The Alternate and Historical Fiction track hosted the virtual “Cozy Mysteries Meals & Drinks to Die For” panel, moderated by Elizabeth Carpenter and featuring three writers of the cozy mystery genre, Beth Dolgner, Mia P. Manansala, and Sherry Harris. The writers gathered to discuss the role of food and drink in the cozy mystery genre because, as Elizabeth said, “There’s nothing more exciting than finding a mystery and a snack at the same time.”
The only thing missing from this panel was a big mug of tea in each person’s hand. It felt like chatting with friends at a cafe more than the dry information of a book panel. There were stories exchanged and much laughter, with clever writers saying clever things. The panel atmosphere was very fittingly appropriate for the topic of cozy mysteries.
What is a cozy mystery novel? Mia described them as “Hallmark movies but with dead bodies.” The panel dug into what makes up the genre. “Cozy mysteries are like comfort food. They make you feel good. Even though there’s some danger and probably some murder, you still know that everything’s still going to be okay at the end of it,” said Beth. The conclusion was that there will always be a predictable set of tropes and, no matter how much danger and trouble the protagonists go through, there will always be a happy ending.
Food plays a unique role in the cozy mystery genre, depending on the writer. The obvious is that restaurants, bars, and cafes make ideal locations to write about, with a variety of potential characters in and out at any time. In addition to just adding flavor to the setting, the food used in their stories also interacts with the plots. The food can be used as a coping mechanism for a character, to show their emotional state to the reader, or even as a context for character interactions, like cozy-mystery investigations where normal strangers have to strike up conversations about the perhaps not-so-random dead body someone discovered.
The panel settled on a few must-have ingredients for the genre with a solid list of expectations. At the top of that list was that a cozy mystery must be set in a small town, or a tight-knit community. Beth’s work includes friends and the paranormal in this formula, with ghosts as crime-solving partners. For Mia, that means including nosy family members and gossipy Aunties, and often “unrivaled levels of pettiness,” just to keep things interesting.
That also extends to non-human characters like cats and dogs, which are always a fan-favorite in the genre. The panel agreed that they often received specific feedback concerned about their protagonists’ favorite critters being forgotten from the narrative at any point. “Cats make so much more sense in a cozy mystery,” said Mia, because cats are so much more independent and won’t mind if their parents are gone all day solving mysteries.
When asked where their research had taken them while writing, two authors mentioned looking into the locations the stories would take place, including the restaurants. Even if that small hometown is fictional, it was based on elements of somewhere else, and no matter how small the mention, it was important to get the feeling right. Mia once visited and interviewed employees at a winery in Illinois, and Sherry investigated seaside bars in Florida.
“I’m clearly writing the wrong type of books,” said Beth, as her research had instead taken her to historic districts, graveyards, and haunted places throughout the southeast. Even with the presence of paranormal in her stories, however, Beth’s novels still involved food as a piece of the plot; her cozy protagonist runs a bakery and the murder that must be solved is the pastry-provoked death of a food critic.
All of their stories had the writers researching death and murder. From conferences about body decomposition, to internet searches that one would guess puts them on the FBI watch-lists, to awkwardly professional conversations with helpful morticians, these ladies know how to arrange for some dangerous accidents. It seemed to be an accepted hazard of the territory, and Beth joked, “If my husband dies before I do, there’s going to be a knock on the door, saying: Ma’am, we have a copy of your search history, and we’d like to ask you a few questions.”
In order to keep yourself out of accidentally wandering into a real-life cozy mystery novel, the authors offered some advice on areas to avoid. “I like nature, in theory,” said Mia, before suggesting concerned protagonists avoid lakeside campgrounds in lush, isolated areas. Sherry advised avoiding grand, ornate hotels with lots of art deco and elaborately detailed, high ceilings, especially those old buildings where famous or important people may have once lived… or died. Beth’s warning was about the historic district in old town Savannah, GA. “It’s great, but you might end up in a Cozy.”
If you’re interested in cozy mysteries, or books about food and drink, this panel is for you. Check it out on the Alternate and Historical Fiction Track YouTube channel. For more about the individual panelists and their work, you can find them all online and on social media.
Beth Dolgner specializes in the more paranormal side of the cozy mystery, like the Eternal Rest Bed and Breakfast series, thanks to her background in touring and researching haunted places. She described her work as something like “Murder She Wrote, but with ghosts.” Check out https://bethdolgner.com/ for her work and her social media news.
Mia P Manansala writes about what she knows as a Filipino woman from the Big City. With the Tita Rosie’s Kitchen Mystery series, homemade meals take such a central role in her novels that food is in each title, with recipes in the back! Look for Mia’s books at https://www.miapmanansala.com/ or across the socials as @MPMtheWriter.
Sherry Harris brings her cozy experience from the Sarah Winston Garage Sale mysteries and the Chloe Jackson Sea Glass Saloon mystery series. Her work can be found at https://sherryharrisauthor.com/ so take a look!