Author Archives: Michele Weber Hurwitz

Weeding out good ideas…from the not-so-good

One thing I’m really good at as an author: coming up with ideas. Like many writers, I have several notebooks filled with smatterings of thoughts, pieces of dialogue, notes on characters. Not to mention assorted doodles, observations, and moments I felt the need to record at the time.

journalOne thing I’m not so good at: knowing if those ideas can actually fly. It’s sometimes hard to figure out if my ideas — which always seem brilliant when I think of them — can be fleshed out into something book-worthy or should remain hidden away in a notebook, never seeing the light of day.

So I’ve devised a sort of “test” for my ideas — questions I ask myself before I start a WIP — to help discern the good ideas from the not-so-good.

1. I start by asking if the idea is compelling? Do I have a solid plot in mind, with a central conflict, change, and a resolution or outcome?

2. Does something happen? Do the stakes rise as the plot unfolds?

3. Is the idea getting under my skin? Am I thinking about the story while I’m driving or out walking? Am I worrying about the characters? Do I care about them, and do I care what happens to them?

images4. Can I envision big moments in the story? And are there small moments as well?

5. Will the idea appeal to my intended audience? Has it been done before, and if so, am I bringing a fresh take?

6. Am I taking a risk with this story? Both for my characters and for myself as a writer.

7. Can I describe the story in one sentence? How would I pitch it?

8. And lastly, am I in love with it? Is the idea tugging at my heart? Do I tear up when I think of a particularly poignant scene? Do I get angry at a certain character for his or her actions? Am I not only imagining the story, but do I “feel” it as well?

If I can answer positively to all of the above, I know I’ve got something. Do you have questions you ask yourself before you begin to write? Share them in the comments!

Michele Weber Hurwitz is the author of The Summer I Saved the World…in 65 Days (Wendy Lamb Books 2014) and Calli Be Gold (Wendy Lamb Books 2011). Find her at


The Detective’s Assistant by Kate Hannigan

We’re so happy to host author Kate Hannigan on the Mixed-Up Files today. She’s the author of the Cupcake Cousins series, and today is the release date for her thrilling historical fiction adventure, The Detective’s Assistant.

Synopsis: Eleven-year old Nell Warne arrives on the doorstep of her Aunt Kate, the first ever female detective for the famous Pinkerton Detective Agency. With huge events unfolding in the Civil War era nation, Nell uncovers truths about her past and also helps her aunt solve mysteries in the present. Based on the extraordinary true story of Kate Warne, this is a tale filled with nail-biting suspense, adventure, and history.

Q: Hi Kate! Tell us how you came up with the idea for this story.

A: It seems that 1856 is my year. I was researching another story altogether when I sort of stumbled onto a sentence about Kate Warne and how she was hired as a Pinkerton detective. It was just a quick aside about her, but it struck me as a fascinating tidbit. I wondered why I’d never heard of her — America’s first woman detective? And she’d had a hand in saving Abraham Lincoln’s life? I began to dig deeper into the history of Allan Pinkerton’s National Detective Agency, reading anything I could find on the cases that involved Kate Warne. It didn’t take long for me to get hooked. Then I began to worry that I was going to get scooped. So I sat myself down and wrote like a madwoman!

Q: Your Cupcake Cousins series is not historical fiction. Was it hard to switch to a different genre?

A: At first I wanted to write Kate Warne’s story as a picture book biography. But I quickly realized the story I wanted to tell couldn’t be contained to 32 pages! I felt like a middle grade audience was the right one for this. They’re the right age to appreciate a clever heroine and perhaps want to be as bold and courageous as Kate Warne.

It wasn’t hard to switch gears into writing a history-rich story. The whole experience writing The Detective’s Assistant was really fun. Being a complete nerd, I thoroughly enjoyed immersing myself in the pre-Civil War era. I checked out stacks of books — from Uncle Tom’s Cabin to Godey’s Ladies Book. I wandered around the Chicago History Museum and even called a railroad museum for details about what exactly my characters would be sitting on while riding a train in 1860.Detectives Assistant cover medium

Q: You feature strong girl characters in your books. Did you set out to do this, or did it happen as you were writing the characters?

A: I do love writing strong, clever, resourceful girls. I was a big Charlie’s Angels fan growing up, and while that show can be dismissed as nothing but fluff and great hair, back then it was groundbreaking. Women detectives solving crimes, fighting bad guys, doing all sorts of exciting things! I loved that they could save the day. Fast forward to The Detective’s Assistant. I wanted to present a female heroine who was smart, clever, able to fight bad guys using her wits and intelligence, and I wanted her niece to realize that she had those same traits within herself.

My hope was to write a book where girls can see themselves at the center of the action, not relying on boys to handle the dangerous parts. The protagonist, Nell Warne, who is 11, puts all her cleverness to work, and the results become enormous as the stakes continue to rise. I hope young readers feel a bit more powerful after reading the book.

Q: Can you share a favorite quote from The Detective’s Assistant?

A: Okay if I share three?

“Just a girl?” retorted Detective Webster, the smile never leaving his face. “There’s no such thing as just a girl, is there?”

“Be fearless, Nell,” he whispered. “In everything you do. Fearless.”

“His accent was bouncy and strange, and I figured he must have come from somewhere exotic. Probably Texas.”

Q: As a middle grade author, what do you love about writing for this age?

A: I believe middle grade books are where the truths are. There is so much growing and searching and imagining at this age; to be able to present possibilities to readers on the cusp of everything, that’s pretty special. I also love writing for this age because it takes me right back to my own younger self. I am still very much an 11-year old wanna-be detective, though I’ve never been able to get my hair to do the same thing as Jaclyn Smith’s.Kate Hannigan Head Shot medium

Q: Same for me! She had amazing hair! So what do you hope readers will take away from this story?

A: I hope readers will realize that women were great contributors to American history, but often their stories were dismissed or forgotten. It’s important that we’re willing to explore for ourselves and come back with new stories to tell, stories that perhaps might feature non-traditional heroes.

Q: What three words describe The Detective’s Assistant?

A: Madcap, rollicking, heartfelt.

Q: Can you tell us what you’re working on next?

A: I’m excited for Cupcake Cousins Book 2, titled Cupcake Cousins: Summer Showers, which comes out in June. I’m in the process of writing Book 3 in that series, which publishes fall 2016. I’ve also just signed with Calkins Creek for a nonfiction picture book biography for spring 2017.

Q: Finally, fill in the blanks:

1) I’d love to go to… San Simeon, California, and whale watch.

2) If I had the chance, I would… learn how to speak Gaelic.

3) In my spare time, I… cook for my family while we’re all together being goofballs.

Thanks so much for visiting with us today, Kate. Check out more at

Michele Weber Hurwitz was a big Encyclopedia Brown fan as a kid. She’s the author of The Summer I Saved the World…in 65 Days, and Calli Be Gold. Visit her at

An Interview with author Wendy McClure

We’re pleased to host author Wendy McClure today on the Mixed-Up Files. Wendy is the author of the three Wanderville books, an historical fiction series about three children who dare to jump off a Kansas-bound orphan train at the turn of the century. After hearing rumors about the terrible lives that await them, Jack, Frances, and Harold leave the train behind and hide in the woods. There, they meet a mysterious boy who will transform their lives forever. Books 1 and 2 are already out, and book 3 publishes in June.

Q: Welcome to the Mixed-Up Files, Wendy! Tell us how you came up with the idea for the series.

A: When I was growing up, I always loved reading about kids on their own. And wendymcclureas an editor of children’s books, I think the idea of kids being independent and having their own world is just one of those essential things that you need for a great story. I started trying to figure out where that notion came from — some of it is just human nature, I guess, but history also is full of times where kids had to work, leave home, fend for themselves. Which led me to the orphan trains, which seemed full of potential for historical adventure.

Q: What were the orphan trains?

A: The orphan trains were one of the first large-scale social programs in the U.S. From the 1850s to 1929, various charities in New York, Boston, Chicago, and other big, mostly eastern cities sent groups of poor and homeless city children on trains out west to be placed in homes — or as it sometimes turned out, work situations. Many of the orphan train riders weren’t orphans at all, but were given 9781595147004Mup by their families; often they were encouraged to forget their old lives. There were both good and bad things about the orphan trains. Thousands of kids escaped urban poverty, but siblings were separated and families broken apart.

Q: You’re a big fan of The Boxcar Children series. Did that influence you as you were writing?

A: It did! I didn’t actually read the books when I was young, but I came to know them VERY well when I started editing the series (at Albert Whitman). It definitely made me think about the ways kids can build their own worlds with just a few objects and some imagination. The trick is getting readers to look at an old cup, or a suitcase, or a fallen tree, and see all the possibilities.

indexQ: Can you share a favorite quote from one of the books?

A: It’s when the kids are taken in by a family involved in the temperance movement, and the youngest kid, Harold, is taught some of their songs:

“They [the songs] were all about how cold water was better than liquor, but everyone knew that, Harold thought. He’d never tasted liquor, of course, but he knew it smelled exactly like shoes on fire. Couldn’t folks tell the difference between that stuff and cold water? Why did they need so many songs to explain?”

Q: What do you hope readers learn or take away from the books?

A: That a lot of things in history were good and bad at the same time. Oh, but that sounds heavy…I really want them to just have a great reading experience.

Q: As a middle grade author, what do you love best about writing for this audience?

A: The school visits! The kids are great — their enthusiasm is fantastic, and they ask great questions.

2Q: Describe the series in three words.


Q: What are you working on now?

A: Nothing! I’m enjoying having some time in the evenings right now.

Q: You’re also a children’s book editor at Albert Whitman, as you mentioned. Was it difficult or easy to be both a writer and editor?

A: It was hard in terms of having time and energy to write. But at the same time, knowing the editorial process can make writing easier — I have more perspective on my drafts, and I worry less about certain things (because I know it’s a copy editor’s or proofreader’s job to worry about them). Really, I’ve learned so much about both professions by spending time in the other!

Q: What’s in your to-read pile at the moment?

A: A lot of manuscripts! Also I just tracked down some out-of-print middle grade books I remember reading as a kid, like A Candle in Her Room by Ruth Arthur and What the Neighbours Did by Phillipa Pearce. Very British stuff, and I can’t wait to read.

Q: And finally, what do you like to do in your spare time, when you’re not writing or editing?

A: Read read read!

Thanks so much, Wendy, for joining us! Find Wendy on Twitter @Wendy_Mc.

Michele Weber Hurwitz is the author of The Summer I Saved the World…in 65 Days and Calli Be Gold. Find her at