What I Learned From Watching 192 Episodes of The Murdoch Mysteries

by Christina Lay

For those of you who aren’t familiar with it, The Murdoch Mysteries is a long running Canadian series; a cozy historical mystery set in Toronto in the late 1880s/early 1900s. This show is exactly my cup of tea. Cozy, check. Historical, check. Mystery, check.

Perhaps the fact that I’ve watched twelve seasons of sixteen episodes each says more about me than it does about the show, but I think there is a lot we as storytellers can learn from such a durable series.

What the show does right, IMHO:

The main character, Detective William Murdoch, is an interesting, intelligent, well-drawn protagonist. He is keenly interested in all of the technological revolutions occurring in the time period of the show, and his enthusiasm can’t help but engage the viewer. This was a brilliant piece of story crafting, to meld a fundamental characteristic of the hero with the exciting, ever-ripe-for-conflict reality of the turn of the last century. Detective Murdoch, an exceptionally clever man, is often allied with or pitted against great minds and personalities of the time. The first episode features Nikolai Tesla. Over the years, we meet Alexander Graham Bell, Teddy Roosevelt, Marconi, and a host of other inventors, scientists, authors and politicians. Even Frank Lloyd Wright gets accused of murder. Most of the famous “guest stars” are, of course, accused of murder at some point. All are proven innocent, for which history is thankful.

What can we learn aside from the obvious requirement to write interesting characters? A character is more than a set of characteristics. They are creatures of their milieu. Give them interesting times and people to react with and against, and they will grow and come to life. This is especially effective if the setting is an interesting character in its own right. For instance, Murdoch and his wife end up buying and living in a Frank Lloyd Wright house, much to the confusion and pity of their friends. In this case, the viewer gets to “be in the know” and have a gentle laugh at those silly Victorians. (Although personally, I’d rather have one of those lovely Victorian houses featured in every show!)

The secondary characters are also interesting, intelligent and well-drawn. Murdoch’s romantic interest, Dr. Julia Ogden, is not just a foil for Murdoch. She often has her own story lines, pitting her modern, progressive viewpoints against the staid, patriarchal society of the times. She’s a woman doctor who runs for office and is thrown in jail for it. She’s had an abortion, which causes a believable rift between her and the devout Catholic Murdoch. She enjoys cutting edge art and brings levity and wit to many a stuffy social occasion. This is another great conflict generator, and another way to learn about the actual history of suffrage and women’s rights.

I find it amazing that a show can go for so long and not lose or corrupt any of its core cast. The gruff Inspector Brackenreid, the charming and gullible Constable Crabtree, even the annoying journalist Miss Cherry and not-so-bright Constable Higgens are all characters that are fully drawn and reliable, and by reliable I mean that the writers do not resort to having our favorites do stupid or ridiculous things just because the creators are running out of ideas. Consistency and clarity work in the case of a cozy. When readers/viewers develop a fondness for a character, they don’t want them to change too much. Yes, the characters expand their horizons, learn, recognize prejudice inside themselves, become more tolerant, stretch their horizons, etc., but their basic goodness does not change.

A stellar ensemble of actors doesn’t hurt

Now, some readers/viewers might consider this boring. I’d suggest that these are not your target audience if you’re writing this type of series. The audience for cozies does not require great upheavals, radical shifts, or the killing off of regular characters. In fact, they will rebel. In this aspect of coziness, Murdoch excels. Perhaps Canadian actors are less likely to demand more money and leave the show?

The mysteries are often (though not always) blended with scientific developments or social issues of the times. This is another great way that the setting is put to use. Murdoch is always dreaming up innovations right about the time the real inventor shows up in an episode. In the Tesla episode, someone is electrocuted and Tesla helps Murdoch figure out how. Cameras, fingerprinting, night vision goggles, even a lie detector, are all put to good use for the first time and we get to imagine what those developments were really like, and how significantly things were changing. There is a touch of sci-fi to the series, because of all the wild inventions which were in fact real, or just on the horizon.

What the show does wrong, IMHO:

The mysteries themselves are often silly. Or, there is a whopping coincidence (or two) or something just doesn’t make sense. Yes, the show is generally playful in tone, but the writers have trained their viewers to expect truly engaging content and sometimes, the basic structure on which everything else hangs isn’t up to snuff. However, because the characters and setting are so big and well-developed, a weak plot can stumble along and no one minds too much (except a writer who is taking notes).

I spoke of consistency as one of the strong points of the show. The only times I’ve given up on an episode is when my expectation of the show has been let down. In these cases, the disappointment comes in the form of the tired and annoying plot device of the serial killer who develops an obsession with Murdoch and then just won’t die. These characters are always more persistently violent and psychotic than what jives with a cozy, and I personally find them boring, because there’s nothing to solve, only a lunatic to escape from. As a writer, if you have success in creating a cozy mystery, be wary of treading into darker, more grisly and hopeless waters. Probably you’d be better off starting a new series altogether.

Along with the occasional serial killer, the writers will sometimes fall back on tired tropes, such as using the long suffering Doctor Ogden as victim just so Murdoch can suffer the agonizing pains of worry and then be heroic in rescuing her. Also, every single regular character has been falsely accused of murder. That’s a bit much to take. Every time Murdoch and Ogden talk about how happy they are, something goes terribly wrong. That level of loud foreshadowing is just annoying.

What I learned about myself as a consumer of story: I like to know what to expect, even if it’s to expect the unexpected. In other words, I choose what shows to watch based a lot on what mood I’m in. If I’m in the mood for cozy and familiar, then by gum, it had better be cozy and familiar. As writers, we have no control over what readers want; however, if we are writing a series, we can be consistent about our tone, level of violence, and so on.

If I really love the characters, I’ll let a wobbly plot slide.

I have a low tolerance for the unsolvable conundrum of a one-dimensional psychopath.

To sum up, The Murdoch Mysteries is a fine example of one my core beliefs: Character is everything. In the worlds of mystery, fantasy and science fiction, multiple book series have become the norm. I believe this is because readers don’t want to let go of characters they love. How often have we wished a great book would never end? When that happens, it sometimes feels like we’re losing a good friend. If you can create that level of devotion for your characters, you may just achieve a 12-season level of success.

The 12 Steps of Getting Over Yourself

by Christina Lay

I have a confession to make. I’ve completed 15 novels and novellas; some of them are even published. This does not include an indeterminate number of drawer novels, those hideous beasties who lurk forever in a state of suspended animation waiting for my fickle brain to become interested in them again. But they are important too, because they represent hundreds of hours of learning the hard way.

I’ve done a lot of hard-way learning. One would think that at this point I would have mastered the art of noveling—or as some people call it, “writing”—but the process of bringing a novel into the world is an ever-evolving, ever-elusive endeavor, and there is no end point, no graduation ceremony after which you will forever breeze through the process of writing like a mature, unruffled professional. No, writing is an exciting ride, a roller coaster of surprises, a minefield of potential failures, a vale of tears.

Recently, I did another dance with The Wall. You know. The one that stops you. This one stopped me for longer than usual. During this Winter of My Worst Novel Ever, I penned the following ripoff of the famous 12 Steps of Alcoholism Anonymous. May they come to your aid during your next Worst Novel Ever.

The 12 Steps of Getting Over Yourself and Finishing the Damn Novel

  1. Admitted we were powerless over the plot, and that our novel had become unmanageable
  2. Came to believe that a really good book on craft could restore us to sanity
  3. Made a decision to turn our plot and our characters over to the care of a workshop or writing group, and to try and utilize their critiques as we understood them
  4. Made a searching and analytical inventory of our novel
  5. Admitted to our muse, to ourselves, and to our writing group the exact nature of our screw-ups
  6. Were entirely ready to ruthlessly cut these defects of plot
  7. Humbly asked our writing group to help us
  8. Made a list of all the places we had gone wrong, and became willing to remove all of our adverbs
  9. Made direct cuts wherever possible, except when to do so would injure the story or character development
  10. Continued to take an honest inventory and when we went wrong, promptly corrected our course
  11. Sought through writing groups and workshops to improve our storytelling abilities as we understood them, gathering the knowledge of how to write and the caffeine to carry those ideas to fruition
  12. Having had an awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to others by participating in a writing group, leading workshops, writing articles, and by using what we learned in all our writing affairs

 

Point of View, Perception and Values: How to Create Conflict Without Really Trying

by Christina Lay

You may have noticed that we live in divisive times.  The gulf between opposing points of view seems to be widening every day. People who hold extreme views are becoming more extreme. Middle-of-the-roaders are held in contempt.  Allies turn on each other for not being righteous enough. Opponents dig in their heels, become intractable. Fresh arguments break out every day and when we, as observers, try to make sense out of what is happening, we are told that Facts don’t matter, truth doesn’t exist, science is fake, and that we can’t believe what we read, what we see, or what we hear.

Pretty fun stuff, eh? I often find myself with a headache, a touch of nausea and an overwhelming sense of frustration.  Luckily, I have the refuge of fiction. I escape into a world where I’m in control, where I know what the truth is and I know who the bad guys are. I can exist in this simple world of my own making for a long time; it is balm to my soul.

But then reality begins to creep back in, with its confusions and complications. And that’s okay, because nobody wants to read my fairy tales where nothing very bad ever happens. Readers, for whatever bizarre psychological reason, want conflict. They want the strife I am seeking to escape. They want danger, intrigue, a plot. Go figure.

And so I reluctantly take a closer look at the world around me. Sheesh, what a mess. But what a great time to study and learn about conflict!  Complicated conflict. Conflict between well-meaning, intelligent people. Many works of genre fiction rely on simple forms of conflict.  There is a bad guy, or force, or malevolent power afoot in the universe. In thrillers, it might be a corrupt foreign power, in mysteries, a murderer, in fantasy, an evil wizard bent on controlling the world and killing all the pretty unicorns.  It’s not too hard to create a villain who is so loathsome and evil that readers will cheer when your protagonist shoots him in the face. Or lops her head off.

Although great fun, this is not the kind of conflict I’m talking about now. Because in the end, the super villain tends to be a superficial character, and the plot, with all its twists and turns, is ultimately predictable. Because if you let your hero die and the despicable villain you’ve created win, your readers will want to shoot you in the face. I know. As a reader, I’ve been there.

I mostly read genre fiction, and often find myself more interested in the twists and turns of the hero’s other relationships. The friends, allies, mentors, co-workers, parents, children, who can all become, if not villains, antagonists of the most interesting sort.

And at last I reach my point: how friends, allies, parents, siblings, can become the most interesting antagonists without having to kill a single a person. They might even be good people. The hero might love or be in love with them. And yet these antagonists can be believable and diametrically opposed to the hero on some point of such import that they become the main obstacle to the hero’s success and the satisfying ending your reader craves.

Truth is slippery. If there is one thing to learn from reality today, it’s that facts can be hidden, misinterpreted, ignored. The interpretation of an event can be determined simply by where one is standing. “I heard that man shouting sexist insults!” “Well, I saw that woman whack a man on the head with her Love Always Wins sign!” “They were the aggressor.” “No, that group started it”. “The police were being needlessly brutal.” “No, the perpetrator had a gun.”  It is easy to see how two friends, experiencing an event from different locations, could come away with very different feelings. One might feel the need for action, or revenge, while the other does not.

Beyond the immediate physical view point, there is of course the viewpoint that comes from economic status, regional and racial outlook, religious upbringing, relative health or dysfunction of the birth family and so on. It pays to do a little homework, a little world-building, in order give your main characters diverse backgrounds or life experiences, especially from those closest to them. Honoring diversity in your fiction as well as your life can add so much richness to your stories.

Another way to create instant conflict between people with the same values is to give them different ideas about how to protect those values. Take traditional family values versus women’s rights.  One doesn’t have to be a super villain to believe that families are healthier when the woman stays home to raise the kids, but if that person is your progressive protagonist’s new husband, watch out.

I’m sure I’m not telling you anything you don’t know, but I’ve personally found it eye-opening to look at all this conflict around me through the lens of character development and plotting. It doesn’t hurt that incorporating the frustrations of the world into a work of fiction can be, not only informative, but somehow healing. As my characters work through their perceived differences, I can see how there might be hope for all of us to stop being each other’s antagonists.

Labyrinth of Souls

by Elizabeth Engstrom

It’s Christmas, so what could be better than a little self-promotion?

If the self-promotion includes the genius of others, that’s what could be better.

If the self-promotion also includes the ease of Christmas shopping for loved ones, that’s better yet.

Several years ago, Matthew Lowes wrote quite a brilliant solitaire card game called Dungeon Solitaire—The Labyrinth of Souls.

rule book

After reading the rule book, and looking at the amazing art that had been done by Josephe Vandel for not only the book, but the Tarot cards to accompany it, I was inspired to write a novel set in this fictional universe.

cards

Matt and I talked with other authors, many alumni of the infamous Ghost Story Weekends, about writing similar books. Christina Lay signed on to publish, her feet already solidly planted by publishing the successful anthology Shadow Spinners: A Collection of Dark Tales, and voila! a series was born.

current books

The basic rules of the solitaire card game (and you can watch Matt play a few games on YouTube), is that the hero delves into the underground, where he encounters a labyrinth. The cards the player turns over dictate what the character encounters down there. Monsters. Treasure. Light. Food. Deity. Some things he must have, other things he must vanquish, or avoid. At some point he must turn around and have enough resources to return above ground. Sometimes he makes it, sometimes he doesn’t.

Each of these novels is set within this realm.  Each one is completely different from the other. There is only one requirement: the hero must delve underground at some point in his quest.

These novels by Matthew Lowes, Eric Witchey, Stephen T. Vessels, Christina Lay, Mary E. Lowd, L.A. Alber, and me (your obedient self-promoting servant), are really good reads. Littlest Death by Eric Witchey has won awards. They’re fun, they’re daring, they’re exciting, and they’re like nothing else you’ve ever read before. Fantasy with a twist, always with a twist. And there are more in the publishing pipeline by Cheryl Owen-Wilson, John Reed, Pamela Jean Herber, Cynthia Coate Ray, and others.

Treat yourself. Treat your loved ones.

What’s better than receiving a good book for Christmas?

Nothing. Seriously. There’s nothing better.

HEA vs. Suspense: How To Keep Your Readers Nervous

by Christina Lay

I recently took part in a conversation among writers in which the question was asked “How can you create suspense in a romance novel when everyone knows the two main characters will end up together?” One answer offered was along the lines that suspense in romance is always built on a misunderstanding that drives a wedge between the characters, leaving the reader to wonder if they’ll ever be able to overcome the damage done. I protested, saying, well, that’s one hoary old device, which sometimes works, but in a good romance novel, there’s much more going on, and so many possibilities, just like in any other type of fiction.

I should point out that The Misunderstanding isn’t necessarily bad. After all, misunderstandings happen in real life all the time. In this age of communication, we seem to communicate successfully less and less, especially when texting is the preferred method. The most important thing to remember is to make whatever happens a believable, and not annoying, occurrence. The Misunderstanding should not make your characters look stupid, petty, or hysterical, unless you’re writing a comedy, and even then, make sure it doesn’t just make your reader despise your hero. And, if The Misunderstanding could be cleared up with one question, like “Did you really sleep with my sister?”, then you’d better make Damn Sure your character has an excellent reason for not asking the question.

One complicated doohickey

But really, The Misunderstanding is just one device that writers might use to drive a wedge between their would-be lovers. Whatever serves to keep the romantic interests apart helps to create suspense.  It may or may not be crucial to the plot. In a light romance, or comedy, The Wedge might be a lie told by a jealous rival, a piece of conversation heard out of context, or a meaning ascribed to an action that wasn’t intended. It is also possible for two intelligent, rational people to have entirely different perceptions of an event or conversation. In budding romances in particular, this can work, because it’s such a sensitive and vulnerable time, but again, make sure the motivations and reactions of the characters are believable and not insipid.

In a more serious romance, suspense is created by giving the characters motivations or values that are at odds. The police woman who falls for a possible crook. The betrothed king who falls for a landless nobody. The democrat who falls for a republican, and so on. The question then revolves around whether their love is strong enough to overcome the difference, or if they’re doomed to failure.  If you really want to up the odds, you’ll give the characters friends and family who are also in opposition to the lover’s values/family/job/quest. Then romantic love is pitted against familial love, or tribe loyalty, or an oath sworn to a vengeful god. The more pressure you can put on the two lovers to stay apart, the better. But then, of course, you’ll need to make their passion for each other greater and more compelling than the value/family/tribe/quest they are putting at risk.

A great way to make readers fidget is to make them unsure of what is of greater importance: the cause or the lover? Make them seriously doubt if there is any way the two can exist in the same world. Make the future of their love look bleak, maybe impossible.

Suspense depends on how great the stakes are in your story. Not all romance has to be about The Wedge. It is possible that the lovers are together, deeply in love, and it’s the outside world that is threatening their bliss. One might be in physical peril and the other must risk all to save them. One might be called to sacrifice something important in order for the other to achieve a dream. Maybe they are an interracial couple moving to an intolerant community, or a gay couple being threatened with the loss of job, status, familial acceptance.

Now, you might be thinking, but it’s a romance, of course they’ll work it out, no matter what IT is. Usually, readers of romance do like their HEA (Happily Ever After), but not all romances end that way. Even when they do, there’s no reason at all to think they lack suspense. Suspense can come from many and all quarters, and if done right, will force the characters to face their fears, their weaknesses, even their possibly misplaced desires, and either grow and triumph, or fail, miserable and alone (MAA is nota recommended ending, but still possible).

When you pick up a mystery, you pretty much know the detective is going to solve the crime and probably not die. You get wrapped up in the personal life of the main character(s) as you get nervous about whether or not the killer might strike again, and maybe even you start to worry the detective will end up a victim after all. Likewise, in a romance, you’re pretty sure the main characters will end up together, but along the way, you get involved in the challenges they face, the sacrifices they might have to make, and hopefully, you get nervous about whether or not they will be able to work things out.

A hard fought love scene is truly a wonderful thing. That’s one reason I enjoy writing the enemies-to-lovers trope. So many reasons for them not to get together and yet, they can’t live without each other. Such a dilemma. Such juicy territory for the writer. When are we more vulnerable than when in love? When most likely to risk all? A character in love lives in suspense, every minute they are not with their true love. And most of us can relate to relate to that kind of separation anxiety, even if it is all due to a terrible misunderstanding.

 

KDP Select: A Brief Overview

by Christina Lay

A few authors have asked me lately about my experiences with Kindle Direct Publishing’s Select option, so I thought I’d condense my notes and present them here. While the topic might be rather dry, it also might be of interest to those searching for new revenue streams for their published or about to be published works. For those who don’t know, Select is a program offered by KDP, Amazon’s ebook publishing service. By enrolling your ebook, you agree to offer it for sale exclusively on Amazon. In return, you get the option to list your book for free, for up to five days of each three-month enrollment period. This can be a big boon to someone who is using the freebie option as a marketing strategy. The second benefit of Select is that your book is available for “check-out” by anyone paying for a Kindle Unlimited subscription. Amazon pays the author for this by a royalty system that I’m sure keeps many up late into the night. It’s calculated by pages read—and each book gets a share of a monthly pot based on its percent of the total.  If you feel like giving yourself a headache, you can read details here.

I should pause a moment to point out that many seasoned, best-selling authors will warn you quite passionately against putting all of your book eggs in Amazon’s basket. I understand and I see the point very clearly. However, there are instances where having your book in Amazon’s free library might be a viable part of your overall strategy. And, when you sign up, the term is for three months. It is not as if you are selling your literary soul to the behemoth that is Amazon. Just remember to unclick the auto-renew option, so you can escape at will.

Are your books gathering dust? KDP Select might be an option for you.

I discovered the benefits of KDP Select by accident.  I published a very short story a couple years ago, with the intent of offering it for free to generate interest in my novels.  The easiest way to do it seemed to be to sign the book up for KDP Select, so that I could have the option of offering it for free on Amazon with no hassle. I did that, generated about 700 downloads, and I felt fairly satisfied with the whole experiment. There was a bump in novel sales, not big, but enough it seemed to have had a bit of an impact. Also, there were now 700 people in the world who at least were vaguely aware of my existence. Maybe someday they will actually read the story and become a fan, write a review, buy another book. That’s the dream.

Nowadays there are more free giveaway platforms like InstaFreebie and so on, to help with the Free Book gambit, but there are other reasons one might choose KDP Select.

I left my book in Amazon’s clutches without much thought of doing anything else with it. The short story continued to sit up there, neglected by me, and slowly, I noticed a few pennies dribbling into my checking account from Amazon. And yes, I do mean a few pennies.  KU’s author reward system is based on pages read, and my very short story generated very few royalties. I considered it amusing, and somewhat interesting.

Flash forward a few years, and I found myself with the rights to a backlist of novels after my publisher closed its doors. I repackaged them and when ready to re-release, decided to opt for KDP Select on the first book in a series, again mainly to generate interest in the rest.  This time the book was downloaded about 300 times. Not bad but not great either.  But then something else started to happen. Instead of a few dozen pages being logged in my KENP report (what Amazon calls pages read), there were thousands. I became more interested in Amazon’s byzantine reward system.  At the end of the month my pages read for that book resulted in a royalty payment that was about equal to the royalties from books sold, thereby doubling my income. Now, these were not quit-the-day-job-and-move-to-the-south-of-France numbers, but it did spark my interest, shall we say.  I signed up the second book in the series, and experienced the same results.  One might ask whether this diminishes actual sales, but there is no way to tell and by my calculations, the royalty result is nearly the same for a full-length book priced to sell (2.99-4.99). My guess is that readers who are paying for the KU option are probably reluctant to pay for a book, especially when they don’t know the author.

KDP Select is obviously not a good choice for everyone, or even most.  Obviously, if you have a solid fan base, your sales are going well and you feel satisfied with the progress of your publishing career, than signing over your fate to Amazon probably isn’t worth the sacrifice.  It is clearly in your benefit to have your ebooks available through every possible retailer.  And there are other ways to offer books for free.

However, if your sales are lagging, if you have books that have been around the block and are gathering dust on the virtual shelves, or if you have a series that could use a boost, this might be a golden opportunity to reach new readers.  And, if like me, you are an unknown minnow in a vast sea of unknown fish, having your book free on Amazon can give you a marketing lift like no other (assuming you don’t have a huge publicity budget, that is).  Over the span of my publishing experience, I must admit that sales via Amazon equal about ninety percent of my total, so being exclusive is not much of a sacrifice for me, especially not in the short term. Remember this is for ebooks only, not print.  So is it worth sacrificing a handful of sales to B&N and Apple readers? Only you can decide that.

Murder With Sprinkles On Top

by Christina Lay

I’ve always loved reading and watching cozy mysteries, but not until recently have I tried my hand at writing them. As with many things, you don’t really understand the complexity of a task until you try to do it yourself.

As well-versed in the ins-and-outs of the genre as any avid fan, I dove in quickly and with relish. But soon, one important and fairly obvious question occurred to me: how, exactly, does one make murder, the most heinous of crimes, cozy? How do you create a world in which murder happens (and maybe regularly, if you’re writing a series) that the reader or viewer nevertheless finds comforting? A place where half the population ends up dead but still seems like a very nice place to visit?

Clearly one of the anchors of the cozy mystery is a cozy setting. A majority of these stories take place in small towns, and not just your run of the mill small town, but one that is quaint, meaning it’s preserved its historic charm. These towns have lovely architecture, lots of twisting alleys, probably a waterfront of some sort, nearby woods for the disposing of bodies, and a VERY PROMINENT CHURCH.  Quaint shops abound, and our sleuth might even be the sole proprietor of one (maybe the bakery, which is a very popular setting for cozy book series, with cute names like Til Death do Us Tart and Survival of the Fritters. Baking fancy cakes and crime solving seem to complement each other. Here’s a link to a list of them http://cozy-mysteries-unlimited.com/bakery-dessert-list.

Any cozy worth its imported sea salt will feature a tea shop and an antique store—bare minimum. Sometimes the town is larger, like Oxford, but within the larger town are cozy communities, like an elite college, in which everyone knows everyone else’s business, which always proves to be a very important element in helping our sleuth solve the crime.

Which brings us to the other most important key to a cozy, the sleuth. Mostly this will be an amateur, but private detectives like Hercule Poirot and rumpled Detective Inspectors like Tom Barnaby also qualify. The more professional the sleuth however, the less cozy the murders tend to become. The sleuth is nearly always an outsider, no matter what their profession. Even a detective inside the police department will be the odd one out, the one who uses brain over brawn, who always doubts the obvious first clues and champions whatever poor soul is arrested first. Often the amateur sleuth/slash pastry chef is conveniently married to, dating, best friends with or otherwise connected to a professional in the biz, like a police detective, coroner or forensic expert, which is quite handy. But in the end, the sleuth relies on their powers of observation, keen intuition and wits to solve the crime. Which they always do.

The likability and relatability of the sleuth are key to creating a memorable and enduring cozy mystery series. They must, like all good protagonists, be flawed, but in a lovable way. And usually, whatever their deep wound is, it helps them understand the criminal mind and have compassion for the underdogs. First and foremost, they must be unusually smart, even if not everyone thinks so.

Other factors to ensure your murder is entertaining rather than disturbing include:

A victim who was a no good so-and-so. Lots of people wanted them dead, and no one is overly sorry to have them gone. Anyone who is, probably did it.  Also, their death, though possibly elaborate, is swift and unseen. Usually, the murder happens before the book even starts, or off-the-page. It might happen after the world famous detective arrives and the murderer foolishly decides to go through with their plan anyway. Or after all the guests are assembled at the manor house, or when the train leaves the station. Isolating the group of suspects is a great trick for upping the tension. There’s a murderer amongst us!

Limit the bloodshed. This is an element that seems to be ignored more and more in the television version of mysteries, usually the result of what I call “the slaughter of the innocents”.  This is when, once the murderer commits the initial crime, they then feel compelled to kill off several innocent bystanders to cover it up, which of course is what usually tips their hand. I have to admit to being disappointed when what is touted as a cozy mystery ends up with a high body count, among them unfortunate girl guides and birdwatching old ladies who were in the wrong place at the worst time. Besides being depressing, these acts of senseless violence are usually stupid, which diminishes the fun of solving the crime. I shouldn’t even have to say this, but NEVER KILL THE DOG.

No sex. Wait, what? Well, I’ve wondered about this, but it appears to be true. While amateur sleuths are often romantically pining over the local detective, or visa versa, the most they will ever do is share a pint at the quaint local pub and match wits.  I believe this is because sex is really just a distraction from what readers of cozies care about most, which is solving a mystery. No one wants to see rumpled whosit and the dowdy baker get down. It’s just not where the appeal lies. Romance, a hint of it, is just fine, as long as it doesn’t pull our heroine/hero away from what they’re there to do. And naturally, the suspects will be fornicating up a storm, only not on the page.

Cats are king.  Throw in a smart cat, or perhaps a reasonably intelligent dog. Readers of cozies love sleuths who love pets. If the cat helps solve the crime, well, that’s a subgenre unto itself. http://cozy-mysteries-unlimited.com/cat-list  If you can combine cooking and cats, all the better.

Provide a wide array of colorful, likable characters to consult, kill or arrest. Sometimes even the murderer is likable. The sleuth will have an extensive network of interesting acquaintances to contact regarding the case. If, for example, a body is washed up near the quaint lighthouse, the sleuth’s uncle will be the local captain of the coast guard. There will always be busybodies, town gossips, town drunks, and loose but large-hearted women who know the town’s secrets and our sleuth will be friends with them, or have some way of convincing these people to talk. Think tea and cookies instead of truth serum and truncheons.

Comeuppance will be got. In a cozy, the murderer is always flushed out. They might escape the long arm of the law, but they will lose everything they were willing to kill for. If you can think of an exception in the cozy mystery field, feel free to enlighten me.  One exception might be the Serial Adversary, a Moriarty of sorts, but since those chaps tend to be serial killers, their evil antics don’t qualify as cozy.

To sum up, the key to a cozy murder is the fun of watching a character we love solve a baffling riddle by their wits (and possibly their cat’s) alone. So naturally, you’ll need a riddle worthy of their and the reader’s attention. Anything over the top, like graphic violence, graphic sex, grit, torture, profanity, end of the world scenarios or gratuitous explosions, you can pretty much leave at the door. Raymond Chandler claimed that readers of cozies, especially the English variety, “like their murders scented with magnolia blossoms and do not care to be reminded that murder is an act of infinite cruelty”.  For some, I’m sure that’s true, but I don’t think readers are drawn to mysteries just so they can ignore the murder at the heart of it; rather, they prefer to focus on the solving, rather than the commission, of the crime. And just because a setting is cozy, or the sleuth an old English spinster, doesn’t mean we can relax. As Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple says “One does see so much evil in a village”.