Writing for children can be complicated. There’s so much to keep in mind like using vocabulary that’s age-appropriate and providing bite-sized clues, all while telling a good story. In this week’s Killer Nashville guest blog, author Robin Newman shares her love of writing children’s stories, and some helpful hints as you write yours.
It’s No Mystery: Writing Mysteries for Kids Is the Best Job in the World
By Robin Newman
I wish I could say that I was an avid reader and writer as a child. But to tell the truth, I didn’t become a reader until I was in high school, and it wasn’t until law school that I realized that I enjoyed writing.
Growing up in the 1970s, many of my peers and I were TV junkies. Scooby Doo, Where Are You?, Hong Kong Phooey, Bugs Bunny, Fat Albert, The Jetsons, Road Runner, and School House Rock played an intrinsic part of my childhood. I also grew up watching, and may have possibly read some of, The Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew Mysteries. Later, as an adult, I was hooked on television detective shows like Dragnet, Law and Order, Murder, She Wrote, Cagney and Lacey, and Barney Miller. All of these shows were perfect fodder for a budding writer of children’s mysteries.
Television, in particular, has created expectations for readers of mysteries. So, it’s no mystery that when I started writing The Case of the Missing Carrot Cake, my critique group told me that I should follow the formula and language used in detective shows. “Give us the facts, and just the facts…”
When writing a mystery for young children, there are a few things that one should consider, aside from the usual suspects of plot, character, and setting.
Age matters. Who is reading the story? The parent or the child? Will the reader get the joke? These are things that you need to think about when writing for a young audience.
Word counts. Is your story going to be a picture book, early reader, transitional reader, or chapter book? Picture books generally fall within the realm of 500 or fewer words. It’s extremely hard to write a detective story in fewer than 500 words.
When I started writing The Case of the Missing Carrot Cake, it was a picture book. But my word counts were off the charts, around 1200-1600 words, and I knew an editor would hyperventilate if he or she saw my manuscript. Upon excellent advice, I changed the book to an early chapter book, and the story flowed much better.
Short and sweet. Try to keep your sentences short. There’s a lot going on in a mystery, and you need to keep your readers focused on tracking the clues that will help them find the culprit.
Vocabulary. Detective and mystery vocabulary is pretty sophisticated for emergent readers. Terms like alibi, suspect, witness, clues, investigation, etc., need to come across clearly in the text. For example, in this one scene of The Case of the Missing Carrot Cake, Detective Wilcox is interrogating the suspect, Fowler the Owl:
“Hoo-hoo,” said Fowler, peeking her head out of her hole. “What brings you two tasty treats to my tree?”
“Investigating a case,” I said, holding up my badge. “Detective Wilcox and Captain Griswold, MFIs. Where were you between 8:00 and 10:00 this morning?”
“I was chasing a field mouse.”
“Do you have any witnesses?” If someone had seen her, she’d have an alibi.
“There was one, but I ate him.”
Easy clues and repetition. Make sure you leave a crumb trail of easy clues for your junior detectives to find. Having one character repeat or slightly modify what another character has said is an opportunity to emphasize a clue and slow down the reader to take note of an important fact.
“But she sure was acting like a funny bunny.”
“Funny ha ha or funny odd?” I asked.
“She didn’t say a word—not even a peep when I asked if she wanted a nice hot cup of slop! And she was still wearing her pajamas…”
Have fun! Don’t forget to add lots of fun puns and jokes. Kindergartners, first and second graders LOVE puns and bad jokes. This is the age of knock-knock jokes.
It’s no mystery: writing for kids is the best job in the world. I suspect that if you give it a try, you will love it too!
Raised in New York and Paris, Robin is a graduate of Bryn Mawr College and the City University of New York School of Law. She’s been a practicing attorney and legal editor, but she prefers to write about witches, mice, pigs, and peacocks. She is the author of The Case of the Missing Carrot Cake, A Wilcox & Griswold Mystery, illustrated by Deborah Zemke (Creston Books, Spring 2015), about two hardboiled mouse detectives working their beat from a shoebox at the back of Farmer Ed’s barn. They are MFIs, Missing Food Investigators, and on their seminal case, they’re on the hunt for Miss Rabbit’s missing carrot cake. (Note: The names of the animals have been changed to protect the good guys.) Visit her website at https://robinnewmanbooks.wordpress.com/
(To be a part of the Killer Nashville Guest Blog, send a query to firstname.lastname@example.org. We’d love to hear from you. Thanks to Tom Wood, Maria Giordano, Will Chessor, Meaghan Hill, and publisher/editorial director Clay Stafford for their assistance in putting together this week’s blog. And for more writer resources, visit us at www.KillerNashville.com, www.KillerNashvilleMagazine.com, and www.KillerNashvilleBookCon.com.)
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