After two decades of making our living as mystery authors, we thought, hey, we must have done something right. If you think so, too (or you’re simply curious), read on. Just to be clear. This is not a list of mechanical techniques. Much has been written on genre tropes and tricks. This is a list of how we survived them.
1. Be present. We’ll start with the most valuable nugget. Better than gold. Authors are concerned (and rightfully so) about artificial intelligence taking their hard work, mashing it up, and spewing it out in a hollow imitation. The difference is a creator’s mind with a human soul. No matter how many corpses turn up in your murder mysteries, don’t let your prose go dead. As Fay Weldon warned, “Fine writing does not necessarily make a fine novel.…Readers are quick to pick up whether you are trying to communicate with them to the best of your skill and ability, or just showing off.” So, don’t be a robot, tinkering with a mechanism that has no heartbeat. Be present in your writing. Speak from your own human experience. Feel it as you write it, and your readers will, too. Which leads us to a corollary…
2. Be real. Whether your character is standing in a coffeehouse, a police precinct, or an ice giant’s castle on Neptune, your job is to make the reader believe what’s happening is actually happening. Crucial to that process is learning how to recognize with cutting clarity when your characters are making genuine, human choices versus contrived ones to fit your plot. The former is treasure, the latter is not. As H.G. Wells put it, “As soon as the magic trick has been done, the whole business of the fantasy writer is to keep everything else human and real.” Because so many genres often stretch credulity, including crime fiction, the advice of Mr. Wells goes beyond fantasy and SF. Its value is universal.
3. Be a storyteller. What makes a good story? “A story!” That simple, staccato answer, given by the late, great film director Samuel Fuller may appear vague, but it hit us like Tony Soprano on amphetamines. If you want to write mysteries, you better enjoy telling stories—and stories within stories. Stare at this Escher painting and you’ll begin to get the Penrose triangle picture. You are creating the equivalent of optical illusions inside the reader’s mind. The mystery novel demands not one but multiple such illusions. Stories on the page. Stories off the page. Narratives that come together only in your readers’ heads as they put together motives and clues and deduce imaginary outcomes. But how do we begin?
4. Allow for alchemy inside the little grey cells. “Simply knowing one’s intention and then executing it does not make good art.” What did George Saunders mean by that? One day you have an idea for a story. You think it’s good, but first ideas seldom are. You must live with it. Permit it to improve through research and discovery. If you’re willing to become part poet, letting connections grow and insights flow, you’ll be surprised at how beautifully that idea will evolve. “No worthy problem,” Albert Einstein said (as quoted by Mr. Saunders), “is ever solved in the plane of its original conception.” Which leads us to another corollary…
5. Beware the mathematical chasm. When your mind solves a problem (two and two is four), it remembers and will want to solve it the same way. Enduring series mystery writers know how to avoid this void. To keep things new and challenging for yourself and your readers, you must outsmart your own brain, recognize your own patterns, and strive to transcend them.
6. Be original. Ha! Good one, right? Doesn’t every mystery involve a crime, a victim, a crime-solver, clues, red herrings, reversals, revelations, and a startling twist ending? Well, yes, usually. So, aren’t mysteries all the same? Absolutely not. And let’s keep it that way.
Within the genre community, you will find no shortage of opinions on codifying what you write into a nice, neat package. To survive as a series writer, you can’t let the codifying become stultifying. Find your own way of telling your stories, in your own voice, even if it means bending a few rules, expanding a few boundaries, and pissing off a few people. To wit…
7. Say nay to naysayers. When we created our Coffeehouse world, we took a risky approach, one that many thought would fail. Two decades ago, cozy mysteries were largely set in small towns and villages. We chose a village for our setting, too, Greenwich Village, New York, and named our coffeehouse Village Blend to reflect our city’s polyglot population (a blend of races and cultures; gay and straight; glamorous and gritty). We made our amateur sleuth—master coffee roaster and shop manager Clare Cosi—the child of immigrants from Italy, birthplace of the espresso.
In describing our work to the mystery community, we coined the term “urban cozy,” and we enriched our puzzle plots with character arcs involving the love, pain, and camaraderie of friends and family striving to do good while navigating the crime and chaos in an extraordinary city. Beneath it all, we gave Clare and Company a true passion for coffee, an authentic reflection of the unambiguously zealous mindset that we found while researching the specialty coffee community in the throes of its “third wave.”
(Incidentally, we ourselves are children of Italian immigrants and our writing is continually fueled by the triumphs, trepidations, and micro humiliations of our lived New York experiences, including and especially this town’s ongoing subway train of absurd humor.)
Initially, some didn’t like our offbeat approach, but many did, and the launch book of our series, On What Grounds, debuted as the number one bestselling paperback of the Independent Mystery Booksellers Association. Our publisher stuck with us, moving us into hardcover, and a dedicated audience found us, readers who not only liked our quirky, caffeinated world but celebrated it. For that we are ever grateful.
8. Keep inventing. Twenty years and twenty books after we opened our fictional Village Blend, “coffee” and “urban” cozies are so common that they’re practically genre tropes, which is why we continue to seek new ways of challenging ourselves and our characters while gently pushing the boundaries of what a cozy mystery can be. And, yes, we believe this can be done without sacrificing the warmth, humor, and closeknit relationships of our work’s essential cozy heart.
Our more recent Coffeehouse titles (Shot in the Dark, Brewed Awakening, and Honey Roasted), tango with techniques of the thriller and police procedural. In our newest entry, Bulletproof Barista, we have fun with the film business while taking on a few hot button topics.
We also launched a second hybrid series, the Haunted Bookshop Mysteries, where we infuse the paranormal cozy (figuratively and literally) with a spirited celebration of the hardboiled detective. For more on the development of that one, see our CrimeReads essay “Dead Men Do Talk Back.
We could go on, but our time is up, so we’ll leave you with two last (but far from least) lessons learned on this two-decade adventure…
9. Respect it all. Whether it’s your hardcover debut, the ninth entry in your paperback original series, or your latest blog post, treat everything that you write with care. Someone is reading you for the first time. That’s what matters. Don’t let them down, and…
10. Don’t Stop Believin’ (with apologies to Journey and Sisyphus). The horizon always recedes, and the stone rolls back down the hill. As happy as we may be with our latest work’s last page, our next story holds a blank one, and the struggle begins again. Make peace with the pain of putting your shoulder to the boulder. Turn the creative challenge into a puzzle to solve, a game to play, a journey to take. (Journey, see how we did that?) Find joy in the process, maybe a few laughs. And for sanity’s sake don’t stop tapping into what fascinates and infuriates you. Do that and trust us. Your labors will be light, and you’ll be on your way again.