Kaitlyn Dunnett/Kathy Lynn Emerson here, reflecting on one of the choices writers need to make when they start work on a new novel. I am currently working on a proposal for a contemporary cozy series. I’m not ready to share much detail about character, setting, or plot just yet, but there is one aspect of the project that I can discuss—point of view.
The majority of cozy mysteries are written in first person point of view and use a single narrator, usually a female. She is the amateur-detective protagonist and readers are in her mind, and her mind only, as she tries to solve a mystery. She’s essentially talking to the reader, telling us what happened to her. Every once in awhile, the first person narrator will be a “Watson” instead—the sidekick reporting on the protagonist’s actions. Once again, the reader will only see the story unfold through the narrator’s eyes.
The second most popular option is to use third person point of view. Instead of reading how “I” went about looking for clues, we follow the actions of the protagonist from the outside, although at times privy to her thoughts, as in “Liss MacCrimmon loved the sound of bagpipes. She just wished her husband felt the same.”
I’ve written novels in first person. I’ve also written novels in third person. In general, I prefer third person because it is more flexible. While some writers do limit themselves to one point of view, that isn’t a requirement. The story can be told from multiple viewpoints. There’s even something called omniscient viewpoint, which lets the author in on everything everyone is seeing and thinking. In romance novels, the usual practice is to use two points of view, the hero and the heroine. In many mystery novels, the use of four or five different point of view characters is not uncommon . . . except in cozies.
In the Liss MacCrimmon series, the number of point of view characters depends on the plot. In the forthcoming (October 2015) The Scottie Barked at Midnight, I used only Liss’s point of view, but in the rest of the series I have scenes where I get into someone else’s head. This is especially useful when I want to let the reader in on something Liss couldn’t possibly be a witness to. In historical mysteries, it is even more useful to follow another character’s movements because men had access to places where women could not go. On occasion, I’ve even used the villain’s point of view.
Can you use more than one point of view character and still write in first person? Sure. But, at least in my opinion, it is harder to do so and still differentiate between characters. Mine all end up sounding alike. That’s less of a problem when I write in third person. It’s also possible to use both first person and third person in the same book. Joan Hess does this in her series featuring Arly Hanks. Arly’s point of view scenes are in first person. Scenes in the point of view of other characters are in third person.
I haven’t written all that many novels in first person. Of the non-mystery historical novels I wrote as Kate Emerson, some demanded multiple points of view. For those that did not, I chose to write in first person. One of the books I wrote for ages eight to twelve is in first person. The rest are in third. Similarly, with short stories, I’ve generally chosen third person, even though the length almost always dictates only one point of view.
For a time, I toyed with taking a secondary character who appears in The Scottie Barked at Midnight and making her the sleuth in a new cozy series. I experimented by using her as the detective in a couple of short stories. I wrote them both in first person. I’m not sure why. The novel she appeared in was written in third person.
That brings me back to this latest effort, the new series proposal. Which will it be—first or third? At the moment I’m inclined toward first person, in part because there’s going to be a lot of myself in the protagonist. She’s my age, for one thing. We speak the same language. So, at least for the section of text that will go with the proposal—the first fifty to a hundred pages—the plan is that “I” will tell the story. We’ll see how it goes.
And if I decide first person isn’t working? Thankfully, there’s an easy fix—just switch to third.