Today I’m thrilled to welcome my good friend and author Karen C. Whalen as she helps us understand what a cozy mystery is. Read all the way through for a sneak peek into her latest release.
What makes a mystery a cozy mystery? In a cozy, an amateur sleuth solves a crime which occurs in a charming, intimate setting. Amateur sleuth is easy to understand, so let’s focus on setting.
Setting involves two separate elements, the physical location and the feeling of community within the location. In a cozy mystery, the tale takes place in a locality the reader might wish to visit, or better yet, to live. But even with a setting equivalent to Paris, without a circle of intimate friends the story would not be appealing. The characters should know each other well and have formed close bonds, just like the kind of friends we would love to have in real life.
Successful American cozies are set in locations such as Maine, where the leaves on the tall oak trees change from green to red, Arizona, where the desert adds to the mystic, or one of my favorites, Michigan, where the snow is deep and the fireplace is blazing. The community within the location is achieved when the characters work together, such as at a bakery or library, or when the characters have a common hobby that brings them together, such as cooking or gardening. For the British cozy, the location and community are the same—a small English village in the Cotswolds, of course.
If the setting is too cozy, it may require too much of a stretch of the imagination. How many people can be murdered in one small town, such as Cabot Cove in the television show, Murder She Wrote? Toward the end of the series, Jessica was required to visit friends in different cities in order for her to discover yet another dead body. Some mystery writers use fictional settings to avoid the problem of too many murders in one place. When the book is set in a real location, readers already have a feel for the place, but in a fictional location the author must describe the setting well enough to convey the cozy feeling to the reader. It may be more work, but with a fictional location the creator doesn’t need to worry about giving the town a bad reputation when the dead bodies stack up. Whether fictional or real, a cozy setting generates a feeling of belonging and a desire to visit, so much so, fans of the Doc Martin television series travel to Port Isaac in northern Cornwall, the actual location of the fictional village of Portwenn.
In my cozy series, the dinner club murder mysteries, the club is the basis of the community. Steadfast members, plus my protagonist and her various dates, make up the club. Others apply and try out for membership, adding and taking away new characters for variety. The location is set in Colorado—in either an imaginary, small northern suburb, in Denver, or in the mountains. I evoke the resin scent of the pine trees and clear mountain air, while my characters wear cowboy boots, yet live and work in the sophisticated and trendy City of Denver. I have received comments from readers that they have added a visit to Colorado to their bucket list after reading my cozies.
If the reader loves my state enough to want to travel here, then I am pleased and confident I’ve made my murder mystery a cozy.
Tell us how much of yourself you write into your characters.
Like most authors, each of my characters have a little bit of me, plus a smattering of my friends, and then a tad of imagination. Pretty much everything that happens to me, or others who happen to tell me what happens to them, are considered fair game to be included in my stories.
Do you prefer cats or dogs? Why?
I’ve had both cats and dogs, and while cats have an appeal, especially the cuddly ones, dogs give you unconditional love, and that can’t be beat.
Do you prefer to cook or to bake? Why?
I love to bake. I don’t particularly like standing over the stove and stirring a pot or frying pan, especially when there are several pots on the stove to pay attention to at once. I recently tried one of the trendy meal delivery services, but none of the three meals involved baking. They all involved two or more pans going on the stove at the same time, with separate timings for each. I had the oven timer and my cell phone timer both on, then forgot which was for which. Give me a simple recipe I can slide in the oven and walk away from.
She slipped outside into the warmth of the early September, blue-sky, Colorado day to check on her puppies sniffing around their new territory in the backyard. Leaning over the deck railing facing the lot to the east, she gazed into the bottom of an open excavation where a basement was being poured. Someone had parked a tractor down in the dirt, and near it a white cowboy hat lay on the ground. A man’s hand stretched toward the hat’s brim. Had someone fallen into the pit?
Jane bounded down the deck stairs and out the wooden gate, only stopping for a moment to secure the latch. She rounded the corner of her new house and rushed to the adjoining lot, pausing near the edge of the concrete that formed the basement’s foundation.
A man was shoved against the corner of the foundation wall. His torso and legs were partly covered with dirt. The cowboy hat concealed the top of his head. His left hand almost touched the brim, as if he were about to take off his hat and say, “Howdy do.” A large manila envelope lay a foot or so away from his other outstretched hand.
On the envelope tall, block letters spelled out: “Jane Marsh—welcome to your new home.”
Karen C. Whalen is the author of the Dinner Club Murder Mystery series. She worked for many years as a paralegal at a law firm in Denver, Colorado. Karen has been a columnist and regular contributor to The National Paralegal Reporter magazine. She is a member of Sisters in Crime and participates in a local writing group, the Louisville Writers Workshop.
Second book in the series, Not According to Flan
First book in the series, Everything Bundt the Truth