Tuesday, February 22, 2011

What a Cozy Mystery Is and Thoughts on Genre Writing

The Half Holiday, Alec home from school-- by Elizabeth Adela Stanhope Forbes --1859-1912I had an ‘oops-moment’ the other day when someone emailed me and asked me to explain what a cozy mystery was.

This is what happens when you get so close to your subject that you don’t adequately explain it.

Cozies are subgenres of the mystery genre. Mystery, actually, is a genre with many subgenres. Cozies are basically traditional mysteries featuring an amateur sleuth. The reader receives the same clues as the sleuth and solves the case alongside her. These mysteries are frequently humorous, character-focused, often (not always) set in small-towns, and are part of a series. You’ll never find explicit descriptions of violence, dark themes, or much profanity in a cozy mystery.

When I talk about what I write, I’m always very specific (which is probably why I don’t even think twice when I use the term ‘cozy’ anymore.) The reason is that when I interact with people in the industry, they’ll ask me different questions based on my answer to “What do you write?” If I say I write cozies, another mystery writer might ask what my hook is (I write a Southern culinary mystery series and a Southern quilting mystery series.) If I said I was a police procedural writer, they might ask where I’d found my forensics research. If I said I wrote thrillers, they might ask if I wrote at all from the killer’s POV.

If I say I write mysteries, it just doesn’t explain much about what I’m actually writing. So I’m usually more specific.

Sometimes I get dinged for being specific. I remember a conversation with an aspiring author I had once. He asked what I wrote. “Traditional mysteries,” I answered. “What do you write?”

He gave a bit of a smirk and said, “What I write can’t easily be defined or pigeonholed.”

I just smiled back, but what I was thinking was, “Well, that’s a problem.”

Because agents, editors, publishers—they have only so many hours in their day, like the rest of us. It sure does help to be able to quickly categorize a manuscript.

And, honestly, the more narrowly you’re able to make that categorization, the better. So maybe you haven’t just written a children’s book. Maybe it’s actually YA. Maybe it’s not just YA—it’s dystopian YA. If you can accurately pinpoint what you’re writing, you’ll know where to direct your queries to agents or editors (because they’re usually fairly specific as to genres they’re looking for). And they’ll read your query and know what specific elements they’re looking for when they read your manuscript—because the elements will be fairly common to that genre.

So, taking cozy mysteries as an example. Any agent or editor worth his or her salt is going to know that a cozy mystery is probably going to be around 75,000 words, won’t have much profanity, won’t have explicit descriptions of the dead body, will have an amateur investigating, and will frequently have some sort of a hook—it will be a culinary cozy, or a gardening cozy, or a crafting cozy. These are things they will be looking for as they read.

If an agent, in particular, gets something across her desk that’s not easily defined—well, what’s she going to do with it? How is she going to sell it to an editor—who is looking for something specific to appeal to a particular reader base.

I think, also, that it’s easier to get your foot in the door if you’re writing genre fiction. There are tons of readers out there for any given popular genre—fantasy, SF, romance, mystery. These are dedicated readers who will read each month’s new releases in their favorite genre (my son is one of these. I just print out the new releases in his favorite genre each month and head to the bookstore.) So you’ve already got a reader base. This helps because, above all, you want to sell books to stay on the shelves.

I'm going to add this addendum to the post because I've had some questions on the cross-genre phenomenon. To me, it's a great opportunity to reach different (more) readers. I think that the problem would be, in a query, if a writer said something like: My book will appeal to fantasy, Sci-Fi, romance, and mystery readers. I think I'd pick the two strongest elements of the novel and put those in the query. Or, just focus on one element: My book is a mystery with a strong romantic subplot. A second challenge is shelf placement, once the book is published. I have a friend who has written books that are cross-genre mystery and romance and it seems like every store has her books in a different place. It can be frustrating to readers who are looking for her books. But this is getting to be less of an issue as everything moves online.

What genre (or subgenre) are you writing or reading?