Writing For Readers

Among the late bestselling author Elmore Leonard ‘s widely quoted 10 Rules of Writing is this gem: “Try to leave out all the parts readers skip.” And what, you may ask, did he believe readers tended to skip? “Thick paragraphs of prose you can see have too many words in them.”

Personally, I’m one of those readers likely to skip those “thick paragraphs” that interrupt the action and slow the pace of the story. I do, however, appreciate short, succinct prose that provides insight into characters’ experiences and events directly relating to the plot. The level of detail I’m willing to read tends to vary by genre and type of book—that is, whether it’s a standalone novel or a series. And if it’s the first in a series, I do appreciate detailed prose that works to develop the overall structure. This is particularly true of cozy mystery fiction.

While there are multiple forms of mystery fiction that plunge straight into the action from the first page, cozy mysteries generally don’t. Instead, the first book in a cozy mystery series has traditionally used the first chapter to introduce the sleuth, the setting, and the “hook” that will carry through the entire series. (In my own Deadly Ties, the people and animals at Waterside Kennels become the hook for the series.) In the article Writing the Cozy Mystery: Quiet Beginnings, author and blogger Elizabeth Spann Craig explains:

“…You can start out with your idyllic, happy, safe…and, yes…cozy environment. You can start out with what’s routine: what a normal day in your story world looks like. This doesn’t have to go on for chapters–just a glimpse of happy normality and what’s lost when someone dies in the close-knit community.”

Getting all that into a single chapter or two requires the judicious inclusion of prose. After those introductory chapters, though, even the most hard-to-please reader should find any “thick paragraphs” of descriptive prose fading into the background as action and dialogue takes center stage.

This is a good time to point out that, while cozy mysteries nearly always exclude graphic violence, explicit sex, and vulgar language, other boundaries between cozy, suspense, classic, and traditional mystery appear to be blurring. As author Olivia Blacke points out when writing for the media site Frolic, writers are finding creative ways to bend—but not break—the traditional rules and norms within the subgenre. Whatever you prefer, browse the shelves of your favorite bookshop and you’ll find cozy mysteries—hopefully with a fair balance of prose and dialogue—that run the gamut from lighthearted quick reads to something edgier, even “unconventional” that increasingly reflect many of the social issues of our time.

Interested in learning more about cozy mystery fiction? Check these out:

A Brief History of Cozy Mysteries
How to Write a Cozy Mystery
Rules for the New Generation of Cozy Mysteries
The Best Diverse Cozy Mystery Books

♦ ♦ ♦