Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Whodunit? Writing Mystery Novels for Kids: Part One

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Whodunit? Writing Mystery Novels for Kids: Part One

By Susan Hughes

Welcome to May. This month, M is for MYSTERY!

The closest I’ve come to writing a mystery for kids is my nonfiction book Case Closed: Nine Mysteries Unlocked By Modern Science. But I do love reading mysteries. There’s something so satisfying about being presented with a puzzle at the beginning of a story and then reading on to understand what really happened and why. I love the insights into layers of character that many mysteries provide. But how do these authors do it?

Well, I’ve been fortunate to have that very question—and others!— answered by five experienced writers of mysteries for children and young adults: Caroline Stellings, James Leck, Y.S. Lee, Shane Peacock and Norah McClintock. I know you’ll learn from their responses. And, as always, please do feel free to write in with your own comments and tips.

Let me introduce our five guests:

Caroline Stellings is an award-winning author and illustrator of numerous books for children. Her novel The Contest (Second Story Press) won the ForeWord Book of the Year gold medal, and her young adult novel The Manager (CBU press) won the Hamilton Literary Award in January 2015. Caroline lives in Waterdown, Ontario.

James Leck is the author of The Adventures of Jack Lime, The Further Adventures of Jack Lime and After Dark, which will be released this fall. He lives in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia with his wife and children.

Y.S. Lee is the author of the award-winning Agency novels (Candlewick Press), a quartet of mysteries about a girl detective in Victorian London. She lives in Kingston, Ontario, where she sometimes subjects her family to historical experiments (sorry about the beef tallow thing, guys). She blogs weekly at

Shane Peacock is a novelist, playwright, journalist and documentary screenwriter, and the author of the award-winning and bestselling Boy Sherlock Holmes series, as well as a contributor to the bestselling Seven, The Series and The Seven Sequels. He lives near Cobourg, Ontario with his wife and three children.

Author of over 60 books, Norah McClintock writes young adult mysteries and crime fiction and is a five-time winner of an Arthur Ellis Award for crime fiction for young people. She lives in Point Claire, Quebec.

Susan Hughes:

Why do you write mystery novels for children?

Caroline Stellings:

When I was growing up, I lived for the Nancy Drew mysteries. Sure, I can see now that they are formulaic, and not always well written, but at the time, they transported me into a world of excitement and glamour, suspense and danger, and I lived vicariously through Nancy and her friends. Although my career in children’s books began with picture books (because I am an illustrator), I always knew that one day, I would write a mystery series. I am happy to say that the second in my Nicki Haddon series is dedicated to Mildred Wirt Benson and Harriet Stratemeyer Adams, the writers of Nancy Drew.

James Leck:

To answer this question, I have to break it into two parts. First, I write for children because I always felt pretentious when I wrote for adults. Writing for children gives me a freedom that I don’t have when I write for adults. I can be silly and get in touch with my inner kid. Second, I write mysteries because I love reading mysteries. What I’ve discovered as a writer is that you have to write what you’re interested in or your hard work gets even harder and I don’t think what you produce material that feels authentic.

Ying S. Lee:

As a child, I loved Encyclopedia Brown and the Hardy Boys (I was less of a Nancy Drew fan; she seemed to get rescued an awful lot) and soon read my way through Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie. When I tried to write a novel, it was obviously going to be a mystery. But in its first form, A Spy in the House was an adult historical. It wasn’t until my agent read it and said, “You realize this is a coming-of-age story?” that I understood what I’d done: I’d written a mystery novel for the teenaged me, who’d been too old for the Hardy Boys, but not understood all of Agatha Christie’s cultural references, and had yet to discover the wonder of Dorothy L. Sayers. A Spy in the House is also a mystery novel that pokes fun at mystery novels. Much as I love the genre, it takes itself far too seriously.

Shane Peacock:

I didn’t start out to do that. I simply wanted to write novels with stories that appealed to me and had meaning. Many years ago, I went on an ocean kayaking trip to a small island off the coast of Newfoundland, which had a ghost town. It intrigued me and I just knew I could write a novel set there and that novel would have a kid as the protagonist. It became The Mystery of Ireland’s Eye, and I started writing for young adults. Then, The Boy Sherlock Holmes concept came to me—the story of Holmes as a boy, something that had never been done before. It was a perfect fit too. So, it wasn’t about setting out to write mystery novels for children (and The Boy Sherlock is more for young adults, teens and adults) and more about simply finding particular stories that appealed to me.

Norah McClintock:

I got hooked on mystery novels at a young age myself. Nancy Drew was my go-to fantasy heroine, She could do anything, solve anything, she had best friends and a boyfriend, she had a car (which, when I read the books, was called a “roadster”) and her dad gave her free rein to get into all kinds of trouble. What a dream life for a twelve-year-old in the suburbs. From there, it was a natural progression to reading mysteries as an adult—and, when I started to write, to write them. Why for junior-high and high-school kids? I haven’t quite figured that out yet. Maybe I never grew up.


It’s a cliché question, but heck, I really want to know! How do you get your ideas for your mystery novels?


I wanted a strong protagonist, and I wanted her to be wealthy, because she needed to be able to travel extensively. But after watching a heartbreaking news story about baby girls in China being left to starve to death in orphanages, and one in particular by the name of Yin, I knew that I had found my heroine. So Nicki (Fu Yin) begins life as an orphan, and then is adopted by wealthy Canadians, and becomes a kung fu champion. I did it for that baby girl in China. I wanted to make her life count. As the series unfolds, I am developing a "mystery within a mystery" as Nicki attempts to locate her birth family.

As for ideas about the mystery itself, I wanted it to be more of a James Bond or Bourne Conspiracy sort of spy novel, so I incorporated elements from the secret service, mostly by reading a lot about CSIS and the CIA and FBI. I found a lot of ideas simply by learning about what spy agencies do. It is surprising how many martial artists are recruited for work in the secret service. A book called Inside Canadian Intelligence (Dundurn) was very helpful for basic information about Canada’s role in international espionage. And finally, my editor (Marianne Ward, a genius) added some wonderful ideas of her own, such as the punk rock soundtrack, which sets the book off nicely.


The idea for the first case I wrote for The Adventures of Jack Lime came from a story I heard on the radio about bicycle thieves in Toronto using liquid nitrogen to break locks. I thought it would be pretty weird to come out of Starbucks or McDonald’s or wherever and find little bits of your lock scattered all over the sidewalk. Then I thought, wouldn’t it be even weirder to come out and find out that they stole your lock and your bike? Why would someone steal a broken lock?

All the other mysteries basically came to me by brainstorming ideas, jotting down a whole bunch of notes, and then picking the strongest ones. Then I keep asking myself questions about who did it, why they did it, how they did it, and so on and so on and so on. I spend a lot of time planning before I sit down to write, I feel like that saves me a lot of time in the end. Once I feel I’ve got everything figured out about the mystery I start writing.


From everywhere! Writing the Agency is delightful because the Victorian London setting lends itself so well to unusual conceits and historically driven plot twists. The minute I read about the Great Stink of 1858 (industrial pollution + unusually hot weather = a stench that made Londoners nauseous), I knew I wanted to use it as a setting (for A Spy in the House). My third novel, The Traitor in the Tunnel, was inspired by the fact that there are subterranean tunnels running beneath Buckingham Palace. Once in possession of that tidbit, how could you NOT write a mystery novel?


Young people often ask me that question and I reply by asking them if they’ve ever had a shiver running down their spine. That’s an idea for a story! It’s because it appeals to YOU, not someone else, and in a particular way. Because it makes you feel that way, it likely has drama and meaning and all those good things. So, I have developed an antenna for things and story lines—in real things that happen in life, newspaper stories, personal events, things people say to me, whatever—things I know will make great stories. I like dramatic tales, often dark ones, with lots of twists and turns and meaning.


Sometimes I just dream them up. Sometimes I hear something that makes my antennae quiver and provide the spark for the story (e.g., the murder of Omar Wellington a few years ago, which led to the book Back, or the murder of Matty Baranovsky, that led to Truth and Lies). Ideas aren’t the hardest part. I have lots of them. Time is the problem.


How do you create suspense throughout your story?


The most important thing to remember is that whenever you put the action on hold, it will contradict the idea of urgency and will shatter the mood. If you stop to describe something, you have stopped, right? So it is important to remember that information-sharing is not action.

Because the Nicki Haddon mysteries are spy novels, much of the suspense is created because she cannot trust the people she is working with in the Secret Service. Rogue agents are always a part of any good spy story. And of course, mysteries must be mysterious. Nothing is as it seems.


I don’t think I consciously try to create suspense. I know that sounds like a cop out, but it’s not something I work to create. I think I’ve read, watched and listened to enough mysteries over the years that the form has sunk into my brain, so when I sit down to write one of Jack’s cases, it just automatically follows the form of a mystery and that inevitably leads to a certain amount of suspense.


I seem unable to plot a whole novel in advance, so I don’t have an algorithm. As I write, I keep asking myself, “Does this character feel appropriately uncomfortable?” If the answer is “yes,” I carry on. If the answer is “no,” I rewrite the scene until he or she feels adequately unsettled.


I try to create stories that have upward arcs. I build the story so it, hopefully, gets more and more exciting and builds in an upward direction toward the climax, and I let the readers know that there WILL be a’s coming! I also think about the things that would excite and scare me, build tension in my own heart. If it doesn’t excite me and even surprise me, then I know it won’t do the same for my audience.


Mysteries are stories of discovery. And because I write murder mysteries, there is a certain risk involved in getting to the truth, especially if you are a fifteen-year-old and not an armed and experienced police officer. Add to that the fact that a heinous crime has been committed but that touches the life of the young protagonist in some way, and you’re off. With a solid main character whom the reader will grow to like or at least sympathize with, and you can keep the reader reading. I hope.

Susan Hughes is an award-winning author of children's books — both fiction and non-fiction — including The Island Horse, Off to Class, Case Closed?, No Girls Allowed and Earth to Audrey. She is also an editor, journalist and manuscript evaluator. Susan lives in Toronto. Visit her website,


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