Category Archives: Writing MG Books

Crafting the MG Mystery: Absolutely Truly by Heather Vogel Frederick

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At almost six feet tall, twelve-year-old Truly Lovejoy stands out in a crowd whether she likes it or not. (She doesn’t.) So when her family moves to teeny-tiny, super boring Pumpkin Falls, New Hampshire, Truly doesn’t stand a chance of blending in. But when helping out at the family bookstore one day, Truly finds a mysterious letter inside an old copy of Charlotte’s Web and soon she and her new friends are swept up in a madcap treasure hunt around town. While chasing clues that could spell danger, Truly discovers there’s more to Pumpkin Falls than meets the eye—and that blending in can be overrated.

HeaUnknownther Vogel Frederick is no stranger to middle grade fiction. She is the author of the Patience Goodspeed historical novels, the Spy Mice series and the Mother-Daughter Bookclub series. Her newest venture is the Pumpkin Falls mysteries which launched this fall Absolutely Truly, which has just been nominated for an Edgar Award. Heather is also my friend and neighbor in Portland. We have a regular working coffee date so I thought I’d ask her about making the shift to mystery stories.

Heather, you’ve published 17 books and yet this is your first mystery. What made you want to give this genre a try?

I didn’t plan to—I have to admit I’m an accidental mystery novelist.

I was tinkering with a contemporary story about a big family who moves to a small town in New England, like one of the ones in which I grew up—Peterborough and Hanover, New Hampshire, and Lexington and Concord, Massachusetts. I love small towns, and I heartily agree with Jane Austen’s writing advice: “Three or four families in a country village is the very thing to work on….” I had fun dreaming up Pumpkin Falls, New Hampshire, and quickly settled on a main character—12-year-old Truly Lovejoy—but beyond that, details were vague. I certainly didn’t have anything resembling a plot.

Then the Boston bombing happened in April 2013.

I was moved by accounts of the many veterans who went to visit and encourage those who lost limbs that sad day. Years ago, my maternal grandfather worked for the Canadian Railroad, and he lost a leg in a rail yard accident. Unable to work and saddled with a heavy, painful wooden leg, his life spiraled downward. Listening to news reports from Boston that spring, I found myself thinking a lot about him, and how his story might have had a happier ending if comfortable, high-tech modern-day prostheses had been available, and if he’d had someone to champion and encourage him.

Coincidentally, I’d also been thinking a lot about my other grandfather, who opened a bookshop in Providence, Rhode Island back in the early 1930s. I have this fabulous picture of him sitting in his store—the Ultima Bookshop—and it’s easy for me to imagine him brimming with hopes and dreams. Unfortunately, with the Depression bearing down, the bookshop faltered and eventually closed its doors after just a few short years.Frank Vogel at the Ultima Bookshop circa 1930

Somehow, these unrelated personal family connections and musings converged as I was muddling my way through the first draft of ABSOLUTELY TRULY. A struggling family bookshop suddenly popped up. A parent who suffers the loss of a limb strode onstage. And then, as the story ripened, one day out of the blue Truly discovered a decades-old undelivered letter inside an autographed first edition of CHARLOTTE’S WEB. When the first edition disappeared from the bookstore, I realized that I had a full-blown mystery on my hands.

Did you have a favorite mystery series when you were growing up? A favorite mystery writer now?

My family lived for a time in England when I was in middle school, and I’ve been a sucker for British mysteries ever since. I cut my teeth on Agatha Christie (I give her a shout out in ABSOLUTELY TRULY via a bookstore dog named Miss Marple), then later moved on to Dorothy Sayers, Josephine Tey, P.D. James, and so on. Right now, I’m completely enamored of Jacqueline Winspear’s MAISIE DOBBS series. It’s set in England in the years between the two World Wars, and combines many elements that I love in a mystery, including a vivid sense of place and finely-drawn characters.

Do you find you plot a mystery novel differently than other stories?

Hugely different! I am a total “pantster”—a writer who flies by the seat of his or her pants—as opposed to a “plotter”—one who meticulously constructs a plot before picking up a pen—so I had to turn my usual writing process on its ear. At the heart of mystery writing is crafting a satisfying puzzle, of course, with clues and red herrings and false leads and all that. While there were still times when my natural instinct took over and I experienced that exhilarating rush of surprise I find so bracing as a writer, there was a great deal more plotting this time around.

What are three things you wished you knew before starting a mystery series?

  1. How to write a mystery.
  2. How to write a mystery.
  3. How to write a mystery.

MysteryWritingHiRez1-390x500Seriously, writing is hard, but writing a mystery is harder. My husband can attest to this; he had to listen to me whine even more than usual during the long months I wrestled with this story! I found a few books on the craft helpful, including WRITING AND SELLING YOUR MYSTERY NOVEL by Hallie Ephron, but mostly I just trusted my gut and bumbled my way through….

I understand you had an interesting research experience while writing the book.

I absolutely truly did! I began my writing career as a journalist, and a few years ago I ran into Victoria Irwin, a former colleague from The Christian Science Monitor, at a PNBA (Pacific Northwest Booksellers’ Association) event. It was fun to reconnect and discover that we’d both ended up making a life in books—she’s the events coordinator at Eagle Harbor Book Co. on Bainbridge Island, Washington.HVF (l.) with Victoria Irwin (r.) at Eagle Harbor Book Co. 2013
At the point at which I knew that Lovejoy’s Books would be central to my story’s setting, I realized I needed more information. Even though I’ve spent plenty of time in bookshops as a customer, now I needed to know what happens on the other side of the counter. So I called Victoria and asked if I might be able to hang out with her at Eagle Harbor Book Co. She and bookshop owner Rene Kirkpatrick were fabulous, and welcomed me with open arms. I took the ferry over from Seattle and stayed with Victoria and her family for a long weekend, and spent my days shadowing her and the rest of the bookstore staff. I had a blast! So much so, in fact, that I sometimes wonder if I’ve missed my calling. I guess I’m my grandfather’s granddaughter after all.

Will there be another Pumpkin Falls mystery?

Yes! I can’t wait to return to Pumpkin Falls. I’m just now dipping my toes into the first draft of YOURS TRULY, in which our intrepid heroine discovers a diary belonging to the ancestor for whom she was named, learns that her home was a stop on the Underground Railroad, and unravels a Civil War-era mystery. Strange things are happening at a nearby maple syrup farm, too, so once again Truly and her friends will have their hands full investigating. I expect the book will be published sometime in 2016.

Oh, and here’s a fun fact to leave you with: I ended up dedicating ABSOLUTELY TRULY to both of my grandfathers, and now you know why.

Thanks for stopping by the Mixed-Up Files! We’ll be looking for Yours Truly next year. 

How I Write A Middle-Grade Novel

Joanne RocklinIn a former life I was a clinical psychologist. To this day I’m fascinated with the psychology of the writing process. I know that one process doesn’t fit all, but I do know that it’s important to examine and honor what method works best for you.

Here is mine.

1. I START WITH A GOOD IDEA.

For me, the Good Idea is the impetus, the push, the motor, that gets me going.
I haven’t always known that getting the Good Idea was vital. Vital for my own work, in any case. Perhaps I didn’t realize its importance because the so-called good idea often arrives as a mere wisp of a phrase, creating a ping in my heart, or as Robert Frost said, when describing his own good ideas, “a lump in your throat.” And if I try to describe the Good Idea too early, I often can’t explain why it is good. I am usually the only one who understands its goodness possibilities.
I know that other authors have experienced this process.

Consider the following.

A middle grade author kept a journal in which he scribbled phrases and doodled designs. Squeezed among the phrases and doodles was the following phrase: “an eccentric man runs a candy factory.”

Another middle grade author (or not quite; her middle grade novels hadn’t been published yet) was on a train when the vision of a school for young wizards popped into her mind

A weird candy factory and a school for wizards are not necessarily inspiring ideas, or even unique, for that matter. I’m not really certain whether J.K.Rowling was on a train or using another form of transportation. But I’m positive her heart pinged when she got that idea, as did Roald Dahl’s, thinking about candy. Wizard schools and candy factories were good ideas.

For them.

I would bet money that many, if not most middle grade novels began that way, as a vague phrase exciting to one person only- the author of the still unwritten story. I often revisit books to try and distill their creators’ good ideas.
You probably know the story outcome of these vague phrases:

two kids hiding inside a museum.

an unhappy gorilla in a cage in a shopping mall

a boy and a girl enjoying an imaginary kingdom among the trees

a girl who is seeking messages in spider webs

O.K., that last one is mine, the impetus for my latest novel FLEABRAIN LOVES FRANNY.

Arriving at a good idea is easier said than done, of course.

Sometimes my good idea arrives as a gift as I wake up in the morning. ‘Cats Have Nine Lives’ was the trite phrase, yet the golden nugget that inspired my novel THE FIVE LIVES OF OUR CAT ZOOK.

But when my idea store is empty, then I must fill it. The best way to do that is to do what Roald Dahl did: brainstorm. Write down a bunch of ideas, even Very Bad Ones. Doodle. Write. Play the What If game. Write. Anything.

After a while, a surprising phrase usually appears, along with that lump in my throat.

2. I EMBRACE THE CHAOS.

I do not outline at the next step in the process. There is really nothing to outline. All I have is my Good Idea. And I know that this next phase is a series of false starts, new beginnings, cross-outs, scribbles—a big, chaotic mess. But knowing that this will be the case, in other words, honoring my process, has made it all a bit less scary.

I am answering a lot of questions at this point. Who is the girl seeking messages in spider webs? Answer: A friendless girl with polio who wants her own Charlotte, because she so loves the recently published book CHARLOTTE’S WEB.

And will I be writing in first or third person? Whose point of view? Where is the story to be set? Are the desires and conflicts those of a middle grade reader? What is ‘the day that is different’ that will get my story rolling? What prevents my character from getting her heart’s desire? Do I have any idea of the ending?
I usually have to just keep writing, playing around with my story, until I come up with the answers to these questions, and then I may even change my mind. I sigh. I pull my hair. I perspire. I think of the martini at the end of the day. But I continue. This phase is a big mess. But because I have read so many, many novels, and so many, many middle grades, I do have the feeling of story in my bones. I know that the basics of my story will follow the basic rhythm of URGE, BARRIER, STRUGGLE, RESOLUTION, four words I once learned from an essay by the brilliant Katherine Paterson. I just keep forging ahead, very open to surprises, rarely going back, until I come to some sort of ending.

Then it’s time to look at what I’ve got.

3. I LOOK AT WHAT I’VE GOT.

I guess you could call this stage of my process the Outline Stage, because I do have all those written words that enable me to create one. I read my story, such as it is, and try to see what I’m trying to say, to tease up the plot, discover some themes. I begin to think about plot in a more definite, concrete way. I don’t like to think too much about plot in Stage 2, preferring to concentrate more on character and feeling and voice. But in Stage 3 I apply various dry formulas of plotting to my story to see what works. I storyboard with index cards and shuffle things around, often sitting on the floor to do this.

Here is what my Stage 3 outline looks like.

Are there holes and gaps among the scenes? Does my story conflict increase steadily in tension to a crisis? Where does the character discover what she needs to learn? How does the ending illustrate this? The process is still messy, but it’s a mess I understand.

4. I START OVER.

This is not as dire as it sounds. Bear in mind that I LOVE this step, because I now know what I have to do next. Revise! And perhaps start over and revise again. And again. The joyous part of my process, for me, is revision. My pages may look chaotic but my mind is clear. I am in control. I know the story I want to tell.
Good ideas are hard to come up with. It’s not easy to embrace and slog through the chaos to reach the more enjoyable stage of revision. Yet studies have shown that it’s true grit and perseverance as much as intelligence and talent that help accomplish challenging projects.

And we middle grade novelists are certainly brave and gritty, right?

 

Joanne Rocklin is the author of many award-winning middle grade novels. Her website is www.joannerocklin.com. This is her first and only post with From the Mixed-Up Files.Joanne's books

Procrastination, Celebration, and Hibernation: Seasons of A Writer’s Life

‘Twas the season.

That’s what they say, right? We’ve just ended a season of candlelight, cookies, giving, worship, family, faith, friendship, peppermint mocha lattes.

Now the New Year has arrived, and ’tis the season for resolutions, reflection, diets, new leaves, saying goodbye to old habits, embracing new, healthier ones.

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I’ve come to realize that much of life is seasonal. Especially for me.

Perhaps it’s because my first careers have been in the school setting. As a special education teacher and then a school-based speech-language pathologist, I’ve followed the seasons dictated by a typical school calendar. Off in the summer, back-to-school in the fall, rejoicing over snow days in the winter, celebrating growth and graduation in the spring. Shake. Stir. Repeat.

Or maybe it’s because I married into the farm life. On a working farm, everything revolves around the seasons. Spring planting, summer hay and straw baling, fall harvest, winter shop work. Shake. Stir. Repeat.

I’ve read a lot blogs/interviews about writers who insist they must “write ___ hours every day.” They write faithfully from “____ o’clock to ____ o’clock.” It’s their groove. It’s how they work.

Not me.

Because, for me, even writing is seasonal. My writing seasons have names: Creation. Submission. Promotion. Procrastination. Celebration. Hibernation.

Right now, I’m just coming off a season of Promotion.

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This year, I had middle grade books release in April, September, and October. After 5 years of no new releases, this was an amazing year, no doubt. Those who don’t know the publishing world ask, “Why did you schedule them so close together?”

Bahahahahahaha! Once I stop laughing hysterically, I try to explain that authors don’t get to schedule a book release. No, there are publishers, editors, marketing folks, book designers and perhaps even divine beings who weigh in on these decisions.

But, lest I sound ungrateful, let me say that I have loved everything about this season of Promotion. I met incredible young readers, older readers, booksellers, librarians, teachers and parents. I visited storied places like The Bookstall in Winnetka, IL and Anderson’s Bookshop in Naperville. I returned to Rockford, IL, the home of the Rockford Peaches and reunited with wonderful folks who were so helpful while researching Kammie on First.

Like all seasons, though, this one has come to an end. And just as fall has stepped aside for winter, I’m done promoting (for the time being)  and ready for what’s next: Creation.

Creation is going to require some Hibernation on my part. Even though I don’t prescribe to the “___ hours of writing every day” theory, I am a sold-out believer in Jane Yolen’s “butt in chair” theory. And on the farm, there’s no better season for hibernation than the dead of winter.

Waiting for spring.

How about you?

What season are you in? Creation? Submission? Celebration? Promotion?  Procrastination?  Whatever your season, embrace it.  Because, like all seasons, this season of your writing life will soon change.

Michelle Houts lives, writes, and plays on a family farm in Ohio. She and The Farmer of Her Dreams are raising children, cattle, hogs, goats, a whole lot of barn cats and a Great Pyrenees named Hercules. Find Michelle on the web at www.michellehouts.com, here on Facebook, and on Twitter as @mhoutswrites.