Kaitlyn Dunnett/Kathy Lynn Emerson here, stating up front that I love mysteries at the cozy end of the traditional mystery spectrum. Just lately, however, I keep encountering cozies that contain one or more of my personal pet peeves. These are things that don’t necessarily affect the plot or character development or make a good book into a bad one, but they sure do annoy me. And, yes, in the interest of total honesty, I admit I’ve committed most of these sins myself at one time or another . . . but, hopefully, only once.
So here, totally unsolicited and possibly unwanted, is my list of things I think mystery writers should watch out for if they want to avoid annoying me while I’m reading one of their mystery novels.
Number Ten: If you must give a character a gun, take the time to learn the basics. You don’t have to go into a lot of detail. You just have to make sure that the details you do use aren’t wrong. With a nod to Lee Lofland, and to my friend Professor Robert Martin of New Sharon, Maine, that is not cordite you smell after a gun is fired. There’s also a difference between a revolver and an automatic.
Number Nine: If you have a cat or dog in the story (or a gerbil, or a parrot, or a rabbit), don’t forget about the poor thing. See Jen Blood’s recent blog for more on this subject. And here is the flip side: if you have a cat or dog in the story (or a gerbil, or a parrot, or a rabbit), don’t overuse the poor thing. We don’t need to know what the sleuth’s pet is doing in every scene. Yes, they’re cute, but a little goes a long way.
Number Eight: Don’t try to convert your readers. I’ve read way too many mysteries lately in which the author, writing about a character who has chosen a certain lifestyle, goes on and on about it. There’s nothing wrong with being a vegetarian, or making meditation part of your life, or being an activist of some kind, but it’s far too easy for a character to become preachy, especially if that character shares the author’s opinions.
Number Seven: Watch your transitions. Sometimes this is the fault of the conversion to ebook format, but when a scene or a point of view changes, there really needs to be a space between paragraphs or a segue of some kind in the text to alert the reader to the shift.
Number Six: Despite a recent controversy stirred up by a teacher who forbade her students to use the boring “s/he said” in their writing, “said” and “asked” are still the best choices in dialogue because they are invisible. They don’t slow readers down. Trying to let us know how your character said something? Show us what they’re doing as they are speaking. Yes, it’s okay for someone, occasionally, to shout or exclaim or whisper. But people rarely shrill their words, and I still remember an author I read back in the 1980s whose characters, when annoyed, “gritted” their words.
Number Five: Get rid of those repetitious words. I don’t just mean things like “only” and “just” and “even” that creep into our writing and don’t add anything to it. I also mean catching the places where the same word appears three or four times on the same page. This is a lot easier to do if you can let the manuscript rest for awhile before the last revision. With a break, the repetitions tend to leap out at you.
Number Four: Learn to read a map! Yes, I know it isn’t always possible to visit the place where your mystery takes place, but if you have someone driving along Rt. 1 and your character is admiring the view of the ocean, you’d better be darn sure she can actually see the water from there. If you made up a town, take the time to make a map, one that shows compass directions and on which you make note of distances to other places and who lives in what house. The last thing you want is for a reader to be pulled out of your story by trying to figure out how a character got from Point A to Point B.
Number Three: Get the law enforcement details right. Every state is different when it comes to what law enforcement agency investigates murders, but it isn’t hard to find out how things work where your novel is set. Most police departments have someone who handles public relations and will be happy to answer questions. Since the sleuth in a cozy is an amateur, you may not need to know a lot, but you should know the rank of the investigating officer and what department he or she belongs to. Check on where the body will be sent for autopsy, too.
Number Two: Give your sleuth a darned good excuse to get involved in trying to solve the murder. This is hard. Only so many relatives and close friends are likely to be wrongfully accused of murder. But since the protagonist in a mystery novel is supposed to be clever enough to figure out who dunnit, it only makes sense that she also be smart enough to let the police handle the investigation . . . unless there’s an excellent reason why she can’t. Don’t even get me started on the TSTL (too stupid to live) sleuth—that’s a whole blog in itself.
Number One: Make sure your amateur detective actually detects. In far too many books I’ve read in the last year or so, the sleuth is thrust into the middle of a murder case but doesn’t actually do anything to help solve the crime. She doesn’t actively pursue leads or ask questions and only stumbles over clues by accident. She has no idea who is guilty until that person confesses, usually while threatening said sleuth. A related rule of thumb, obvious as it may seem, is “A mystery should be mysterious.”
Did I miss any? Readers, please chime in with your pet peeves, or with comments about my top ten. And yes, also feel free to illustrate your pet peeves with examples from the Liss MacCrimmon or Mistress Jaffrey mysteries, or from any other books I’ve written.
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 (Murder in the Merchant’s Hall) as Kathy. 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