Know What You’re Writing

By Elaine Viets

What kind of mystery are you writing?
I ask this question whenever I give a talk to writers, and I’m surprised how many people can’t answer it – at least fifty percent of the audience doesn’t know.
You need to know your sub-genre to sell your book to an agent, or to promote it.
Here are a few types of mysteries. Remember, some of these categories can cross over. Your police procedural may also be a hard-boiled novel.

Cozy mysteries are written in the style of Agatha Christie. The murder takes place offstage, there’s no blood or gore, no graphic sex or cussing. Animals and children are never harmed in a cozy, though Dame Agatha killed at least one Girl Guide. Agatha is the queen of cozies. Cozies are not all tea and crumpets. Many of them address social issues, including racism, poverty and pink-collar inequality. A good example is Margaret Maron’s cozy series featuring Judge Deborah Knott. Long Upon the Land won an Agatha Award for Best Contemporary Novel.

Chick lit is light mysteries, usually written for women readers. Chick lit centers around female friendships, with a splash of romance and a dash of murder. I’ve written ten chick lit mysteries in my Josie Marcus mystery shopper series, and I have a contest give-away at the end of this blog. Kellye Garrett writes award-winning chick lit. Her first novel was Hollywood Homicide.

Soft-boiled mysteries are between cozies and hard-boiled: some violence and the occasional four-letter word. The best example is Sue Grafton’s alphabet series.

Police procedural. The name says it all. This is a mystery that gives a realistic look at some type of police work, including criminal investigations, forensics, search warrants, and interrogation. Michael Connelly writes top-notch police procedurals, especially his Harry Bosch novels. Start with The Black Echo and keep reading.

Hard-boiled. These mysteries are much darker than cozies. Readers may encounter violence, sex scenes and graphic language. Children and animals can be kidnapped and killed. Hard-boiled mysteries often take place in cities. Raymond Chandler, James M. Cain, and Ross MacDonald write first-rate hard-boiled mysteries.

Noir, with its dark view of life, is closely related to hard-boiled mysteries. The protagonist is often up against a corrupt system or a wicked world. Women are often viewed as betrayers and heartless temptresses. Many protagonists are self-destructive. Don’t expect a happy ending. Cornell Woolrich writes true noir.

Thrillers are action novels with high stakes: Someone wants to kill the President, blow up New York City, or kidnap a busload of school children. The protagonist races against the clock to save them. My favorite thriller is Thomas Harris’ Black Sunday.

Win an e-book of High Heels Are Murder, my Josie Marcus, mystery shopper mystery. Click Contest at

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About Elaine Viets

Elaine Viets has written 30 mysteries in four series, including 15 Dead-End Job mysteries. BRAIN STORM, her first Angela Richman, Death Investigator mystery, is published as a trade paperback, e-book, and audio book.

26 thoughts on “Know What You’re Writing

  1. Thanks for this clarity. I thought I was writing thriller, yet all along I have struggled with the sad ending. I like my co-tagonist, but my writing group kept saying that the logic of the story flows toward her demise. “She must die,” they said. So she did—for now. I still grieve.

    According to all of your descriptors, it seems I have written noir. Didn’t know I could be so dark.

    • I’m surprised at the darkness that turns up in my short stories, Nancy. Almost all of them are in the voice of murderers. Explore your inner darkness.

  2. I’m frustrated with the category of soft-boiled. It’s not a category that Amazon recognizes, nor do many readers. So if I tell someone who is not a mystery author that I write soft-boiled, I always have to explain what kind of book that is. Lately, I’ve been drifting toward classifying the books as cozy because it’s more recognized.

  3. Cozy is more recognized, Alec, but if you have a cuss word, or a hot sex scene or some blood, that can get you kicked out of the cozy sub-genre. I say my Dead-End Job mysteries are soft-boiled, in the style of Sue Grafton, and most people get that. Hope this helps.

  4. Good breakdown…
    What’s interesting is that there seems to be more willingness to cross these boundaries or blend them at times. Some writers have dark elements in their stories yet are deft at also using humor. And some really great books that just happen to be about crime seem to defy any easy categorization.

    One of the easiest-to-grasp delineations between mystery and thriller I ever came across was in Carolyn Wheat’s how-to book. A mystery is a puzzle to be solved, with the reader and protag both in the dark until the end to find out the WHO. A thriller is a roller coaster ride, wherein the reader knows who did it but the protag does not and the satisfaction comes from WHEN and HOW will she solve it.

    I’ve written both “pure” mysteries and thrillers. But have also at times blurred the lines between them by revealing to the reader who the bad guy is at a later point in the book but withholding this from the protag.

    And this doesn’t even get into the sub-genres like so-called “domestic thriller”. It’s a fun discussion!

    • One comparison between “suspense” and a “thriller” is in suspense you don’t know who the bad guy is and why he is doing what he is doing and why he’s after you. In a thriller you do. That makes sense in that you are in suspense about what is happening, why it is happening, and who the bad guy is.

      “Domestic suspense” usually involves a married couple where usually the wife is growing suspicious about her husband being up to no good in a dangerous way. Does he want to kill her for her money or to marry his mistress? Is he the serial killer murdering women with her physical type. Etc.

  5. “But I self-publish. I don’t have to follow the ‘rules’ of traditionally published mysteries.” I want to bang my head against my desk table every time a writer says that online. Mystery categories or any type of genre is about reader expectations, first and foremost. If you ignore the major rules, you lose a reader. If you step so far away from THE major rule of a genre, like killing one of lovers in a romance or not finding the killer, you get an online lynch mob after you. Yes, I’ve seen that happen.

    The big problem I see with many newer writers is that they don’t read what they think they are writing. (That means current writers, not classic writers. Narrative tastes change fairly fast these days.) Otherwise, they’d know what their genre is and what the readers expect. So, if you haven’t read at least fifty recent cozies in the last few years, you probably shouldn’t be writing one.

      • Also true about following the genre boundaries. I know a cozy writer who killed a cat in her series — and that was the end of the series. Killing people is one thing, but heaven forbid you kill an animal in that genre.

        • Killing a person is part of the genre expectations. Killing a pet isn’t. Plus, for some strange reason, readers, including me, take pet murders more to heart than a person, as long as it isn’t a child.

    • I agree, Marilynn. When you’re first starting out and unsure about what the market can bear, it helps to know the “rules.” And you have to be able to articulate what genre of book you are writing, what type of story you are trying to tell. I don’t think some writers want to hear this because they believe it stifles creativity. They want to color outside the lines. And yes, there are really talented writers out there who can break the rules on their freshman effort. But i think that is the exception. It’s hard to walk that line between honoring the dictates and expectations of a genre and trying to be fresh and original. Very hard…

  6. Historical mysteries are becoming popular. These are mysteries set in the past with or without real people. Charles Todd’s Bess Crawford books are an example. Also westerns are taking on the mystery / thriller mantle. Books like True Grit, No Country for Old Men, and the Sisters Brothers are good examples.
    I’m trying my hand at a western thriller. It’s called Booker & Lester. Booker Robinson is a disgraced Texas Ranger looking to settle down. But he comes across an old foe that the local sheriff needs help with. At the same time, the Rangers want Robinson for an alleged crime. Lester is his constant companion. He’s a cattle dog Robinson found badly wounded and nursed back to health. The research for 1881 has been fun.

  7. I appreciate the information on genre. My book is a cozy mystery (no explicit violence, no explicit sex, no bad language.) However, it does have a significant romance as part of the story. Now I want to enter it into a contest, but there’s no category for “cozy mystery.” The only categories I could fit into are “Mystery/Suspense/Thriller” or “Romantic Suspense.”
    What is romantic suspense? Is it a mystery with romantic subplot? Or a romance with mystery? What to do …

    I also appreciate Marilyn’s advice to read cozies if you’re going to write one. I haven’t read fifty, but I learned a lot from reading recents and they influenced my story and my style.

    • Romantic suspense, I’ve had two published, is an intricate dance between the suspense plot and the romance plot. Some writers use the romance as the subplot between the two characters who are dealing with the suspense plot. At the far side of the romance subplot plot is what I call the insta-romance where the characters take one look at each other, decide they’ve met “the one,” and they don’t have any of the standard emotional issues found in a romance. They are together and will remain together long after the mystery is solved. Others have the suspense plot as the subplot. The best romantic suspense has the mystery situation, and the emotional romantic pairing to play off each other. Not an easy thing to do. Since this article isn’t about romantic suspense, feel free to click on my name and ask questions via my writing blog.

  8. Check the rules carefully, Kay. If there’s no explicit sex, it may qualify as a classic mystery. Romantic suspense is one of those vague terms that I believe would be a mystery with a romantic subplot.

  9. I’ll repeat what I’ve said before on this site: The category of cozy seems to have been taken over by what I call “cutsies.” I’ve tried reading two or three of them but I can’t get more than a few pages into them. As long as Agatha Christie is the paradigm for cozy, cutsies need to be categorized separately.

    Would Shirley Murphy’s “cat” series or Rhys Bowen’s “Evans” series be good contemporary paradigms of true cozies?

    I love the term soft-boiled. Thought I had invented it for what I think I’m writing.

  10. Pingback: Author Inspiration and This Week’s Writing Links – Staci Troilo

  11. I find the whole categorising thing confusing, so thank you, Elaine, for your post. I thought I was understanding the genre until I looked at Sue Grafton’s alphabet series in Amazon and they are listed as Hard Boiled.

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