Making Sense of Mysteries: A Guest Piece by Allan Boroughs
“Every solution to every problem is simple. It's the distance between the two where the mystery lies.” – Derek Landy
If I have a pet peeve guaranteed to set my teeth on edge more than fingernails on a blackboard or people chewing gum with their mouths open, it’s the celebrity-written children’s book. Of course, not all celebrity children’s books are bad; David Walliams turns out wildly funny books for kids, but then he was already a writer when he started.
What I am referring to are the type of ‘celebrities’ who are filling in time after being ejected from week two of Love Island and whose agent has suggested writing a children’s book because, “you know, they have fewer words and less difficult spelling”. Trust me, no self-respecting child is going to be fooled.
The reason I dislike these sorts of books so much is that they are deeply disrespectful to the children they are written for. For fifteen years I have only ever wanted to write children’s books, not because they are easy but because, done properly, they are fiendishly difficult. You will never find an audience more prepared to abandon a book on page two if it doesn’t grab their interest or who are as brutally critical as a group of 8–12-year-olds. Trust me on this, I have the scars.
So, when Mark Dawson and I agreed to collaborate on The After-School Detective Club, a children’s mystery series that evoked the Famous Five and Just William books we loved as kids, we knew we were treading on hallowed ground.
What makes a great mystery story for kids? If the formula was just like following a cookbook, then no doubt it would be a lot easier to achieve success. But in my experience, great stories are more like cherished family recipes. The ingredients may change with the generations, the quantities may vary and the dish may never come exactly out the same each time, but you know as soon as you taste it that it has been made with love.
However, whilst there are no immutable rules for writing a great mystery, I believe there are certain things a writer should be mindful of. So, for what it’s worth, here are my top five tips for writing a children’s mystery.
1. Don’t patronise your audience:
Good advice for any novel but children’s books are particularly prone to it. Nothing will turn your readers off more quickly than a cutesy, saccharine confection based on an adult’s idea of what children want. In my experience, children are way more sophisticated than adults give them credit for and anyone writing down to a child is asking for trouble. Children have no difficulty accommodating complex concepts and difficult subject matter and writers shouldn’t shy away from them. The only exceptions I tend to make in children’s writing are around vocabulary because, let’s face it, children have had less time to learn words like ‘nugatory’, ‘dysania’ and ‘quixotic’. (Having said that, one plot point of Ragnar’s Gold revolves around the concept of ‘steganography’ so nothing is out of bounds if you take time to explain it properly).
2. Think about your characters really hard:
Children are fussy about relationships – they choose their friends carefully; they think about who their best friends are and they analyse why. They will not be satisfied with a group of characters who are poorly conceived and hastily sketched. As most writers know, plots are only interesting when we are invested in the characters who are living in them, and this is doubly true for children. If they can’t identify with the characters, then you can expect it to end up in the DNF pile pretty quickly. When we created The After-School Detective Club, Mark and I spent a great deal of time thinking about the five main characters – who they were, their likes and dislikes and particularly their backgrounds. We deliberately created characters who were as culturally, temperamentally, and economically diverse as we could make them. When they first meet, they don’t particularly like each other and they disagree on practically everything, yet somehow this makes their bond of friendship stronger when they are in the thick of an adventure.
3. Make lots of stuff happen
I have a simple recipe when it comes to plots; more is better. Kids love a lot of stuff to happen in a book and they will take all the twists turns, reversals, double crosses, surprises and reveals you can throw at them as long as it all comes together in a satisfying ending. (As a general rule, children do not like ambiguous endings, and they will not shy away from telling you this if you try to get clever).
4. Save the parents
I’ve heard it said that a kid’s job is to have adventures while a parent’s job is to stop them. It’s certainly true that nothing will put a damper on a dangerous escapade quicker than a concerned parent and it’s the principal reason that there are so many orphans in children’s literature. Quite simply, too many parents will stop the fun. Most children have a parent or guardian who is simultaneously the centre of their world and the source of most of their problems and when we wrote the After-School Detective Club, we were determined not to write them out of the story. So, save the parents, keep them in the story and write them into the mystery.
5. Break all these rules
Yeah. I hate following other writing people’s rules too and I frequently don’t although I do generally try to have some sort of logic for why I’m breaking them. So, feel free to disregard anything I’ve said if it helps you write a children’s story that is original, from your heart and which you believe children deserve to hear and will fall over themselves to read. And, if you can’t do all that, then stick to something easier…like going on ‘Love Island’.
The Secret of Ragnar’s Gold, co-written by Mark Dawson and Allan Boroughs, published by Welbeck Children’s is out now, £6.99