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Writing Mysteries for Children's Magazines

by Donna Freedman

(Revised and expanded version of an aricle orginally published in the Children's Writer, a publication of the Institute for Children's Literature)
Something mysterious is going on. Thefts of jewelry or other glittering objects, maybe, or stolen garden produce, or knocked-over trashcans. A preteen sleuth vows to get to the bottom of things, and organizes a midnight stakeout. The culprit? A bird, or a raccoon.

That's the kind of mystery that children's magazine editors see far too often - when they see mysteries at all. "We get a lot of raccoons. Blue jays are famous culprits, too, stealing shiny things," says Marileta Robinson, a Senior Editor at Highlights for Children.

The real mystery, though, is why more people don't write them. Editors report a chronic shortage of good whodunits. "We get a huge number of submissions. For some reason, we don't get many mysteries," says Marilyn Edwards, Editor in Chief of Hopscotch and Boys Quest.

That's probably because mysteries are such a challenge to write. You have to create an intriguing puzzle, invent a believable sleuth, weave in a sufficiency of clues and red herrings, and provide a bang-up surprise at the end. That's tough to do in the limited word counts that children's magazines prefer. "All the parts have to fit together in a way the reader doesn't see until the end," notes Robinson. "You really have to be very clever." But if you can do it well, there's no shortage of markets. The editors interviewed would publish mysteries a lot more frequently if they could get them.

And why shouldn't they? It's a wildly popular genre. Young readers can't resist the challenge to become a detective for the day, or at least for the next 1,000 words. "A mystery is a riddle on steroids. You want see if you're as smart as the protagonist is," says Mary Lou Carney, Editor of Guideposts for Kids.

Editors indicated that they're a little tired of the old "Kids' Detective Agency" idea (Encyclopedia Brown et al). It's been done to death, they say, and it was never that realistic to begin with. These days, crime-solving is usually done by amateur sleuths: classmates, siblings or neighbors.

They can do this in several ways. In a detective-style story, where an investigator uses clues and interviews. A brain-teaser mystery asks readers to puzzle out a logic problem, such as "If there's only one set of footprints in the snow, how could someone get back into the house?" There's also the "twist" mystery, with a surprise ending.

Suppose you've come up with a great idea for a pint-size shamus. Here's another major challenge: You can't bump anybody off, or even rough anybody up. Editors want little or no violence, or threats of harm. Whereas young-adult mystery novels routinely feature topics like kidnapping or death, magazine stories focus on intellectual challenge, not physical threats. In adult vernacular, such mysteries are called "cozies." But "cozy" doesn't have to mean "boring." A mystery written for a kid can be suspenseful, intriguing and satisfying. It simply addresses a very different set of values.

"In a child's world, elements of peril are losing your homework, your bike disappearing, your pet in jeopardy," notes Carney. "To a kid, what would be a threat? (Not) a knife or a gun -- it's relationships, or school, or personal property being stolen. Those problems are just as real to a kid as DNA sampling is to an adult reader." Another difference between adult and children's mysteries is that younger readers know a lot less than grownups do, and have far fewer resources.

Ten-year-old gumshoes have never even heard of DNA sampling, and they aren't likely to have pathologists or police labs at their disposal. And even if they did, young readers would be baffled by discussions of blood gases or ballistics.

Things editors don't want to see:

  • No stories "in which girls and adult females shriek at the sight of snakes." More multicultural tales. "No masked bandits, please. Please. Really." - Deborah Churchman, Ranger Rick
  • Plot lines that take kids into abandoned houses, or to the graveyard at midnight. Cardboard characters like "the Encyclopedia Brown person, or the female who wears glasses and spends all her time in the library." -- Mary Lou Carney, Guideposts for Kids
  • Stakeouts, which are overused and "a formula thing." Also, coincidences that are just too convenient, such as "the solution is that this man happened to have a twin brother." -- Marileta Robinson, Highlights for Children

Things editors do want to see:

  • "(A) story that shows a protagonist using his or her head." -- Marileta Robinson
  • "Wholesome writing. No hurry-and-grow-up themes." -- Marilyn Edwards, Hopscotch/Boys Quest
  • Nature- or environmental-themed stories of less than 900 words. "The shorter it is, the better chance you have of getting it in." - Deborah Churchman, Ranger Rick
  • "We are starting a teenage magazine, Cicada, in June 1998. We would like to see manuscripts for teenagers." -- Marianne Carus, Cricket Magazine Group
Since children's writers can't have a serial killer or a million-dollar jewel heist, they simply have to become more imaginative. One story, published in Guideposts for Kids, dealt with a girl accused of stealing an advance copy of a math quiz. She didn't, of course - but it took an enterprising reporter for the school newspaper to figure out what did happen. A mystery published in Highlights for Children had a child overhearing what sounded like a robbery in the making. The kicker was that the "robbers" were actually entertainers preparing to perform at a bank opening.

It's important to match your modus operandi to the right magazine. Ranger Rick needs stories with an environmental or nature peg. For example, one recent story dealt with a mysterious apparition that turned out to be glowing swamp gas. Since nature is full of intrigue, topics abound for the enterprising writer. But don't rely on fuzzy, half-remembered trivia from freshman biology. "We've very, very picky about the facts," warns Senior Editor Deborah Churchman. "The writer needs to do his or her research and make sure that the animals in question really exist where the writer puts them, and really behave the way the writer describes it.

" Junior Trails requires that stories include Christian principles, "but without being preachy," says Editor Sinda Zinn. She won't accept bad language or authority figures shown in a bad light. Zinn, who's "always looking" for mysteries, sees numerous unrealistic characters. "It seems difficult to get a story at a child's level, not a kid with an adult brain or thoughts," says Zinn. She'd particularly like to see some longer stories that could be serialized.

Cricket will also serialize a mystery, according to Editor in Chief Marianne Carus, but she would like to see shorter, self-contained mysteries. Carus also allows writers to work in some peril. "Very often there is a mystery connected with a Halloween story. They are really scary," she says. "But really awful details we leave out." Hopscotch and Boys Quest have monthly themes, so stories must fit each issue. "If someone (sent) us a good mystery that went with a theme, we would snatch it right up," says Edwards.

The theme for Children's Better Health Institute magazines is the same year-round: health, or fitness. That's probably the reason "we don't see enough mysteries," says Terry Harshman, Editor of the CBHI publications Children's Playmate and Turtle. She acknowledges that the magazine's special needs make it tougher to write a mystery. One "mini-riddle, little-puzzle" story that Harshman bought was about a boy whose mother was fixing something called "ABC stew." As they cooked together, he figured out that ABC stood for the vitamins that the stew's vegetables contained.

American Girl magazine hasn't run many mysteries, mainly because editors haven't see any good ones. To be considered, a story must have a female protagonist, but should NOT feature American Girls Collection characters (All such stories are written by the original series authors.) The magazine allows room to stretch, since it accepts stories of up to 2,300 words. Editor Julie Finlay would consider any well-written, truly mysterious tale. "If there's predictability up to a certain point and then an unpredictable twist, by all means send it," says Finlay.

Such an element of surprise will enrich any mystery -- but if you've done your job properly, the reader can go back over the story and see that the clues do indeed support the ending.

Red herrings, or false leads, are also vital to a good mystery. They take the story in more than one direction, and provide several different possible endings. They make the reader think critically in order to form his own theory. If he's right, he'll have a glow of satisfaction at having been as clever as the protagonist. If he's wrong, he'll be intrigued by the "Gotcha!" ending.

Given the limited word-count of a magazine story, it's best to let readers experience the story through the protagonist's observations. Don't set up an off-screen narrator to tell kids what's going on; let them be detectives, too. Zinn, of Junior Trails, sees lots of manuscripts that are "too much told, and not enough seen, through action and dialogue." If you want readers to identify with your main character, make your sleuth believable and likable. It's easy to get so caught up in plot mechanics that you forget characterization. "A lot of mystery writers don't pay much attention to style and voice. They are not readable," notes Carus, of Cricket.

Make the mystery believable, too, and suspenseful. Do this by setting up a situation that is explainable, and then surprise your reader by explaining it in a totally unexpected way. "Write it backwards" is the advice of Mary Lou Carney: "You have to start with an intriguing mystery and solve it yourself before you can write a story about it."

But how to come up with that mystery? Look around you. Mysteries happen all the time; a writer simply needs to be alert to the possibilities. Do vibrations from a passing train make a clock stop? Did a power failure imperil your tropical fish? Both of these occurrences were major plotlines in juvenile mystery stories.

Another good source for inspiration is your daily newspaper. Watch for stories with odd twists. One children's story took off from a newspaper account of ravens that opened the valve stems on truck tires, causing repeated and mysterious flats. An article about a homeless kid living in a school inspired a mystery about food disappearing from the teacher's lounge. The story caught the attention of Boys Quest Editor Marilyn Edwards. She knew that a child was the food-borrowing culprit, but she didn't know how or why he did it. "I never would have figured it out," she says. But that's the kind of thing she likes to see: "I want to be intrigued."

The denouement doesn't always have to stump the editor, but it DOES have to challenge the readers. Kids aren't dumb - they're going to figure out way ahead of time that it was the wind banging a shutter, or the neighbor's horse eating apples off the tree. "Predictability just kills a good mystery," notes Finlay. "Even young readers are as familiar with the cliches as the adults."

Copyright 1999 by Donna Freedman. All rights reserved.

To learn the basics, read Writing for Children's Magazines.

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