How Much Cursing is Okay in a Cozy?

Since I wanted to get your opinion on cozies today, I thought I’d bribe you a bit with pics of Nala, my cozy cuddlebug.

There are a lot of colors in the “Mystery” rainbow: cozies, legal and medical thrillers, police procedurals, suspense, romantic suspense, historicals, private eyes, noir, capers … and more!

And don’t forget the subgenres! Just under the “cozy” umbrella there are crafting cozies, cupcake cozies, cat cozies, hobby cozies, etc, etc, etc. There are even some stay-at-home-dad cozies.

Most readers read across the spectrum to some degree, but writers tend to stick with one genre.

I’ve always told people I write cozies because my definition is that they have an amateur sleuth, are usually funny or light-hearted, not a lot of violence or sex, and usually set in a small town. But I was at a party recently and a friend told me about a controversy she’d been following about readers giving one-star reviews to cozies that don’t follow the reader’s “rules,” whether that’s absolutely no cursing, or that cozies must have a recipe, or whatever. They’ll turn up their noses and slam the author for “calling their book a cozy when it’s clearly a traditional. Harrumph.”

Now, I don’t mind a well-reasoned negative review (well, I do, but that’s a conversation for my therapist) but those arbitrary and angry one-stars bring down an authors rating, causing all sorts of problems for their career.

And when I stumble across the phrase “traditional mystery,” I’m stumped. How is that different from a cozy?

I don’t think anyone would argue that Agatha Christie is the Queen of the Traditional Mystery, but look at the Miss Marple books. She ticks all my “cozy” boxes.

But Writing World separates “cozies” and “amateur sleuths” into two distinct genres.

I decided, with FICTION CAN BE MURDER, my new perhaps-cozy-perhaps-traditional-perhaps-amateur-sleuth-but-definitely-not-police-procedural mystery coming out soon, I needed a definitive answer.

So I started asking people, beginning with a Facebook group I recently joined called A Cozy Experience Online Cozy Mystery Book Club. With a name like that, they will know!

I asked them how they defined cozies. Here are some of the insightful answers I got:

I define a cozy as a “soft” mystery with no blood curdling scenes and no cursing in a homey setting where only one or maybe two bullying, egotistical jerks live.

I don’t like any cursing in my cozys, nor do I like any sexual activity, implied or otherwise. To me traditional mysteries and cozys are entirely different entities. Cozys the murder occurs quietly off scene, mysteries that’s not always the case. I expect a mystery to be a little more graphic but not necessarily as gruesome as a thriller.

Hm, I’m wondering how I’d categorize series like Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum series, or Diane Kelly’s “Death, Taxes, and…” series, both of which I love and which fit the bill for most of the cozy check points (humor, young single female protagonist, light on gore or violence or criminal psych study, and justice is always served – but both series can be more graphic when it comes to language & sex (neither of which bother me at all).

Mild cursing is fine, eg “gosh darn”or “shoot.” And I am all for romance in cozies though nothing too explicit, I’m there for the mystery not the sex. Also I am really really really getting tired of love triangles in cozies. A love triangle is NOT cozy. Sorry for the shouting. [This comment made me laugh!]

I always think of a cozy as a story that happens to have a murder involved but it’s really more about the protagonist’s life. Also in a cozy mystery the protagonist’s hobby or career are as important, if not more important than the murder. I don’t mind cursing, especially if it fits the character. And I don’t mind the sex if it drives the story.

A cozy mystery takes me to a new place, introduces me to new people, and tosses in a murder or two or three.

A cozy is also supposed to have an amateur detective (a regular person like you or me) as the main character. Some books are called cozies but are really just mysteries or maybe humorous mysteries. I’m not picky though, I read them all.

I enjoy cozies. I do not enjoy graphic violence or really twisted characters which often appear in mysteries other than cozies. I don’t want to feel “sick” when I read. Mild cursing is not a problem for me, however, I do sometimes find some cozies “too sweet” and it gets old.

I would say Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple stories are almost the ideal cozies. Don’t see the violence. Don’t see the sex. Figuring out the mystery is done by brain power. Jane didn’t have a strong supporting cast which I think is needed in a good cozy series. (There are a couple of series that I enjoy the sleuth’s buddies more than the main character.)

To me, a cozy is a relatable character that has a fun job/hobby that is also included in the book — baker has recipes, crafter has craft projects, etc. I don’t mind mild cursing. A traditional mystery to me is one where the character is a policeman or detective. Someone doing a job they normally perform. But they are less approachable, for lack of a better word. Cozy characters draw me in and could be my best friend or myself even. I also think cozies have a good bit of comedy added.

No cursing or swearing…mild violence, nothing gory. Relatable characters, quirky and funny…laugh at themselves. Mild romance, friendships. Also like the series that include crafts, baking, decorating, pets…so many great theme series out there!

Cozy mysteries are fun and the characters are more quirky than in a traditional mystery.

• And someone posted this link to an interesting article defining cozy mysteries.

Quite a lot of agreement, except about the profanity, which kind of worries me because I taught my two sailors everything they needed to know when they shipped out. I get one more pass through my manuscript before it’s set in stone, so I’ll scrub it as clean as makes sense. But what makes sense to me, may not make sense to my readers.

What do you think about my definition of cozies … or the difference between cozy and traditional … or how much cursing is okay in a cozy … should I say I write amateur sleuth mysteries instead of cozies? And while you’re at it, what should I have for dinner tonight?

 

 

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Author: Becky Clark

I write mysteries with humor and spend my free time attempting to rid my clothing of dog hair. My new book FICTION CAN BE MURDER, the first in the Mystery Writer's series, was out April 2018.

44 thoughts on “How Much Cursing is Okay in a Cozy?”

  1. I think it’s largely a matter of personal preference of the authors and readers. As you found, there’s a pretty broad spectrum of opinions.

    I do have the rare curse word in my books, as in once or twice in the whole book, because I have characters who I don’t see as being people who swear a lot. That said, in my third book, Mysteries Can Be Buried (being re-released May 1st) does have two characters who swear a little bit more. Still very little, but they are rougher characters who are into illegal activities and so I felt they would realistically swear more, but they don’t swear nearly as much as so many people do nowadays. Most of my friends are Christians, or at least people who swear very little or not at all, and they have loved all three of my books.

    I myself don’t like a lot of swearing in the books I read, which is why I don’t use it very often in books I write. I don’t mind rare appearances of it but I just the other day I quit reading a cozy that had a character using the “f” word about five times in one sentence.

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  2. I’m interested in the answer to this, too! On a side note, I tend to write more curse words when I’m feeling grumpy, and then later, when the clouds have lifted, end up deleting them. But not ALL of them, because I want my cozy to ring true. I wonder if the cozy genre is evolving to be more of a gradient–traditional cozies to more “edgier” cozies?

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Maybe there needs to be a whole new shelf at the bookstore … “Books written while grumpy.” But then you’d also need shelves for “Books written when drunk” … “Books written when sleepy” … “Books written when toddlers were driving me nuts” … “Books written when I was at my son’s hockey practice” … “Books written without chocolate” …

        Liked by 4 people

  3. This is fascinating – and it touches the edge of something I’ve been annoyed by lately. I’ve noticed a trend on Amazon, where authors are including in their book description statements such as, “A clean cozy – no foul language or sex.” This puts my temper into the stratosphere! Who exactly gets to define “clean”?! This isn’t church people, and my values are not your values – and that’s okay. And when did everyone get so darn sensitive? “Oh, my precious eyes mustn’t see profanity” (cue the Scarlett O’Hara hand to forehead as the reader slumps into a dramatic faint).

    While I certainly make choices about what I read based on what I enjoy, I also recognize that part of my responsibility as a member of the human race is to stretch myself, to maintain a sense of context and purpose, and to continually learn. There are plenty of classifications available, and clearly the definitions are a bit gray. But I would argue that there’s a clear line between a thriller and a cozy, a police procedural and an amateur sleuth. Trying to nail this down too specifically is a waste of misguided efforts. And the review thing? That’s all kinds of wrong. Your survey demonstrates that there isn’t a clear understanding of what to expect, but rather a spectrum, and that really should be okay.

    Sometimes I wonder if people have become overly empowered by opportunities like online reviews, where there are no consequences to the reviewer when s/he is unfairly judgemental, irrational, etc. – and yet the consequences can be significant for the author. I get all kinds of mad when I see reviews that say things like, “I don’t enjoy the genre at all,” accompanied by a one-star review. So, the author should be penalized because you, dear reviewer, didn’t pay attention to what you purchased? We wouldn’t tolerate that IRL; that person’s opinion would be discounted and forgotten. But online, well, that opinion is forever. As responsible people, I think we have a obligation to think, to review our kindergarten lessons (is it kind? is it true? is it helpful?), and to pause before we post a review.

    And that’s my judgemental $.02. For dinner, I suggest a vegetarian tikka masala over rice, mostly because that’s what we’re having.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I absolutely believe that people are overly empowered by anonymity in reviews and comments. And I agree about the sensitivity issue. Certainly you don’t want your 8-year-old cursing a blue streak, but if a fictional character does, why would that offend? That said, there are a zillion good books in the world … just pick up a different one. No need to write a negative review if it’s not to your taste.

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  4. Career Authors blogged about the same thing today. You can say “he cursed”. Charles Todd does that and it works for me. You could call your books amateur sleuth mysteries but the rest of the world will call them cozies. It’s not necessarily a bad thing.

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  5. I resent a strict set of rules–absolutely no sex, violence, cursing, etc.–and prefer a more natural, organic approach to the genre. When I see strict prohibitions against sex, I wonder what that critic does with Carolyn Hart’s Death on Demand series and the obvious physical attraction between Max and Annie Darling. Of those three banned subjects, the one I’d least defend is violence. Cussing to some degree and sex are parts of most of our lives; on the other hand, most of us are fortunate enough to go through life without experiencing violence. That’s one reason we can write and read about it–it’s the “not us.”

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Readers are the best judges of what a cozy is. I love your list of their answers! If you’re close, but bend the definitions somewhere, you could call it a cozy with an edge.

    We’re having leftover turkey tonight!

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  7. I can’t help you with dinner. I don’t even know what we’re having!

    As for the cursing…I’d expect less cursing, and less severe cursing, in something called a cozy. But the occasional mild swear word wouldn’t offend me if it fits the situation and/or character.

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        1. On facebook the other day, a friend of mine was lamenting some 1-star reviews on Goodreads. She had several people comment that it never even occurred to them that the authors would see that. Many of them use the ratings and reviews as reminders to themselves what they thought about a book, just for their own info, even though it’s quite highly public. I’m going to make it my life’s mission to explain to folks that reviews and ratings on Goodreads and Amazon actually DO matter! Not that authors need to be treated with kid gloves (although wouldn’t that be nice??), but just that it’s part of our business and career path and if it doesn’t really need to be said, maybe it shouldn’t.

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  8. I wouldn’t mind the occasional mild swear (although in my book “shoot” and “gosh darn” are NOT anywhere near the swearword category), especially when a character finds a body, is really frustrated, or threatened. Would you say “Oh, gosh, that dude’s dead?” Nah, me neither. That said, I want to keep my readers happy, so I use “She swore,” “he cursed,”, or “She let fly a string of expletives that would make a whore blush.” In my latest submitted manuscript, I had a character use the f-word at a memorial service for his friend (“Imma miss her so f***ing much”) and then apologize to the attendees, saying he shouldn’t have used that word. I thought that might work…but my editor told me to take it out. Out it went.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. “She let fly a string of expletives that would make a whore blush.” … I’ve done that, too. I haven’t used the f-word, but I did have the line in my new ms, “I write fiction. I’m paid to make sh** up.” Without being told, I changed it to “stuff.” I felt very mature.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. My books are marketed by my publisher as cozies, but I think of them as being somewhere along the spectrum between cozies and traditionals (I like to call them “snarky cozies”), and so far they each contain a smattering of swear words. They are, after all, about the restaurant business, and anyone who’s ever worked on a kitchen hot line knows that the f-bomb is heard about twenty times a minute (though I have refrained from using that particular word). The more I write, the more I get tired of the categorization people insist on using for what I see as simply “mysteries.” And perhaps I’m becoming increasingly irritated and impatient the older I get, but lately I find myself wanting to insert even more swear words into my books for the sole purpose of defying the category, lol. But I will do my best to restrain myself…

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  10. Dang it! I don’t mind soft cursing in a cozy, as long as it’s appropriate! Used to excess, I figure the writer was suffering from a crisis of vocabulary. I do tend to tone it down in my books though. A hell or a damn is about as far as I will go, or I’ll lapse into Brit speak which doesn’t offend American readers. Then again, I’ve been told I don’t write cozies either. I’m a traditional writer they say. Well hells bells, I use a computer not the old Underwood–now THAT would be traditional 🙂 For my money, if it fits the plot and the character, I don’t think the occasional cuss will bring on Armageddon.

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  11. I see a distinction between cozies and traditional/amateur sleuth mysteries. For me (and yep, IMHO) I see cozies as more about the village, the characters, the craft than the actual mystery. In the Traditional/amateur sleuth, the mystery is more front and center and the protagonist more involved – both in solving it and with more of a motive for being involved. The characters are “allowed” to be edgier and swear. While the violence and sex may still be mostly off page, they take a step forward from the cozy’s constraints. Now, that’s MY opinion – and I love traditional mysteries – but that’s not to say the next person isn’t going to define it a different way!
    Congrats on your debut and I can’t wait to read your story. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I agree with you, Catherine! I see cozies as almost a slice of village/small town life where a murder happens, but it’s almost incidental.

      Also, the word “cozy” evokes what I think they should be: a warm, comforting read while you sip tea, maybe nibble on something, and when it’s finished, there’s a sense of contentment. I don’t agonize over the ending. I’m not on the edge of my seat wondering what’s going to happen next. Also, mild cursing is fine (shoot and gosh darn are NOT cursing, though).

      This genre definition is something I struggled with for a while. My amateur sleuth story is light(er) and humorous, but it’s definitely “edgier” and not the typical setting/protagonist/tone of a cozy. So traditional mystery it is 🙂

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  12. Genre discussions are fascinating! A few years ago, I went to a conference and the first panel of editors and agents said cozies HAD to have recipes or patterns included. And the panel right afterwards of editors and agents said those were absolutely NOT required.

    Which just goes to show…something. I don’t know what.

    It did make my pitch very difficult the next day.
    Agent: Is it a cozy?
    Me: * unable to answer /panics /changes subject *

    Anyway, I like your definition, which aligns with Malice Domestic’s definition of a “traditional” mystery too. In the beginning, I would say I wrote “academic mystery/campus cozy/amateur sleuth/traditional mystery.” HA. Stopped that pretty fast. #excessiveslashing

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    1. All of that is hilarious, Cynthia! I can totally see your face when you panicked and changed the subject. I guess the lesson to be learned is that when someone asks if it’s a cozy [or traditional or noir or romantic suspense or or or], the answer is always, “How are YOU defining that?”

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        1. Don’t be silly. I wouldn’t have thought to say that in the moment! I probably wouldn’t even had the presence of mind to change the subject. I’d just say, “hummina, hummina” until they walked away. Then a week later I would have thought of what to say. That’s my usual MO.

          Liked by 1 person

  13. I read (and mostly enjoy) books in many “categories.” The important dialogue measure for me is – “What would this character actually say in real life?”
    Grouping books into little categories can be a problem. Categories are subjective and many books cross “those descriptions.” To me, it is a book. It falls to the author to define focus audience and tailor the language and behavior to the expectations of that audience. If I pick up a book with main characters of a storeowner, a teacher, a politician, neighbor, and a friend on the police force, I expect that most conversations, narratives, and action will be “PG” or “PG 13.” If it is a “procedure-based” book and characters are law enforcement, military, or criminals, I would expect the conversations and the action to be “R,” and if it is described as a “thriller”, I anticipate an “NC 17” rating all the way. Of course, my “PG” might be someone else’s “R.”
    That being said, I absolutely hate profanity and sex just for the sake of having something to fill up the pages. I know what “those words” mean; I have said those words. However, just as I do not say those words in every other sentence all day long, I do not want to read them in every other sentence all day long. I can usually determine the tone of the book from the cover and the first page or two. In a bookstore, I can just flip through the pages, and online I can usually do the same. If I do not want to read “those” words, that content, that storyline, that setting, that “whatever,” I will not read the book.
    What authors write is their choice; what I read is MY choice.
    Oh, and my choice for dinner is carry-in Chinese.

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  14. There is cursing in my books. The F-bomb is used. Not by me, mind you. In my recent book, TRAFFICKED, I have one spoiled character who tended to curse a lot. An early reader told me that if I wanted people to like her, she needed to lighten up her potty mouth.

    I’m at the airport. No idea what I’m having for dinner. I’ll just be happy to be home!

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    1. There SHOULD be “cursing” in “Trafficked” because it fits the characters and the “topic.” unfortunately people in “real life” especially “those kind” of nasty people have nasty vocabulary as well as nasty actions. I’d like to clean-up a lot of things “people” did in “Trafficked” but in real life it isn’t quite that easy.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thanks. I did, however, clean up her language some. Also, there’s an author who is quite well known and respected. I got one of his books and the pages were so littered with f-bombs I was distracted from the story. I’ve never read another one.

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