The Cozy Covenant

When I began writing the first book in my Maine Clambake Mystery series back in 2012, I sat down to think about what attracted me to cozy mysteries. Like traditional mysteries—a genre of which cozies are a part—cozy mysteries make the unknown known, supply satisfying answers to all the vexing questions, and see that justice is done. Things so often lacking in real life.

Cozy mysteries are often defined by what’s not in them—no lingering descriptions of gore, no bad language, and sex, when it does occur, takes place “off the page.” This drives me a little crazy. How many genres are defined by the things they don’t contain?

In any case, focusing on the words you can’t put in a book won’t get the damn thing written. (Or darn thing written, if you really prefer.) So I decided to focus on the things that make me love a cozy series, not on the things that are absent. This led me to create what I call my Cozy Covenant. It is my promise to readers about what they will find in my books. Even more important, it is my promise to myself.

The Cozy Covenant

  • I want to know those people.
  • I want to live in that place.
  • I want to eat that delicious food.
  • I want to find out what happens.
  • I want it to be about something.

I want to know those people.

For me, one of the tests for an enjoyable cozy—or almost any book—is whether I want to spend time with the people in it. I want a protagonist I have confidence in to lead me through the book. I want the supporting cast, particularly the series characters, to be interesting, multi-dimensional, and to surprise me from time to time. I want the characters to broaden my understanding of people and not narrow it by acting like clichés.

Not that the characters need to be perfect. No one in real life is, and perfect people would be deadly to be around. So they should have flaws, plenty of them. Characters, even main characters, don’t have to be “likable”—whatever that means. But I do have to care what happens to them. If I don’t, why am I wasting my time with this book?

I want to live in that place.

I think of cozy settings as imbued with a bit of fantasy. They make us fantasize about living there, or at least about visiting often. In this, my ideal is Louise Penny and her village of Three Pines in Quebec’s Eastern Townships in her traditional mysteries featuring Chief Inspector Gamache. Three Pines is a little bit magical. It doesn’t appear on many maps—you just end up there. I’ve never been a small-town girl, but in this case, I’m inspired to make an exception. I want to go there. I want to live there. It’s the food, the architecture, the bookstore, the town green, the town traditions, the B&B, and especially, the fantastic bistro. That’s what cozies require, places you imagine walking around, soaking in the sights.

I want to eat that delicious food.

If I was surprised to become a cozy mystery author, I was really surprised to become an author in the sub-subgenre of culinary cozies—mostly because in real life, I neither shop nor cook. My husband is the real cook in our family, and the need to include recipes in my books has led to a lot of fun. I tell him the setting and situation for the meal and the personality of the person preparing it. My husband creates the recipes, cooks the dishes, and then we photograph them and taste them, closing our eyes and throwing out adjectives to describe what we’re eating. Despite my earlier apprehensions, the food in the books is a constant reminder to include descriptions based on all the senses, including taste, touch, and smell, which are so easily forgotten.

See alsoCooking the Books: Steamed Open by Barbara Ross

I want to find out what happens.

Character, setting, and food will only get you so far. Readers have to want to know what happens next in your story—in fact, they have to be dying to know what happens next. This is where plot comes in, and pacing and hooks. This is the Holy Grail. The “I stayed up all night; I couldn’t put your book down” that is music to an author’s ears. I want to find out what happens is a critical part of the Covenant. Don’t bore me or go off on tangents or fail to give me a payoff because I won’t be coming back for more.

I want it to be about something.

At the New England Crime Bake, I once heard Dennis Lehane say (I’m paraphrasing wildly): “There are enough one-hour crime dramas on TV to suck up every plot you could think of a hundred times over. So if you are going to all the trouble to spend months and years writing book, make it be about something.”

And that is, in the end, one of the things that separates good popular entertainment from bad. The best books are about something, even if it appears that they are not. Which is why I think Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum books are actually about disappearing ethnic enclaves like the Burg. And why I believe Louise Penny’s books are about the qualities of leadership and the need to aspire for beauty and morality in our lives—and what happens when we don’t.

Keeping all the parts of the Cozy Covenant is how I remain true to my readers, but it is also how I remain true to myself—and why I am proud to be called a cozy mystery author.

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  1. Marla

    Your Cozy Covenant is exactly what makes me enjoy your books, and Louise Penny’s and several other authors’ books. A book lacking even one of those qualities is enough to make me wonder if I will read the author’s books again. Thank you. Well-thought books have always been important, but never more important than they are now.

  2. Christi King

    Your cozy covenant is the reason I love your books. Every time I read one, I want to visit Maine, meet Julia and her family, and go to a clambake.

  3. Doreen Sheridan

    All this, forever and ever, amen. I have read an absurd amount of cozies in my lifetime and it’s always a little disappointing to stumble across the odd tale that doesn’t adhere to at least the majority of the tenets in this covenant. This is partly why I love your books so much and consider you my favorite culinary cozy author; now I’ll be on the lookout for more of your excellent essays, as well!

  4. Barbara Ross

    Hi Everyone! Thanks so much for your kind remarks about the Cozy Covenant and about my books. I love writing the Maine Clambake Mysteries and I’m so glad you enjoy them.

    • Lee n Maine

      after 45 years of reading tech manuals.being retired now for 4.5 yrs.Im getting into reading more.I pick up 2 of your books today after proof reading a few pages and i was hooked.Im finaily getting into lesure reading at the age of 63. so far i like Clammed up and Stowed Away cant wait to finish to move onto others you have written…

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