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Formula for Writing a Cozy Mystery, Part 1: A Good “Hook”

Cozy mysteries are a highly popular, gentler form of mystery, characterized by no gore or explicit sex on the page. They are usually, but not always, set in a small town or neighborhood of a larger city, feature an amateur sleuth (no cops, lawyers, investigative journalists, or other professional investigators or law enforcement types), and are almost always branded by their “hook” on the cover. Thus, you’ll see books with a title and then “A Southern Beauty Shop Mystery,” “A Flower Shop Mystery,” or “A Key West Food Critic Mystery.” In the cozy world, it is the hook that gets the reader to bite (pardon the pun), so you need to expend some brain cells and effort coming up with a good one.

So, what makes a good cozy mystery hook?

It appeals to the demographic

Cozy mystery readers are overwhelmingly female and upwards of 40 years old. Tactile crafts are popular (knitting, quilting, etc.). The more abstract the craft, the harder the sell. Wet felting, for instance, does not have the popularity of quilting. Food, books, and animals have long-standing appeal, so think book clubs, restaurants, pet shops, and countless variations of these. There always seems to be room for another culinary mystery, as long as it has a slightly new angle, such as being set someplace interesting (Amish Candy Shop Mysteries, White House Chef Mystery Series), adding a new element (food critics, health inspectors) or combining two popular hook elements (Cookbook Nook Mystery Series which features books and cooking, Fat Cat Mystery series featuring a baker who makes people and cat treats, thus combining food and pets).

It allows the amateur sleuth time to investigate

As you can see, many hooks are based around the protagonist’s employment or place of business. To make this work once she starts investigating the murder, her job must offer flexibility. She can’t be a doctor, tied to a hospital or patient appointments, or a cog in a corporation with a boss who expects her to work 9-5. That’s why many cozy sleuths own their own businesses that allow them to get out (party organizers, caterers) or work for a business where lots of people drop in (eateries of all kinds and retail establishments like wedding dress shops, vintage dress shops, lingerie shops, antique shops, etc.).

It offers the reader a peek into a new world

Cozy readers seem to like to learn, so setting your series around a hook that offers the opportunity to explore the world of cheese or Ireland, apple orchards or spices, rare books or ballroom dancing is a plus. Do some research and send concrete numbers with your query letter. If you can let agents know that 86 million people (I made that number up) are soap carving fanatics, then you might have an original new hook for a cozy series.

In a strange twist, your hook needn’t be totally original. Cozy readers like what they like, and a new twist on a familiar theme often works better than something well off the beaten path.

What doesn’t work? Cozies with sports hooks, even sports like ballroom dancing, golf and figure skating, don’t seem to last. Since you want your series to have “legs” (go on for many, many books), you probably want to avoid making your protagonist a rugby player or luger.

Of equal importance with the hook is the community you develop for the series, and I’ll talk about that in the next installment of The Formula for Writing a Cozy Mystery.

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