On being cozy
I’m proud to say I’m a cozy mystery author, though I didn’t actually intend to be one. I started off writing a novel about a woman who taught a mystery writing class, who turned into Maggie Dove, who turned into a Sunday School teacher, who turned into a private detective, who turned into the protagonist of a cozy mystery series. So something I’ve been thinking about a lot is, What does it mean to write cozies? What are the rules? What are the limitations? And I a chance to explore all those questions when I was on a panel at Bouchercon last weekend. Here are some of the questions I was asked (I think. I was in such a daze, I’m not sure.) And here are some of the answers I meant to give, and possibly did. The questions came from Cathy Pickens, our fabulous moderator. What does “cozy” mean to you? As distinguished from what other kinds of mysteries or crime stories? For me, cozy means intimacy. Your protagonist is not a professional who’s paid to solve a crime. She’s someone who gets drawn into solving a mystery because it touches her in a personal way. For example, the protagonist of my mystery, Maggie Dove, is a woman who has spent 20 years mourning the loss of her daughter. She’s locked into a sort of paralysis, until her miserable neighbor is murdered and she finds his body on her front lawn. And, the primary suspect is her late daughter’s fiance. Maggie will do anything to protect that man, even if it means coming out of her isolation and reentering the world. The other thing that characterizes cozies, for me, is that although there’s bloodshed, it takes place off scene. Recently I was reading Stephen King’s wonderful Mr. Mercedes. He has a character die in a very visceral way by strychnine poisoning and I thought, Nope. That would not happen in a Maggie Dove mystery. How important is setting in your books? What role does it play in choosing what to write? Setting is probably what drew me to write the story in the first place. I live in a beautiful little village about 35 miles north of New York City. There are about 6,000 residents. Because I’ve lived here for more than 30 years, I can feel confident that when I walk down Main Street, I’m going to run into someone I know. We have Halloween parades and Fourth of July fireworks and when people get sick, the owner of the deli will often send them food. At the same time, living so close to Manhattan, we have a number of high-powered sorts moving in. That creates an interesting tension, which gives a person such as myself a lot to write about. For Maggie Dove, an additional problem was that she realized the murderer came from her village, and if that was the case, it meant it was someone she knew. And probably loved. You all write about ordinary people in unusual situations. Do you ever have trouble writing about death and difficulty while keeping it light and cozy? One of the ways I believe I deviate from the cozy norm is that I don’t think it has to be light and frothy. Certainly there’s humor. I think there’s a lot of joy and laughing in Maggie Dove. But she is grappling with death and grieving and I think many people, particularly after a certain age, are dealing with such things. I wanted to be able to write about hard topics, but hopefully in a comforting way. Do you kill off more men or more women? So far, I have been completely even-handed!