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Award Winning Author Cynthia Kuhn on Writing the Perfect Cozy

So happy to have fellow mystery author, Cynthia Kuhn visit with us this week! Cynthia and I both launched our first mystery novels in April, 2016. Welcome Cynthia!

The Author

Cynthia Kuhn writes the Lila Maclean Academic Mystery series, which includes The Semester of Our Discontent, an Agatha Award recipient (Best First Novel), and The Art of Vanishing, a Lefty Award nominee (Best Humorous Mystery).

The third in the series, The Spirit in Question, is forthcoming fall 2018. She teaches English in Denver, serves as president of Sisters in Crime-Colorado, and blogs with Chicks on the Case. For more information, please visit

The Interview

You write a celebrated and award-winning cozy series about an English professor who solves murders in her spare time. What draws you to cozies? What elements should a cozy include or not include?

Thank you for letting me visit today—and for that very kind description! What has always drawn me to cozies as a reader is that they’re often humorous and ultimately uplifting: the crime is solved by the end, and justice prevails.

As far as what a cozy should or should not include, that’s debated right along with the meaning of the “cozy” label. True story: I once attended two publisher panels back-to-back at a conference—the first declared that every cozy had to include a recipe or craft project, and the second declared that no cozy had to include a recipe or craft project. I’ve also heard people argue about the necessity of including cats. Jury’s still out on some things, it seems.

But generally speaking, cozies tend to take place in a connected community, keep the sex and violence offstage, and focus on someone who follows clues and exposes secrets (typically, though not always, an amateur sleuth).

Your other job is as a professor of English, just like your protagonist. What are the pros and cons of writing a mystery series with crossover to your “other” life?

One pro is that you’re immersed in the environment and dynamics, which helps you create authentic details for your fictional world. A con is that you must refrain from writing about things that actually happen, even if they would make a great story!

In addition to writing mysteries, you also write literary studies. How does writing fiction versus non-fiction change your process?

They both have the same drafting process, which is to get anything onto the page in order to have something to work with, and the same revising process, which is to rewrite a great deal until a polished manuscript exists. But nonfiction requires more research since I can’t invent things for that (alas).

“I realized that the mystery writing community is a genuinely supportive and generous one.”

As president of the Sisters in Crime-Colorado chapter, along with memberships in a number of other mystery writers organizations, you are very active in the writer community. How does that impact your experience as an author?

The Lila Maclean series probably wouldn’t have been published if I had not joined groups like Sisters in Crime, Mystery Writers of America, and International Thriller Writers. Conferences like Bouchercon and Malice Domestic have been fantastic as well. I’ve learned so much (and continue to learn) via classes, meetings, panels, workshops, speakers, online conversations, and organization publications.

At the core, the connection with other writers and readers is incredibly inspiring. At first, it surprised me how welcoming everyone was—I couldn’t believe that authors whose books were Actually In Bookstores were even talking to me!—but soon I realized that the mystery writing community is a genuinely supportive and generous one. People help each other, encourage each other, cheer each other on. So grateful to be part of it. It’s like nothing else I’ve ever experienced.

As you get ready to launch the third book in your series, what have you learned over the last couple years about being a series author? Anything you wish you’d known with that first book? Or something you’re really glad you wrote a certain way?

At the beginning, I made a streamlined chart to keep track of characters. But I’ve learned that you must keep more extensive notes about every single character, including the minor ones, because no matter how well you think you know what you wrote in book one, when you’re working on later books, you are not going to remember all the specific details of that character you only mentioned once! (Maybe this doesn’t happen to anyone else. If that’s the case, please don’t tell me.) I’m always amazed at what I DON’T remember about a character. I’m not as organized as you are though, I’m always doing a search in a past manuscript!

What are you working on now?

Finalizing book three in the Lila Maclean series, which was submitted to the publisher in January. Congratulations! So excited for you!

“… never give up!”

Final words of wisdom:

Read widely, write as much as you can, and join a community of people who write the same thing that you do. Also: never give up!

Excellent final words – thank you for joining us!

Elena Hartwell

Author and developmental editor.

This Post Has 18 Comments

  1. Cynthia Kuhn

    Thank you so much for having me, Elena! It was such a pleasure to chat with you. And your site is *beautiful.*

    1. Elena Hartwell

      Thank you! See you next week at Left Coast Crime!

  2. Lisa Q Mathews

    Sorry to be late to the party here (just got back from Left Coast Crime!) but really loved this post. Cynthia, you are so wise and inspiring! I will try to be better about keeping track of my characters. In my former life as an editor, we called those detailed notes the series “bible”–but we hired freelancers to create and add to them from book to book! Ah, those days…

    1. Cynthia Kuhn

      Thanks so much for the comment, Lisa, and I’m so thrilled if it was in any way helpful. (Despite Elena’s elegant title, I do not even pretend to know how to write a perfect cozy–ha ha!–but it’s always interesting to think about what might go into one.) Absolutely love the idea of having freelancers manage the “bibles.” I could listen to you talk about your editor days for hours on end…so fascinating…ooh, maybe you could write a book about those days after you finish your next mystery! I’d order it right now.

      1. Elena Hartwell

        You’re an expert in my book 🙂

  3. Marla Cooper

    Congratulations on book three, Cynthia! And I’m glad you skipped the recipes. 🙂

    Elena, I’m sorry we didn’t get to talk in person at LCC! I saw you across the way one day and was going to say hi, but we both got swept away in the crowd. (Easy to do at conferences!)

    1. Elena Hartwell

      Hi Marla, Yes! I had the same thing happen when I planned to say hi to you as well. Next time!

    2. Cynthia Kuhn

      Thank you, Marla! I don’t even have any recipes. I should probably work on that, just in general.

      And Elena, I’m so happy that we saw each other!

      1. Elena Hartwell

        Me too!

  4. Vickie Fee

    Cynthia, the perennial question of what constitutes a cozy gives writers something to debate at conferences! Had a blast with you at LCC and can’t wait for The Spirit in Question!

    1. Cynthia Kuhn

      That’s a great way to look at it, Vickie. Thank you for the kind comments. I am so happy that all the Chicks made it to LCC…was wonderful to spend time together. #whatablast

      1. Cynthia Kuhn

        ps: Congratulations, Vickie, on Til Death Do Us Party, and congratulations, Elena, on Three Strikes You’re Dead! Cheers for new book birthdays!

        1. Elena Hartwell

          Thank you! I’m pretty excited! Congrats Vickie!

  5. Ellen Byron

    Cynthia, that’s so funny about the two panels saying the exact opposite things about cozies. Of course, now I want to know what conference that was. Love your series, can’t wait for book three! Hi, Elena! Like Mariella, I saw you and was swept away. Next time!

    1. Elena Hartwell

      See you at the next one!

    2. Cynthia Kuhn

      Ellen, it was paralyzing because I pitched right afterwards and the person said, “Is it a cozy?” and I wasn’t sure what to say. LOL. Thanks for the kind words!

      1. Elena Hartwell

        Ah ha ha ha ha!

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