Nancy Drew, Donna Parker, Trixie Belden--what would my childhood have been without these great junior detectives? Not only were they my role models as I was growing up, they also inspired me to eventually write my own mystery for young readers, The Great Scarab Scam.
Writing The Great Scarab Scam was great fun, and sharing it with new readers--and writers--keeps me ever grateful for the world of children's literature. I also get asked a lot of questions about the writing process: Do I have any special tips for writing children's mysteries? Yes, I do. Here are my top 12:
1. Unlike mysteries for adult readers, mysteries for the middle-grades usually avoid solving an actual murder. The best type of crime to center on is what is called a "caper," e.g., a crime involving stolen goods, or some kind of fraudulent scheme.
2. There's an old adage that says girls will read about boys, but boys won't read about girls. I don't know how true this really is, but it's been my experience that boys WILL read about girls if the girls are fun, lively, and adventurous--exactly what's required to be the main character of a mystery. I've also been delighted at how many mothers tell me their sons enjoyed reading The Great Scarab Scam, which just happens to feature a girl named Lydia Hartley.
3. Boy or girl, your child sleuth should always be a "real kid," one who experiences all of childhood's highs and lows with a good deal of imagination and sense of curiosity.
4. Description and detail should be carefully thought out--too much of either and you've lost your young reader; not enough and you'll lose the flavor of your story. I've found the best approach is to always go for the child-oriented details: the little things that you want your reader to remember long after the book is closed.
5. Goals, rewards, and any prizes for solving the crime should also be kept to child-sized portions. For instance, a child might be more motivated to win a new bicycle rather than go after a million dollars.
6. To a child, the adult world can be a scary place, but the playground can hold even greater terrors. What might be considered trivial in the adult novel, e.g., fear of not passing a spelling test, or the humiliation of not being invited to a birthday party, can take on seemingly insurmountable proportions in the children's book. Make sure you balance crime-solving with real-life kid problems, too.
7. Speaking of real life, you want to make your junior detective act and sound real and far-from-perfect. Character flaws are vital for maintaining reader identification as well as for setting up your conflict and story set-backs.
8. That said, junior detectives do need some special gifts and traits to help them along their way. I found the best solution is to give your character a deep-seated interest such as Lydia Hartley's passion for archaeology. It also helps to add on a specific personality trait that will keep your character willing to stay on track. In Lydia's case that trait was loyalty to her family.
9. The best way to understand and use childhood dreams, wishes, fears and goals is to explore your own childhood and bring those emotions to the page. Take out your journal and ask yourself: What were my greatest fears as a child? List them all.
10. What kind of problems did you encounter as a child--and how did you solve them? Young characters in books have to do a lot of their own problem-solving, no adults allowed, and you want to keep solutions as realistic as possible.
11. What were your favorite games, toys, movies and television programs? What about vacations, food, your best friends? Despite the passage of time between then and now, the feelings you had about these things are what remain the same for today's new generation of readers.
12. Read, read, read. There are hundreds of great mysteries for children out there. Analyze, study, learn, and use a highlighter to mark your favorite passages (as well as the ones you didn't like). Take the best ideas and put your own fresh spin on them. And have fun--if you're not enjoying the stories, don't force yourself to write what you think is salable or "hot."
Tip of the Day: For the next few days or weeks, set up a journal solely for childhood memories. Start your entries with a simple "I remember" and start anywhere, don't worry about chronological order. When you're finished, take a look at which experiences could be the basis for the plot to a children's mystery, and which can be used to develop your main character.