Most mystery writers can’t wait to get their teeth into their next murderous intent. Some of us struggle, others sail straight through.
Award-winning Gabi Coatsworth, an ex-pat Brit living in Connecticut, was persuaded to tackle a cozy for the first time after writing novels and memoirs. An author and a popular moderator in the literary community, she was interviewing suspense writer Kate White at an event when we met. I was fascinated by her story, that when Gabi’s agent had a difficult time selling one of her novels, she asked her if she’d like to rewrite it as a mystery because the agent could sell any number of them, and the acquiring editor had moved to a publisher of cozies. Gabi declined because she’d already written the book once. But, rethinking her decision, she decided to give it a go. Here is her experience:
The Case Of The Missing Cozy:
Jill: What is your background and publishing history?
Gabi: I’ve been writing for years and had some short stories and creative non-fiction published in anthologies and literary journals. I started a novel in 2011 as part of NaNoWriteMo (National Novel Writing Month) just to see if I could. My first two books are lying in a drawer in my office and will never see the light of day!
Jill: Which genre do you write in?
Gabi: Eventually, I wrote and published a memoir, Love’s Journey Home (2022) about how I came to America on a six-month work assignment and ended up living here permanently. While I was waiting for the memoir to be edited, I began a novel, A Beginner’s guide to Starting Over, and was lucky enough to find an agent who loved it. One publisher said they’d like it rewritten to include more “bookshop” which is where it takes place, and to have a stronger hero. My main character was rather too British, too, for the American market, too much given to understatement. By the time I’d rewritten it, and had it edited, that acquiring editor had moved to another publisher who specialized in cozy mysteries
Jill: Why did you switch genres to write a mystery?
Gabi: That was when my agent asked me if I’d like to rewrite the novel as a mystery because she could sell a small-town crime novel. I couldn’t face doing that, so, I published A Beginner’s Guide in 2023 with a hybrid press. In the meantime, my agent came back to me and asked if I could write some kind of cozy. I read a lot (mainly British) mysteries, cozies, police procedurals, and historical mysteries so I thought I’d give it a whirl. One thing I hadn’t counted on – when I read, I never guess whodunit, because I only pick up the clues afterwards.
Jill: What kind of mystery did you decide to write? Was it to be a series?
Gabi: I love historical fiction and have always been fascinated by the First World War, so I thought I’d try a novel set just after, in 1921. I knew those who’d been through that were often traumatized, and their stories would be more interesting. I wanted a believable female sleuth, one who wasn’t tied down by family or other obligations, and who needed to earn a living. The job had to allow her to travel, because I didn’t want a series that relied on a ton of corpses in a sleepy English village. I decided her ‘sidekick’ would be a veteran of the conflict, with issues of his own.
Jill: How difficult was it to change genres?
Gabi: I soon found writing a mystery wasn’t as easy as it appeared. I had no problem in coming up with the characters, one a well-educated woman, the other a Cockney batman, each with their own voice. I had the basic idea for the book. I had a rough outline, but I’m usually someone who’s a pantster. I write by the seat of my pants – American trousers! But I write and adjust the outline after I’ve got the first draft down. That approach doesn’t work well for a mystery. I knew when and where the murder happened, the main suspect, the real culprit, and some of the other (incorrect) suspects, with their motives, and opportunities.
Jill: Did you have a blueprint for a structure, settings, and characters?
Gabi: I had no idea how to structure it. I needed a blueprint, something that would tell me where to place the clues, how many red herrings I should include, etc. I couldn’t find a template, so though I had two great characters and a setting in 1921 England, I ground to a halt, intending to try and learn another way [but] the class I took wasn’t much help.
Jill: How far along did you get before feeling unsure as to your decision?
Gabi: I’d written the first four chapters and I loved my characters. I’d decided to write from alternate points of view, and with unlimited time, I might have persevered. I’m a believer in writing badly since bad writing can always be fixed by an experienced editor. But when readers began asking when my second novel would be out, and I had two half-finished sequels on the back burner, I statured working on one of them. I’m hoping that it will be published next year.
Jill: What is your writing process?
Gabi: Before the pandemic, I used to write when I felt like it, but when the writers’ organisation I belonged to, the Women’s Fiction Writers Association, organised daily Zoom write-ups, I signed up. I joined them every day for 90 minutes of writing. Since the lockdown ended, I’ve continued to go, because I have the meetings scheduled l on my calendar, and I find the accountability helpful in keeping my behind in my chair.
Jill: What is the best part of writing your novels and the worst?
Gabi: I may be unusual in that I enjoy editing my work, and other people’s. The sense of polishing something to make it gleam is very rewarding. I’m somewhat daunted by the idea of producing an outline before I start. I prefer to evolve as I go along, because things change as my characters insist on going their own way.
Jill: How did your self-esteem fare during your attempt to write a mystery?
Gabi: Actually, it survived more or less intact. I love the people I’d created, which was important to me. The Queen of Crime excelled at plots, and I’ve always felt her characters left something to be desired, being rather too likely to rely on negative stereotypes as evidence of someone’s ethics. This may be heresy, but I think television actors, through their interpretation, have done a lot to improve the characters in her books. I’m pretty confident I can learn to plot a mystery, so I hope mine can wait until I have time to do it.
Jill: Any advice for other first-time mystery writers?
Gabi: Google ‘How to Write a Mystery’, and figure out how others do it. I wish I’d done so before I started. So, don’t let the lack of experience stop you. Got for it! Write badly. Don’t worry about spelling, grammar, or even plot. The important thing is to get your ideas down on paper, or computer. One reason NanoWrite is so popular is that it calls for 50,000 words in one month, so 1,677 a day, on average. One simply doesn’t have the time to edit or criticize oneself. Also, aim low. Don’t set a goal of working two hours per day, seven days a week. Because if your write for one hour and 55 minutes on five of those days, you’ll feel like a failure. If you aim for 30 minutes a day, three days every week, you’re almost certainly going to exceed your goal and you’ll feel like a success. Plus, you’ll end up with a book!
People ezine, and freelances for My Cornwall magazine.
She lives in Connecticut USA. Her most recent book is
In Terror's Deadly Clasp, published 16 July 2021.