LIFE GOES ON, or How to Write a Cosy

Crime stories get more gory, police procedurals more depressing, but there is a welcome trend towards the ‘cosy’. This genre is based on an ordinary person whose life is interrupted by crime. Some believe that the life of the protagonist in a ‘cosy’ should be centred on a local pub. Others feature patchwork quilts or cats. The trick is to make your central character someone with whom – crime apart – you would like to spend time.

Some say that this genre was started by Dick Francis, because whether he was writing as a jockey, a wine merchant or a banker, the reader was as enthralled by the details of the hero’s struggle to get ahead in his career, as in the details of the crime. In his books, crime and career became so entwined that the successful outcome of the one signalled the equally successful outcome of the other.

This genre is largely about getting the reader to identifying with your protagonist. Your hero need no longer be a jaundiced policeman whose wife has left him, nor an alcoholic, nor even a private eye. You no longer have to wallow in blood and gore, or make your character being wildly eccentric. You can be more like Miss Marple – sympathetic to the daily problems of those around her – and less like Hercule Poirot with his little grey cells.

The formula is straightforward enough. First you invent a character whose lifestyle interests the reader, then you drop a murder or other major crime into that life, stir gently and observe what happens.

Whatever terrible event occurs – a murder, a child vanishing, a burglary – remember that life for your central character still has to go on. The fridge/freezer needs to be filled, beds changed, clothes washed, children or elderly people cared for and meals prepared. Your character may still have to go out to work, struggle with commuting, or with toothache.

Let’s take a look at a protagonist with toothache. If your character wakes up with toothache one morning and stumbles across a body on the way downstairs, he or she is thrown directly into a murder investigation – but still needs painkillers and to make an appointment at the dentist. In fact, your character might well be more preoccupied with toothache than with solving the murder – and everyone who’s ever had toothache would sympathise, and want to read on to see how you deal with it.

Many cosies are brought to a satisfactory conclusion without bringing in the police. This has its advantages for a writer without access to information on police procedure, but in any ongoing cosy series reality will have to creep in to a greater or lesser extent – which means some police involvement is essential.

Lilian Jackson Braun’s ‘The Cat Who….’ series is a fine example of a cosy. Here we have an interesting, flawed main character with two unresolved problems; he is an alcoholic who doesn’t drink, and he has a delightful longstanding relationship with a woman of a certain age whom he has no desire to marry despite all the pressure that friends bring to bear upon him. He uses his wealth to help the community, he writes newspaper articles about quirky local characters, and he lives with and is tolerated by two clever Siamese cats who help him to solve various murders. The setting is unusual, there is considerable social comment and altogether it is a pleasure to relax with a ‘Cat Who…’ book.

Dick Francis wrote about what he knew, as does Lilian Jackson Braun.

I can’t write about horses or a small town in the far north of America, so I chose a heroine who lives in a London suburb, but whose personal life as a grieving widow and mother of a bullying daughter is in distressing circumstances. Although Ellie Quicke develops unsuspected strength as the series progresses, there are no easy solutions to her family problems. This was the framework to which I added murder, paedophilia, spiteful anonymous letters, social problems, humour and a marauding cat who adopts Ellie – rather than the other way round.

Whether your central character is a man of a woman, you can hook your reader’s interest by showing them involved in a hobby, in food, in clothes or decorating a house.

Adding suspense to a ‘cosy’ can be done in different ways. I chose to break with the tradition of only telling the story from the heroine’s point of view, and intersperse Ellie’s story with glimpse of the mayhem planned by the villains to keep the tension on the boil.

The information given the reader about the lifestyle of the hero or heroine in a ‘cosy’ should be at least as interesting as the solving of the murder itself. And there lies the rub.
Can you entertain your readers with a puzzle to solve, while at the same time providing them with characters whom they want to spend time with? Can you mesh crime and character so that both hold the reader entranced?

PS. By the way, I’ve used the toothache ploy already, in ‘Murder in the Garden’ published by Severn House autumn 04. Order it from the library!