I get asked from time to time about writing mysteries for kids. There is obviously a lot of crossover in structure and content to writing mysteries for any age, but there are some special considerations to make when you begin writing mysteries with children or teens as your primary readership. Following are my top tips for tackling this challenging, but rewarding genre:
Writing Mysteries for Kids:
- Choose your readership—Are you wanting an early chapter book, a middle-grade novel, or a young adult mystery? In On Writing, Stephen King recommends picturing your perfect reader. Is your perfect reader a teenage boy or a ten-year old girl? Be specific. You could even write up a profile of your perfect reader.
- Young sleuth—Kids want to read characters their own age, or a few years older. In my middle-grade novel Dognapped?, my main protagonist is 12 yr old Kitty Walker. My readership mostly includes 9-12 yr old girls who love dogs.
- Series or one-off?—It’s important to know if you’ll be employing your sleuth on a regular basis. If you will write a series, it’s important to have secondary characters with depth and a return-to location, even it it’s a ‘mystery van’.
- Detailed setting—Really, when writing mysteries your setting could be anywhere; at the young sleuth’s home, their school, or a soccer match. Try to have a point of difference about your setting though. Either make it somewhere quirky, or make it somewhere regular… but a little odd. I’ve set my Dog Show Detective series at various dog shows and training grounds, I’m also working on a historical teen mystery set in an outback town, and am plotting a mystery at a circus. Our young detectives should be hitting the pavement looking for clues, so as they wander about the locations, take the reader along for the ride. Use rich descriptions for your setting.
- More than one mystery—Your protagonist should be faced with a substantial mystery that threatens or affects the wider community. This could be a theft, assault, or yes, even murder. Most young adult mysteries will include a murder and many middle-grade mysteries do too. When writing mysteries for preteens, any murder will usually happen off the pages (the reader does not experience the murder and often does not even see the body), in a cozy mystery fashion. There is no hard and fast rule about death in children’s literature, but it’s best to make sure your title, cover page, or blurb let the reader (and their parent) know what level of violence is expected. The second mystery is a personal one for the protagonist. It could include a family secret, a moral dilemma or a smaller crime. Somehow your two mysteries will reveal themselves to be connected in the final pages.
- Suspects—You need a multitude of suspects for it to be a real whodunit. Your suspects should vary in personality and motive. Some should be very likeable and others the reader will despise. You should have at least three suspects, but probably no more than five or six as the reader could get confused. If you do lean toward five or six suspects, your first clue should eliminate a couple of those.
- Victim—When writing mysteries you need a victim who has depth, even if they never appear in your novel alive. If the victim elicits sympathy from your reader, this will be a hero story when the young detective finally gets justice for the deceased, if the victim was unlikable, this will be a tragic noir telling of a misguided action on behalf of the perpetrator.
- Clues—The clues move the story forward. You’ll need at least three genuine clues (three is always a nice number to work with), each one revealing something extra about the killer. Clues can be ambiguous at times and mislead us, large footprints in mud could be a man with big feet, or a child wearing their father’s shoes. Don’t make the clue so obvious that your reader starts to think the protagonist is a little bit stupid for not working it out. You’ll also need one or two red-herrings, these are the clues that appear to lead to the wrong suspect, but then we reveal the clue was unrelated to the original crime (and usually unveils another private secret of a suspect).
- Motive—You’ll need to come up with several motives. Each suspect should have their own motive for committing the crime, and the motives must be believable. A killer needs a motive for their act, but also a motive for the way they carry out the murder. Why would they use the gardening shears, or hide a body in a gym bag? Justify their choices. There are lots of motives you can employ when writing mysteries such as greed, revenge, fear, passion, faith, shame, power or fame. Don’t forget your young detective’s motive for solving the crime. Sure, kids are curious, but you should really push your sleuth into action. Perhaps they are being framed, or the crime involves someone they care about, or the school play can’t go on until the theatre director is found and your teen protagonist had finally landed a lead role in the upcoming show.
- Plot, plot, plot—Writing mysteries is like putting together a jigsaw puzzle, every scene must fit together perfectly and move the story toward the surprising yet inevitable end. Once you know your main mystery, and you have your key clue, you can start to brainstorm for your minor clues and red-herrings. I use the method where I write dot points of anything that ‘could’ happen in this mystery. There is no particular order, whatever pops into my head. For a 25 chapter book, I’ll want at least 25 dot points (but I aim for more). I’ll then write each one onto an index card and start placing them in a logical order. Each of these cards are scenes. There may be some gaps where you’ll have to write scenes to get your protagonist from one spot to another, but basically, you now have a plot outline.
Resources for Writing Mysteries for Kids: