I've been joined here today (virtually!) by a long-time reader of mysteries, Danna, who blogs at the wonderful Cozy Mystery List Blog.
I've been following Danna's blog for a while. As a reader it's an invaluable place to discover new-to-me mysteries. As a writer, I've gleaned some great insights from her readers about what they think works well and what doesn't in a mystery. So Danna has been gracious enough to share some of her thoughts here.
Tell us a little about yourself--have you always been a big reader?
I grew up in a military family. The longest time I lived in one location (four years) was when my father was stationed in Spain. Looking back, I guess I could say that the one "constant" (besides my family, of course!) were my books. They could travel with me and keep me company during the time it took to make new friends. I have my master's degree in education and have taught school in both middle and high schools. I thought for sure I would continue teaching school in Colorado, but I married a military man which meant going back to the nomadic life of my childhood.
When did you start reading mysteries?
I began reading mysteries when I started reading my sister's "hand-me-down" Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys mystery books. From there, I graduated to Edgar Allan Poe, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and "Victoria Holt-type" mystery books. (My grandmother's house was full of books, and her local library was a place she and I visited many times.)
Is this your favorite genre?
Obviously, with a site that has "Cozy Mystery" in its name, cozy mysteries are my favorite genre. However, I read police procedurals, true crime, and when I have time, non mystery themed books. (Non mystery author E. F. Benson is my all-time favorite author.) My husband's taste in books is much wider than mine, so he occasionally finds something he thinks I absolutely have got to read. ("The Hiding Place" by Corrie ten Boom is one of his recent "finds" - and I can't say enough good things about that book.)
Why did you begin to blog about mysteries?
Years ago I belonged to several online mystery reading groups. I made two very good mystery-reading friends in two of those groups. When I found that I needed a system for cataloging the books I read (buying the same books twice), I started making a list of all the mystery authors I read and liked and included authors who I didn't like - so I wouldn't end up buying their books ever again.
When my friends found out about my systemized lists of authors and books, one of them asked if I would share it. I then began adding their favorite (and least favorite) authors to my list. From there, I started my site - with a lot of computer/technical help from my husband. I had been frustrated trying to expand my list of cozy mystery authors. At the time (2006) there weren't any internet sites that were devoted to cozy mysteries (at least not that I knew of).
And then an unexpected thing happened: I started getting e-mail from people all over the world, asking for help in identifying authors, or for suggestions about what to read, etc. My husband saw that I spent quite a bit of time answering these letters, and suggested that I start a blog. He finally convinced me, and the response to my blog was an even bigger surprise to me!
Why focus on cozy mysteries?
I enjoy reading truly cozy mysteries because of some of the characteristics they share. The leading character is an intelligent, likeable, inquisitive amateur sleuth who is a member of some type of tight-knit community. She (although some are male) is usually surrounded by interesting characters who I enjoy reading about and look forward to seeing again (in a future cozy mystery). There is usually no graphic violence, torture, explicit sex, nor excessive profanity. Oh, and there are red herrings galore.
I know you have been reading mysteries for a long time...how do you think the mystery/cozy mystery genre has changed over time? Have your own tastes changed?
I have found the more I read cozy mysteries the more I seem to enjoy the old classics or current cozies that are written similarly. The classic cozy mysteries spent a lot of time on character development and complex stories that happen to include a mystery.
Today, more cozy mysteries are being presented as series of books that are tightly focused on themes such as culinary, pets, paranormal, etc. The theme based emphasis sometimes becomes the primary point of the book while the characters, setting and mystery become secondary. There are good reasons that the classics remain "the classics".
Now that there are so many cozy mystery series on the market, I have become more selective with my reading. I enjoy authors such as Tarquin Hall (the Files of Vish Puri Mystery Series) and Alexander McCall Smith (The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency Series) because of their story telling abilities and their fully developed characters, as well as their abilities to make us feel like we are right in the middle of their settings.
What do you like best about cozy mysteries?
The character development is probably the most important thing I'm looking for in a cozy mystery. Of course, a sense of community and an interesting setting (English country home, small country village, etc.) are important factors. And, I enjoy a good, unpredictable mystery. My favorite authors are E. F. Benson, Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh, and Ellis Peters.
When are you most satisfied reading a mystery?
An author has to be a good storyteller. I like to be in the middle of a mystery and realize the characters and setting are so real that I'd like to be there with them. To me, when the author draws me into the story, and I am not able to figure out whodunit, I'm a happy reader.
I have a fifty page rule. I stop reading at that page mark if I realize the author's focus is a gimmick, and I know where the author is taking me to, "same old, same old" type of situation, if the characters are two dimensional or insanely whacky/zany caricatures, or if the cozy theme is too big a focus, then I am not a happy reader.
What have you learned from your blog readers?
I have learned that although the internet is anonymous, people are willing (in fact, seem to want) to help people. If someone writes me a letter asking for help in identifying an author, it seems as though as soon as I post a blog entry asking for help, Cozy Mystery site readers try to come up with the answers.
Also, I have been able to try a lot of new-to-me authors who I never would have thought about reading from Cozy Mystery site readers' recommendations. I feel like we have a sort of community of cozy mystery readers who are able to share and pool our information.
What has surpised you most from doing your blog?
I'm surprised how after all these years, how much fun this blog is to do. I look forward to reading all of the cozy mystery readers' comments. We have quite a few people who participate in this little cozy mystery community. We all share a common interest, and we seem to appreciate other readers' views.
What advice do you have for aspiring (mystery) writers?
First be a good writer - focus on good writing. Create interesting characters, especially a likeable sleuth. Have the characters interact and make the reader feel like he/she is part of the characters' communities. Let the characters have personal flaws - as examples, Miss Marple is known to some as a gossiping busy-body and Hercule Poirot is an egotistical man who dyes his often-combed moustache black.
Put your characters in interesting settings. Have them do interesting things. Don't do the predictable. Don't give away the mystery at the beginning of the novel.
Good grief! Imagine a non-author like me giving authors advice!
Thanks again, Danna, for sharing your insights. Now to YOU my dear reader friends...what do you like best about a mystery? Least?
Historian. Mystery writer. Researcher. Teacher. Occasional blogger.