The cozy, clean mystery: Classifying clean, cozy, and non-offensive non-offensively

One of the hallmarks of the cozy mystery is supposed to be the lack of gore, sex, and cursing. These are, as a group, expected to be wholesome books that provide interesting enjoyment but which never venture too far into the grittier side of life. But what does that mean?

LGB* as an F-Bomb?

My intention here was to write a blog post outlining what clean means to me (helping my readers understand what they can expect), and in doing so I googled the words clean cozy fiction. The first post that popped up was The Rise of the Cozy, Clean Fiction Novel – Profitable Escapes. I was mostly with the author right up until I got to the following:

Being frank, “LGB*” is a four-letter acronym and triggers people probably worse than an f-bomb or “N-word” or saying “sh*t” multiple times in a book or article or description.

Well. That escalated quickly. Dude. Seriously?

Why write or read clean?

I don’t write “clean” fiction due to any particularly puritanical feelings about life—I started out writing erotica. What I found out when I wrote erotica, though, was that writing sex thoroughly bored me. It just wasn’t my thing. I tend to really enjoy the cerebral exchange of ideas, and my sex scenes were usually sandwiched between long, angsty discussions between the protagonists that erotica readers didn’t particularly care about.

The first modern paranormal cozy mystery I read was Annabel Chase‘s Curse the Day. I loved it. It was funny, snarky, and I’ve always been heavily interested in paranormal stuff. I tore through her series as fast I could read it and moved on to others from Amanda M. Lee, Angie Fox, Morgana Best, and many others. As I read them, it was a genre I was really excited about and that I felt fit my “voice”, so I started writing in it. I started realizing that Charlaine Harris’s The Southern Vampire Mysteries were cozy-style despite the fact that they’re definitely not clean.

One of the things I liked about the paranormal cozies was the less old-fashioned approach to the female protagonists without being vulgar about it (in most cases). That was what drew me to reading them, writing them, and presumably, I’m not alone in that.

For me, clean means no cursing, no blood and gore, no overt sex. For example, you could gather that two characters in my books may be having sex because they’re in a relationship and they hang out overnight in the same yurt, but I’m not going to confirm that for you.

For example, if you think that Fiona and Ningul are getting down and dirty, that’s perfectly fine by me. If you think they’re not, that works, too. It’s up to you, the reader, to decide what happens when the characters walk away from the scene. Their sex life or lack of one is not germane to the story.

Disallowing situations, tones or storytelling styles and disallowing people is not the same thing.

For me, clean does not mean no LGBTQ characters.

Having the expectation that cozies will not include sex or cursing is, I think, reasonable. The genre itself is about somewhat lighter fair, less angst, the classic whodunit game. Paranormal cozies may additionally add a fantasy element interwoven into the story. For me, dropping an F-bomb breaks that smooth milkshake-of-a-book feel with a shot of whiskey, so I wouldn’t really do it. Just not necessary to me, though others may use that shock value as a method of communicating, and more power to them.

It is less reasonable to me for people to be wholesale removed from a book, or for there to be an expectation that they will or should be. Gallup found that 4.5% of the population identifies as LGBTQ. If the Magical Midway has 100 people, then 4 of them will be gay. Maybe 5. Among millennials (born from 1980 to 1999), that percentage jumps to 8.2%. Charlotte and her cohorts are millennials, so it’s reasonable to expect that within her group of friends, there will be one or two LGBTQ folks just based on the numbers.

If you think writing this reality into a fiction book is the equivalent of an F-bomb, my books are probably not for you.

My simple rules for what’s clean. Can you do it at work?

I have a very simple litmus test for whether something I am writing is adhering to the clean expectation of cozy mysteries. Can you do this at work without consequence? If not, what level of consequences are we talking about here?

  • If you can, it’s clean. Write away.
  • If you can but someone might be offended or report it to HR, the boundary is starting to be pushed.
  • If you do it and you would get fired on the spot, maybe that line’s been crossed. Check it carefully.
  • If you do it and you would likely get arrested for indecency if caught in public anywhere doing that thing, it doesn’t belong in the book.

Likewise, if you would potentially be exposed to something in a professional setting and the requirement would be on you to treat the situation or person with respect, you should expect to find it in one of my books. Like, you know, a gay worker occupying the same space as you. Black people. Foreign clients or customers. People of a specific or different religious persuasion than you. That kind of thing.

The subtlety and elegance of Cozies

From my perspective, there is inspirational fiction (fiction that includes Christian or very conservative morality) and clean fiction—and lots of times they cross. Lots of times, they don’t. In the case of my books, they don’t. I mean, I kinda thought that would be a given because witches. But maybe not.  I’m not trying to be unsympathetic—modern cozies do push the boundaries of what “cozies” were meant to be at times, and while as a writer I think that’s really cool, I realize as a reader it can be frustrating.

One of the reasons I gravitated towards paranormal cozies instead of “regular” cozies is that we’ve established the protagonist’s outlier status from the get-go – she’s a witch, or she’s a vampire, or she’s a werewolf. She’s “other”, usually coming from one world into another, and how she deals with that (and others with her) is part of the journey. Paranormal cozies can gently play with those themes in ways that “regular” cozies have to work a little harder for (or can side-step altogether).

It is sometimes a tightrope walk to balance the story a writer wants to tell and the expectation of the readers. (I believe Stephen King wrote an entire novel illustrating the potential consequences of this difficulty.) We all want more readers, and we all want to make ya’ll happy. We also, though, have certain worldviews and beliefs that inevitably find their way into the stories that we tell and some things we will refuse to compromise on.

My books will always contain a gay character. Or a transgender character. Characters of different races. If you find that “worse than an F-bomb”, there are dozens of other books that won’t include said characters, and I encourage you to find the books and authors that resonate with you.

Or, you know, try my books. Maybe you’ll find that the gay characters are just like any other characters. (Hint: They are.) Maybe their presence isn’t as bad as you suspect. (Hint: It won’t be.) Maybe you’ll find they’re just people trying to uncover a plot to subjugate them, just people trying to fight discrimination and change the world so that it’s better for everyone.

In my book, I mean.

Yeah, that’s what I mean.

Samson on Hill