Writing Mysteries for Kids, by Goldie Alexander

I have only to visit bookstores and libraries to know how popular crime is. I think there are several reasons for this; firstly the structure of any crime story, much like those folktales read to us when we were young, is ultimately satisfying. The crime novel posits a bad deed that must be solved before the end of the book. The wicked are always found out and vanquished. I had already written two ‘cozy-culinary’ mysteries for adults and similar to the Enid Blyton novels I read as a child that feature the Famous Five, I was interested in creating some present day youngsters capable of bringing wrong-doers to justice.

If the major difference between children’s and adult mysteries is the age of the protagonists, the conventions are similar: order is disturbed and then restored, and the ending is a confrontation between hero and villain. But finding a suitable plot is more difficult. The stuff that makes up most adult crime – murder, incest, rape, larceny, kidnapping – isn’t, at least in my opinion, suitable for youngsters.

Melbourne Australia is noted for its wonderful gardens, many protected by precious old cypress hedges. In both 2000 and 2009 some drew the attention of young firebugs. As I searched for a suitable topic, a newspaper report caught my eye: “Arsonists are believed to have caused fires that damaged two cypress hedges within a kilometer of each other in Melbourne’s south-east early yesterday. Firefighters were called to a blaze at 4am after a 100 year old hedge was fired. Twenty minutes later, a woman and her baby were lucky to escape a similar fire in another suburb.”  When the arsonists were finally uncovered they turned out to be young middle class males. It was these incidents that finally inspired me to write a novel aimed at Middle Grade readers: “Hedgeburners: An A~Z PI Mystery”. (An Anna and Zach Private Eye Mystery)

(By the way, this unfortunate practice of setting fires to hedges is still continuing. In the regional town of Warrigul, two hedge-burnings were reported only this month. Perhaps one explanation for this anti-social behaviour occurs in Chapter One when Zach asks, “Why burn down a hedge?” and Anna replies, ‘Legendary display. Better than fireworks.”)

Now I needed to create my characters. In adult crime, detectives can either be professional (Hercule Poirot) or amateur (Ms Marple). They have some trait that makes the reader feel empathy both for them and the dilemma the crime has produced. They are often in some situation that deserves our empathy… how many adult fictional detectives have unfortunate past relationships? Having grown up with Enid Blyton’s Famous Five, all twenty-one of the series, I decided to create my own contemporary version where my kids also have certain personal problem that needed to be taken into account. In this case my narrator Zach’s grades must improve or else… though Anna forcing him to help her solve a mystery is cutting into his time.   

But I digress: Firstly I needed a leader and a follower to play off against each other. I turned my leader into thirteen year old super ambitious Anna (A) and her sidekick Zach (Z) also aged thirteen, who tells the story. As more quirky characters were needed to make up the numbers, and provide subplots, I added Ruby the wrestler, Brett the journo, and a pet rat called M, who would replace George’s dog Timmy. All have to do their part in solving the mystery of Who is setting fire to the old cypress hedges in Anna’s suburb?

Probably the most important element in writing is the axiom: Show, don’t tell.  In terms of characterisation, it can mean that instead of writing a paragraph of description, to use key phrases and relate them to the action.  Ruby gave her volcanic laugh… The overhead light glinted off Dad’s head… Under his leather jacket, his biceps bulge and his long nose and beady eyes remind me of a pelican… Zach compares most people he meets with animals; his next door neighbour Diana is a sexy-stick-insect, Ruby a baby hippo, Brett a red eyed mongoose, Anna’s busy mum a chipmunk, her dad Alex, a fox, Miss Barnes a wolf because of her beady gaze, etc.  

Dialogue also helps create characters. The mystery in Hedgeburners is basically ‘talking heads’ as the young detectives interview various suspects and chase clues. Witnesses often refuse to talk, so that provided necessary conflict. Some of the best dialogue written by Stephen King has his villains speak in verb-less sentences ‘Where you going?’ But as this was writing for children, instead I hint that certain words are mispronounced and my adults speak differently. In a children’s mystery there’s the added problem that grown-ups can present an extra hurdle by just ‘putting up’ and at some point, these young sleuths have to be told to back off because the job is too dangerous.

Situations have to be contemporary and show kids living in convincing situations.  Zach floats between his divorced parents; Ruby lives in poor circumstances with her single mum, Brett is an impoverished student and Anna comes from a high flying professional family. Yet these situations shouldn’t intrude except to explain more about the characters. Stories with amateur detectives are frequently written in the first person.  The advantage of using first person is immediacy. Very early in the book, I had to give the reader a chance to identify with the protagonist and my way of doing this was to ‘get inside Zach’s head’. As this is the first of a series, the reader has to not only like Zach and Anna but to go on liking them through several books. Also, I want the reader to be a step or so behind these youngsters, so that when the solution comes, the reader says, ‘Of course!’ and isn’t too bemused by the outcome.   

In a classic mystery, there is a small circle of suspects. In ‘Hedgeburners’ the characters all live in one small suburb so there are past connections. The basic point of the mystery is the use of logic; the reader must want to match wits with the detectives.  My youngsters can’t just stumble on the villain – they have to be seen to detect and the novel’s structure has to permit this.  Which brings me to the most important rule of writing crime; the criminal has to be seen or mentioned in the first three chapters.  The detective can be fooled by false clues, the plot can go back and forth, but that rule can’t be changed. To effectively work on my plot I needed to sort out two important elements: who made convincing suspects and the final ‘whodunnit’, which hopefully holds some element of surprise. All the clues must appear in the right place and I can’t afford to forget any clue or red herring or ‘have the butler do it’. Total honesty is imperative. I don’t mind admitting that this book took lots of rewrites.

There’s a lot of thinking and running around in a whodunnit, sometimes in the detective’s head, sometimes in dialogue, sometimes as action, and it’s hard to keep that interesting, so I did this by splitting up the information, inserting lots of red herrings to lead the reader astray, providing one vital piece of information early on and holding the rest until later.

When it comes to style and pacing, things should seem to take almost as much time as they seem to take in real life. However, there’s the impetus to keep the writing interesting, far more important than when writing for adults as youngsters are quick to put down a book that seems to drag. This is where subplots are useful. In Hedgeburners, Zach is in a constant quandary: he has to look after his large aviary, and hand in homework so that his father’s threat to sell his birds if his next report isn’t better won’t happen. In this he is opposed by Anna who is only interested in finding the criminal and bringing him to justice.  In any confrontation between protagonist and villain, the good guy should seem to be winning, then the bad guy should gain the upper hand, much the same way it’s done in the movies. Zach and Anna find themselves in constant conflict with their suspects and often narrowly escape being badly hurt.

Finally, one of the important elements in compelling writing is the use of contrast.  In any action scene I placed lots of short sentences and avoided long descriptions. I tried to keep the writing short, snappy and above all, funny. Again with the memory of Enid Blyton’s Famous Five at the back of my mind, I persuaded the publisher to insert illustrations and in my humble opinion, Marjory Gardner has done a fabulous job; so much so that the character Mark’s illustration (whom I wickedly based on a friend who loves telling jokes) looks so much like him I don’t dare show him the book.  

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Further details on Goldie Alexander and her writing are available at www.goldiealexander.com.
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The Australian Literature Review
www.auslit.net

Hedgeburners: an A-Z PI MysterySurviving Sydney Cove: the Diary of Elizabeth Harvey, 1790: The Diary of Elizabeth Harvey, Sydney, 1790 (My story)

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4 Responses to Writing Mysteries for Kids, by Goldie Alexander

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  3. Rachael says:

    I like the explanation of using the old ‘show don’t tell’ maxim for characters and their actions: “Show, don’t tell. In terms of characterisation, it can mean that instead of writing a paragraph of description, to use key phrases and relate them to the action.”
    I like it when an author can reveal character while they’re engaged in meaningful plot action. I don’t like long descriptions, memories and backstory explanations because they slow down the story and I lose interest.
    Thanks Goldie.

  4. Alicia Mosby says:

    Amazing article, and extremely helpful! I am writing a mystery for my daughter, who has discovered a love of the genre. Much as I had when I was her age. The way you have organized the important aspects of the mystery will make it so much easier for a novice like me. Can’t wait to read your books to my daughter!

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