Although it’s tempting to think of our own works as too special, too ground-breaking, too fill-in-the-blank to fit into any kind of genre, the truth is that every story fits into some kind of box, once you break it down enough. And that’s not a bad thing. Genre designations help us as a community of writers and readers to categorize our preferences, and reach the people interested in our particular niche.
But what about when those definitions change? Can genres stretch to accommodate the needs and tastes of new generations? In this week’s guest blog, author Linda Thorne grapples with the constraints of “cozy”, and the different ways that modern cozies—including her own—diverge from these supposedly hard and fast rules.
Too Cozy or Not Too Cozy?
by Linda Thorne
Anything you hear regarding cozy mysteries will likely slot them into a sub-genre that promises the reader escape from anything objectionable. Profanity is eliminated, or virtually imperceptible. If sex is written into the book, it will always be low-key. The protagonist is never physically harmed or subjected to true violence. I recently read a post online that said crime in a cozy would be “bloodless.”
The setting is a small town where the characters drink tea and have cats or dogs for pets (sometimes other animals). The lead will be a female amateur sleuth, often described as a sincerely nice and endearing person. The definition offered here is what I read in posts and articles. It’s the same when I listen to authors speak on the subject.
Before my debut novel Just Another Termination was contracted for publication, I submitted it to agents, publishers, contests, always referencing it as a mystery. My rejection letters referred to it as a cozy. One year when I entered Just Another Termination in the Colorado Gold Writers Contest, one of the judges wrote notes in the margin beside my description of the first dead body, a crime scene far from “bloodless.” He said I was stepping outside the bounds of cozy.
I made all the other changes both my judges suggested, but held on to the grizzly, real-life description of the dead body, as it seemed important to my story. When I found a publisher, the graphic details of my murder scene survived their edits, yet my book is still considered a cozy.
Are there cozies that are hybrids: mostly mystery with a touch of cozy? I presented the question to a panel of cozy authors at a Killer Nashville Writers’ Conference years ago, using Carolyn Haines’ Sarah Booth Delaney Bones series as an example. I told the group that I’d noticed Sara Booth’s sex life escalating in each new book and her consumption of Jack Daniels increasing. After some pause, one of the panel authors said, “Maybe we could call her books naughty cozies.” The whole room had a good laugh, but then the questions and responses moved back to the traditional elements of cozies.
But my question hadn’t been answered: why do the cozies I read (and write) not meet some or all of the typical cozy criteria? Goldy Schultz, the caterer protagonist in Diane Mott Davidson’s series, has been knocked down, bonked, bruised, and stabbed. She’s been left unconscious and has found herself confronted by many murderers trying to kill her. Any reader of the series should find solid reason to believe she is in true danger of physical harm or death. Often.
As for M.C. Beaton’s series character, Agatha Raisin, I’d hardly describe the character as nice. Certainly not endearing. To me, Agatha is a fun protagonist in her sarcastic, grumpy, cigarette-smoking, self-centered way.
Jennie Bentley has some horrific things happen in her cozy renovation series. The skeleton of a baby is found in a crawl space above an attic, a 98 year-old woman is pushed to her death down steep stairs, and more.
In Sunny Frazier’s second book in her Christy Bristol series, Where Angels Fear, Christy gets involved in a membership-only S&M sex club. I have to say, the subject added spice to the story, but an objectionable topic to some? I would think so.
The books I’ve mentioned are missing a lot of tea drinkers, and in one way or another have taken a brazen step outside the boundary of their subgenre. Regardless, I came away from reading these books with a feeling I’d been on a fun ride. One without gloomy afterthoughts or bad dreams. As these authors’ examples illustrate, books called cozies can move outside their definition and still hold their label, cozy, so long as they leave the reader with their hallmark—a warm and comfy feeling. It works for me.
Linda Thorne began pursuing her true passion, writing, in 2005. Since then, she has published numerous short stories in the genres of mystery, thriller, and romance. Four of her short stories made the selection process for publication in the 2012 anthology, Soundtrack NOT Included. Her debut novel, Just Another Termination, is the first in a planned series of mysteries that tell the story of Judy Kenagy, the first career human resources manager to turn sleuth. She is currently writing the second book in her series, A Promotion to Die For. Thorne resides in a suburb of Nashville, Tennessee with her husband and two border collies. Learn more at http://www.lindathorne.com, and connect with her @lindamthorne on Twitter.
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