Writing a Cozy? Follow the Rules … And Mind Your Language / Author Penny Clover Petersen

Nancy Drew never cursed. She was always under duress in one manner or another, but she never let, even the occasional expletive, spill from her titian-colored head. In this week’s guest blog, author Penny Clover Petersen discusses what makes a cozy mystery, and the ongoing debate about the use of bad words.

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Clay Stafford

Clay Stafford,
Founder Killer Nashville,
Publisher Killer Nashville Magazine

Penny PetersenWriting a Cozy? Follow the Rules … And Mind Your Language

By Penny Clover Petersen

I began my first novel when I was fifty-nine. Being an avid mystery lover, I had spent most of those fifty-nine years inventing puzzling scenarios for the most trivial occurrences and envisioning dark motives behind the most benign actions. Cookies for a teacher? They are no doubt laced with something in order to avoid the afternoon’s math test. A package delivered late? You know the mailman is up to something, but what?

Poison pen letters, tripping over bodies lying by the side of the road, murder, mayhem, blackmail, all of these fascinating ideas rolling around in my head had me wondering if I were to write a mystery, what would I write?

When the mood finally moved me to get to work I took to heart the adage “write what you know” and figured that I know family, cats and dogs, suburban living, and cozy mysteries. So I determined that a cozy mystery involving two sisters, a goofy mother, and a hormonally challenged dog was something I could achieve.

Now, writing cozies is a bit tricky. The rules are pretty well defined. The first two are actually almost carved in stone and I think that we must adhere to them if we want to call a mystery a cozy.

Number one is all violence will be off-stage. Cozy writers do not depict grizzly murders. Autopsies are avoided. We don’t have psychotic killers torturing hapless victims in gruesome detail. As with many cozy writers, my victims tend to be obnoxious people that no one much likes who are conked on the head and found by the side of the road.

Number two is, of course, sex. That, too, must be off-stage. There are no steamy love scenes, no kinky aberrations. If sex enters into the plot, it generally is glossed over with only the incidental reference to “incredibly tall, slim men with well-cut graying hair and eyes the color of smoky quartz under wire-rimmed glasses.” Perhaps adding “kind of bookish and sexy — quite the studly muffin.” If the studly muffin and the leading lady ever do get together, it is definitely behind closed doors!

Roses and Daisies and Death Oh My, Penny PetersenNumber three concerns foul language. Agatha Christie, the mother of the cozy, did not use any off-color language in her books. But neither did anyone else writing at that time. It wasn’t a part of the culture.

Today, I think this is one rule that can be tinkered with. I have spoken with a number of cozy writers and this is a stumbling block for many of us. We want our characters to be somewhat real and the use of “language” in society has certainly become looser. For instance, my own everyday speech is not chockfull of colorful invective, but I do occasionally throw out a word or two my mother would not approve.

So what is acceptable in a cozy written in 2015? Of the writers to whom I have spoken, many have main characters that use the S-word. Many feel a leading lady is allowed to say, “Oh Christ!” or the like. Damn, hell, and variations seem to be acceptable these days.

But what of, as they say, the F-bomb? Now I don’t advocate throwing it around like confetti, but I do feel there are appropriate times that it might be used. As my children could tell you, if they heard me scream f….., they would most certainly know that I am really, really mad or have gone completely around the bend. And I feel the same holds true in a cozy. A crazed killer saying, “Oh gosh, I think I have to kill you now,” does not have the dramatic effect as something much more strongly worded.

A friend and fellow author, Austin Camacho, suggests leaving the cursing to the peripheral characters — the crazies, the villains — and keeping the leading ladies ‘cozy’. I tend to agree with this point of view. But I think purists probably wouldn’t. And so the question is, just how much is too much — and is it still a cozy?

If you would like to read more about Penny Clover Petersen’s books please click here.

Penny Clover Petersen’s first Daisy&Rose mystery, Roses and Daisies and Death, Oh My was released in December 2013 by Intrigue Publishing. In addition to writing, Penny enjoys spending time with her family, refurbishing old furniture, collecting stories and recipes for the ‘family cookbook’, and savoring new cocktail recipes. She loves historic homes and is a docent at Riversdale Mansion in Riverdale, MD. Her second novel, Roses Are Dead, My Love, will be released April 2015. Penny is currently at work on her third Daisy&Rose mystery. Visit her website at http://pennypetersen.com/

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