Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Let's Cozy Up or Not

by Linda Thorne

Anything you hear regarding cozy mysteries will likely slot them into a sub-genre that promises the reader escape from things objectionable, real-life hardships and horrors. Profanity is eliminated or so imperceptible to hardly be noticed. If sex is written into the book, it will always be low key and definitely off-stage. The protagonist is never physically harmed or subjected to true violence. I recently read a post online that said crime in a cozy would be “bloodless.”

The setting is a small town and characters drink tea, have cats or dogs for pets, sometimes other animals. The lead character will be a female amateur sleuth, often described as a sincerely nice person in an endearing sense. The definition offered here is what I've read in posts and articles. It’s the same when I listen to authors speak on the subject.

Okay, that said, why do the cozies I read (and write) not meet the criteria? I’ll give you some examples.

Before my debut novel, Just Another Termination, was contracted for publication, I’d submit it to agents, publishers, contests, always referencing it as a mystery. My reject letters referred to it as a cozy mystery. One year when I entered Just Another Termination in the Colorado Gold Writers Contest, one of the judges wrote notes in the margin beside my description of the first dead body, a crime scene far from “bloodless.” He said I was stepping outside the bounds of cozy. I made all the other changes both judges suggested, but held on to the initial grizzly, real life, description of the dead body as it seemed important to my story. When I found a publisher, the graphic details of my murder scene survived their edits, yet my book is still called a cozy, along with other names like traditional mystery.

Are there cozies that are a hybrid, mostly mystery with a touch of cozy? I presented the question to a panel of authors of cozies at a Killer Nashville Writers Conference many years ago, before I was published. I used Carolyn Haines’ Sarah Booth Delaney Bones series as an example. I told the group that I’d noticed Sara Booth’s sex life escalating in each new book and her consumption of Jack Daniels increasing. After some pause, one of the panel authors said, “Maybe we could call her books naughty cozies.” The whole room had a good laugh, but then the questions and responses moved back to the elements of cozies.

Goldy Schultz, the caterer protagonist in Diane Mott Davidson’s series, has been knocked down, bonked, bruised, and stabbed. She’s been left unconscious numerous times and has found herself confronted by many murderers after her. Any reader of the series should find solid reason to believe she is in true danger of physical harm or death. Often. 

As for M.C. Beaton’s series character, Agatha Raisin, I’d hardly describe the character as nice. Certainly not endearing. To me, Agatha, is a fun protagonist in her sarcastic, grumpy cigarette-smoking self-centered way.

Jennie Bentley has some horrific things happen in her cozy renovation series. The skeleton of a baby is found in a crawl space above an attic, a 98 year-old woman is pushed to her death down steep stairs, and more.

In Sunny Frazier’s second book in her Christy Bristol series, Where Angels Fear, Christy gets involved in a membership-only S&M sex club. I have to say, the subject added spice to the story, but an objectionable topic to some? I would think so.

Okay, so the books I’ve mentioned are missing a lot of tea drinkers and in one way or another have taken a brazen step outside the boundary of their subgenre. Regardless, I came away from reading these books with a feeling I’d been on had a fun ride. One without gloomy afterthoughts or bad dreams. As these authors’ examples illustrate, books called cozies can move outside their definition and still hold their label, cozy, so long as they leave the reader with their hallmark - a warm and comfy feeling. It works for me.



Zari Reede said...

I find that it is hard to fit a story into a box. Sure I know the formula for romance, but I find it hard to stick to the hero plus heroine equals ohh-ah forever... life isn’t like that. Although my romances always end happy, I never tend to stick to the norm. So if you don’t feel cozy, don’t fret. Readers who love mystery will love what you writeūü§ó

Linda Thorne said...

Zari, your comment sounds like something from a wise person. Us humans tend to categorize by giving out names for everything. I took an English class in college decades ago and remember the teacher telling us to be careful when you "name" something. He called it the dangers of semantics. Very wise. It's all around us now, even with health issues: Restless leg syndrome, carpel tunnel, etc. Most cases can't fit into one name, but that seems to be a human tendency.

Lisanne Harrington said...

This makes a lot of sense to me. I write what I think of as Paranormal Mystery, yet others insist it is Horror. I think of horror as bloodier and scarier. What I write is I feel is more mystery with elements of the paranormal.

I had a hard time selling my Wolf Creek Mystery Series, which I wrote for adults, because everyone called it YA just because the protagonist is 14. But I didn't use the elements typically found in YA. It wasn't until I marketed it as YA that I finally sold it.

Still rankles me, but what can you do?

It's the old po-TAY-to po-TOT-to...

Liane Spicer said...

I think it's wonderful that the boundaries of genres and sub-genres (which were created merely for ease of marketing anyway) are being pushed and expanded this way. I've had to face this issue with my romance-mystery-noirish second novel.

Linda Thorne said...

Thank you also Lisanne and Liane for your interesting comments. Anytime something is defined or labeled, it seems boundaries automatically appear that do not cover all things, persons, events, etc. with the same label. In fact, often they vary significantly.

Amy Reade said...

Great post, Linda. Thought-provoking and interesting. I've heard the cozies you describe as "cozies with an edge." I think it's a good way to describe the books. The unfortunate thing is that we are often forced to pigeonhole the books when they don't really fit neatly into the boundaries. I write Gothic fiction, but lately I've taken to calling them "contemporary mysteries" because I've broken out of the Gothic mold a bit.

Jewel Amethyst said...

When I read your post, I was reminded of the romance genre and how it evolved so that the lines between romance and erotica have blurred substantially. It just says we can't contain a genre (or subgenre) in a box and keep it there. As long as authors have creative minds,they will push the boundary until the lines are so blurred one cannot distinguish one genre or the subgenre from another.

Linda Thorne said...

Thank you Amy and Jewel. I agree. Lately, I find myself describing books I've read with a couple of sentences rather than a defined genre. I'm reading one now, that I'd describe as a mystery with some romantic overtones; a hardball detective type story, but with a soft edge. I would not be describing it accurately if I just said it's a hardball mystery.

Beth Fine said...

Although perhaps to justify their own value, I think it curious that editors and reviewers seem bent on downgrading,re-categorizing, or devaluing the work of talented authors who, by the way, keep them in business. No wonder writers rush to self-publish, not because their egos are weak but perhaps, because their parents taught them to ignore "bullies" or the mishmash spewed from lesser mouthpieces. As to your post,I liked all your examples of cozy writers who dare to venture outside the box and into less-than-comfy much less cozy scenes. However of late, I'm finding that my current little psyche can't handle much skin crawling suspense, bloody gore, or neurotic discord narrative. Admittedly, last year I began to have such dire descriptions invade my dreams, dreams that had already become quite an issue of nightly despair. The rerun of my life's movie felt like an elongated version of my life instead of the reputed "zooming of one's life" across my brain, that occurs just before an death-defying accident. As a child,I never liked scary rides or movies; and lately, it's become ridiculous. I even have to leave the room if the suspense gets too intense. :-) Case in point: Last night, "Death on the Nile," by our beloved Agatha Christi, had so many edgy moments that I had to keep jumping up and leaving the room. Yes, I've become a coward even in the face of obvious fiction because life seems to demand more courage than I can muster at night, after a long day of trials. Sometimes a Shriners' or St. Jude Children's Hospital appeal causes me to weep. It's a good thing my checkbook is off limits to charities right now. I chalk up all of these dipsy-doodle mood swings to my living in some nightmares of my own and not relishing more of them for my entertainment and reading pleasure. I hope this will change in 2018 so I can finish previewing the draft of Linda Thorne's upcoming book "Promotion to Die For." I may eed to keep Critical Care on speed dial. :-)

Mollie Blake said...

Very though provoking, Linda. And I agree with others that it's good to push boundaries in genres. Creativity cannot go stale. But ultimately it's important for the reader to enjoy the stories and the danger comes when they are taken, unknowingly, out of their comfort zone. My books are labelled erotic and yet some readers are still shocked by the content. Thanks for sharing x