Auntie M loves to hear writers talk about their process. Judy’s a wickedly busy author, and her newest, Murder at Peacock Mansion, continues her intriguing mysteries that have won her multiple awards. Here’s Judy Alter to discuss the “Dilemma of the Cozy Heroine:”
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The Dilemma of the Cozy Heroine

When my first mystery, Skeleton in a Dead Space, came out five years ago, a mystery reviewer gave it a strong review, to my delight.

Six months later when the second one came out, I sent it to him with optimism only to have him pan it and write me requesting that I send no future books. It seems his problem was that my heroine was too passive, didn’t initiate action, didn’t rise to the position of heroically taking action and thereby solving the murders of old women in her neighborhood (No Neighborhood for Old Women).

Since Kelly O’Connell was the same person in each book and since she did unravel the mystery, reveal the killer, and nearly lose her life in the process, I disagreed with his assessment. Maybe it just caught him on a bad day? Maybe it was a gender thing?

At any rate, I’ve never sent him any of the seven mysteries I’ve since published in two series—Kelly O’Connell Mysteries and Blue Plate Café plus the so-far stand-alone, The Perfect Coed.

But that criticism has lingered in my mind because it poses a dilemma. Traditionally, the cozy heroine is an amateur sleuth, usually involved in some other calling—mine are a realtor/renovation expert and a café owner, but caterers and craft shop owners abound along with dozens of other callings. How tough are these women supposed to be?

For thrillers, the answer is clear. The female is often conditioned by training, experience or both to risk and danger. But what about Kelly O’Connell, a single mother of two daughters who spends her days looking for Craftsman houses to renovate in an inner city neighborhood?

Like most of us in our daily lives, she has never been exposed to crime, violence, and danger. Yet once she becomes involved in murders, she fights (literally and physically) for her life, dodges bullets, rescues kidnap victims—all because circumstances force her to. Should we expect her to become an instant Superwoman? I think not.

Besides, her boyfriend/husband Police Officer Mike Shandy keeps telling her to stay out of police business. . .

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And that brings up the second dilemma—why is she involved anyway? Does the cozy heroine say to herself, “Oh, good—a murder. I can solve it.”? Again, I think not.

She has to have a valid reason for involvement—sometimes, for Kelly, it’s a threat to her daughters, or an abused child, or the “accidental” death of an elderly neighbor that turns out to be homicide. Sometimes it’s a desire to preserve and protect her beloved historical neighborhood in Fort Worth.

So how tough is your heroine? And how is she drawn into sleuthing? Sure, mysteries, like much literature, require the “willing suspension of disbelief,” but at the same time they have to be real to a certain extent. The cozy authors I admire—and they are many—have a firm hand on their fictional world and a clear understanding of their characters’ strengths, weakness, and motivation. It’s not just a walk in the park.

About Judy
An award-winning novelist, Judy Alter is the author of six books in the Kelly O’Connell Mystery series: Skeleton in a Dead Space, No Neighborhood for Old Women, Trouble in a Big Box, Danger Comes Home, Deception in Strange Places, and Desperate for Death.

She also writes the Blue Plate Café Mysteries:Murder at the Blue Plate Café, Murder at the Tremont House and the current Murder at Peacock Mansion.

Finally, with 2014’s The Perfect Coed, she introduced the Oak Grove Mysteries.

Her work has been recognized with awards from the Western Writers of America, the Texas Institute of Letters, and the National Cowboy Museum and Hall of Fame. She has been honored with the Owen Wister Award for Lifetime Achievement by WWA and inducted into the Texas Literary Hall of Fame and the WWA Hall of Fame.

Judy is retired as director of TCU Press, the mother of four grown children and the grandmother of seven. She and her dog, Sophie, live in Fort Worth, Texas.