Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Rumors of My Marriage

I need to clear something up!

Yesterday, I gave a presentation at a local school here in Park Slope, Brooklyn about my new mystery series, The Mysterious Four. One of my good friends, Shirley Wooh, teaches third grade there. I arrived early, excited to see the faces of the kids who were expecting me. Slowly, the classes filed into the library on the school's top story. The students sat down on the floor. I tried to stay focused, going over my plan for the presentation. When Shirley's class came in, I was even more excited, not only to see her students, but also to see my friend.

Often times, when I see a good friend, I'll give them a hug hello and a kiss on the cheek. Well, yesterday, I didn't realize that when I hugged my friend Shirley hello, all of the students slyly observed my action . . . and they came to their own conclusions about what this gesture meant.

After I had gone, Shirley told me that a rumor was racing around her classroom that she and I were engaged to be married. I was so amused! First of all, I know Shirley's fiance, and he's a great guy, but he's certainly not me. Second of all, Shirley and I are just friends!

Shirley tried to explain this to her class, but they weren't having it! No, no, they told her. We saw you kissing!

Little did I expect that my excitement to see Shirley would turn into rumors of marriage! I'm impressed with the detective work, and the deductive reasoning, but a good detective remembers that not everything is exactly what it appears to be.

I'm writing this to set the record straight. I am not marrying Miss Wooh. Her fiance would be VERY mad if that happened, but never mind that because it's not happening . . . not because she isn't a lovely human being, but because we are just FRIENDS.

Here we are, being all friendly! Okay? ;^)



Saturday, June 11, 2011

Viola, Woodrow, Rosie & Sylvester: Character Arc Throughout a Series

With the arrival this summer of my new middle grade series, The Mysterious Four, I've been thinking a whole lot about Character. I've never written a series of novels before (actually these books are more like interweaving story collections than anything else), and I noticed a marked difference in the process from my earlier books, especially when it came to creating the characters.

The Mysterious Four are Viola Hart, Sylvester Cho, Woodrow Knox, and Rosie Smithers, a group of sixth graders who live on the same block in Moon Hollow, an odd little Hudson Valley town (because, really, aren't all Hudson Valley towns a little odd?). After they meet and become friends, the new girl, Viola, binds them together with her love of mystery stories. They form a club and decide to become detectives on their own.

I had a basic idea of who these kids were when I began - even as I wrote the proposal for the first book. It's hard to start a story without a sense of how the protagonists respond to any given stimulus.

The Basics: Viola, that new girl, is outgoing and a bit bossy. Sylvester is a goofball with a penchant for parlor tricks. Woodrow likes sports and games, and he rides his bike everywhere. And Rosie is a science girl, loves reading about animals, and collecting specimens to decorate her room with, to the dismay of her older sister with whom she shares the space.

These very simple traits lead my kids to explore events in their town that interest them most.

For example: Viola listens to her parents' police radio to find out true crimes that occur in Moon Hollow. Sylvester pays attention to the customers at his parents' diner and uses his knowledge of magic tricks to try to debunk some potentially threatening patrons. Woodrow solves some rather benign puzzles during gym class; as a result, he challenges himself to discover some truly weird phenomena in town. And Rosie helps a far-away cousin who is having some extremely strange pet problems.

I never expected the mysteries to be easily solved by my readers--some of the stories may be, and some of them may take an internet search to figure out. And I think that's fine. I think kids who pick up this book want to be surprised - to learn things they've never heard of before. I thought about what excited me when I was a kid - animals with strange traits, puzzles that seemed to have no answer, secret codes, secret passages. My readers have access to all sorts of information, but it might take them some effort to find it. And good for them. The reader can experience being an actual detective.

This is the difference between this series and similar ones that came before it, like the wonderful Encyclopedia Brown books by Donald J. Sobol. Readers nowadays have technology that folks back in the Sobol days didn't have. The fact that Encyclopedia Brown had a photographic memory and knew everything about Everthing certainly helped keep those books interesting and the Sobol's clues varied. Encylopedia's memory was a unique and ground-breaking trait for its time. The kid may have been one of the first superpowered children's book heroes.

Which brings me back to Character . . . My group of kids are NOT geniuses, so I needed to find another way to make the concept of their mystery club success plausible. I tried to do this with their quirks, their unique interests, their temperment, their curiosity.

Even with a book that is simply a group of mystery stories that are linked together like The Mysterious Four, I felt the need to make Viola's, Rosie's, Woodrow's, and Sylvester's relationship grow, become stronger. And this is the difference I discovered in writing a series, rather than the stand alone books I'd written previously--I was able to continue the Four's character transformations into books two and three. I knew I'd have room there to let them grow, change, challenge one another, and surprise themselves. So Book #1 may be pretty straight forward -- but I was happy to find that there was much more to the story.

This was my favorite part of getting to the end of #3: realizing how far the kids had come . . . and yet, how much they had stayed the same. Isn't this the way life is? The ordinary mysteries of our everyday experience shape us, change us, help us see the world in a new way, and if we're lucky, after the dust settles, we ultimately hold on to who we are at our center. Our center is what allowed us to be curious, to explore, to fight in the first place.

I hope I was this generous and capable with my favorite new detectives. And I hope my readers will want to explore Moon Hollow with the Four as they journey into new (and sometimes scary) corners of town. Because, come on, who doesn't like a little mystery?