Some Tools for Putting Humor Into a Cozy

Sally Carpenter 2Sally Carpenter is a native Hoosier now living in Moorpark, Calif

She has a master’s degree in theater from Indiana State University. While in school, her plays “Star Collector” and “Common Ground” were finalists in the American College Theater Festival One-Act Playwrighting Competition. “Common Ground” also earned a college creative writing award and “Star Collector” was produced in New York City.

Carpenter also has a master’s degree in theology and a black belt in tae kwon do.

She’s worked as an actress, freelance writer, college writing instructor, theater critic, jail chaplain, and tour guide/page for a major movie studio. She’s now employed at a community newspaper.

The Sandy Fairfax Teen Idol series is comprised of: The Baffled Beatlemaniac Caper, a 2012 Eureka! Award finalist for best first mystery novel; The Sinister Sitcom Caper and The Cunning Cruise Ship Caper.

Her short stories are: “Dark Nights at the Deluxe Drive-in,” in the 2013 anthology Last Exit to Murder; “Faster Than a Speeding Bullet” in the Plan B: Omnibus anthology; and “The Pie-eyed Spy” in the Nov. 23, 2013, issue of Kings River Life ezine.

She blogs at

She’s a member of Sisters in Crime/Los Angeles chapter. Contact her at Facebook or


Recently I’ve read a number of posts on various blogs about using humor in writing mysteries. Describing what makes something funny is as difficult as explaining why water is wet. But here are my thoughts.

Cozies tend to use more humor than thrillers, noir and hard-boiled fiction. The latter three are more focused on maintaining suspense and in presenting a darker side of humanity. Cozies are as interested in character and in family/community life as in solving a mystery. By their nature, cozies are more suitable vehicles in examining the foibles and silliness of human nature.

Cozy humor is generally not comprised of jokes but is subtle and situation-based. In fact, cozies are the “sitcoms “ of the mystery world. It’s true. The structure and humor of a cozy/traditional mystery is similar to that of a sitcom in that it’s situation- and character-based.

In a sitcom, the story is set in a specific community/home life with a cast of colorful, likeable characters who find their world disrupted by a new situation each week (or in the case of cozy, a murder). The story ends when order is restored and the characters return to their normal routines. Classic TV sitcoms are good reference guides for building cozy characters.

Some cozies use slapstick, an exaggerated form of humor that’s difficult to write, as it’s more visual than verbal. Some writers can do this well, although an overuse can turn the story into a farce. Think of slapstick as seasoning; use a pinch and not a whole cup.

One trademark of cozies is the verbal banter, often between a female protagonist and a male cop/love interest. Witty insults work. As an example, Shakespeare’s romances are a classic form of lovers teasing and taunting each other.

Here are more tips of injecting humor into a cozy:

1) Eccentric protagonist. Columbo, Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot are just a few of the oddball sleuths who have captivated mystery lovers. In developing such a character an author must remember that despite all of his/her quirks, the sleuth must still be sharp enough to solve the case and not a scatterbrain.

2) Fish out of water. Place the sleuth in a setting that’s uncomfortable and unfamiliar. The urban debutante spends a week working on her uncle’s pig farm. The boozy playboy is on a bus full of Sunday School teachers. The science nerd is trapped in a room full of jocks. Make the protagonist squirm.

3) Sidekicks. Comedy teams of Laurel and Hardy, Abbot and Costello, Martin and Lewis, and George and Gracie Burns, and “buddy” movies like “Beverly Hills Cop”—humor often comes in pairs. In comedy, opposites attract. Put two polar-opposite people together and watch the fun fly.

4) Ensemble. If two are funny, then three or more are a merry crowd. Have a sleuth work with several friends or acquaintances to solve the crime. Have multiple characters sharing ideas, chasing clues together and individually, and butting heads.

5) Eye of the storm. The normal, sensible protagonist is surrounded by a goofy array of supporting characters and suspects. The heroine is trying to keep her wits while handling the nuttiness going on around her.

6) Wacky relations. Similar to no. 5, one family member is dealing with a crazy clan. Unfortunately, this scenario has become an overused cozy cliché. Authors should remember, “The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.” That is, a person raised by zany people will have to work hard to break away from those tendencies and will probably still express some of those characteristics.

The Cunning Cruise Ship Caper7) Fun setting. In my WIP, the murder originally took place in an office building. The story seemed forced; I wasn’t enjoying it. So I moved the murder to an old art deco theater with a four-manual Wurlitzer stage organ. Voila! My muse perked up.

Put your sleuth in an unusual locale. How about a murder in an amusement park, county fair, Renaissance festival, candy factory, magic store, ice cream parlor or at a championship cat show?

Two more things to keep in mind. Even in a funny story, characters must be realistic, fleshed out, three-dimensional people. Stereotypes and stock comedy characters should be used sparingly if at all.

And also, there’s nothing funny in the act of murder itself. Treat the body with respect, even if the victim was a jerk. Characters should react with sensitivity and compassion to the victim’s family, unless a character is suppose to be an absolute cad.

Happy writing!