Sunday, March 31, 2013

Some Mystery Questions Answered

In keeping my promise to answer some of the questions posed in comments over the last few weeks, tonight I'll focus on a couple of the Mystery Questions.

Q) How are you able to come up with a mystery different from all the rest for each book?

A) This is actually the hardest part of developing the story for me. In part that's because I don't want to repeat myself, but in a broader sense it's because I don't want to repeat something another author's done. Not that I've fully succeeded there, but I do strive to make the motive unique, even if the mystery (like, say, who kidnapped the dog) has been done before. I also like the mystery (or, rather, the motive) to be thought-provoking. And relevant to my readers. And edgy! I have no interest in retooling the ol' Where-Did-Sparky-Go? mystery, where Sparky is really Sparkie and is off having baby bunnies (or kitties, or puppies, or hamsters, or alien zombie snails). Everyone knows what Sparky's up to by the end of Chapter 1. Please.)

Sammy Keyes and the Runaway Elf is probably the closest I've come to writing a cliched mystery, but I thought exploring the motive (and theme) of forgiveness served to keep it from going too far into Cliche Land. Plus that furball dog got buzzed (which is not standard for a missing dog story) and when Sammy opens the box of fuzz (pg 101) and tells the evil owner, "Yup. She's bald," well, I laughed for days. Knocking on the door of Cliche Land is worth it if you can make yourself laugh for days.

So, yeah. Thinking of a unique mystery is very important to me and I very much appreciate the question because it implies that I've been successful. To better answer the question I would add that sometimes I get my ideas from things I've read about -- usually from a  news source or a magazine. Night of Skulls was that way. So was Cold Hard Cash -- the root of the mystery came from articles I read. Not the story itself, just the idea. Reading is a very good thing for writers to do!

Q) (Paraphrasing here...) How do you decide where to plant clues?

A) Another biggie! My goal is to have the mystery unfold in a fair and steady manner. My readers are smart and I know it so I want to make solving the mystery challenging, but not unfair. I hate mysteries where I think I know on page 10 whodunit, and then read another 300 pages to discover that, yup, that's whodunit. I also hate mysteries where I'm really invested in figuring out who the culprit is and suddenly the author brings back a dead character who (miraculously and inexplicably) didn't really die. No clues. No foreshadowing. Just poof, they reappear.


I don't need to be the cleverest person in the room. I don't think there's anything great about being tricky. I want to play by the rules and respect the trust a reader places in an author. I like to feel like we're all in it with Sammy so, ideally, I want my readers to figure out whodunit slightly before Sammy does, To me that's the perfectly executed mystery--one that makes everyone feel smart.

The problem with writing a mystery is that the author can't not know who the culprit is. (Okay, there are those authors who say they don't know whodunit until the sleuth does, and you know what I say to them? You're CHEATERS! You cannot write a fair mystery--drop fair clues and set up a satisfactory unveiling--if you don't know whodunit.)

The other problem is that if you ask someone to read your mystery while you're in the developmental stages, they then know who the culprit is and are not able to reread your mystery with objectivity. You get one shot with them and then they know whodunit. This is why Nancy (my editor) doesn't read a Sammy in the developmental stages. She doesn't get much from me until I'm done. She's a mystery buff and her first read is crucial to finding out if I gave too many clues, gave them too early, or concealed them too well. My question to her is always, "When did you know?" And her answer determines what I do and change. Sometimes it's as small as removing a single word.

That's probably enough for this week. Next week I'll try to address the broader questions posed--about the unfolding story lines within the series and how (and maybe why) those happened. Meanwhile, I'll look forward to seeing you in the comments!


Yusa said...

Its so hard to write mysteries it seems to me with dropping clues at the right places and making everything FIT. Thats something really hard to me.. making sure nothing crosses or contridicts something else. Thanks for answering those questions it provides a lot of insight...
Did you know who Sammy's dad was at the first book or what book?

gabrielle said...

Writing a mystery book is really hard,but very interesting how it all works to make a good mystery. And I agree with Yusa when did you figure out who Sammy's dad was going to be? I hope everybody has a great week!!


Kylie said...

I think mystery writing is the hardest writing to write, but the best to read because of how the author pays such close attention to detail. Like you said above the changing of one word effects if the reader figures out who did it in the first chapter of the book or the last chapters of the book. I love reading mystery novels for this reason. Wendelin you do a fantastic job with them!


P.S. I read 12 Samy Keyes this month! New record for me!

Optimistic4ever said...

I love mysteries, but they are so hard to write!
I know this I a question out of the blue, but when u type a post up for this blog, do u type it in the compose box, or do u use html to type up a post?
I started using html yesterday and idk whym but it's rly fun
Back on topic, I rly love ur mysteries, and I love finding out the motive :D

Jessica said...

Sometimes I don't comment because I feel I have nothing to say that anyone else would find interesting, but I realized I did find this post very interesting, and I could at least say that.

Wendelin, you are my favorite mystery writer because...

1) you don't "cheat" (I especially loathe the bringing-back-the-dead *cough* Christie *cough* Rowlings-who-did-it-not-once-but-twice-sort-of-thrice-in-the-first-four-books)

2) you masterfully entwine the mystery into the overall plot so that a) it seems totally believable (I laughed when Sammy started counting up her dead bodies because it's ridiculous that an 8th grader would have seen so many in a year, and yet I hadn't even noticed before how ridiculous it was) and b) it also makes it harder for me to remember to look for clues, which are

3) well-placed to be easily overlooked, with plenty of red herrings and false breadcrumb -- er yellow paper -- trails, and yet solvable, so that I'm happy when I solve it before Sammy and kicking myself if I don't, because it always feels like I should have, especially since

4) you give a big signal that the reveal is coming, so if I haven't solved it yet, I can pause and try to.

I think #2 is really the biggest reason; you could read SK even if you didn't like mysteries at all and enjoy it just for the story. That is sort of tied up with reason

5) there's no cliché or discernible pattern (even after 16 mysteries, you still surprise me; I'm almost too good at pattern recognition, which has lessened my enjoyment of other authors' later works); the crimes are realistic but unique, and the motives are often surprising.

So thank you for explaining a bit of how you come up with it. When you "talk plot" with Mark, does he know whodunnit?

Oops, here I thought I had nothing to say...

Mark said...

Jessica - Yes, to your last question. Hard to talk plot otherwise, at least in the macro (vs. the micro) so if she knows, I generally know. But I read as she writes, so if something semi-revealing is coming up fairly soon, I'd rather not know, so I can respond as a reader would. (Has more emotional impact that way, and there's no second chance to get that initial impression.)

And I heartily agree with your overall view - I've always thought the Sammy books are wonderful tales of the challenges of middle-school life... disguised as mysteries.

Isabel said...

MAN, that really help explain ALOT of stuff, literally! I mean...seriously, those answers really make sense.

It's like...if I put what you said, into a simile, it's like: You have a huge outline of a body, and you have to put in the body parts in yourself. Like the 'bone marrow' would be put *there* because it connects *these.* Then in the ending you would put the 'heart' *here* and everything connects, and then the 'brain' and the system starts working.
Wow, I feel like a doctor or something, haha!
So anyways, that answers my question too, so thank you!
AND, Jessice- to your last one I agree. There's always that little 'heart-attack' move in every SK book, mabybe even a few of them, where I could cry, or laugh, and giggle, or jump around, or scream, I don't know....Let's what'll be in SK and the Killer Cruise, duh, duh, duh...

Isabel said...

tsk tsk tsk, my mistakes are HORRIBLE, then again I'm human, hope you guys don't mind.

Karen said...

Laughing for days is definitely worth skirting the border of Cliché Land. Wendelin, it's very interesting to hear some of the thoughts that occur in the process of creating a mystery. Thank you for answering some of our questions, and giving us a little peek into your brain! (A while ago I read a news brief in the paper about gift-wrapped skulls turning up in various locations around a city. My first thought was, This sounds like something out of a Sammy Keyes mystery!)

I am one of those people who isn't a huge mystery fan and read Sammy primarily for the characters and their stories (and Sammy's reaction to things!). Even so, I really appreciate all the work you put into crafting and telling a fair and well-paced mystery, because even though I’m not actively trying to puzzle it out, when Sammy gets it, all the pieces go click-click-click-click into place, and I think, Ahh, yup, that makes sense, I could have figured that out if I’d wanted to.

I also appreciate the big signal that the reveal is coming, because it gives me a chance to decide whether I want to go back and have a go at solving the mystery, or just keep reading. (Usually I think a bit and then keep reading, but I know what I'm getting into, rather than suddenly tripping over the reveal and thinking, Oh, all right then. Way to warn a guy.)

And I'm glad that you don't use any of those "cheats," both because, well, that's CHEATING! and because that would make Sammy's story less real.

Basically, I'm really glad you realize and respect your readers' intelligence and the trust we give you.

(... "Give" is not really the right word, because after one book, it's not a gift; you have earned that trust. And after fifteen, you have earned it so many times over that if Sammy thinks, Oh, I get it, this is all a dream, I have the security of knowing that no, it can't be, because Wendelin Van Draanen would not do that to us.

That would be cheating.)

Kylie said...

Guys it is April 6, which means it is Sammy's Birthday!

Happy Birthday Sammy!


Caradith Craven said...

Sammy now has her own amazing Facebook page with fun activities and information. You can also wish her a "Happy Birthday" there. Check it out and "Like It" at

Yusa said...

Happy Birthday Sammy! You're right i almost forgot! Its also my parents anniversary. Haha i remember her bday was how i won Justice Jack. :)

gabrielle said...

I completely forgot until Kylie said it that it was Sammy's birthday! Happy Birthday Sammy!! :D

Isabel said...

HAPPY BIRTHDAY SAMMY!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Jessica said...

Happy Birthday, Sammy!

The Facebook page looks awesome.