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Are you a knitter? Cat-lover? Quilter? All three? Perhaps you have a penchant for baking bread or solving crossword puzzles. Whatever your hobby, interest or side-hustle, there’s likely a cozy mystery for that.
In fact, this wholesome book genre — the cozy mystery — seems to be finding new audiences as experts say more and more readers are looking for stories that provide a little comfort.
“I’m seeing more and more books come out all the time,” Fitchburg author Christine DeSmet said of cozy mysteries. “I think we do need relief from the harshness of the world,” she said of why the genre remains popular. “The cozy gives us that balance. We can take a break from all the hard stuff.”
Vida Engstrand, director of communications at Kensington Publishing Corp., agrees. The last five to six years have seen a big focus on developing awareness of what exactly “cozy mystery” means so readers who enjoy the genre can self-identify as fans, Engstrand said, adding that Kensington sells about 2.5 million copies of cozies a year, up from about 500,000 copies 10 years ago.
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“We’ve noticed a broader, more diverse audience coming to the genre, including millennials who grew up reading ‘Harry Potter’ and appreciate the witty humor and escapism of cozy mysteries,” Engstrand said.
Cozy mysteries have been described as the comfort food of the book world — the mac n’ cheese, the greasy burger, the mug of cocoa.
“I love to read literature, but sometimes I just want to curl up with a good book,” said Montello cozy author Joy Ribar. “It’s like comfort food. Instead of filet mignon, I have a hotdog with everything on it and I feel good about it.”
There are a couple main ingredients when whipping up a cozy. First, leading the cozy, is an amateur sleuth, who is almost always female and usually has a day-job (baker, teacher, yarn-shop owner, etc.).
Second is establishing a sense of community. An important reason why people are devoted to cozies is that reading the books make them feel, well, good.
“Community in a cozy mystery is very important,” DeSmet said, adding many are set in a small town or village. “It’s all about community and friendship.”
Lastly, some of what makes a cozy is what it’s not: It’s not violent or overly sexual.
“It’s not going to have a lot of blood,” DeSmet said. “You can do anything you want, but you can’t do the graphic sex or too much violence or blood on the page. You can insinuate it, but not show it.”
Cozy mysteries are almost always part of a series, and while the mysteries might be tame, the characters, and the authors who write them, have a lot to live up to.
“Readers are best friends with the characters and they are very invested in what they do or don’t do,” said DeSmet, a former UW-Madison Distinguished Faculty Associate and author of the cozy Fudge Shop Mystery series set in Door County.
Ribar, who lives in central Wisconsin, has been writing the Deep Lakes Cozy Mystery series since 2018.
She knew immediately her books would fall into the “cozy” category, and she drew on aspects of her family and her background in journalism and as a paralegal for inspiration.
“I’ve been surrounded by strong women (with a) fiery and feisty spirit,” Ribar said. “I knew I wanted a female character with the same personality,” she said. “I grew up with a mom who was an expert baker. She literally baked five to six days a week. It was really easy to incorporate her baking and my experience into that character.”
Cozy mystery themes run the gamut, from gardeners, to coffee shop owners, to one who’s a chef at the White House, Ribar said.
“If anybody has any kind of interest or hobby, they can find a cozy to match it,” Ribar said. “It makes them so accessible. The critical part to writing a cozy is having a character that people feel could be their friend.”
An added bonus for many cozy readers is the mysteries often include recipes, patterns, DIY projects, tips, or puzzles referenced in the book.
In early 2023, Kensington Publishing will launch a new series centered around a recreational marijuana bakery in California, which Engstrand says will include recipes with optional THC or CBD add-ins that will appeal to both millennials and baby boomers in legalized, decriminalized and fully illegal states alike.
Engstrand also is seeing cozy mysteries take place in more urban settings, like New York, Los Angeles or Chicago, as opposed to strictly small towns.
“You still create that cozy feeling, because within the city there’s a close-knit community,” she said. “We also publish quite a few that are really issue-driven,” she said, “striking a balance between timely, real-life subjects and the genre’s traditional humor and feel-good plotlines. For example, characters might be dealing with social injustice, housing insecurity, past trauma or unemployment.”
Butler is one of several authors planning in-person events at this fall’s Wisconsin Book Festival.
Robbins said he drew on his love of jazz, his heroes and his Jewish background to create this variety of children’s books.
“Shoulder Season” is set largely in the 1980s and informed by the Madison author’s connection to East Troy.
“When you stop projecting onto your mother — whether all angel or all demon — it’s really an opportunity for growth.”
This is the sixth book for Harms, which includes an Audible Original and another novel, “The Bright Side of Going Dark,” published last year.
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