felony.
But what makes this genre “cozy?” Isn’t cozy a word we use to describe comfortable things like fluffy bathrobes or hot mugs of tea? How is murder “cozy?”
Basically, a cozy mystery is one where a relatable protagonist solves a crime in a way that feels satisfying to the reader and leaves most of the characters happy (or on the path to being happy) in the end. These stories are usually light, funny, and can be heartwarming. Additionally, they take place in cute, quaint settings that make everything a bit more fun.
Cozy mysteries are the kinds of books you break out when it’s raining and you can curl up under your favorite blanket, drink your favorite hot drink, and read by gentle lamplight or in front of a roaring fire. They’re light whodunits you wouldn’t mind discussing with your best friend, or a book club. That being said, the genre does follow some general rules.
Cozy stories tend to avoid big cities like Los Angeles or New York City. English countryside villages full of picturesque cottages, small American Midwest towns where everyone knows everyone, or a quiet seaside tourist town in the off-season - these are some of the most popular settings for cozy mysteries. All of them have a few things in common:
- They’re vacation spots or places that attract visitors, meaning authors can have some fun with descriptions
- They’re small enough that it would make sense for gossip and rumors to spread (yay plot devices)
- They’re usually relatively self-contained, meaning people are more likely to trust an amateur detective than a big-city cop
Small towns also tend to have less in the way of crime in general, which would make a major crime like the ones that drive the plots of cozy mysteries a big deal that everyone is going to be curious about.
The crime at the center of a cozy mystery is, as a rule, never too heinous. There’s no on-the-page assault or abuse, and you never ever hurt an animal or a child. If someone dies, they die quickly and cleanly from something like a gunshot or fast-acting poison. If someone is kidnapped or blackmailed, they come out of it safely in the end.
Additionally, the crime has to incite some kind of fun mystery for the audience to solve. How did the murderer get into a locked room? How did the person get kidnapped in broad daylight? How could he have done it if he’s been here the whole time? There should be a line of breadcrumbs for our intrepid detective to pick up on that build into an interesting reveal scene right at the very end.
Of course, the biggest key to a cozy mystery is a likable main character: the amateur detective protagonist. This person is not a professional private investigator, career cop, or other law enforcement official. Usually, they have a profession that’s more tame and romanticized - they’re bakers and high school students and writers and florists, or they’re retired. These people may have keen eyes for details and general working knowledge of their little town. They might also have a particular expertise - such as being a crime or mystery author themselves - that lends itself well to the investigation. This particular genre lends itself well to having very young or very old protagonists at the story’s center.
Additionally, the protagonist should step in because they have personal stakes in the case and the cops are either completely absent, not taking the case seriously, or stumped by the clues and unable to make progress. Maybe our protagonist witnessed part of the crime and is being targeted as the next victim, maybe they were neighbors with the victim and discovered the crime scene first, or maybe they’re just really, really nosey. The protagonist might work with the police as a temporary consultant because of their expertise or, alternatively, have to sneak around the police to get the clues they need to solve the case.
Cozy mystery examples
The best way I can explain the cozy mystery genre is by showing you some of the most popular entries into it. It’s easiest to understand the vibe you’re going for when you can see it in action. So, here are four of the most popular examples of cozy mystery series.
Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple Mysteries
We can’t do an article on mysteries without talking about the queen of mysteries herself, Agatha Christie. Christie is most well known for two of her detectives: the particular and polite Poirot, whose mysteries are some of her most famous, and her darling cozy mystery detective, Miss Marple.
Jane Marple is a little old lady who lives in the English countryside town of St. Mary Mead. Allegedly based on the friends of Christie’s grandmother, Miss Marple is your stereotypical English spinster; she’s fond of reading, knitting, and other quiet activities. She’s supported by her author nephew, has a big family and circle of friends that she goes all over to visit, and trains housemaids as a hobby.
The way she differs from other little grannies is that she always seems to be in the wrong place at the wrong time to become utterly entangled in the mysteries of her quaint little town, which has a weird amount of murders for somewhere so idyllic. Miss Marple solves cases by being delightfully nosey, pestering the police, and involving at least one long-suffering companion to do the heavy lifting. At the end of each of her 12 novels and 20 short stories, she reveals the culprit of the crime of the day with the same level of wit as Poirot (but with a softer, sweeter style).
Joanne Fluke’s Hannah Swensen Series
Joanne Fluke started writing her award-winning cozy mystery series, the Hannah Swensen Mysteries, in 2000, and there are now more than 30 stories ranging from novels to anthologies to a cookbook!
Hannah, our protagonist, is a baker who runs a little shop in Lake Eden, Minnesota, a fictionalized small town with all the hallmarks of small-town life - nosy neighbors, local businesses, a distinct dislike of outsiders by the older generation, and murder. Of course. When she isn’t running her store or exploring her love life (which is very active), Hannah offers her amateur sleuthing to the local police to help them find out who’s behind lots of food-based crimes.
The most precious thing about this series is that each mystery novel includes a recipe from Hannah’s personal repertoire for readers to enjoy.
MC Beaton’s Hamish Macbeth Mysteries
In a slight twist from the typical formula, MC Beaton’s cozy mystery series revolves around a police constable in Lochdubh, a quaint village in the Scottish Highlands. Constable Hamish Macbeth is a lazy, friendly community man who’s more than willing to overlook petty disturbances if it means the village enjoys his company. He’s perfectly content to remain in this little town, and so often rallies to keep the tiny police station open.
It’s lucky that he does, too, because he’s always in the right place to solve improbable crimes before the superiors - namely the Chief Inspector who’s not his biggest fan - get the chance to. Hamish may be lazy but he’s not stupid; he’s got a mind for mysteries and for avoiding anything that might remove him from his post, whether that’s getting a promotion or getting fired for occasional misdeeds.
Throughout the series, we get lots of insight into the daily life of our little Scottish town, and the rocky love life (or lack thereof) of Constable Macbeth. We also get to see lots of his goofy little pets - Towser and Lugs the dogs and an opinionated cat named Sonsie!
Murder, She Wrote
Once again, I would be remiss if I didn’t include one of the most popular cozy mystery TV show of all time, Murder, She Wrote. This series, created by Peter S. Fischer, Richard Levinson, and William Link, follows dear old Jessica Fletcher (played by the late great Angela Lansbury), a mystery writer living in Cabot Cove in Maine. This retired teacher writes hit novels that keep her in a comfortable life, but she doesn’t bother with fame; instead, she enjoys keeping up with her friends around the world and tending to her little house.
That being said, dead bodies have a bad habit of showing up around Ms. Fletcher and being a crime writer, she tends to pick up on details of the cases that the local police - who are resigned to this woman butting in - tend to miss. Jessica tends to bring herself into the action and piece the clues together so law enforcement can arrive just in time to nab the bad guy, which means she gets more fuel for her novels. Eventually, Ms. Fletcher leaves her small-town life to teach criminology in New York City…but of course, the mysteries don’t end there.
This show was so popular that not only did it run for 12 seasons, but it also spawned four movies, two videogames, and the phrase Cabot Cove Syndrome - used to describe the genre trope of a seriously unusual number of dead bodies appearing seemingly out of nowhere in small towns in fiction.
Looking for additional sources of inspiration? Check out this list of 26 series put together by Book Riot. Some standouts included the Noodle Shop Mysteries by Vivien Chien, the Magical Bookshop Mysteries by Amanda Flower, and the Ice Cream Parlor Mysteries by Abby Collette.
How to build your own cozy mystery
Writing a cozy mystery sounds easy…until you try it. Then, like any other mystery, things can get complicated. How do you know whether you’re straying too far into the mystery or not enough into the cozy? How do you come up with a happy ending to a murder story? Is my protagonist sugary enough?
So, to help you get started, here are my four best tips for creating the best cozy mystery you can.
Keep it family-friendly
Cozy mysteries are intentionally nice, polite reads. That means your book should be at most rated PG; it shouldn’t contain any profanity (or if it does, it’s minimal damns and hells), it shouldn’t contain any graphic violence (the murder happens offscreen) or sex (romance is fine!), and, as mentioned, you never hurt kids or animals.
Think of it as being closer to kid mystery books like Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys than to adult thrillers. Try to make your story something a kid could pick up without upsetting their parents.
Keep it lighthearted - even around the murder
As silly as it sounds, try to make sure the tone of your novel is lighthearted, even when your characters are standing around a dead body. Start with your characters themselves; each one should be a relatively normal, relatable person that your reader will have some real-life reference for. Some of the most popular tropes are nosey old lady neighbors, plucky investigative kids, kindly shopkeepers, and the witty couple that gets together in the end.
Treat the victims and their families with realistic respect, but try to look more on how the living people react to the scene than on the victim themselves. Additionally, you’ll want to show the people rallying together - maybe they’re offering their help or care to the victim or pitching in on the investigation for a sense of justice.
Honestly, don’t be afraid to throw in a bit of dark humor - “he looks bored stiff” - or, if you just can’t figure out how to have a non-gruesome death, forget murders entirely and go for more cartoonish plots and schemes.
Keep it interesting, but not overly-complicated
The key balancing act for a cozy mystery is the actual mystery itself. While you won’t want to make the crime horrible or highly offensive, you’ll want to offer a logical, interesting reason for it to have occurred at all. One of the best ways to do this is to make it a crime of passion or a scandal. Maybe your murderer found out about the victim’s wealth and wanted the money for themselves, or maybe they had a prized possession the murderer wanted desperately. Maybe the kid who’s been kidnapped is taken by the parent that doesn’t have custody, and is safe but definitely not where they should be, or maybe the prize-winning dog got grabbed by dogs’ rights activists protesting the dog show.
A good cozy mystery might have a plot that’s similar to this: the reveal of the crime, the first big clue, the second big clue, and then the climatic “a-ha!” moment. This gives you a chance to throw in red herrings and mislead your audience right up to the last minute. That being said, laying a breadcrumb trail of clues throughout the story can make for a fun puzzle your audience can solve right alongside your detective.
Keep it short
Cozy mysteries are known for being relatively short so you might finish them in one sitting if you were really determined and/or had a lot of free time. They’re bite-sized stories that are usually part of a larger series, so you don't need to explain every detail in one book. So, if you’re writing a cozy mystery, try to keep your story about novella length, up to about 50,000 words. You might also consider turning it into a series of shorter stories that you can build on over time.
Cozy mysteries are not only a fun genre to write in but also a lucrative one. Having a long series of cozy mystery books is ideal for most readers in the genre; they get to follow their favorite protagonists and towns for lots of little adventures! For you, it means that your backlog sells really well and each new book may continue to be popular long after publication.
Once you’ve figured out the basics, cozy mysteries become a great option for mystery writers looking for wider audiences…and maybe the chance to work their pets into their stories.