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Cozies, Suspense, and Romance—Oh, My! by Sandra Robbins
I have often wondered if authors are born with a tiny spot inside their brains that predispose them to the genre they write. On the other hand, it could be the books they read as children that determined where their interests would lie as adults.
For me, everyone who knows me is familiar with my love for Nancy Drew and the mysteries she solved. As I’ve often said, I longed to drive a roadster (never mind that I had no idea what a roadster looked like) and sniff out mysteries in my hometown. Unfortunately, nothing much ever happened where I lived, and I was reduced to living on the edge by seeing life through Nancy’s eyes.
As I grew older, I discovered the opposite sex, and so romance blossomed in my soul. When I began to write for the Christian market, it seemed natural to combine the ingredients of mystery and romance to produce a story that would keep readers turning the pages.
Mystery and suspense are fast becoming some of Christian fiction’s hottest genres. Sally Stuart reported that nine publishers added these genres as additions to their lists last year. She included mystery/suspense as one, but within the genre are many differences. While some readers want to be hit in the face with a dynamic opening that will take them on a roller coaster ride of murder and intrigue, others prefer to curl up in their favorite chair with a cup of cocoa and read a story that could be about their next door neighbors.
Those mysteries that call for excellent powers of deduction which ultimately solve a crime that happens off stage are called cozy mysteries. To understand a cozy mystery, one need only mention Agatha Christie and her wonderful characters Hercule Poirot and Miss Jane Marple.
Cozy mystery heroines or heroes are quirky characters that the reader comes to feel as if they’ve known forever. In my first cozy mystery Pedigreed Bloodlines the story revolved around a young woman in a small mountain resort town who inherits a kennel of show dogs after the owner is murdered. The heroine, Leigh Dennison, suffers from Attention Deficit Disorder which makes life interesting as she brings a killer to justice.
Romance also has a place in cozies. For instance, Leigh has loved Blake Cameron from afar for a year and is thrilled when he finally asks her out. As her feelings for him grow, however, she begins to suspect he might be involved in the murder.
Her suspicions of Blake’s actions are what the author calls red herrings and are sprinkled throughout to keep the reader guessing the true identity of the villain. Only at the end can the identity be exposed. One rule is practically written in stone—the author cannot suddenly introduce someone who has had no part in the story.
So, writers of cozies should remember these characteristics: (1) quirky characters, (2) a crime that happens off stage, (3) red herrings designed to cast doubt on characters, and (4) clues hidden in the story to give the reader an ah-hah moment at the end.
For those who like a wilder ride in their novels, romantic suspense is the genre for them. As the demand for books that take the reader on a spellbinding journey increases, authors are going to have to develop plots and characters that will catch and hold the interest of readers who have a wide variety from which to choose.
Perhaps the most important point for an author to remember when creating a romantic suspense novel is that there must be a dynamic opening that grabs the reader right away. The first sentence hooks the reader in any work, but its importance in romantic suspense can’t be emphasized enough.
In my book Final Warning, C. J. Tanner, a radio talk show hostess, receives anonymous emails that contain riddles for her to solve. A killer challenges her to solve each riddle and figure out the identity of his victim to prevent the murder. The first line says: Let’s play a game, C.J.
Once the author has hooked the reader, very quickly the reader must feel the danger and jeopardy that is about to unfold in the lives of the characters. This calls for an evil villain. This differs greatly from the villain in a cozy who may be a person caught up in the moment and ended up committing a crime of passion. The villain in a romantic suspense has no conscious and wants to bring destruction to the hero and heroine. Simply implying that the villain is crazy won’t work. There has to be some major reason he has become a monster.
In the midst of the danger that the hero/heroine face, a love story should be unfolding. Since the timeline of a romantic suspense is relatively short, the hero and heroine must meet right away (some publishers prefer the first page) and feel some kind of attraction very early in the story. However, there has to be some kind of internal conflict that is keeping them apart. In Final Warning, C. J. saw her mother abused by her father and has determined that no man will ever control her. This causes her to turn her back on God and the man who loves her.
Just as the characters in a cozy have certain characteristics, so do those in romantic suspense. The heroine has to possess some ability that makes her special. No longer do readers want to see the clinging, helpless female who is being protected by the tall, handsome male. The heroine must be actively involved with the hero in stopping the villain. An example of this is Colleen Coble’s Rock Harbor Series where the heroine works with a search and rescue dog.
One characteristic cozies and romantic suspense share is the mystery aspect. Again red herrings have to be dispersed throughout, and the villain can’t be revealed too early.
Whether one prefers cozies or romantic suspense, one demand remains constant. There must be a happy ending. Justice must prevail, and the hero and heroine have to end up together. Real life may have its tragedies, but readers feel cheated if they invest their emotions in a story only to see it end badly.
Just as I read Nancy Drew to live the life of a teenage sleuth, readers receive a thrill knowing that evil has been thwarted and the characters they came to love in the story have a happily-ever-after. Hoping for that emotion in our readers should be uppermost in our minds as we type “The End” on our manuscripts.
Sandra Robbins is a retired educator who makes her home in Tennessee. Her debut novel Pedigreed Bloodlines is a finalist in the Daphne du Maurier contest. She has two novels contracted with Love Inspired Suspense: Final Warning, due out in September, 2009, and Mountain Peril, scheduled for release in 2010. To learn more about Sandra, visit her at http://www.sandrarobbins.net/