Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Whodunit? Writing Mystery Novels for Kids: Part Two

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Whodunit? Writing Mystery Novels for Kids: Part Two

By Susan Hughes

This month’s blog continues with Part 2 of my Q and A with five experienced writers of mysteries for children, Caroline Stellings, James Leck, Y.S. Lee, Shane Peacock and Norah McClintock. I know you’ll learn from and enjoy their responses. And, as always, please do feel free to write in with your own comments and tips.

Susan Hughes:

For you, what’s the most challenging part of writing a mystery?

Caroline Stellings:

Because I also write literary-type novels (that are more character driven) I find that the most challenging part of doing a mystery series is having the courage to write a story for the intended audience, and not the critics. In other words, I am well aware that the critics like aspects of my other novels—The Manager, for instance—that simply cannot be put into a mystery. The young people that want a suspense-filled mystery full of action do not want the literary devices that are used in other novels. They want to watch Nicki take on the criminals with her kung fu skills. Period.


James Leck:

The most challenging part is making sure everything fits together in a logical way. I’m always afraid I haven’t considered some obvious answer to a problem I’ve set up, which would make the rest of the story collapse. Writing a mystery always feels a little like setting up a house of cards and if you make one logical mistake the whole thing falls apart.

Ying S. Lee:

The middle third of every novel is a slog. By that time, the excitement of starting has evaporated and the premise feels stale, yet I’m so far from finishing. At that point, I’m completely convinced that all my ideas are terribly obvious, my prose appallingly ungainly and I’ll never be able to knock either into shape. The challenge is to persist; the reward is arriving at the exhilarating sprint that is the last few chapters.

Shane Peacock:

I think the most challenging part is trying to make it different. There are so many mysteries out there, in fact almost all novels are, essentially, mysteries—stories that are like puzzles, with problems, that you resolve or don’t resolve at the end. I think I know how to write a pretty good story, but writing one that is truly different is the challenge. Becoming Holmes, the last book in the Boy Sherlock series, which was a finalist for the Governor General’s Award, is a novel that I’m very proud of because it is so different, and it had to be to be the concluding novel in a series that had done so well and had such a big following. The identity of the killer is an absolute shocker. It even was for me!

Norah McClintock:

These days, it’s finding a motive for murder. Let’s face it, it’s not that common an experience—not that that has ever stopped writers from wreaking fictional mayhem. Most people don’t solve problems by murder. And since I am not dealing with serial killers like so many detective stories do, there needs to be a reason for murder, even if it arises out of rashness.

SH:

Do you apply some standard rules when you write your mysteries, such as introducing the crime within the first three chapters of your novel?

CS:

Yes, I try to. Here is a list I keep for mystery writing:

1. Don’t drift into back story. Avoid flashbacks and keep the action in the present.
2. If you use a prologue, tie it into the main story right away.
3. Someone must want something on every page.
4. Build characters by what they say, what they want, what they do.
5. Use active verbs—avoid "had," "have" and "there was also."
6. Never use narrative as a data dump; information sharing is not action.
7. Mysteries must be mysterious.
8. One ‘suddenly’ per book.

JL:

Jack Lime’s cases are only about 40 pages long, so I like to introduce the mystery within the first two or three pages. Jack is based on hardboiled mysteries and they usually get cracking pretty quickly, so that works well for Jack and for me as a writer. I also focus on action. If there’s something in there, some detail or scene that doesn’t serve the story, then I have to cut it out. So, my number one rule is that the story has to be lean and mean.

YSL:

Not self-consciously. I aim for pace that feels taut but unrushed, and that seems to involve introducing the crime fairly promptly. But because I’m also playing with conventions of the genre (the villain confessing all just before capture; the power of coincidence), I sometimes acknowledge rules and then promptly break them.

SP:

No, I would never do that. I want the story and its plot to come to me organically. I don’t want it to be conventional. Sometimes, it makes sense that it is conventional, other times it doesn’t. I simply try to fit a particular story and its action to a particular way of telling it.

NM:

Let’s say I try to fulfill expectations. Readers of mysteries want to know what’s at stake, who the main players are (even if they have only the detective’s hunches or deductions to go on) and what these players have going for or against them. Then, throughout the book, they want to be able to see the characters and draw their own conclusions. They want to play detective while they read. So although I wouldn’t call them rules—I don’t think there are rules per se—a murder mystery does have certain definite requirements and demands a certain pace.

SH:

Do you agree that, in mystery writing, plot is everything?

CS:

Yes. I never try to waltz and polka at the same time. In other words, if you are writing a suspense filled, action packed mystery, keep it plot driven and don’t indulge yourself by going off on tangents. Of course, in any well-written novel, every character must want something, and must have an agenda. You can’t treat characters like they have no wants and no needs, and are simply pawns in the story. Overall, however, in mystery writing, I think the plot must come first.

JL:

No, I think an interesting detective is equally important. I suppose if you have an amazing plot, something that is fresh and riveting, you may not need a compelling detective, but I think you can get away with just a pretty good plot if you have an interesting detective. Sherlock Holmes has the best of both worlds. Doyle created great plots and had a unique detective, that’s why I think those mysteries have lasted so long.

YSL:

That’s a good description of the “pure puzzle” mystery, which was so influential in the early twentieth century. The “pure puzzle” doesn’t really appeal to me. I think my books are character-driven. For example, my detective, Mary Quinn, has a personal story arc that plays out over the four novels and that’s really important to me. Mary’s family history stands apart from the mystery plots, which are self-contained within each novel. However, I agree that plots need to be satisfying. It’s a betrayal of the reader-writer contract to explain away the main plot as coincidence, or something equally trivial.

SP:

Absolutely not. Plot is very important and it might be everything in certain stories, but not in all of them. I don’t think you should tie yourself down like that. You might have a mystery novel, for example, where character is of paramount importance.

NM:

Not really. Plot is important, of course. But if we’re talking murder mysteries, murder is murder and there are only so many ways to go. Often it’s the characters, the context, the setting, etc., that are as important. There are historical mysteries in which the setting and social context are big players and influence how the sleuth goes about solving the mystery at the heart of the novel. Think Maureen Jennings’ novels set in Victorian Toronto, for example, or Ellis Peters who set her books in the Middle Ages. Or mysteries set in different “worlds”—horse racing, gambling, the antiques trade, the art world, etc. Yes, the plots are good if the book is good. But all the other elements add immensely to the story.

SH:

What are the main things you do when you revise?

CS:

I check for repeated words, dull phrases, passive expressions. Basically, I make sure that the story flows. Once I begin to work with the editor, then it is more a matter of re-writing sections of the book. I always listen to my editor because she is trained to find holes and weaknesses.

JL:

First and foremost I’m aiming to make the story shorter. I work hard to cut away anything that doesn’t relate directly to the mystery. Since the Jack Lime mysteries are only about 40 pages long, I don’t have time to create subplots. I’m also constantly on the lookout for any logical mistakes.

YSL:

I see revision as a time to be merciless: why is this scene/conversation/moment here? Is it absolutely necessary? What does it contribute to the novel as a whole? I seldom need to re-plot the denouement, but I often shuffle/add/delete early scenes. (And despite the imperative to be ruthless, I hate to kill my darlings, so I save them all in a separate file called “scraps”.)

SP:

I read the story out loud and with lots of feeling. I listen for the places where the story stops me, perhaps doesn’t make perfect sense or is a bit confusing, and for places where the pacing seems off. I listen for sour notes. To me, it’s almost like music and I want the song to move along perfectly. I re-read my work constantly, every day I write, trying to fix it and fix it and fix it, until every sentence is something I’d be proud to perform out loud at a reading.

NM:

I have a messy way of working. I go back and forth in my thinking, adding, subtracting, moving things around. But I rarely go back in my writing when I’m doing a first draft. So when Im revising, I often had lots of notes at the top of the file on things that I want to change for flow or logic. Sometimes I even add another character at a certain point and then go back and introduce that character much earlier on. And then to the next draft…

SH:

Anything else to add??

CS:

I am a big fan of "how to write’ books." Even after having a dozen books published, I still get a lot of help from them. Right now, I am attempting a western, and using several "how to" books. The one I would highly recommend for mystery writing is Don’t Murder Your Mystery by Chris Roerden (Bella Rosa Books).

JL:

I always like to finish by encouraging beginning writers to keep writing. It can be a hard road, but it’s definitely worth it. You just have to sit down and do the work.

SP:

I’m working on four new things right now! That’s a great many projects for me indeed. I have my first picture book for little ones called The Artist and me, about Van Gogh and how he was bullied, in adulthood, by a child (my editor calls it very “odd,” in a good way!); my next big project, the first in a horror trilogy set in late Victorian England and Scotland, called The Dark Missions of Edgar Brim; a prequel to The Seven Series, called Separated and my first novel for adults. Busy!

Thank you to my five guests for sharing their wonderful tips about writing mysteries for children and young adults with us!


Susan Hughes is an award-winning author of children's books — both fiction and non-fiction — including The Island Horse, Off to Class, Case Closed?, No Girls Allowed and Earth to Audrey. She is also an editor, journalist and manuscript evaluator. Susan lives in Toronto. Visit her website, www.susanhughes.ca.

 

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