The Cozy Covenant

Hi. Barb here.

I wrote a few weeks ago about beginning a new book. But now my synopsis has been approved. Time to get writing.

I’ve written before about how first drafts are the hardest part of writing for me. I tape all sorts of talismans around my desk for when I get discouraged. One of them I call The Cozy Covenant.

The Covenant keeps me on track in the first draft phase because it is the way I keep faith with my (imaginary) readers.

I want to know those people

One of the tests of an enjoyable cozy for me is whether I want to spend time with the people in it. If they are whiny or angsty or stupid, well, I’m not going out of my way to give them the little free time I have in my day. I want a protagonist I have confidence in to lead me to through the book. I want the supporting cast, particularly the series characters, to be interesting, multi-dimensional and to surprise me a little. I want them to broaden my life and not narrow it by acting like cliches.

Not that they need to be perfect. No one in real life is, and perfect people would be deadly to be around. So they can have flaws, plenty of them. But in my heart, as a writer and a person, I believe most people are good and are, even when they do awful or dangerous or stupid things, trying their best with the best of intentions. I’m not blind to the predatory, the manipulative, the egotistical, sociopathic or even psychopathic in life and they certainly have a place in crime fiction. But I’m always surprised when I run into them, because fundamentally, I think they are rare.

I want to live in that place

A huge part of a cozy is setting. And in this, my ideal is Louise Penny and her village of Three Pines in Quebec’s Eastern Townships in her Chief Inspector Gamache mysteries. (Which are not considered cozies, but more on all these labels to follow.) Three Pines is a little bit magical. It doesn’t appear on many maps–you just end up there. I’ve never been a small-town girl, but in this case I’m inspired to make an exception. I want to go there. I want to live there. It’s the food, and the architecture, the bookstore, the town green, the town traditions, the B&B and, especially the fantastic bistro. And it’s also the people, who are complex and interesting.

This seems to me to be another place cozies often fail–a little too much of the Bob Newhart Show–a sane protagonist surrounded by annoying people, cartoons and buffoons. Larry, his brother Daryl and his other brother Daryl were hilarious in twenty-three minute sitcom increments, but don’t make me spend a whole book with them and only them.

I want to eat that delicious food

My Maine Clambake mysteries are a culinary series, which means the books include food and recipes. So why include them if the reader doesn’t want to be right in the scene, imagining she is eating the food?

My husband is the real cook in our family, and the need to include food and recipes has led to a lot of fun. He prepares the dishes and then we photograph them, and taste them, closing our eyes and throwing out adjectives. I have to remember not to get so engrossed in the food I forget to write the words down.

I want to find out what happens

Character, setting and food will only get you so far. Readers have to want to know what happens next–in fact, have to be dying to know what happens next. So this is where plot comes in, and pacing, and hooks (raising questions in readers’ minds that pull them forward). This is the holy grail. The “I stayed up all night. I couldn’t put your book down,” that is music to an author’s ears.

I want to find out what happens is a critical part of the Covenant. Don’t bore me, or go off on tangents, or fail to give me a payoff. Because I won’t be coming back for more.

The Cozy Author

The truth is, I had a lot of trouble thinking of myself as a cozy author. My first book, The Death of an Ambitious Woman, was deliberately a little rebellious. My protagonist was a professional police chief and her name, Ruth, was chosen because it was the opposite of cute or boyish. Also, she was happily married (though here I was perhaps making a different point).

Part of it is me. I have no trouble thinking of myself as a writer of books intended to entertain. I’m not writing Russian novels. I always think of my reader as a woman grabbing a few blissful moments in her car as she waits for soccer practice to end. But cozies are not all I read and not all I write. And, inconveniently, in this age when “You are the brand and the brand is you,” I have a horror of being put into little boxes. You won’t find anyone more stolidly middle-class and middle-aged than me, but please, no labels.

And I have to admit, though it embarrasses me at my age, I also didn’t like the idea of what others would think. Cozies, being perhaps, the bottom of the mystery tier, an unrespected genre within a genre.

Why Can’t We All Just Get Along?

But then I think of Dennis Lehane who said at the New England Crime Bake in 2010 (and I’m paraphrasing here): “What we do is so hard. Writing fiction is hard no matter what kind of fiction you write. Yet we set up these dynamics where the literary fiction people look down on the mystery writers who look down on the romance writers. The novelists look down on the short story writers who look down on the poets and the poets look down on everyone else. It’s ridiculous. Why can’t we admit that writing is hard and as long as you’re writing something you would want to read, you’re deserving of respect?”

But Make it be About Something

But he also said, (again, wildly paraphrasing): “There are enough one hour crime dramas on TV to suck up every plot you could think of a hundred times over. So if you are going to all the trouble to write a book, make it be about something.”

And that is, in the end, I think what separates good from bad popular entertainment. The best books are about something, even if it appears that they are not. Which is why I think Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum books are actually about disappearing ethnic enclaves like the burg. And why I believe Louise Penny’s books are about the qualities of leadership and the need to aspire for beauty and morality in our lives–and what happens when we don’t.

So at the end of the day, that’s how I made my peace with being labeled as a cozy writer. Because as long as my books are about something, I am proud to have them called cozies.

About Barbara Ross

Barbara Ross is the author of the Maine Clambake Mysteries. Her books have been nominated for multiple Agatha Awards for Best Contemporary Novel and have won the Maine Literary Award for Crime Fiction. She lives in Portland, Maine. Readers can visit her website at
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10 Responses to The Cozy Covenant

  1. I like your succinct covenant, Barb. Very well said!

  2. Great post, Barb. And may I just say, having read the manuscript of CLAMMED UP, that you succeeded very well in all areas in the first book of the new series. I’ll be making a copy of the Cozy Covenant to put up in my office. If only I could sew, I’d make it a sampler.

  3. Lea Wait says:

    Agreed. I especially like yor “make it about something.” That’s what lifts a book for me! Looking forward to reading yours!

  4. Bob Thomas says:

    Oh yeah. You nailed it. As for those Russians? It was always about something, and I can’t think of any who would quibble with any other parts of your covenant either.

  5. Lil Gluckstern says:

    As a reader, I really enjoyed your covenant, but I also like it for me. I read what I want when I want, and I am of an age where it only matters to me. I’ll be looking for your book.

  6. Coco Ihle says:

    I very much enjoyed your post and especially your covenant. I’m always interested in what other cozy writers say about their work. I felt so comfortable with your opinion. Now I’m looking forward to reading your books.

  7. Barb Ross says:

    Thank you all. I hope I deliver!

  8. Barb, you nailed it!

  9. Pingback: First Drafts | Maine Crime Writers

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