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Thursday, October 14, 2010

Writing The Cozy Mystery - Elizabeth Lynn Casey

On my bookshelf sits a rather yellowed and dog-eared copy of Mary Higgins Clark’s A Cry in the Night. It was, and still is, my all-time favorite mystery…as a reader and a writer.

As a reader, it kept me up all night, turning the pages, trying to figure out who was behind all of the awful things happening too the main character. It was as if I was Jenny McPartland on that wintry Minnesota farm and my life, my well being, was at stake. How on earth could I even think about sleeping until I knew how things turned out in the end?

As a writer, it’s the book that made me decide to be a mystery writer rather than the children’s writer I’d always imagined. I liked the pace, I liked the notion of creating a character that my readers could root for from start to finish, and, quite frankly, I liked the image of taking those folks down one path after the other…until they finally find the right one.

I’ve had that yellowed and dog-eared paperback for nearly thirty years and, every once in a while, I take it out and reread it, finding myself to be every bit as enchanted with the characters and the story as I was when I was a teenager. Only now, right beside that book, are some of my own titles—books I’ve dreamed up and put on paper.

Five years ago, my first traditional mystery was released with a small, independent publishing house out of Maryland. I didn’t make a ton of money, but my dream was finally coming true.

That first book led to an Agatha nomination, a direct-to-consumer book club deal with a bigger publisher, and, eventually, an agent.

Two years ago, I signed a three-book deal for a new cozy mystery series with Berkley Prime Crime (an imprint of Penguin Publishing). A year later, that deal was extended to include three more books in the series—books I love to write for all the same reasons A Cry in the Night kept me up all night as a kid.

Because, you see, I learned something from that dog-eared book. I learned that while the story is critical, so, too, are the characters and the setting. Sure, a good story will keep your interest, but it’s when you create characters that leap off the page that you find yourself thinking about them long after the last page.

Why, you ask?

Because they became real.

Well-developed characters become a reader’s eyes and ears during the figuring out whodunit process, but, if you’re lucky, they also become the reader’s friends…

Friends they want to keep up with from book to book.

That’s what I love about writing the Southern Sewing Circle Mystery Series for Berkley. The characters have taken on a life of their very own. They have strengths. They have flaws. They have dreams and aspirations. Yes, they solve a mystery in each book, but they also grow and change right before your eyes, sucking you in as if you, too, are part of the circle.

When you create characters that suck your readers in, you’re creating the kind of book that may, if you’re lucky, find a spot of honor on a shelf in someone’s home. And, aside from fan mail begging for the release date of your next book, I can’t imagine a bigger compliment.

So no matter where you are in the writing process, no matter what fiction genre you’re writing, keep character creation in the forefront of your in mind. They truly are the life of your book. They are, in my opinion, what makes the different between a good book and a great book—the thing that makes readers seek out your books (series or otherwise) again and again…building that lifelong fan Mary Higgins Clark built in me.

***Elizabeth Lynn Casey is the national bestselling author of the Southern Sewing Circle Mystery series with Berkley Prime Crime. PINNED FOR MURDER, the latest book in the series, released last week. In addition to her work as a cozy mystery writer, she also pens romances for Harlequin American under the name, Laura Bradford. For more information, visit her website: www.elizabethlynncasey.com


Shirley said...

Hi Elizabeth,

I, too, am a big fan of Mary Higgins Clark. Her earlier books are still my favorites.

I'm curious. How do you juggle writing mysteries AND sweet romances for Harlequin? Do you consider yourself a fast writer?

Elizabeth said...

Good question, Shirley.

The romance aspect was not something I saw coming. I'd had an idea for a mystery, but when I tried to plot it through in my mind, none of the characters wanted to die. Instead, they begged me to write a love story (which I resisted). Eventually, I gave it a go and sold it first time out.

While writing that book, I realized I enjoyed the sweet romance and so I wrote another...and another.

As far as juggling the two, I'll write whatever mystery is due first. Then, I'll move to a romance (if I have a contract already in place) or a proposal for a new one. If I stay on top of everything, it happens.

As for the fast writer question, no, not really. It's more that I thrive under deadlines (a throwback to my newspaper days, no doubt). And I write relatively clean from the start.

Shirley said...

So how many books do you do a year?

Dru said...

Great article and Mary Higgins Clark is one of my all-time favorite authors. I have your latest mystery ready to take its turn to be read.

Pauline Alldred said...

Thanks for the reminder about character. A mystery writer can become so absorbed in plot and turning points. i also first became a mystery fan after reading novels by Mary Higgins Clark. I heard her speak at a conference and she seemed a warm and down-to-earth person.

RTHRBRTN said...

Hi Elizabeth:
I enjoy reading cozies. Mary Higgins Clark first drew me into the genre, now I'm a dedicated fan. Thanks for blogging for us. Will be looking for your mysteries.

Elizabeth said...

Shirley, I'm not sure if I've settled into a true pattern in terms of books per year yet...but I'll tell you that in 2010 alone I had 5 books release (2 mysteries, 3 romances). Actual writing wise? I'm finishing up my third for the year right now.

Dru, I can't wait to hear what you think of the latest book!

Thanks for stopping by, Pauline and "Rather Be Writing" (cute name)!!!

Shirley said...

I just checked Amazon for the Kindle editions of your books and it's not available. Will they be available for the Kindle later on?

Anonymous said...

In your Sewing Circle mysteries, not only does your protagonist grow from one book to the next, but your supporting cast grows as well. In your latest, Rose plays a key role. Do some of your characters push for more page time, and how do you balance that with a need to keep all your characters in play?

Elizabeth said...

Shirley, all three are available in Kindle. Look up each individual book: SEW DEADLY, DEATH THREADS, PINNED FOR MURDER and go to the paperback page (if necessary). You can find a kindle link there.

JWR, I like to try and bring a different member of the circle forward in each book, though, in all honesty, there is one (sometimes two) that tend to elbow their way to the front regardless of my "plans." Those ones, of course, are fan favorites...yet, as I bring new ones forward each time, it seems as if the characters who had been quieter in the earlier books are earning fans, too!

Even though I have such a huge age range in these books, I can find common threads that bind many of them together outside the sewing (kids, grandkids, other hobbies, etc). When I center the mystery around one of those threads (as I do in book 4--April 2011), it really utilizes many players at one time! That was fun.

Palooski65 said...


I, too, love M. H. Clark. I have ALL her books including Kitchen Privileges, Mt. Vernon Love Story, and her children's book, Ghost Ship.

I also enjoy Tony Hillerman's mysteries--own about half of his.

I'm looking forward to adding yours to my bookshelves.

Your advice about building characters is, of course, right on. I'm also envious that you write "clean." I'm anticipating the day I will be able to say that.

Thanks for posting on our blog--it's been enjoyable.

Angela Drake said...

I've just finished judging an RWA contest. When I judge, I look for books that 'stick with me'. Before I make any comments on the entry, I read the entry and then put it aside for a couple days. I want to see IF the story sticks with me and WHAT about the book makes me want to pick it up again.

It always comes back to wanting to know more about the characters and how they're going to find their resolution.

I hope lots of readers (and writers) take your post to heart. Thank you

Shirley said...

I must still be asleep. I went back and found the Kindle edition. Can't wait to read it.

Beth said...
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Beth said...

Hi Elizabeth/Laura,

I'm finally back from the doctor and joining in.

What are the key elements of a cozy mystery (and must they involve a cat)?

Also, I LOVE your covers. You had a great cover artist?

Beth said...

Hope your book signing went well last weekend! I thought of a couple more ?'s:

I see you write both romance and mysteries. I, too, write in different genres. Do you think it's imperative to use a pen name if you write in different genres? Do you go by Elizabeth, Laura or both?

Beth said...

I'll have to get that Mary Higgins Clark book you referred to--as well as your own beautiful books.

BTW, do you sew? Is that how you came up with the sewing mystery series?

Finally, we've recently had a real-life horrific murder in my family, so while I enjoy writing suspense, I'll no longer write gory scenes. Are cozy mysteries less gory? What types of death usually occur?

How many hours a day do you write? And how do you balance social networking (I know you're on FB!) with actual writing?

Thanks for guest blogging.

Shirley said...

Elizabeth, thanks again for joining us. If you'll stop by later tonight and answer any later questions, that would be great. We'll draw for the doorprize around 9 PM tonight. That will give everyone a chance to comment.

Stephanie Jarkins said...

Thank you Elizabeth for the reminders about strong characters. I too wish I wrote clean, right now I write very grubby at first. With producing three books a year, what is your normal word count per day? Deadlines tend to inspire me to panic rather than produce. Do you have any hints?

I cannot wait to read your books. Thank you very much for blogging with us.

Stephanie Jarkins

Beth said...

I thought of a few more questions.

What was your experience with the small, independent press in Maryland? Are you glad you went that route initially?

What is a direct-to-consumer book club deal? I see that led you to a bigger publisher and finally to an agent. Sort of in reverse of what we hear to do. (From someone who is now searching for an agent!)

Also, how did the Agatha award come about? Congrats on that as well.

Okay, I think I'm finished asking questions now! :)

Beth said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Janet Kay Gallagher said...

Hi Elizabeth.
Cozies are my favorite.
You are new to me. I will be looking forward to reading your
books.I like the sewing circle idea. I also enjoy the cooking mysteries. I will have to find another group--just thought of mine. Thanks for the new idea that popped in as I was writing this.!!!
Yea Thank YOU for guest blogging for us today.

Janet Kay Gallagher said...

How many charachters can you have in a cozy group?
I haven't read you yet so will ask this...Do you describe and do details on each group member or do you make them more three dementional as you spotlight them in the books?
I hope you see what I am asking.
New writer here so need to learn.
Do you have people who attend every meeting and some that come on an irregular basis?
Can I do that to bring different interests into the group?

Lynn said...

Hi Elizabeth/Laura... just got home from work and you put me back on a bus heading to Springfield... LOL

I'm about half way through Pinned for Murder. Rose is definately taking her place in the limelight and I love Bernice's van. Cracked me up!

Elizabeth said...

I'm back...with answers! :)

Beth, the key elements of a cozy mystery are generally these...
1)Regular person as a protagonist (mine is a librarian).

2) Small town.

3) No gore, no sex

4)Justice is served in the end.

And you absolutely don't have to have a cat...or any animal (though animals lovers might disagree).

As for my covers, the artist assigned to my series is amazing! I love her work (I've been very fortunate).

You also asked about pen names. I think it depends on the author/publisher, but mystery readers don't tend to be big romance readers. And vice versa. So I guess the thought is not to confuse (or possibly lose) readers. Nora Roberts did it when she switched to mystery...though now she is public about the name change (because it worked).

More to follow...

Elizabeth said...

You also asked if I sew. That would be a big no. I have a few friends/books/websites that help me out with the jargon. I take after my character, Leona (she's the one who doesn't sew in the group).

But the neatest thing about this series is that it doesn't really focus on the sewing but, rather, the way it fosters socialization (via the circle) to this group of women, allowing me to write a wide age range (which I love).

Cozy mysteries aren't gory at all. You rarely SEE the death/murder...the bulk of the book being about solving the puzzle (which is why I love them).

My "victims" have been poisoned, strangled, that sort of stuff. I, personally stay away from guns--too many gun experts out there who will hunt you down if you get a fact wrong.

(I'm sorry about the tragedy in your family, Beth)

As for how many hours a day do I write? If I'm doing what I'm supposed to be doing, about 5. I'm still working on the balance with the internet...it has a way of sucking my time (procrastination at its best) away. But that's something I need to work on.

Elizabeth said...

Stephanie, you asked about my word count. I'm pleased if I hit 2,000 (that's a really good day). But, doing that, that's 10,000 a week (7 weeks to finish a book and a week to edit...IF I actually produce that). That said, with kids, it ends up being more like 8,000 a week.

Hints? Try this...a friend and I found that we needed a jump start as a way to keep us from procrastinating. We started a 30 minute/30 day thing. Literally you sit down and work on your wip for 30 minutes EVERY day. What is that? One sitcom on TV? Not hard. Often you'll keep going. Sometimes you won't...but you'll be amazed at the progress you make!

Beth, the small press route worked FOR ME. But I'm not sure my experience is the norm. An Agatha, a book club deal, etc isn't the norm. I have no regrets going the route I went but I worked hard to make the jump to where I am now. If you view it as a stepping stone and don't stop, it can work.

Harlequin's Worldwide Mystery is a book club. Partipants get X amount of mysteries in their mailbox each month. It's a set readership, big numbers. They got a hold of my book from the small press and bought the secondary rights. They slapped a new (much better) cover on it and it suddenly found its way into 26K hands I never could have reached on my own with a small press (small presses have limited distribution as a rule).

I certainly took a scenic route to where I am. Would I recommend it? Depends on the publisher, depends on the passion of the writer.

The Agatha came about from readers voting it as one of the top 5 Best First Novels (cozy genre)of 2005. I didn't WIN, but I was one of the five nominees (a real honor just like they say at the oscars).

Elizabeth said...


The number of characters depends on the cozy, I guess. It's a tricky call though because, if you have a handful (like I do) you have to make each unique enough to stand out so your reader can keep them separate.

I throw out little details about each character (like one is shy and a nanny). Some became three dimensional faster than others, allowing them to stay that way in future books. The ones that were more two-dimensional in the beginning are evolving through the series.

All of my circle members come to every meeting (unless someone is sick or home with a child). But I would imagine you could create a group setting with lots of different interests. You just need to find something that appeals to readers. The sewing hooks me in with that group, the friendships that develop and carry the book are what branch me out to people who might have absolutely no interest in sewing (like me).

I hope those answers helped!!!!

Elizabeth said...

Oooh, one last thing for all your writers/readers out there... Thursday is "question" day on my blog. People send me questions via email about whatever aspect of writing they want me to address...and then I answer it on a future Thursday.

Check out the one from last week if you get a chance, that was about character development and several writer friends chimed in with their thoughts, too!


Shirley said...

And the winner of the free book is Jan Gallagher! Jan, I'll send your address info to Elizabeth.


And thanks again to Elizabeth for sharing with us today.

Janet Kay Gallagher said...

Hi all!

YEA! I am so glad to get the BOOK!!!