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Thursday, August 14, 2008

Mystery or Suspense?

Check out the bestseller list and you’re bound to find a handful of mysteries included. Everything from cozies, to heavy suspense, to hard-boiled. Avid readers love to turn pages long into the night as they breathlessly anticipate the next spine-tingling twist of the plot.

As a writer, I love writing both cozies and romantic suspense. During the past few months, I’ve worked on two novels for two different publishers. The first one is a romantic suspense. The second, a cozy mystery. Add to that, I just finished an international suspense with a touch of romance. Writing these books side by side has forced me to take a close look at each genre, including the rhythm of the words, addition of humor, and tone of the story.

When you sit down to compose your first blockbuster mystery novel, one of the first problems you’re likely to face is exactly which genre to write. While the differences between a cozy and a suspense might tend to blur at times, there are definite distinctions. More than likely, you won’t find a bloody murder in a cozy, or a quirky amateur detective and her pet poodle in a romantic suspense. Yet there’s a lot of confusion shared by many as to what defines a cozy mystery, and what exactly is romantic suspense.

I’ve heard from a number of fellow authors whose cozy mysteries weren’t contracted because they were too romantic, didn’t have a cozy enough setting, or the story was too suspenseful. As an author, it’s important to understand the difference if you intend to submit what an editor wants, and with so many publishers interested in buying both cozies and romantic suspense, knowing these differences are crucial. So let’s look at some of these unique qualities that will help insure that your next proposal doesn’t end in the slush pile, but instead on the desk of an interested editor.

The Cozy Mystery: A cozy is normally classified as a whodunit mystery with a limited cast of characters in a closed setting. One of these characters, of course, is your amateur sleuth who unintentionally gets involved in solving the mystery. Instead of the fast paced suspense genre, a cozy is normally filled with humor and at least one or two eccentric characters.

There’s definitely something very distinctive about a cozy mystery. Think of your favorite series and what makes it work. What makes the setting and characters. . .well. . .cozy? Basically, a cozy mystery is a puzzle to be solved, with the answer hidden amongst pages of suspects and red herrings. The crime generally is a murder that takes place off-stage. Having the crime take place this way eliminates the need for the blood and gore that is often a part of a regular mystery.

And forget about your local sheriff. A cozy is solved by an amateur detective where the hero or heroine does the sleuthing, not a professional crime solver. One very important factor to remember here is that your hero needs to have a motive compelling him or her to solve the crime. Yes, being nosy helps, but they should also have something at stake, when ordinarily they would let the police handle the case.

In my second cozy from Heartsong Presents: Mysteries, Baker’s Fatal Dozen, Pricilla Crumb, a superb cook and articulate hostess, is motivated to start her own investigation into a murder because her close friend is a suspect for murder and asks Pricilla to help her clear her name. And Pricilla isn’t the kind of person to turn down a cry for help.

The setting is another important character in a cozy. Stories are often set in small communities, mysterious mansions, or wintry lodges. The goal? To limit the number of suspects to a certain amount of people, all of whom, of course, are suspects.

Lastly, how you set the tone of a cozy is equally important. In Baker’s Fatal Dozen, Pricilla is back again as a lovable busybody who’s always getting into trouble because of her impulsive tendencies. Add to that the obligatory feline, a few harebrained investigative methods, a handful of suspects, a stolen ATV (by Pricilla, no less), and a barroom brawl, and I found the start to my whodunit.

Think about your own story. Do you have an intriguing backdrop to set the mood? What about your cast of characters? Do they add dimension and depth? Give your hero a couple eccentric personality traits, throw in some humor and a dash of quirkiness, and you can bet you’ll have a winner!

Romantic Suspense: Unlike the cozy, where the hero has a puzzle to solve and red herrings to decipher, suspense involves danger. The pace is fast, mood darker, peril imminent, and it normally contains far less humor than your typical cozy. Every scene needs to propel the story forward, every chapter hook strong enough to compel your reader to turn the next page.

Forget chasing clues and interviewing suspects. There simply isn’t time. Not when there’s an antagonist out to get you, and when disarming the current threat is of vital importance. Think breathless. Heart pounding. Not only is it essential to give both your hero and heroine motivation for becoming involved in the situation, give them a time limit. A ticking bomb, with disastrous consequences if the goal isn’t reached in time, will insure the fast pace continues, and that the reader stays on the edge of his or her seat.

In my September release from Love Inspired Suspense, Final Deposit, my heroine, Lindsey, is running out of time. Her father’s been conned out of his life-savings by an internet scammer, and now is missing. As a security expert, Kyle knows how this common, internet fraud game is played out, and that financial loss, no matter how great, isn’t the worst thing that can happen. Kyle also has his own motives for getting involved. He still holds a deep-rooted vendetta against a woman whose fraudulent online relationship with Kyle’s brother ended with him taking his life.

Next, don’t forget the added layer of attraction in a romantic suspense. It’s important to balance the developing romance and the suspense with its constant plot twists. Keep the romantic tension high throughout the entire story, but don’t let the romance overshadow the suspense. Show what your characters are thinking about romantically. Have them explore why a romance would work, why it won’t work, and perhaps even why--with disaster looming around every corner--it’s not the time to be thinking about how they feel toward each other.

Finally, as you reach the climax of the story, place your hero and heroine into a situation so intense, so impossible, that there isn’t a way out. Or, at least, so it seems. In Final Deposit, I worked hard to raise the stakes high as high as possible. With over sixty-five thousand dollars missing, an unknown assailant in pursuit, a ransom note, and less than forty-eight to find her missing father, Lindsey is certain there isn’t a way out. When her father’s actions place her own life in jeopardy, the stakes rise even further.

Look at your own story now. How high are your stakes? Does every chapter end with a solid, page-turning hook? Have you included a ticking time bomb to up the stakes? Do your characters have adequate motivation for their actions? Have you placed your hero and heroine in a situation where the odds at getting them out alive seem impossible? Answer yes to each of these questions, and you will be well on your way to writing a manuscript worthy of an editor’s second look.

Happy writing!


BIO: Lisa Harris, the award-winning author of eleven novels and novellas, lives with her family in southern Africa where they work as church planting missionaries. They are currently residing in Brazil for six months while learning Portuguese before moving to Mozambique. When she’s not language studying, home schooling her kids, writing, and doing all the normal mom things, Lisa loves cooking exotic foods, reading, and traveling. For information on her books, plus an inside peek into her life in Africa, visit her blog at http://myblogintheheartofafrica.blogspot.com or her website at www.lisaharriswrites.com where you can check out her video trailer for Recipe for Murder.

For a chance to win a FREE copy of Recipe for Murder and a Taste of Brazil in newsletter, sign up at http://groups.yahoo.com/group/LisaHarris/ today!


Blogger Ausjenny said...

Thanks Lisa for the good explanation of the 2 styles. I love the cozy mysteries and I subscribe to the heartsong presents mystry club so dont enter me. (I have read a few and still wanting to read more. Just need to not request blog tour books!)

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