Kathy Lynn Emerson/Kaitlyn Dunnett here, finishing up my take on traditional (including cozy) mysteries. You can read part one here and part two here. This segment offers my (often highly opinionated) answers to some frequently asked questions.
Why are traditional mysteries so popular?
Simple answer: they offer readers an escape from harsh reality. By the end of a traditional mystery, the crime has almost always been solved, the villain punished, and order restored. In addition, although there are some stand-alones, the majority of traditional mysteries are part of a series, which means readers become invested in the characters and how they develop from book to book.
What are editors looking for in the genre?
Here’s the annoying answer: The same only different. Since cozies are currently selling well, right now they want more cozies. They want something that hasn’t been done to death, but they don’t want to go too far out into left field. The result is that there isn’t just one quilting series. There are at least three. Instead of just one series set in a shop that sells Scottish imports—mine—as of this past spring there are two. Go figure.
Even more important, editors are looking for books with series potential, which means they feature characters that readers will want to revisit. Writers need to be able to come up with clever ideas for future books. Lately, there also seems to be a trend toward more frequent publication. It used to be that publishers didn’t want to bring out more than one book a year by the same author. Now series books, at least in paperback originals, are being scheduled every six months or so, which makes for a tight writing schedule for the author.
What are the taboos?
I’ve already mentioned some of these in part one, but it never hurts to reiterate. Sometimes it seems as if the traditional mystery, especially the cozies, are defined by negatives. No excessive gore or gratuitous sex or violence. Don’t kill an animal, especially a pet, especially a cat.
Frankly the most important “don’t” is don’t neglect your research. Don’t get details wrong. If a gun is fired, don’t have a character comment on the smell of cordite. Cordite hasn’t been used for decades. Whatever you might be smelling, that’s not it. Lee Lofland’s website, The Graveyard Shift, is a great place to go to find out some of the common errors writers make when it comes to anything to do with police procedure. Lee also runs the Writers Police Academy.
There are quite a few experts out there who enjoy helping writers get it right. Two more are Dr. Doug Lyle, who answers questions on medical matters, and the Poison Lady, Luci Zahray, who frequently attends mystery conferences and will happily tell you how to bump off your nearest and dearest with chemicals and plants.
Getting details right is even more important if you set your mystery in the past. Your editor may not know enough to catch an error, but you can be sure readers will. Again, there are experts to ask—and I don’t mean Wikipedia! Find them. There is no excuse for getting stuff wrong.
What makes one traditional mystery stand out from the rest?
The following tips are especially true if this is your first novel and if you are trying to sell to a traditional publisher. If you have a track record, you have a little more leeway, but not much.
First tip: try to find a niche that hasn’t been done to death. This can be frustrating. I did my research back when I started my Face Down series. At that time, there were other mystery series with Elizabethan settings, but they were all set in the latter part of the reign of Elizabeth the First. Thinking I’d have the decade to myself, I set Face Down in the Marrow-Bone Pie in 1559. Apparently, other people had the same idea. Within a few months of each other, my book, the first book in Fiona Buckley’s Ursula Blanchard series, set in 1558, and the first book in Karen Harper’s series with Queen Elizabeth herself as the sleuth, set in 1558, all came out from different publishers.
Second tip: avoid areas that are widely perceived as not selling well, such as the American Revolution for historical novels—this is especially true if you want to sell to New York. Sad to say, some publishing houses have preconceived notions about certain settings or subjects. How do you figure out where these negative vibes live? You’re already looking at what’s out there—where are the gaps? Why are they there? How many series have tried to fill them and been cancelled after two or three books?
On the other hand, if there is a setting or situation you love and New York just isn’t interested, there are alternatives. Small, and not-so-small presses elsewhere don’t offer large advances, but they are more likely to take chances. There’s also Indie Publishing. There are ebook originals. Personally I’d advice trying the traditional route first, but in many ways there has never been a better time for writers who want to get their work out to the reading public.
Third tip: create an engaging—which is not the same as likeable—sleuth who is not a carbon copy of every other traditional detective, without going so far into left field that no one wants to take a risk. You want readers to come back. To use an example from TV, House could sustain a series. An attempt to imitate his caustic personality probably can’t.
Fourth tip: come up with a marketing plan to go with your proposal. Lea Wait has already covered this territory here at Maine Crime Writers with “Marketing and Competitive Research Before You Write.”
It couldn’t hurt. In a way, this is an extension of the last question. Stand out. Catch the editor’s attention, then fill in details. Think in terms of a movie pitch—short and kicky. Or maybe the title can say it all. When I first told my agent my ideas for what became the Liss MacCrimmon series, she wasn’t that thrilled with a lot of the details (and I ended up changing many of them) but the title, Kilt Dead, struck a chord. She said, and I’m quoting, “I can sell it on that title.”
And speaking of titles—What’s with all the puns?
I’m talking mostly about cozies here. Some of the puns are pretty awful. But this trend grew out of something that actually makes sense. You want to have memorable titles and, if you’re writing a series, it’s helpful in building readership to have titles that tie together in some way. This is also called branding.
Most of the Liss MacCrimmon titles have something Scottish in them, since she runs a shop that sells Scottish imports. Kilt Dead, Scone Cold Dead, A Wee Christmas Homicide, The Corpse Wore Tartan, Scotched, and so on. Some are better than others. Some titles that I came up with, like Homicide with Haggis and Auld Lang Crime, were nixed by the publisher’s marketing department for reasons that, frankly, elude me. The publisher, however, has the final say on titles, just as they do on cover art.
Do you need a title with a pun in it if you’re writing on the cozy end of traditional? Not necessarily a pun, but connections between titles in a series are definitely a plus. Some writers have used song or movie titles on books in a series, or variations on them. A series about a librarian by Miranda James includes File M for Murder, The Silence of the Library, and Arsenic and Old Books. Barb Ross has used Clammed Up, Boiled Over, and Mussled Out for her Maine Clambake series. Lea Wait’s Mainely Needlepoint titles are Twisted Threads, Threads of Evidence, and Thread and Gone. Ella Barrick has a three-book series about a ballroom dance instructor. The titles are Quickstep for Murder, Dead Man Waltzing, and Homicide Hustle. And my personal favorites come from a paranormal mystery series written by Laura Resnick. They include Doppelgangster, Polterheist, and Abracadaver.
Obviously, there’s a fine line between clever wordplay and a real groaner. I won’t diss fellow writers by sharing titles I think are awful. I’m sure you can think of those for yourself. Please, don’t share them. But if you are so inclined, I’d love to hear some of your favorite mystery titles and the answer to this question: have you ever bought a book based on the title (or the cover art) alone?
Kathy Lynn Emerson/Kaitlyn Dunnett is the author of over fifty books written under several names. She won the Agatha Award in 2008 for best mystery nonfiction for How to Write Killer Historical Mysteries and was an Agatha Award finalist in 2014 in the best mystery short story category for “The Blessing Witch.” Currently she writes the contemporary Liss MacCrimmon Mysteries (The Scottie Barked at Midnight) as Kaitlyn and the historical Mistress Jaffrey Mysteries as Kathy (Murder in the Merchant’s Hall). The latter series is a spin-off from her earlier “Face Down” series and is set in Elizabethan England. Her websites are www.KaitlynDunnett.com and www.KathyLynnEmerson.com