For the last week I’ve been reading cozy mysteries. For anyone who doesn’t know what a cozy is, think of Agatha Christie’s books or the TV series, “Murder She Wrote.” The books usually involve a small town or community, an off-stage murder, some quirky characters, and an animal—a dog, cat, or whatever the author chooses to include. Also the main character is not in law enforcement, though she may have a good friend (romantic or not) who is in law enforcement, and the main character has an interesting business/talent, such as doll house designer, herb gardener, writer, bookseller, stain glass window creator…the list goes on and on.
These are quick reads and usually become a series with readers/fans wanting to read more about the main character (who is usually female) and her friends. They are not action packed stories, the animal often helps in the solution of the mystery, and by the end of the story, life is back to normal in Cabot Cove (or wherever the story is set).
I’m reading these books right now because this year I’m on a panel during Sleuthfest 2017 (http://sleuthfest.com/) discussing (or arguing) why some writers are making cozies grittier. I’m one of those grittier people. Actually when I started writing the P.J. Benson mysteries, I didn’t realize I was writing a cozy (or a series). However, my “Crow” books do have several of the elements I listed above: rural setting (P.J. lives near a very small village), a quirky mother (who is schizophrenic and often goes off her meds), P.J. has just started a home-based business (she’s a CPA), and her dog (a Rhodesian Ridgeback puppy) often plays a part in solving the mystery or saving P.J.’s life. Where I go astray is those books include sex, some bad language, and on-stage murder. Also, I try to make my stories fast paced.
My problem right now is my work-in-progress (wip) isn’t a cozy. My main character is a former assassin, and someone is trying to kill her. I want an edge to the action, narrative, and dialogue. I want a level of tension through the book. I don’t want it to be a “cozy” read.
But today, as I worked on a new chapter, I realized I was adding nice, leisurely described passages that slowed down the action and took away the tension of the scene. I realized, what I’ve been reading was influencing my writing.
Now, I know as long as I don’t continually read cozies, at some point during an edit, I’ll either cut those leisure portions or somehow or other I’ll ramp up the pacing and tension. Nevertheless, it surprised me how much the style of what I’d been reading had slipped into my writing.
On the other hand, it shouldn’t have surprised me. When I started writing, editors, other writers, and my agent all told me to read what I wanted to write. I had an editor send me four books she felt best indicated what they were publishing. She didn’t want me to copy the storylines or imitate the writers’ styles, but she did want me to absorb the structure, pacing, and tension in those books. She didn’t want me to copy, but to emulate.
So, my advice is: Read the type of books you want to write. You’ll pick up the language of the genre, the pacing, and the structure. Read the best. If you’re going to be influenced by what you’re reading, make sure your model is a good one.
P.S. This doesn’t mean you can’t or shouldn’t read books that aren’t in the same genre as you want to write, just don’t immerse yourself in that genre as I have lately.