Sometimes when you meet an author in person you find yourself delighted they’re published, because they’re so nice, and the world is a better place for their books.
I met Kate Pankhurst in York a month or so ago, when we both attended the second of Sara Grant’s wonderful workshops on editing. We got talking, and I asked if she’d like to contribute a post to this blog. Being the lovely person she is, she not only wrote a post but illustrated it as well. Here’s what she has to say about writing a mystery story:
Elementary my dear (Insert name here). Or is it?
I’ve been lucky enough over the last year to make the leap, across my studio, from my illustration desk to my now writing desk (with regular shuffling in-between the two).
So I’m now spending much of my time immersed in a world of mystery and intrigue, no murders or anything like that. Mostly Ghostly Guinea Pigs, sabotaged baking contests and unexplained shockingly scary hairstyles, oh and a cursed stuffed poodle. All cases investigated by intrepid girl detectives The Mystery Girls, headed up by Mariella Mystery (aged nine and a bit). Main character in the series of books I’m in the process of writing and illustrating for children ages 7+.
The main thing you want to avoid when writing a mystery story for children is ending up in a haze of confusion and mystery about the subtleties of unravelling Who dunit? What dunit? Or what-is-it? (And subtlety is what it’s all about to avoid reveals that clang like the creaky door of a haunted house falling off its hinges.)
Here’s my top five mystery enhancing tips:
1. Writing like you don’t know WHO DUNIT:
You as the writer know what clues are leading to – but your main character needs time, space and a bit of inspiration to figure it all out. Ask yourself if your mystery solver is really acting like someone who is figuring things out for the first time. Are they rushing to the reveal faster than you can say Miss Marple? Any sudden burst of jigsaw puzzles falling seamlessly into place is probably a bit too much of a leap for your character to make in one move. Do they need to grab a milkshake and ponder their evidence boards for a bit? Or hear a passing comment that leads to a moment of detective genius?
2. Who actually DUNIT?
While you clearly don’t want to give away whodunit immediately, this character still needs a presence throughout your story. We need to know about who they are and what they do to care at the YOU! IT WAS YOU ALL ALONG moment. Deciding how to make it seem like the culprit isn’t guilty from the off is something you can have fun with. Is their aloofness and disinterest just an elaborate cover up? Or are they being overly helpful and concerned whilst really being committed to vengeance? (It definitely takes me a few drafts to get the balance of this character being present in the story without making it all seem too obvious.)
3. Disclosing Top Secret Information:
It needs to be your detective or mystery solver driving the story forwards towards the big reveal. That means they need to seek out the best witnesses, decide when surveillance trips are the way forward or a spot when some undercover work is needed. It’s the quirks of how your main character steers the investigation, in their own unique way, that will hook readers. Also, you don’t want too many easy confessions. If a witness is going to blurt out lots of facts about a guilty party your detective should have already figured much of it out through other evidence. All the best detectives are one step ahead of the game.
4. Exhibit A: Fake Moustache:
There’s a lot of fun to be had playing with the conventions of detective/spy/mystery stories when writing for children. It’s a world young readers are familiar with. Who doesn’t love a good pair of self-destructing underpants? Or a fantastical undercover disguise? And where would Sherlock have been without his trusty sidekick, Watson? (I could go on, mystery HQs, high tech gadgets, secret messages, code words, secret identities …)
5. Building Suspense:
Where there is mystery there should be a good helping of suspense. Looking over your story, do you have a satisfying red herring in there that’s thrown your main character off the scent before they finally figure out what’s really been going on? Some moments of genuine fear? Utter confusion and being at the point of giving up? This links in closely with not making things too easy for your main character, readers will appreciate the main characters true genius if they’ve been on a journey of highs and lows before finally solving the mystery. One other thing to consider, are the suspense and fear levels appropriate for your readership?
(I only ask as it was recently pointed out to me that the villain in the Curse of the Pampered Poodle trying to crush The Mystery Girls with a falling giant stuffed polar bear when she was confronted, was possibly a bit too much for seven year olds to cope with. However, I’ve kept in references to another character being reportedly eaten by a tiger. This was OK as it happened years ago, referenced a background character and wasn’t a live action scene or anything.)
About the Author
Kate Pankhurst has worked for over ten years as an illustrator on stories by authors including Judy Blume, Steve Hartley and Julia Jarman. She now writes and illustrates her own series of books, The Mariella Mysteries, about a girl detective called Mariella Mystery.
Katre spends most of her time illustrating and writing for children from her weavers’ cottage in Leeds (with the help of a mental spotty dog called Olive).