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Writing Mysteries

Institute of Children's Literature

Interview with the Institute of Children's Literature - October 2012

Jan Fields is the moderator of this interview. The asterisk * indicates names or usernames of people and the questions they asked of our speaker.

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Jan Fields: Welcome to "Mysteries" with Kristi Holl. I'm looking forward to learning from such a tremendous writer and teacher as Kristi Holl. So let's jump in and talk about mysteries...

*Audrey: Would you please explain the basic process you follow when you write a mystery. Do you know the answer (who done it) and work backwards, or do you let the story lead you to the answer?

Kristi Holl: I DO know a couple of mystery writers who just “wing it” and don’t know whodunit in their own books until they get to the end and decide. Personally, that kind of writing would drive me nuts—not to mention the enormous amount of revision it would entail after you decided on your villain at the end.

Kristi Holl: So yes, I know who did what—and how they did it—before I ever start writing. Granted, the writing itself often produces additional clues and suspects, but I know the basic structure before I start the rough draft.

Kristi Holl: In my mystery writing ebook, I have two chapters that deal with process. One is on “Plots and Subplots,” and one is on “Pre-Thinking Your Plot.” If more writers didn’t skim over the pre-thinking part, the plotting would be a lot easier. Below is an excerpt from my chapter on “Pre-Thinking Your Plot”:

Brainstorm

Think of many possible angles to various crimes, experiment with different viewpoints, decide on your basic “whodunit” and “howdunit.” Scribble on scratch paper as you restructure original ideas, toss others out, go deeper, make things more complicated, more unexpected.

Then (after brainstorming and before you outline your mystery), ask yourself some basic questions. (See below.) Write down the answers. Rewrite and revise until you’re satisfied with your answers. (In the following examples, I will answer the questions using my children’s choice award-winning mystery, The Haunting of Cabin 13.)

1. What is your story’s mysterious happening or crime to be solved? In Cabin 13 the mystery revolves around a young girl’s drowning, odd goings-on in the park, and who (or what) is writing the ghost notes supposedly signed by the victim.

2. Is your setting conducive to creating fear and suspense? Laurie, the heroine, is spending the week in a state park, and tracking down the clues lead her to caves, cliffs, dark woods, and deep lakes. Many of the frightening events happen at night.

3. Can your hero solve such a crime? Because the events take place in the park, little adult help is needed, other than occasional transportation. Laurie is assisted by her best friend, Jenny, and the paralyzed boy in the adjoining cabin, as they research the history of the park and follow various suspects. The three of them are strong enough to overpower the villain.

4. Who is your villain? Does s/he work alone? In Cabin 13 there are two “villains.” Jacqui (the sister of the drowning victim) is actually leaving the ghost notes. The villain responsible for the thefts and Eleanor’s drowning is the park ranger, who is driven by his own personal problem.

5. Does your main character struggle with an inner conflict as well? The book will be stronger for it. Laurie’s a socially awkward tomboy, unlike her poised and popular best friend, which makes it hard for her to interview people and interact with the boys living in the next cabin.

6. Does the main character face many problems and complications as s/he solves the mystery? Laurie is endangered when their canoe sinks, she encounters mysterious bobbing lights at the cave, and she has a nasty run-in with a boy renting boats. Laurie is also in conflict with her best friend (who wants to chase boys and forget the drowned girl), her younger brother, the woman at the museum, and the lifeguard.

7. Is your plot heavy on action (versus just sitting and thinking and interviewing people)? Laurie is in constant movement as she figures out whodunit: hiking the trails, swimming at the beach, canoeing, exploring the museum and the cave, feeding fish at the hatchery, all the while hunting down clues.

8. Do you have some “mysteries within the mystery” that are solved before the climax? Laurie discovers that Jacqui, the girl at the beach kitchen, is really the dead girl’s sister and why she’s leaving the warning notes. Laurie observes a black cloaked figure across the lake burying a box; using her knowledge of the history of the Backbone Trail, she discovers what he’s really doing. Laurie also discovers that the handicapped boy’s father has a motive for stirring up trouble in the park and has the opportunity, and Laurie discovers what he is up to. [Those mini mysteries are your subplots usually.]

9. Do numerous real and false clues add suspense, confuse the reader, yet lead the reader logically to the conclusion? The handicapped boy’s father has a motive for wanting to ruin the park’s business, and Laurie finds false clues in his cabin. The boy renting boats also has a motive and opportunity, leaving false clues which Laurie discovers at the beach kitchen. The cloaked figure appears to be digging up some kind of buried treasure, when he is actually burying some important artifacts to be “discovered” later and make the park famous. Real clues are found in the museum and brochures.

10. Is the climax the most exciting, suspenseful scene in the book? Laurie and her sidekicks lure the park ranger to their campfire one night and trick him into exposing his guilt. When he tries to escape by racing down the slope to the lake, the boy in the wheelchair rolls after him, overtaking him and knocking him to the ground, where he is captured. A combination of physical action and dialogue keep the reader “on the scene” throughout the climax.” [end of my ebook excerpt]

*sevenacresky: Thanks Kristi! Great answers...got to get that book.

Kristi Holl: I'm glad you think the ebook might be helpful. You can read the table of contents here to see if it sounds like what you're looking for.

*ColoradoKate: Most of the adult mysteries I've read have involved murders, but a murder--at least, a recent one--probably wouldn't do for a middle grade mystery, right? How about for YA, though? What are some other topics for mysteries for kids?

Kristi Holl: I don’t write YA mysteries, but yes, they quite often involve murders and more violence than I am comfortable writing. Depending on the publisher, they can include abuse and rape. One of my middle-grade mysteries (The Haunting of Cabin 13) did deal with solving a mysterious death, but it had happened off-stage a year earlier. No blood whatsoever!

Kristi Holl: For middle grade, even without murder, you still have a real variety of “crimes” to choose from. I’m going to quote a tiny bit from my chapter on crimes in my ebook “Writing Mysteries for Young People.” (See below.)

Kristi Holl: “What kinds of crimes can you use for children’s mysteries? Almost the same crimes used in adult mysteries, but the specifics depend on the age of your readership and hero/ine. Take the crime of theft: a preschool picture book might show the family dog stealing the hero’s socks from his dresser drawer; an early reader might center around the second grade hero’s lunch being stolen from the coat closet; a fifth grader might have his bike stolen; and a YA hero might be missing his ATM card or cell phone.

Kristi Holl: Possible crimes could include blackmail (as in my Betrayed and Mystery By Mail), the forging of signatures or paintings, arson (Burned), kidnapping (Vanished, A Spin Out of Control), con artists or swindlers (Stage Fright), vandalism, shoplifting, stealing (Cast a Single Shadow), smuggling, poisoning (Poisoned and Deadly Disguise),or pranks that go wrong (such as throwing objects from an overpass and causing a fatal car accident).

Kristi Holl: There are many good books published by Writer’s Digest on writing mystery books. I have eight or nine of them, and found them very helpful in my own dozen published mysteries. Some are on specific crimes, like Missing Persons, Deadly Doses, and Rip-Off.

*BethC: When I read a mystery, there are clues throughout the book. Sometimes it seems rather natural to find a clue, and other times it feels like the author forced the clue to appear at that particular point. What are some tips you might have for making the clues appear in the story in a more natural way, and less forced?

Kristi Holl: I know exactly what you mean! Some clues can almost slip right by you, and others seem like flashing neon signs! Again, hopefully no one will mind if I quote a bit from my “Writing Mysteries for Young People,” the chapter on “Planting Clues.” (See below.)

Ways to plant clues effectively:

l. Hide them in plain view. Put the clue right under the hero’s--and the reader’s--nose. Perhaps an important clue at the scene of the crime is something in the victim’s address book. When the protagonist visits the victim’s den or bedroom, he reaches for the ringing phone on the desk and accidentally knocks a pen and an address book to the floor. Your reader won’t think a thing about it--but a scribbled notation in the address book will be an important clue later.

2. Hide clues in a list. Make the clue just one item of many in a long list. For example, one clue in solving a murder or theft might be a spade with a cracked handle. You don’t want to call attention to the spade, but you must play fair and mention that it’s available. So hide it in a list. One way, for example, would be to have your hero follow after a cat or dog who disappears into the gardener’s shed. Your hero follows the animal, who crawls out of reach to hide behind a hoe, a bucket of gravel, a broken spade, and a bag of fertilizer.

3. Create a diversion immediately after planting a clue. As soon as the clue is revealed, create an emergency for the hero. Perhaps the hero is interviewing someone who gives him a solid lead, but without warning a screaming fire engine comes down the street and stops next door. In the noise and confusion of racing outside, checking on the neighbors, and tending to anyone injured, the clue is forgotten by both the hero and the reader. Forgotten, that is, until the story’s solution is revealed later and the reader suddenly recalls that clue. (The diversions can also be minor, such as a ringing phone, a doorbell, or a screaming toddler in another room.)

4. Place the villain in the wrong place at the wrong time. Your villain seems like an average person, but place this person somewhere so that he or she seems to be out of character. Does your villain claim to be timid, yet you spot him riding recklessly in a convertible on icy roads? Does your villain say she hates dogs, yet you spot her at a pet store buying a Doberman pinscher? Is your villain a high school student, yet she’s spotted canoeing a shallow river on a school day? These things will perhaps puzzle a reader, but he won’t recognize the significance of the clues till the solution is revealed at the end. [The contrasts don’t need to be that obvious either—that’s just to make a point.]

5. Let the villain hang himself with his own words. Casual comments from the villain can reveal a knowledge that only he or she could have about the crime. Perhaps a valuable necklace is stolen, and the description given in the newspaper is “14-karat gold and heart-shaped.” The villain slips during a conversation with the hero (or within the hero’s hearing) and refers to it as a locket, but he couldn’t have known that unless he stole it himself. Such comments slide by the average reader--and are not seen as important till the ending is revealed (and your clever hero explains that clue).

6. Refer to the villain’s past, giving seemingly unimportant details. These details (such as where he was born, a former occupation, a skill or hobby, former relationships or problems) seem inconsequential when they are mentioned in passing, but they become important facts later in the story when other clues are added.

7. Focus on someone else (or several others) in the meantime. Get the reader to detest or fear at least one other character, thus turning attention away from the villain and muddying the mystery waters. Stir up negative feelings for one character or more who behaves badly, is nasty and rude, or downright abusive. Also use “red herrings” (phony clues) to lure the reader down a meandering rabbit trail that focuses on the probable guilt of one or more innocent parties.

Kristi Holl: Clues must be slipped into the story in such a casual way that the reader is not alerted. Yet the final revelation of the villain cannot come out of the blue, but instead must give the reader that “Aha! Of course!” reaction as the pieces of the puzzle fit together. These tricks of the trade will help you play fair with your reader while keeping the suspense strong till the very end!” [end of my quote]

*ColoradoKate: Should mysteries for kids be written so that the reader has at least the possibility of figuring things out before the MC does? Or should there be a final clue and twist that turns everything around? Or something in between? I guess I'm asking, how do you make it kid-friendly but not too easy to solve?

Kristi Holl: You definitely don’t want to make the mystery too easy to solve, or you’ll lose your reader’s interest. Occasionally I’ll be reading an adult mystery that makes the clues too obvious, and I think I’ve figured out the villain fairly early in the book. If the writing is good, I’ll finish the book, hoping there will be a twist and I’ll be wrong. (And usually I am wrong!) However, when I am right, I am really aggravated! For children or for adults, the best case scenario is when you time it for the reader to figure out whodunit at the same time as the hero or heroine. Your reader identifies with your sleuth—almost becomes your sleuth—and won’t want to figure it out until your hero does. If your reader sees the answer too soon, he will become aggravated with the sleuth and perceive him as not too bright if he is missing obvious clues. If your reader figures out the solution at the same time—or very near the time—that your hero figures it out, there is a real satisfaction there. Even if a final twist or piece of surprise information follows that, your reader will be satisfied. The reader needs to solve the whodunit about the time the hero does. And this event needs to be as close to the ending as possible.

*Okami: Since reading is so subjective, how can you gauge when a mystery is too easily solved? What questions should you ask your beta-readers to look for in helping you get the balance right? Isn't it possible for children's and YA mysteries to have tricky plots that are still within reach of young readers figuring out themselves, yet still challenge an adult? Does this just come out of instinct? (Despite all the planning in advance one might do, as you've described earlier)

Kristi Holl: When I have a critique partner read my mysteries, I only ask a few basic questions pertaining to the mystery itself. I ask (1) at what point were you pretty sure you knew whodunit, and (2) were you right? Then I ask, “If you guessed correctly somewhere in the first 2/3 of the book, what did you base it on?” That will tell you where you were too obvious in clue placement, or you don’t have enough suspects and red herrings misdirecting the reader.

Kristi Holl: You also asked if it isn’t possible for children’s and YA mysteries to have tricky plots that kids can figure out (but yet are challenging to adults). YES, YES, YES. That’s what kids (and good editors) demand. The YA field is growing a lot recently, and in the mystery field, it’s largely because of what you just mentioned. Have you read Dandi Daley Mackall’s Edgar award winning book THE SILENCE OF MURDER? It is one such book. There are many others.

Kristi Holl: I’ll answer the “instinct” question in the next question on “simplicity.”

*Okami: How do you keep your mystery simple and clear without unintentionally condescending to the reader? When is "too hard" really too hard, versus what a random "adult" beta-reader perceives as hard? What are some questions to ask someone critiquing your story? What are some things a writer can do to gauge that in revision?

Kristi Holl: To answer your last comment, YES, I understand. I make a lot of writing decisions along the way based on gut feelings, which are impossible to explain to anyone else. I’m sure what looks to others like emotional decisions are really a mixture of my thoughts, feelings, background, what I have read and studied for decades, who has influenced me, etc. I can’t explain what the mix is to anyone else because I don’t know, BUT when I pay attention to the gut level emotional decisions, they are nearly always the right ones.

Kristi Holl: Now…about your other questions…Editors would rather you were too hard instead of condescending to readers too. For one thing, that affects the entire tone of your manuscript if you are looking down on your readers. For a second thing, being “too hard” is such an easy fix if that’s the problem. You can make the clues a bit more obvious, or mention something important one more time in passing, etc. It’s much harder to get rid of a condescending attitude toward readers. However, if you truly have and feel respect for the age group you are writing for, that is hardly ever a problem. It sounds like you have a lot of respect for the age group you write for, or this issue wouldn’t even concern you. Yes, if you’re going to err on one side or the other, err on the “too hard” side.

Go with your gut on this one. I had sold three mysteries to Atheneum before ever reading a how-to book on writing mysteries. Then I read one. And my fourth mystery (which went on to win a children’s choice award) came back from my editor saying, in effect, “This is a fun plot, with a great puzzle. The only problem is this: I could tell whodunit this time in the second chapter.” ARGH. So I went back and revised the manuscript, making it as difficult as I would have wanted when I was a faithful Nancy Drew/Hardy Boys reader. I went back to my gut instinct and made it more difficult.

Kristi Holl: This would be a good place to point out that it will be much harder to write a good mystery “by feel” if you haven’t been an avid mystery reader for years. I’ve been reading them for fifty years by now (twenty years by the time I wrote my first one). That isn’t all I read, but probably half the fiction I read contains a mystery. And you absorb so MUCH about good writing and writing technique simply by reading a lot.

Kristi Holl: [I answered the part about questions for the critique partner in the previous question.]

*Mikki: I'm wondering if I have to have some kind of clue that will point to the real killer early on in the story. I have not wanted to do that, I wanted the real killer to come as a surprise to the MC as well as the reader, although the "reasons why" will be made clear at the end. Those reasons are also closely connected to the inner conflict of the MC. Now I'm wondering if this is a good or not-so-good thing? Will the teen reader be okay with being surprised, or will she feel cheated in some way? This is a complicated story, one that has taken me several months to just work out, and although I think I have the ending worked out so it is logical and doesn't leave any detail or anyone hanging, now I'm not sure.

Jan Fields: I'm not Kristi (and don't even play her on television) but thought I would toss in a thought -- it sounds like your story might cross over a bit into "thriller" which many mysteries these days do. Often the murderer comes as quite a surprise in thrillers, but you do need to make sure that (although a surprise) it doesn't feel like a "cheat" -- like throwing in an ending JUST for the surprise factor that doesn't work with the rest of the story. But I have seen this kind of surprise ending work well...and I've seen it work really really badly. It depends upon how satisfying it feels when it's revealled.

Kristi Holl: One mystery craft book that I read years ago said that you needed to introduce all your suspects—including the villain—in the first couple of chapters. It also said that all the main clues that would identify the villain needed to be in the first third of the book. While I don’t stick strictly to that formula, I DO keep to the principle and introduce the suspects early (at least have the characters talk about them if they are still “off stage”) and I give the clues pointing to the villain early on. The clues look so innocent (ha!) and are hidden (as pointed out in the post on clues), but they are there. The advantage you have when planting them early is that the reader tends to forget about them. Then in the middle or last part of the book, when the villain is questioned and lies about things, the reader doesn’t remember. (Example: maybe in the first chapter, your villainous school teacher mentions in a class assignment that you are to write about a fight with a sibling, and he says in passing that he fought with his brother all the time. Way later, when he lies and says he was an orphan, very few readers will remember that Chapter One class assignment, be alerted, and take a closer look at his past. BUT when the clever hero remembers at the end and uses it as one of the clues to nail the villain, the reader will be satisfied because they COULD have spotted the clue if they'd been more alert.)

Kristi Holl: It’s excellent that the villain is present, but not a suspect in the MC’s mind until nearly the end. That’s the way you want it. HOWEVER, it isn’t playing fair to the reader that the reason is because you haven’t given the hero or the reader any clues. You MUST give them sufficient clues—real clues and not red herrings—but they must be hidden so well that they aren’t noticed. The villain is usually fairly nice too, and not giving off nasty vibes. He/she can have a responsible job too, and look like an upstanding citizen. But you’ll anger your reader if you don’t give real clues until near the end. You would be setting it up to make sure even the most clever reader doesn’t solve the mystery till the end, which isn't fair.

*KatieC: Can the mystery be a misunderstanding? For instance, the kids think something has been stolen, and they work to track down the thief. In the end they find the culprit, but it turns out he wasn't stealing anything--he'd sent it off for repairs. Does something like that work? Or is it like the story that is fantastical but then the MC wakes up and we find out it was all a dream (otherwise known as a letdown)?

Kristi Holl: With the type of misunderstanding you’re talking about, you could make it work for younger readers, maybe up to age 8 or 9 in an early chapter book. They would still be solving the mystery of “whatever happened to X?” You would need to have plenty of clues pointing to it appearing stolen, however, to sustain interest and tension.

Kristi Holl: The kinds of misunderstandings that don’t work very well are the kind based solely on a misunderstanding between characters. Perhaps a child overhears something, or part of a conversation, misinterprets something, and concocts a mystery instead of asking for clarification. When you have a whole story plot based on something that could have been cleared up in two minutes if your characters had talked to each other, it’s a very flimsy plot that will irritate your reader (most notably an acquisitions editor).

Kristi Holl: However, simple misunderstandings work for very young picture book readers—maybe up to age 3 or so. So do “villains” that turn out to be the family dog who ran off with the child’s missing toy, although dogs (and birds who like shiny trinkets) are a bit overdone for villains by now. Go for something more unusual.

Kristi Holl: So to answer your question: for the older reader (8 and up), they want a “real” mystery, if possible, rather than a misunderstanding. But done right, a misunderstanding type of mystery works fine for the little ones.

*KatieC: Thank you Kristi, and a chapter book was exactly what I had in mind!

Kristi Holl: ou're welcome! I know that with this particular subject, it's hard to draw distinctive lines for age groups. Good luck!

Jan Fields: I think you do have to be careful with the whole "misunderstanding mystery" because it basically robs the main character at the end. He does all this work -- but it's for nothing because there was only a mystery because he jumped to conclusions at the beginning. So it's a kind of -- it was only a mystery because the main character is stupid situation. Just as the main character can end up really embarrassed, so does the reader because he/she really connected and related to that character. And we all know how happy we are when we feel like we were made a fool of (or made a fool of ourselves). So really...this is a SUPER SUPER dangerous choice and would have to be done really, really well so the ending has such a big pay-off that it barely stings at all that the main character only got involved because he misread a situation. So...like...he was wrong about the machine being stolen, but through his efforts at solving the fake "mystery" he saved a dog and her puppies...something like that.

*KatieC: Thanks Jan. This idea I had is for a series, and each book would end up as a "misunderstanding", so your warning is very important to me. I'm still in the brainstorming stage, and this helps me plan things out accordingly. I wonder if in the process of the investigation the kids could uncover a true crime happening, and they could end up "solving" both mysteries. Do you think that would work?

Kristi Holl: If I understand your question correctly, I would say yes, that would be fine. Many mysteries use that format. The one I'm working on now does, as a matter of fact. (Actually, my first conflict is more of a mistake than a misunderstanding.) Most of the adult mysteries I read start off trying to solve an actual crime or mystery, then they stumble upon something much more serious than they first thought, and they end up solving THAT bigger crime. I don't think I would let your characters linger too long on the misunderstanding, though. I'd plunge them into a real mystery just as soon as possible.

*Chris Eboch: Another option might be to have someone other than the point of view character make the misunderstanding. For example, your sidekick character is the point of view character and the voice of reason, trying to convince the "detective" that she's getting carried away. And the sidekick figures out the truth in the end. I always wanted Watson to best Sherlock Holmes, just once!

*KatieC: As you mentioned earlier, a mystery in a picture book needs to be much simpler. Is the rule of 3 a good one to follow? For instance, the "detective" finds one clue, then another, and then the third solves the crime (with subsequent WRONG clues to match the number or right clues)? I've written a PB manuscript with two boys as the MCs. One THINKS he's on the trail of the culprit, but in the pictures we would see the clues the other boy is finding, and in the end it's his clues that lead us to the suspect. So we'd have the 3 right clues and also the 3 red herrings. Is this too confusing for the picture book age?

Kristi Holl: I think it depends on what you mean by “the picture book age.” My youngest granddaughter is almost two, and she’s very smart and loves picture books. But I don’t think she would understand a mystery with both the clues and red herrings. She would understand following three simple clues though—we’ve read books like that.

Kristi Holl: To be honest, I’m out of my league here with picture book mysteries. You’re only getting my opinion here. But the “rule of 3” would be a simple mystery. What you’re describing sounds like a double rule of 3—and I think it would take a more mature picture book reader to understand that. I could be wrong though, and if anyone out there has a better answer, please chime in. And if you have examples of mystery picture books to study, please list those too!

*KatieC: Thank you Kristi. The age I had in mind was 4-8, though I do understand most publishers are looking for PBs for ages 2-5 these days. I will keep thinking about this!

Kristi Holl: Yes, ages 4-8 would want something more complicated to figure out with the heroes in your story, and should be able to follow both lines of thinking.

*SevenAcreSky: I've been trying to think of some mystery PB's and drawing a blank. There are only a very very few that fit even loosely the definition in our bookshelves. Most of them are 'illustrated stories' rather than true picture books. Nonetheless I'm working on the idea too...

*ChrisEboch: Two examples: PRIVATE I. GUANA: The Case of the Missing Chameleon, written and illustrated by Nina Laden (Chronicle) and ACE LACEWING: BUG DETECTIVE, written and illustrated by David Diedrzycki (charlesbridge).

KatieC: Are there any topics that are overdone (or ways of handling them that are overdone)? Suggestions for making old subjects fresh?

Kristi Holl: There is one thing that has been overdone lately in my own opinion, and it’s something that bugs me as a reader. I have nothing against a fantasy element in mysteries—some like those by Mary Downing Hahn are terrific—but an overdone element I see new writers doing involves how the mystery is solved. The hero nears the climax, the scene is tense, the hero is backed into a corner by the villain with no apparent way out…and voila! He turns into a bat and flies away. Or he has mind-reading capacities that suddenly “show” him where a weapon is hidden in a drawer that he can use to get away. Or whatever… To me, this is lazy plotting. Frankly, anyone can paint someone into a desperate corner if they know they can pull some fantasy magical thing in the nick of time to get him free. Ugh. It’s just as bad to me as the “he woke up suddenly and was relieved to find out it was all a dream.”

Kristi Holl: Again, I have read some mysteries with fantasy elements that were excellent! Just be sure that you don’t rely on the fantasy to get you out of good plotting and having a strong, smart child hero or heroine. Most kids who read mysteries want to identify with the hero, imagining themselves solving the mystery along with the hero. But there is such a “disconnect” if the hero or hero’s sidekick suddenly uses magical powers to get out of a bad situation because the child reader knows he has no such powers. So he can no longer identify. Use the magical, fantasy elements in other ways, if you want them in your mystery.

Kristi Holl: I honestly don’t know of topics that are overdone. There are only so many crimes to choose from, especially for children’s writing. One of the easiest ways to make something fresh is to add something from the news that is unusual, or to take a news item and flip it around. For example, I read a mystery (can’t recall the title) where some of the clues revolved around an eating disorder. But it turned out that the mother of the teenager had the anorexia problem and was the culprit. (I Googled it, and yes, there is an eating disorder called adult anorexia.) You can also make things fresh by changing your setting. In my mystery, A Spin Out of Control, the confrontation with the villain originally took place in a park. It was okay, but when I moved the confrontation to an antique carousel (the one in my hometown at the time), the climax was so much more exciting and unusual. Or maybe you can make your character fresh and different. In Dandi Mackall’s book, The Silence of Murder, the boy accused of the murder is someone who can’t speak, due to a prior trauma. This adds all kinds of complications and interesting twists to the story. So to make things fresh, I suggest looking at each part of your mystery—characters, setting, plot—and see what unique elements you can introduce.

Jan Fields: In magazine stories, I know editors have told me that mysteries that aren't really mysteries are the big one -- where the mystery is something invented by the kid because of a misunderstanding, or where the mystery is invented by the kid because he jumps to conclusions (thinking someone stole his shiny thing when really it was a magpie) -- that kind of thing. So mysteries that cheat.

Jan Fields: I'm totally with Kristi on the whole mystery pet peeve thing. Something I read a long time ago (I don't even know where) basically said, if the hero is going to pull something out of his pocket at the end of the story to save the day, he better put it in his pocket somewhere long before that. Some of the things heros JUST HAPPEN to have on them or JUST HAPPEN to find laying on the floor irritate the crap out of me (and I consider this first cousin to the hero who just happens to be a psychic or shape shifter or something) If you get to the end of the story and discover your hero needs a pencil to stab the vampire...recognize that most kids don't just HAPPEN to have a pencil crammed in a pocket -- so figure out why THIS KID does.

Jan Fields: I do think it's okay not to be really OVERT about the trick you're going to pull at the end as long as it makes perfect sense when you pull it. I read a short story once (not a mystery) where the hero got himself into more and more trouble and at the end, he turned out to be a monster of some sort. But at the end, it made perfect sense because you'd been getting these subtle...kinda "off kilter" ... clues all along and at the end, it's like -- OH, right, that makes perfect sense.

Kristi Holl: Jan makes a good point about not needing to be in the reader's face when planting clues. As long as the reader can go back and spot the things that add up to a plausible ending, you're okay. And "off kilter" describes it well. Much better than in their face with neon lights flashing.

*ColoradoKate: What are some good ways to have the hero explain things to the reader, at the end, without going on and on, and without seeming artificial or beating the intelligent reader over the head with the explanation? I can think of the trick of having a sidekick (or maybe a victim) who's not as clever as the hero and who wants to know how it was figured out... what else works?

Kristi Holl: You’re right in thinking that you don’t want the hero going on and on at the end, explaining who is guilty, what clues he followed, etc. The best “trick” to avoid the (no longer popular) roundup of the suspects in the drawing room at the end deals with how you plot the ending. Wrap up as many questions (and thus give as many explanations) as you can just BEFORE the climax, letting the unraveling of some of the clues lead to the climactic scene. Before the climax, have some mini high points where subplots are resolved. (Perhaps you find out that your main suspect is innocent, or someone’s alibi—which the hero knew was a lie—was only to protect someone and not because the suspect was guilty.) Endings that go on too long are usually trying to wrap up EVERYTHING, whereas much of it could be resolved just before the climax scene, helping build the climax to a high pitch at the same time.

Kristi Holl: Just don’t go on too long. The denouement, which tells how the hero figured out the solution, should be as tightly compressed as possible. Eliminate boring details. Remember, the story has already peaked at its climax—that’s what made it the climax—so no matter how dramatic you make the denouement (and the suspense must remain high here), it is still at a lower tension level than the climax. So keep it short.

Kristi Holl: Don’t tack on a chunk of explanation to serve as your denouement. Instead, reveal explanations and changes in your main character’s thinking by showing them in action. Let the reader see and hear how your story turns out. This bears repeating: beware of the “drawing room” type of ending, in which the detective gathers all the suspects and, after a monologue describing all the clues, points to the villain. This structure has gone out of style. Young readers want action throughout their mysteries, and they won’t stand for this. The main revelations (whodunit and howdunit) need to be shown in action before and during the climax, not told in a monologue at the end (or even a dialogue as characters discuss the clues and possible suspects.) You can have a few pages at the end where characters talk and wrap things up, but that’s about all.

Jan Fields: One way I've seen that keeps the reader actively involved after the "I figured it out" part is if figuring out the culpret actually thrusts the "detective" into the highest level of danger yet. So we as readers now know who the bad guy is -- but we still aren't sure how the "detective" is going to get out of danger. Then the whole "escape from danger" is peppered with more support to why that bad guy was the bad guy -- if handled really well, that can keep the whole reveal very exciting. If handled poorly...well, I've seen it turn into a kind of Scooby-Doo chase scene...so, you know, ya gotta be careful.

*ColoradoKate: Heh. I'm reading a somewhat disappointing book right now that's fantasy but with huge mystery elements. It's replete with Scooby-Doo chase scenes, which I've begun to skim through. You'd think they'd add to the excitement, but after a while they're just confusing and repetitive. And silly.

*Okami: I think some things read tedious, but work in visual mediums better, because watching a two-minute chase scene takes less time and concentration than reading it in print. That's part of why I personally am still a bit skeptic about the parallels between screenwriting and novel writing. You can just "get away" with stuff in movies you often can't in a novel, just because watching something on screen is a different experience than reading something. Am I at least half right on this?

Kristi Holl: Yes, you are right. Some techniques just don't transfer from one medium to another. That said, I do want to point out that four of the best craft books I read last year--if not THE best--were screenwriting books (THE ANATOMY OF STORY, SUBTEXT, WRITING FOR EMOTIONAL IMPACT, and THE MORAL PREMISE). So don't throw the baby out with the bath water. Just be aware that some of the elements, as you said, won't necessarily work because screen is such a different experience from the written page.

Jan Fields: One of the gigs I've had lately has been writing for a line of cozy mysteries. Since I never wrote a mystery before writing any of these (though I'll try anything if someone wants to wave a contract at me), I've found the story OUTSIDE the mystery an interesting element. I know with mysteries for grown-ups, you have a mystery that needs solving -- but you usually also have a character situation that works itself out along side the mystery (and sometimes more than one). For instance (taking this to kid level) you might have a kid trying to solve the mystery behind an artifact she finds in the cellar of their new house...but at the same time she's working out the issues surrounding moving to a new place and adapting to how that changes her life. So, how much thought do you put into these stories BEYOND the mystery...do they evolve naturally as you work on the mystery? Are they something you plan after you work out the mystery elements? With these cozies -- mine mostly come out of the story...the story NEEDS the subplot to work. But sometimes they're something I have to think about after I think out the mystery. I'm interested in how that works for you?

Kristi Holl: You're so right that even in mysteries, you need an inner conflict and an outer conflict to make a story with enough impact. That was one of the criticisms of Nancy Drew. She seldom had a personal problem to solve or a personal stake in whatever she was solving. (I loved her anyway, I must say.)

Kristi Holl: Your example about the kid in the new house is great. You have the inner conflict and outer mystery conflict TIED TOGETHER (the new house). This is important for maximum impact. And both issues need to be resolved, and when you can resolve both in the climax scene, you have a triple punch. It's helpful for the subplot to be something that thwarts the heroine though. Maybe her mother is pushing her to get out and meet more kids in the neighborhood, but your heroine wants to be in the cellar digging for more artifacts or in a dusty library or museum tracking down information. Mom thwarts her at every turn: inviting kids over, enrolling her in gymnastics classes, whatever. (More about that in a minute.)

Kristi Holl: It also works very well if the heroine's personal inner conflict is a fear that she must overcome in order to solve the mystery. Perhaps she's terrified of the dark, of closed-in places, etc. [You would show this in a flashback probably when she first has to go down in the scary cellar.] And of course the climax scene would take place in the most constrictive, scary place--maybe a tunnel she discovers, or down an abandoned well, or something equally challenging based on her fear.

Kristi Holl: In adult mysteries and some juvenile mysteries, the subplot doesn't appear to be tied to the mystery until part-way through the story. That can work too as long the connection is made clear before too long.

Kristi Holl: Jan, for me, the subplots and plot get worked out together. Once I have the main mystery idea (what happens and who did it and why), then I make a list of at least three people who will try to thwart my heroine and in what way. These become my subplots, and because they are trying (in three very different ways) to thwart her, they naturally are tied to the plot (as mentioned above). They may or may not be the suspects--they don't all have to be. I do more outlining for mysteries than any other kind of writing to make sure the suspects and clues get introduced in a timely manner.

Kristi Holl: Just remember that mysteries are plot driven, and the subplots need to be tied to the mystery. You can't devote large chunks of chapters to the heroine's personal problem that has nothing to do with the mystery at all. You'll lose your reader that way, who signed on to read a mystery.

Okami: How do you "absorb craft" just from reading? While I don't read as many mysteries as I did when I was younger, I do read as much fantasy as you do mysteries, and I struggle with learning from novels I read because I don't have the natural inclination to "dissect" books.

Kristi Holl: I’m not really sure how you absorb craft when reading, but I know you do. My students who were avid readers of fiction had much better instincts for writing it than those who didn’t like fiction or didn’t read much of it. As a reader, you are much more fully engaged in the experience than someone watching a movie. Your mind is busy translating letters on a page into whole new worlds, populating it with people your mind can “see,” etc. I honestly think—and there is NO proof of this that I know of—that your brain files away certain things. Certain groups of words conjure up certain images, and later when you are writing and want that image, a group of words will come to you from your subconscious or somewhere. I imagine it’s something you may have read at some point. The same is true for plotting techniques. How many times, when you get to the end of a mystery and are surprised by whodunit, have you gone back and tracked down the clues, especially the ones you missed? I used to do that. That’s how I realized the clues were all in plain sight, but given in such a way that I had overlooked them. I didn’t consciously “study” the technique since I had no idea that someday I’d write a mystery. But I probably filed it away in my brain so I could be more alert during the next mystery I read.

Kristi Holl: We also analyze, usually without meaning to, the reasons we don’t like a book. That’s how I knew that I didn’t want to write about what I call “idiot victims” and “poor me victims” because that kind of character really irritated me. [I write about this in my ebook chapter on “The Perfect Victim: Do’s and Don’ts.”] All of this type of thing falls under the heading of “absorbing craft” when reading. It’s rather an unconscious dissecting of elements that gets filed away for later retrieval. At least, I’m never aware of any “inner book critic” because I’m too absorbed in the story.

Kristi Holl: Once in a great while, I will turn on my “inner book critic” and read a book that people have raved about that just doesn’t appeal to me personally so I can be a little more well rounded in my reading. I’m not reading for pleasure, at least at the beginning, but sometimes the story turns out to be better than I expected and I get caught up in it (and lose the inner book critic).

Kristi Holl: When I first started writing mysteries, I made a list of techniques I saw other mystery writers using. At one time I had a running list of about five single-spaced pages of techniques. Then when I was plotting my own books, I’d just read through the list and see if any of them struck me as workable in my own current manuscript. That’s something that every writer could do, and it doesn’t take an inner critic that spoils your reading pleasure to do this. When you have lots of techniques to choose from, you don’t have to force one to work in your story. [Now there are so many good mystery writing craft books that people probably don’t make such lists anymore!]

*Okami: Have you had to at times stop reading craft books because they just influenced your writing process too much?

Kristi Holl: I have given up reading craft books at times because I think I was doing that INSTEAD of writing, but to answer your actual question, no. I actually wished they had influenced my rough draft writing more. However, I did have to learn one thing about it, which I'll address below.

*Okami: Don't you find it hard to either focus on the story, yet not overlook weaknesses with one's craft? Or- Improve one's understanding of SPAG and plotting, without "Editing out the charm and voice" just to read cleanly?

Kristi Holl: I think I used to worry about that a lot more than I do now. My rough drafts haven't gotten any better really, but Anne Lamott's book BIRD BY BIRD helped me with that a lot. (You know, that chapter on "writing %#@*&^@%$* rough drafts.") Once I realized that everyone's rough drafts stunk, I could relax more. I decided in my own mind that no one at all was going to ever see my rough draft, so I could write whatever I wanted to say and let my characters talk however they wanted to. That got what little "charm and voice" I had onto the page.

Kristi Holl: But yes, in the middle somewhere (like maybe books #10-15) I edited out the voice without realizing what I was doing wrong. I just knew it was "flat" when I got it all fixed up and perfected. Two things helped me finally reverse that trend, and it wasn't easy, so the sooner you spot this problem, the better. One thing that helped me was a book called FINDING YOUR VOICE by Les Edgerton. He talked a lot about this problem and about how to re-find your original writing voice. The other "aha moment" came when I set out on a reading program I made up because I wasn't making time to read award-winning fiction like the Newbery books and others. And I found it stunning that practically all the winners broke one rule after another, while keeping very distinctive voices. I realized that I probably had a lot more freedom than I thought. CAUTION: I still think you need to know the rules of writing fiction and have good reasons to break those rules. I'm not advocating breaking the rules willy nilly because you don't feel like learning the various writing disciplines you mentioned. Hope this helps--and no! You're not alone, not by a mile.

*Okami: I'm just wondering how much of this is craft vs. storytelling. Things can be nicely written, but not a story, so aren't there stories held back because of the writer's weak use of craft?

Kristi Holl: I was discussing this subject with a writer friend of mine who has been publishing about 30 years and has taught writing at a college for years. She said in her case that the cycle came and went over time. In the early years, she could tell a good story, but she needed to study craft. Then for a while, it traded places. Her craft--as far as she had studied it--was pretty smooth, but the stories were getting redundant and blah. She did more right brain stuff. Then she felt a need to study deeper craft books on voice and subtext and figures of speech and more advanced techniques. She got an MFA then too. Now she is swinging back more to the brainstorming side of things and dealing with creativity issues. It comes and goes over the years, as you spiral up in your career. You'll "re-visit" these things over and over, just at a different level.

*BethC: Thank you for stopping by this week. This has been a great workshop. You always have great advice!

Kristi Holl: You're very welcome, and this has been fun!


~ Back to writing page ~ See Kristi's Mysteries ~
~ Read another interview: "De-stressing the Writing Life" ~

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