Writing Mysteries for Kids – 10 Top Tips

how to write a mystery novelI 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.sleuth or suspect
  3. 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’.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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. A List of Clues
  8. 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).
  9. 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.
  10. 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:

61gcLUzGutL      how to write mysteries      71A3xNtmlrL

Writing Courses:

James Patterson teaches writing

Mysteries for Kids:

buy books online      The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie      I am not a serial killer

Creating unique character descriptions – for costumes!

cosplay characterThink about your favourite books from your childhood and the characters you fell in love with. What did they look like? Got a clear picture of that character in your head? I’ll bet you do.

Unforgettable characters have unique physical indicators, or at the very least, an individual fashion sense. Just naming characters such as Huckleberry Finn, Harry Potter, Miss Marple conjures up images of the character.

How do you know if you’ve created a memorable character description? Here’s an easy test.

Can fans dress up as your character?

creating unique charactersIf kids (or adults) can make a costume that depicts your character, then you know you’ve created a distinct image.

Unique Character Elements

Just a few examples…

Physical appearance: red curly hair, dwarf, hairy feet, long beard, wings, blue skin…

Changed physical appearance: scar, eyepatch, wooden leg, stitches, missing tooth…

Fashion: witch’s hat, cape, overalls, camouflage, houndstooth coat, fez…

Companions: small zombie dog, parrot, dragon, talking tree, little glowing fairy, white owl…

supanova_2014_cosplay_115_by_dark_merchant-d7mz8zxCan you revamp your character to make them more memorable?



How to Choose Vocabulary for Children’s Books

I was invited to the Queensland branch of SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators) to present on how to choose vocabulary when writing for children and teens. I thought I’d list here some tips and links to help authors. Want more? At the end of this post there is a downloadable PDF. FREE.

How to choose vocabulary

Why is it important to choose vocabulary carefully? Children’s minds do the most development in their younger years. The information and How to choose vocabulary of teen novelsconcepts a three year old can grasp are hugely reduced to that of a five year old. Yet, if you were to write for a twenty-five year old, there wouldn’t be much difference than writing for a forty-five year old when choosing vocabulary.

Your market wants appropriate choices. When writing for early readers, your market is parents, grandparents, teachers and librarians. They will be very critical of your word choices because they have a role of responsibility for the children in their care.

Variations in reading ability. When writing for reluctant or struggling readers, it’s important that the story content and themes match the age and experience, but the language conveys this simply. Struggling readers do not want to read ‘baby books’.

Which words? You can access spelling lists for grade via schools, publications, and websites. Oz Speller is a popular site for word choices. Also search for your grade level’s curriculum for the year and make your language suit a particular subject (if you’re writing a space adventure for grade 7, they’ll be looking at planets and moons this year). If you can adapt your novel to support the learning of a subject, you’ll be able to market that book directly to schools and teachers. You could also promote the fact it will help with school to parents on your website. Each subject of high school also has a vocabulary list for the topic covered. Try to source this list (from teacher friends or ask  your local school), to use consistent language that the reader will be familiar with. And don’t forget to research similar novels to see which language choices the author has made.

Extras. You can add value to your children’s picture book or novel by incorporating easy to read font (I really love the new Dyslexie font, it’s been designed to make reading easier for children with dyslexia). Try adding activities within your book, or as free downloads on your website. You can download fonts designed to be traced, to help early readers/writers practice their lettering (get them to trace words related to your story).

Put it to the test. In Microsoft Word you can actually test your document for readability, even gaining an approximation of the grade the writing is suited to (steps to do this are included in the FREE PDF below). Also, try pasting some of your text into Rewordify—it will provide you with a simplified, easier to read version. Don’t forget Beta readers! By letting children of your readers’ age group go over your manuscript and mark anything they don’t understand, you’ll identify your vocabulary flaws.

Use hard words. It’s fine to introduce readers to new words, in fact, as a teacher, I hope you do. Just make sure the context explains the meaning clearly.

Sentence structure. It’s not just about words, but about simple or complex sentences. In picture books, you will probably use short simple sentences, mostly around six words, up to ten words. For early chapter books, you could have an average of ten words per sentence, still keeping with the simple sentence (one subject and one object). By the time you get to junior novels, you can mix simple, compound and complex sentences for variation. Most teen novels use the same language choices as adult novels, the restriction is more related to life experiences than readability.

Want more links, tips and strategies? Download the free PDF below:How to choose vocabulary