Monday, March 28, 2011

Writing My First Children’s Mystery Novel

My guest today is Jean Henry Mead, a mystery/suspense and western historical novelist. She's also an award-winning photojournalist. Today's she's talking about her children's mystery.

Post by Jean Henry Mead

I considered writing an autobiographical children’s book for years before sitting down to write  one. Solstice Publishing released it recently as Mystery of Spider Mountain and I’m well into the second novel of the Hamilton Kids' mystery series.

I’m a former news reporter with seven published nonfiction books and four novels, but I wondered about the language of middle school children. My five kids were grown and I had no grandchildren nearby in the 9-12 age range. So I read a number of books written by others although none of them were in the style I planned to write. What to do? A flyer from the Institute of Children’s Literature arrived in the mail, so, on a whim, I submitted the test and was immediately accepted as a student. No surprise there. Still, I wondered whether I was wasting my money because I already knew how to write. It just goes to show that no matter how much experience you have, you can always learn more.

I’m not getting paid to sing the praises of the institute, but I must say that it was well worth the tuition. My instructor, Louise Munro Foley, an experienced children’s writer, served as my mentor as I took my time writing the novel between other projects. One of the things I learned was that children must solve the mysteries on their own with only minimal help from parents and other adults. And I was encouraged to watch children’s Saturday programming to learn their   “language.”

Fiction is rooted in fact and my three protagonists spent their formative years at the foot of a large hill in southern California, as I did with four younger brothers. Because the hill was inhabited by trap door spiders and an occasional tarantula that arrived on a banana boat from Central America, I called it Spider Mountain.

My brothers and I were close in age and explored our "mountain" together. The apron was filled with tall, blue lupines which bloomed nearly year round, and halfway up the hill was Dead Man’s Tree. We called it that because a thickly-knotted rope hung from a limb that we swung on. At the end was a large loop. That prompted stories about horse thieves which we imagined had been hanged there.

A dirt road encircled the hill at three levels but was so chocked with rocks and clumps of weeds that even a bicycle would have had difficult passage. So we wondered how the people who lived at the summit were able to reach their home, and imagined everything from rock climbers to space ships and helicopters, although we’d never heard one in the area.

When I was twelve and old enough to babysit brothers who were nearly my own size, we climbed our mountain to spy on the mysterious house. What we found was a chain link fence restraining four large vicious-appearing dogs with mouths large enough to swallow a child whole. Or so we thought. It didn’t take us long to scramble back down the hill to our own house. And, of course, we never told our parents.

When I began to write, I wondered again who those people were and how they arrived at their hilltop home. The house itself was a mystery but I had to decide which crime(s) the residents of the house had committed. And how the Hamilton kids would be able to bring them to justice. I then thought of the Ouija board we used to play with. That’s when the spirit Bagnomi materialized and talked to the kids via the board.

My four brothers had to be reduced to two to make the story manageable. Even so, they were as unmanageable as my own brothers had been, so their widowed grandmother came to live with them—as ours had done. However, our grandmother didn’t have bright red curly hair like Ronald McDonald, and wasn’t interested in finding a husband. Even children’s books need humor and the Hamilton Kids’ grandmother provides that and more, along with an adopted Australian Shepherd with a penchant for chewing furniture.

Writing for children has opened a new vista for me, which I hope my young readers will enjoy as much as I enjoyed the writing. I'm currently working on the second novel in the series, The Ghost of Crimson Dawn, which takes place here in Wyoming, where the Hamilton Kids visit their Uncle Harry at his mountaintop ranch. There's a bit of autobiographical plotting in that book as well.

The book is currently available on Kindle and will be released in print later this spring. The third novel in my Logan & Cafferty mystery/suspense novel, Murder on the Interstate, is also due for release any day and I’m also working on an historical novel, No Escape: The Sweetwater Tragedy.

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Ellis Vidler said...

Jean, your book and the inspiration for it sound delightful. My niece and nephew will love it. Looks like I've found their birthday present. Thanks!

Polly said...

I love that you expanded your horizons and tried something new. Even better is that you learned how to do it right. Best of luck with your books.

Jean Henry Mead said...

Thank you both. Sorry I didn't come sooner. Spent some time on the sick list. Thanks, Ellis, for featuring me and my book.

Ellis Vidler said...

My pleasure. Hope you're feeling better now. Thanks for visiting, Jean.