Finding the right formula

By Sally Carpenter

Some people have accused cozy mysteries, and other genre fiction, of “formulaic.”

What’s wrong with that?

Humans are creatures of habits. We have our rituals and traditions that help us enjoy life and make sense of it. And nearly all writing follows a “formula” of some kind.

Routines give structure to the day and free us from having to plan every moment so we can engage our energies in other pursuits. Many people eat the same breakfast or lunch foods every day. We drive the same route to work and have a pattern to our work days.

Some always shop on the same day of the week, use the gym the same time each day, watch a movie every Saturday night, visit their parents every Friday or attend certain festivals or concerts every year. And that glass of wine in the evening or snack at bedtime provides a means to relax after a busy day.

Thanksgiving Day isn’t complete without the same foods each year. Other holidays, such as Valentine’s Day, Christmas and Fourth of July, have their own traditions. Even if we gave a loved one a card or we lit a sparkler last year, we have to do it again this year.

Kids love habits. They may have a bedtime ritual of tucking in and story time before falling asleep. They have a favorite toy (before they become addicted to technology). They have songs and stories they like to hear repeatedly. Adults too have their guilty pleasure movies and books.

Sports have their rituals: playing the national anthem, the starting tip-off or punt, halftime entertainment, cheerleaders, wearing the “lucky” shirt or hat, seventh-inning stretch, Dodger dogs and the Olympic opening and closing ceremonies.

When life is confusing or threatening, people of faith find comfort in rituals that have stood the test of time.

Some authors build their schedules around the same writers’ conferences each year. Some authors can’t start writing until they do certain tasks or have special snacks on hand or play specific music.

If humans are so dependent on habits, our writing likewise needs structure. Some types of literary prose may ramble and simply express a feeling or word picture, but commercial fiction needs a solid blueprint.

Mainstream movies adhere to a three-act structure in which each act begins on a certain page of the script. The film’s climax—the point of no return or when the hero is at rock bottom with no means of escape—is generally 20 minutes before the end. Once a writer learns this structure, it’s easy to spot the “act breaks” in a film.

Most stories, particularly epics, follow the “hero’s journey” or “hero’s quest” formula: the hero is called to the quest, faces tests, meets helpers, reaches a “moment of death” (the climax), overcomes this final obstacle to “new life” and receives rewards. Even Nancy Drew mysteries follow this format.

Formula is what makes genres unique. Romances must have two persons attracted to each other. Mysteries require a puzzle or crime to solve. Science fiction must have alternative worlds or a “what if” speculation. Thrillers must have fast paced action and a powerful villain. A reader picking up a genre book expects certain elements and feels cheated if those requirements are not met.

Great variety is possible within the genre conventions. Cozies are no longer limited to a divorced woman leaving a big city to inherit a small town shop and fall in love with the police chief. Cozies now include male protagonists, large city settings and heroines who don’t work in a mom-and-pop store. Some cozies have a slightly harder edge and deal with social, environmental or animal abuse issues.

The only real “formula” to cozies is an amateur sleuth, interesting and likeable principal characters (usually family members of the protagonist), justice is served and no graphic sex, violence, profanity or violence to children or animals.

And in reading a cozy, the best formula of all is to curl up in a comfy chair with a blanket, a cup of hot tea or cocoa, a blazing fireplace and rain outside.

What are some of your habits or traditions?



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8 Responses to Finding the right formula

  1. A wonderful point of view on cozy mysteries.


  2. marilynm says:

    You hit the nail on the head! In my mysteries I don’t follow the usual rules for a cozy since both are police procedural mysteries, I don’t quote anyone swearing, though they may do so and I nearly always shut the bedroom door.


    • Hi Marilyn, thanks for stopping by. I didn’t even know I was writing cozies when I started my first book. I think a cozy is best defined as a traditional mystery, although some of those can go dark.


  3. patyjag says:

    Great post, Sally!


  4. carole price says:

    I need a clean desk (not always possible) and a look at my emails.


    • Hi, Carole. I usually read emails/clean out spam first. I also have a bad habit of then playing computer solitare, which could go on for a long time until I win a game. Once I finally get started writing I’m OK and stay with it.


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