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Tuesday, March 18, 2008

How to Write A Cozy Mystery _ Part 2 Interview with Candice Miller Speare

Candice Miller Speare is Content Reviewer for Barbour Publishing. Her first cozy, Murder in the Milkcase, releases this month.

You have compiled a list of elements a cozy should have. Would you willing to share that list with us?

1. A cozy mystery sleuth should have an interesting personality, complete with quirks.
2. The sleuth should have a compelling reason to solve the crime. Not just because he/she loves to read mysteries.
3. The mystery must be investigated and solved. The hero or heroine cannot just stumble along and suddenly come across the answer. The sleuth has to be active in solving the crime throughout the course of the book. Actively collecting clues.
4. A cozy should have clues, both real and red herring. Red-herring clues must be logical bits of data that fit into the story. They must have a reason for being there. There must be a reasonable explanation for their existence.
5. The author must play fair with the reader. Whatever clues your hero or heroine discovers need to be available to the reader. And the reader must have a fair chance to solve the mystery along with the sleuth.
6. The crime must be significant. The reason most cozy authors choose a murder is because a murder is important.
7. A cozy mystery must have suspects, and the murderer/criminal must be one of them, and they must all be introduced early on. It's not fair to introduce a suspect toward the end of a book. Red-herring suspects must all have as good a reason to commit the crime as the real criminal does.
8. The weapon of murder or method of crime must be appropriate to a cozy.
9. The weapon of murder must be accessible to all the suspects.
10. The method of murder must be thoroughly researched.
11. Proper police procedure is also important. Cozies are fiction; however, they do need to be reality based or an author will lose the respect of his/her readers.
12. The violence is mostly off stage. It's amazing how much you can show without really showing it. The things we want to avoid are the gory details. Pulsing blood, pieces of brain, spilling intestines are not good in a cozy.
13. When you're picking your time and setting, you must remember that other people besides your killer must also have access to the victim.

You mention that the hero or heroine in a cozy should have a compelling reason to solve the crime. What defines "compelling reason?"

A compelling reason to solve a crime means that if the sleuth cannot solve the crime, someone will pay a price, whether it’s the sleuth or someone they love.

Wanting to live a childhood fantasy of being Nancy Drew is not a compelling reason to solve crimes.

What exactly is a red herring and what makes it different from a "real" clue?

A red herring clue is a true fact that points to a red herring (false) suspect. That’s the whole purpose. To keep our sleuth and our readers guessing.

As a Content Reviewer what do you look for in regard to the characters and the crime?

Big pet peeve of mine in any book is what I refer to as the heroine or hero being too stupid to live.

This is when she (or he) deliberately does something dumb in the process of the investigation and puts herself in danger.

Think of the old time gothic heroines who hear some strange noise coming from the far side of the castle. They feel they must investigate for some dumb reason, and they walk (barefoot) from their bedrooms, down the cold, long, dark, stone hallway with only a flickering candle to light the way.

The reader is thinking, NO! Don’t go! But our heroine is determined because she’s. . .too stupid to live.

The flame on her candle flickers, then a breeze from. . .the open door to the tower. . .snuffs out the light. She’s in the dark. (And since this castle is in the middle of some English moor and it’s raining cats and dogs outside, the only light she has now is the flash of lightning.)

She’s trembling in her dressing gown. No, she didn’t bother to put on anything more significant.

OH NO! She hears footsteps! And! A flash of lightning reveals. . .you guessed it! The bad guy! She’s walked straight into danger. She’s almost killed. Then, of course, somehow, miraculously, she’s rescued.

I don’t know how other people feel about this, but I much prefer an intelligent hero or heroine who walks into danger by accident, not by their own stupidity.

Do you make sure the method of murder in consistent with reality, or can an author fudge a bit because it is, after all, a fictional story?

This is a good question. Yes, we write fiction. Can we fudge? Absolutely. It’s called literary license. We’re authors. These are our books.

But. . .should we? And if we do, will people notice?

Yes, I can guarantee some people will notice. That’s the rub. Are we willing to lose the respect of some of our readers because we want to fictionalize or doctor our facts for whatever reason?

Let’s examine historical fiction for a moment. When authors write historical fiction, their biggest fear is inaccuracy in their portrayal of the time period in which they’re writing. Readers of historical fiction are notoriously knowledgeable about how people will react and behave according to the mores and attitudes of the time period in which a book is set. That’s why an historical author will research details to death to determine time period accuracies.

Should we be any less concerned about our details just because we’re writing contemporary mysteries?

Just like an historical author will lose the respect of his or her readers if he or she doesn’t present characters acting in historically accurate ways, we can potentially lose the respect of our readers if we don’t represent our crimes and characters in factual ways.

Honestly, if I’m reading a mystery or suspense and the law enforcement procedure is way off base, I’ll put the book down. And I will remember the author’s name and never buy another one because I’ll assume that author didn’t care enough about what he or she was writing to do any research.

Some of the toughest readers in the world are mystery readers. I hope that our cozy club will attract not just the inspirational reading community, but will broaden to encompass cozy readers from all walks of life. But to do that, we’ve got to be good. Really good.

Are there any CSIisms that you catch authors buying into that just aren't true or likely to happen in reality? (By CSI-ism, I mean something that fans of the show would think is normal procedure but doesn’t really happen in real life.)

I’ll begin by saying that CSI is one the biggest misrepresentations of police procedure on the air. You wouldn’t believe the comments I’ve heard from cops about it. But, ummm, I’ll refrain from using those words here.

Yes, we all make these kinds of errors in our work. I don’t have any specifics right off the top of my aside from those I’ve already mention. But because all of us have watched these kinds of shows, all the information, reality or not, is in our heads. It’s easy to assume we know what we’re writing because it seems right. That’s where we have to be careful and check things out. RESEARCH!

You mentioned using a style sheet to keep facts straight. Is that like a spreadsheet?

I have something called a “Style Sheet” that I used for reference while I edit a book. It’s a Word document where I keep a chart of all the characters in a book, the way they look, the roles they play, and how they relate to each other. So someone’s brother doesn’t become a cousin later on, for example. Or a character’s eye color doesn’t change. Those kinds of mistakes are easy to make when we’re writing our own books. Coming in with a fresh eye, I can spot things like this easily.

I make other notes, too. Like places and landmarks and animals.

And I keep a list of Heartsong cozy requirements handy, as well.

What are the most common errors you catch while reviewing for content?

The most common error I’ve seen is a lack of conflict. Especially personal conflict. Without conflict, our books are boring.

Although we’re writing crime fiction, the conflict of our books cannot just be the mystery. We’ve got to have subplots going on. Conflict between characters. Romantic conflict. (And I don’t mean stupid conflicts that could be solved by a simple conversation.)

I think perhaps that as Christians, conflict is a hard concept to add to our work unless we’re deliberately trying to. We strive in our own lives to be conflict free. To live in peace with our families and friends. So for many of us adding conflict into our character’s lives is foreign. But a book without conflict is BORING!
Donald Maass in his book, Writing the Breakout Novel, says you should have conflict in every scene.

Something else I’ve noticed are scenes that aren’t moving the story forward. We all need to ask ourselves, does the scene we’re writing add to the story?

When you're finished with a manuscript, where does it go next?

Once I content review, I send my comments to Susan Downs, who reviews them, and then I send them on to the author. The author makes his or her changes. He or she sends the manuscript back to me for review. Then I forward it on to Susan who looks it over and then sends it on to a line editor.

Final words?

I have to admit that content reviewing takes a lot longer than I originally thought it would. I spend a good ten hours on each book I review—often much more. So, when our authors get my review, I’ve invested a lot of time in their book.

It’s sort of funny, but as I work on each book, I get a sense of the person who wrote it and become fond of them. I feel so blessed to be able to do this and want always strive to be a help to everyone and not be a hindrance in any way.

Working as a freelance content editor for Barbour is a privilege for me. I feel so blessed. I take my responsibilities very seriously. I don’t make comments lightly. I try to spell things out clearly in my content reviews.

I often offer solutions to a problem I see in a manuscript, and authors assume that means they have to do it my way. That’s not the case. I offer solutions only as a way to help them brainstorm. Many times there is more than one way to fix an issue. I also rely on my intrepid leader, Susan Downs, for her input and guidance. I’ve learned so much from her.

To sum it all up, I want to say that the goal of every person who is part of the editorial process for Heartsong Presents Mysteries is to help produce some of the best cozy mysteries on the market. If we sometimes come across as picky, that’s why.


  1. This was excellent information! Thanks so much Candice and Sandra.

  2. Great interview, Candice and Sandra. Such good information. Thank you.

  3. Candice, honey, if you're bend on realism, are you gonna have a problem with my series, The Maxie Mouse Series, located in Melnik, Nebraska, Home of the World's Largest Field Mouse.
    Maxie solves all the crimes.
    Also, he's fifty years old and dead. He lives in a glass case at the Melnik Historical Society Museum.

    But I all works. :) Completely realistic.

    Good luck.
    I just sent book two off to Susan Downs.

  4. I especially loved the explanation of "too stupid to live." I never had a name for my pet peeve, and you gave words to my frustration! Thanks.

  5. I also love the "too stupid to live" explanation. I have a similar reaction to James Bond - if he's such a super spy how come he always ends up in near-death situations? The writers make it work relatively believably, but still it comes off to my author mind as a bit contrived/convenient. Like, it happens that way "because it's in the script"!

    I stumbled upon this blog & now I'm going to search out Part I. I like cozy mysteries even though I've never quite understood the definition. Now I think it's something I'd like to try my hand at - in the future. Without reading the first part, I know I need to plot out the whole story before beginning to write. I can "wing it" with details like descriptions but I need to have the whole mystery planned, to avoid errors. Of course there's always the possibility that I'm thinking about this strictly as a way to avoid the writer's block I'm having with my current wip!

    Thanks again for your helpful insight.

    Tammy Doherty

  6. Mary - love the giant field mouse thing, especially the 50 year-old and dead mouse solving the crime. Though a 50 yr-old large mouse sounds somewhat cartoonish - hee hee!

    I know how much you dread those mice. I've got a couple stories that'd send shivers down your spine :-) Personally, I think they're kinda cute, but they're cuter not in my house. What gets me is spiders. Especially the wolf spiders who have decided to haunt my home. And those garden spiders who seem to think my garden is for them. I don't mind Daddy Longlegs so much, though. Go figure. Maybe I'll write a cozy mystery about someone who died from too many Daddy Longlegs spider bites. EEEK!

    Tammy Doherty

  7. Tammy, Tammy, Tammy, call an exterminator. They don't charge much to spray for spiders.
    No exterminator in the world seems to be able to get rid of MICE however.

    I recommend 27 farm cats for that. That helps. A little.

  8. This was an excellent, in depth, substantive interview. Great questions and very well thought out answers.

    I subscribe to this blog via an RSS reader and have come to respect the quality of writing and wide range of interesting articles that you post.

    As an aspiring writer, this site is not only inspirational, but incredibly valuable. You are doing a great job, keep up the great work!


  9. Mary, this goes to your Phobia Day blog on spyglasslane...I once read a Stephen King short story with a cat that does unthinkably horrible things (ala Stephen King!). Plus I had a bad childhood experience with a cat. So even though I'm not really afraid of cats, I'm leary. Top all that off with the fact that I'm an ex-veterinary technician. I have a healthy enjoyment of a single-digit cat househould! Best of luck to you with your cats and mice LOL


  10. Hi,
    Great post! Thank you!
    Do you have any recommendations for books that help with the clues and red herrings? I am smacking my head against the wall trying to figure this out!


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