Thursday, July 18, 2013

Cozies, Craftmans, and More with Guest Author Judy Alter

Stretching the limits of the cozy

by Judy Alter

Writing across genres is a big deal these days. Writers worry about the non-traditional novel, the one that doesn’t quite fit in any of the standard sub-genres but has touches of all—cozy, thriller, supernatural, whatever.
I have always been comfortable writing—and mostly reading—cozies. I think it harks back to my Nancy Drew introduction to mysteries—no blood, no guts, no vampires, but fun. The kind of reading where you like the characters and find yourself immersed in their world, so much so that you are reluctant to finish the book and close it. The kind of reading that occasionally makes you laugh out loud. The kind of reading that supplies suspense and a puzzle but doesn’t scare you to death.
A Craftsman home from the
Kelly O'Connell mysteries
In my two series—Kelly O’Connell Mysteries and Blue Plate Café Mysteries—the heroines are women like me, though admittedly much younger. They love, they laugh, they cry. They are ordinary people with lives outside mystery. Kelly O’Connell is a single parent—been there done that. As fits the cozy tradition, they are working women—one a real estate broker, the other the owner of a small café—who are drawn into murder by their sense of justice, their compassion, their determination to defend their families and communities.
So what’s verboten in a cozy? Well, a lot of things—on-scene violence, rape, child abuse, torture, but not murder or sex either one. They just happen off-screen. I felt I pushed the boundaries with No Neighborhood for Old Women, because it revolved around a serial killer. Somehow I didn’t think the villain was your standard serial killer novel. The victims were all older ladies—doesn’t make it less horrible, as I can attest, being an “older lady” myself. But they were specific targets, and they weren’t killed for the joy or thrill of killing. I think the last point made the difference for me. I could not get into the mind of someone who killed for the pleasure of it.
When I started writing Danger Cones Home, I discussed it with my longtime mentor, the man who has seen me through everything from a dissertation to western novels to mysteries. When I outlined my ideas for the novel, he nodded and then slowly asked, “Are you sure you want to touch the subjects of child abuse and drug rings?” I said I thought I should spread my wings and do it.
In the end, as you’ll see in Danger Comes Home, I pretty much bowed to the conventions of the cozy, though the drug ring aspect is a bit dark. The child abuse is emotional, never physical, though the child fears being hit in anger. But she has a protector. I simply don’t write dark.
I recently read a thriller by Polly Iyer, who is in my opinion a wonderful, talented writer. But she writes of the dark side of humanity and all the while I was reading—and perched on the edge of my seat—I was both captivated by a riveting story and fascinated by her ability to write scenes that I could never ever put on paper.
I write cozies. If I add a dark touch here and there, I don’t think that makes them cross-genre novels. I could never reach the tension that Polly Iyer achieves. And maybe I don’t want to, just because I’m me—Pollyanna in Mary Janes who happens to write about murder. 

A Note about Craftsman Homes, which Kelly O'Connell Restores

The Craftsman movement grew out of revolt against the disappearance of the individual craftsman in the assembly lines of that Industrial Revolution. Many architects, artists, and others believed that the Industrial Revolution devalued nature and the human touch in favor of progress and production, the result being second-rate mass-produced objects. The movement encompassed architecture, furniture, landscape, almost all areas of design, and was tied to a lifestyle philosophy.

In the Victorian era, Queen Anne and other styles of houses were built for families with servants. The kitchen for instance, was separated from the family living areas. With the rise of the middle class at the turn of the twentieth century, architects focused on the housewife who did not have servants, who kept house and also kept an eye on the children. So floor plans were open. The walled-off pantry was replaced by built-in sideboards. Kitchens opened into dining and living areas, often separated not by doors but by arches. With the innovation of the breakfast nook, the kitchen became part of the family living area. Consistent with the emphasis on natural materials and on craftsmanship, there was an exuberant use of dark, natural wood, no longer hidden under plaster and ornament. Built-in bookcases and cupboards were fronted with leaded and sometimes stained glass. Exterior windows were often paned, letting the outdoor light flood in but still giving a distinctive touch to the house. And in most Craftsman houses, a fireplace, often tiled, was central. Decorative tiles frequently adorned the front of the fireplace.

Mixed materials were another hallmark of Craftsman homes, and exteriors were generally wood or shingle with frequent use of stone. Gabled or hipped low-pitched roof lines sloped gently down to the exterior walls. Encircling front porches were large and generally covered by an extension of the main roof of the house. These porches and often the interior sported open rafters and brackets. Tapered square columns supporting the roof at the front of the porch were common. The bungalow, a house reduced to its simplified form, is the most common Craftsman house. 

About Trouble in a Big Box

Kelly O’Connell’s husband, Mike Shandy, insists she has a talent for trouble, but how can she sit idly by while her world is shattering. Daughter Maggie is hiding a runaway classmate; protégé Joe Mendez seems to be hanging out again with his former gang friends and ignoring his lovely wife Theresa; drug dealers have moved into her beloved Fairmount neighborhood. And amidst all this, reclusive former diva Lorna McDavid expects Kelly to do her grocery shopping. In spite of Mike’s warnings, Kelly is determined to save the runaway girl and her abused mother and find out what’s troubling Joe, even when those things lead back to the drug dealers. Before all the tangles in the neighborhood are untangled, Kelly finds herself wondering who to trust, facing drug dealers, and seeing more of death than she wants. But she also tests upscale hot dog recipes and finds a soft side to the imperious recluse, Lorna McDavid. It’s a wild ride, but she manages, always, to protect her daughters and keep Mike from worrying about her—at least not too much.

Excerpt from Trouble in a Big Box

And so we chattered away about plans for the summer as we rounded the corner onto Magnolia. Pony Tail leaned against the building, idly watching us, and didn’t move. Thus began the longest two-block walk I’ve ever taken. I couldn’t ask Mona if she was as wired as I was, but I felt as though my back had a bull’s eye painted on it. Each time we took a step forward, I told myself we were that much closer to the office, but half of me didn’t believe we’d ever make it. There were people on the street ahead of us, and I didn’t dare turn around to see if Pony Tail—or anyone else—was behind us.

“You’re walking too fast,” Mona said. “Dead giveaway, slow down and tell me what you’re cooking for supper tonight.”

Wow! She’s better than I am at this. She’s probably had more practice. I waved a hand vaguely in the air. “I don’t have any more idea about that than you do about Jenny’s summer. I bet you and Jenny will have supper with us so something that feeds a crowd. Maybe Mike will grill hamburgers, and I can pick up some potato salad or something.”

An award-winning novelist, Judy Alter is the author of three books in the Kelly O’Connell Mysteries series: Skeleton in a Dead Space, No Neighborhood for Old Women, and Trouble in a Big Box, and Danger Comes Home. She is alsoof  the author Murder at the Blue Plate Café

Her work has been recognized with awards from the Western Writers of America, the Texas Institute of Letters, and the National Cowboy Museum and Hall of Fame. She has been honored with the Owen Wister Award for Lifetime Achievement by WWA and inducted into the Texas Literary Hall of Fame.

Judy the mother of four grown children and the grandmother of seven.


  1. I also like the Nancy Drew, cozy mysteries. I read to relax and dark stories just don't do that for me.

  2. Thanks for the lesson on Craftsman homes! I grew up in a Victorian house (built in the 1890s) and am fond of older houses. Our kitchen was down a short hallway from the dining room, but was huge, so we had a table and chairs there also.

  3. I enjoy cozy mysteries, but I read darker mysteries as well. However, I do avoid serial killer novels. One gets enough of that in the movies and TV unfortunately.
    My own mysteries have many elements.

  4. Thanks for the post. I currently write traditional cozies (culinary mystery), but I intend to go darker at some point. The genre should be flexible enough to absorb a range.

  5. Thanks all. Sharon, I want to write a culinary series--have it in mind. The Blue Plate Cafe stories are a step in that direction. Kaye, I grew up in a Victorian duplex, built for the Colombian Exposition in Chicago and to this day love older houses; newest one I ever lived in was a 1950s house. Jacqueline, I sometimes read dark but not often--Mary Clark Higgins scars me if I'm home alone at night. Sahmy, I agree--life has enough dark stories. I don't need to read them too!

  6. Thank you for the compliment, Judy. Yes, I do write dark. Not everyone writes the same way or fills the needs of every reader. Isn't it great that there are so many choices of genres? I've read both Trouble in a Big Box and Murder at the Blue Plate Cafe, and I love your easy style. You write about real people, and as a reader, I feel I know them. Whether a book is dark or light, the characters must be accessible. We want to have coffee or tea with yours, scotch and vodka with with a Valium chaser with mine. Love the Craftsman style. Reminds me of the interior of Frank Lloyd Wright's house, Falling Water, full of Stickley style furniture. Wonderful post.

  7. Judy: I'm with you. Just the name "cozy" signifies the type of book it is. That's why it's called a cozy and not a "scary." Also, cozy book covers are recognizable. If there are any of the things you mentioned: child abuse, torture, etc., you can't have a cheery cover. There's also the dichotomy of having the dark stuff of explicit sex and murder with humor thrown in. This confuses the reader. I'm a humorist and my books have humor--whether they like it or not. I don't mean to ramble. I'll sum it up with: it's not called cozy for nothing. Now I'll add you to my TBR list. Best, Sharon Love Cook, author of the Granite Cove Mysteries.