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"What Makes a Great Cosy Mystery?"

By Jenifer J. Paffett

What Makes a Great Cosy Mystery?

As an amateur author, I ‘employ’ my long-suffering husband as a proof-reader; 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 pass-time for him to question the character’s motives in my stories. He has even ventured so far as to points out how he would have reacted in certain situations. This is great for me as it leads to me 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, we had a discussion, I mean that I talked while we walked!

I learned two things:
  1. Don’t ask a man about cosy mysteries as they just don’t get them!
  2. Don’t take notes whilst walking – when I got home, I could hardly read them.

However, despite this, the conversation was highly useful – I sat down that afternoon and penned my list of what make a great cosy mystery. So, here goes.


Characters

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’, 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.

Inspector Poirot

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, just like the reader. Pippa is just like this, but I’ve also let her 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 the characters as the story 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, as well as several other supporting characters which she can draw on. These individuals should be instrumental in assisting the hero/heroine in solving 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.


Locations

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 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.

Cornwall

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.

Finally, I like to use the weather to reflect character’s moods. As Pippa is based in Cornwall, and she and Benjamin love to walk, they get to experience soooo much weather.


The Mystery

We’ve got our characters, we’ve got our location, now we need a 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 murder mystery, but I often find it difficult 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 Mystery

The teacher, a well-respected local, likes to, shall we say, dabble with the content of her smokes, suffers a heart attack at the music festival. 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 be predicted by the reader. Moving on, cosies should be comfortable; there should not too much death, blood or gore, and definitely limited cruelty to cast, and non 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 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 the story.


The Plot

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 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 likeable characters at risk; this heightens the stake for the hero/heroine.

The story

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 man 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.

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!


JJP