Three Tips on How to Build a Teen Detective

For almost three years now, I’ve spent time in the company of Rae Riley, my nineteen-year-old detective. I introduced her in the short story, “A Rose from the Ashes”, and she continues her amateur sleuthing in A Shadow on the Snow. By the way, the cover reveal is tomorrow! (Cue confetti and a blare of trumpets). But back to the post–working with my main character for so long has led me to three tips on how to build a teen detective.

Teen Needs a Reason to Detect

Like all amateur detectives, the teen detective must have another reason for sleuthing besides perpetually tripping over bodies. Maybe she has a thirst for justice. A recent teen detective is devoted to true-life crimes. Maybe he’s just plain nosy.

Rae solves mysteries because she has to. In “A Rose from the Ashes”, she investigates the murderous attack on her mother when her mom was pregnant with her in the hope of finding her father. In A Shadow on the Snow, someone is leaving Rae threatening notes. She starts her own investigation because she is getting along so well with her newly-found family that she doesn’t want to burden them with her problems and make them regret inviting her into their lives.

I gave Rae a few other traits to make it more believable for her to undertake a case. Her mother battled cancer while Rae was in high school and died before she graduated. Rae is used to looking after herself. She also moved many times as a kid and doesn’t make friends easily. So it makes sense for her to go it alone on her hunt for the stalker.

Teen Needs Specialize Knowledge

By this, I mean the teen should have some knowledge not readily available to traditional law enforcement. The teen could be solving a case involving a friend or relative and learns things from suspects who are reluctant to share with the police. Or he is looking into a cold case and brings a fresh perspective to it. Or the teen is an expert in some field and that skill aids in solving the case.

In Shadow, Rae uses the skills she developed to investigate her mother’s assault, such delving into sources at the library where she works and questioning people without letting them know exactly why. Rae also loves photography, a passion I hope to work into future mysteries.

The teen detective needs these talents or abilities because …

Teen Should Not Be Smarter Than the Cops

Readers of teen mysteries already have to suspend their disbelief to buy into a story in which a teen solves a case. As a writer, I don’t want to force readers to throw away their disbelief all together and make my teen detective the smartest person in the book for a couple reasons.

First, the era of the bumbling or stupid cop is past. It’s been done. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle started this trope for mysteries and actually changed it in some of his later stories, portraying the police as more competent and imaginative.

Second, it’s not playing fair, giving the teen detective too much of an advantage, and that could annoy readers. If every single character in a mystery is amazed by the intelligence of the detective, as a reader, I’m liable to turn against him. Only Sherlock Holmes gets away with such universal praise.

Rae’s dad is the sheriff of the rural, southeastern Ohio county where they live. She makes friends with three young cops and plays outlaw country music with them. I can’t make any of these characters look like dolts. Rae wouldn’t respect them and neither would readers.

One believable way for cops to have missed clues or become stumped by a mystery is overwork, especially in an urban setting. A city, town, or county only has so many officers who only have some much time to work multiple cases. Many small agencies can’t afford a separate detective unit. That would give a writer a decent reason for the teen detective to uncover something the police hadn’t.

Who are your favorite teen detectives? Do they have any of the three points I describe?

Collaborative Mystery Part 2

Today’s photo prompt is for our collaborative mystery, part 2. If you want to read part 1 of the mystery, click here.

If you are new to this kind of writing prompt, here are the rules:

  • I’ll write two or three sentences in the comments to start the next section of the mystery.
  • Anyone who wants to may write two or three more sentences. 
  • Please no graphic content.
  • Next week, I’ll take the last sentences in the comments from this week and repeat them as the lead sentence for the next photo prompt.
  • By the end of the month, we’ll have a story!

Mysteries That Influenced My Writing

Since I began my blog, I’ve written about the mysteries that influenced my writing. Although I’m still on the hunt for good mysteries, I find the ones I discovered in my teens and twenties have had the most impact and not just because I was more impressionable when I first discovered them. When I reread my favorites, I still learn techniques I can use in my storytelling.

My First Mysteries

In the seventies, my mystery education started with Scooby Doo and continued with Nancy Drew, the Hardy Boys, Trixie Belden, and the Three Investigators. In seventh grade, I read my first adult book, which was a mystery written in 1975 by Dorothy Gilman, entitled A Nun in the Closet. Balancing mystery and humor, the novel relates the investigation of Sister John and Sister Hyacinth into a mysterious bequest to their abbey.

It had to be shortly after that that I plowed my way through every Agatha Christie story I could get my hands on. Now I reread her books first, for fun, and second, to learn plotting techniques. That was always Mrs. Christie’s strength. Although her detectives Hercule Poirot and Jane Marple have achieved immortality, in many books, her other characters aren’t as well-developed. Death on the Nile and A Holiday for Murder are my favorite novels because the rest of the characters are more complicated and more human, and therefore, more interesting.

At seventeen, I discovered Sherlock Holmes and there was no stopping me. I read all 60 of Sir Arthur’s stories and have read a huge amount of pastiches written by contemporary authors. The lesson I learned: my detective must be a character people want to spend time with. For more about my love for the Sherlock Holmes canon, click here.

When I was in college, I took a class called “Detective Film and Fiction.” (When you’re an English major, you can take classes like that and earn credit). I was assigned to read Too Many Cooks by Rex Stout and couldn’t get enough of the world Mr. Stout created for Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin. Although Nero Wolfe is the detective, it was Archie’s unique voice that hooked me. The lesson I learned: the Watson character can be as interesting and more relatable than the detective character. For more on Archie Goodwin, click here.

Mysteries in Middle Age

I was twenty-one when I tried a collection of Father Brown short stories and didn’t like them at all. They weren’t fair-play mysteries. In some cases, they didn’t seem like mysteries at all. Fast forward twenty years. I tried them again, and they lit up my mind like few stories ever have. I realized that Mr. Chesterton wasn’t trying to write realistic fiction, although his stories highlight realities of life.

His favorite device is paradox, like in the short story, “The Strange Crime of John Boulnois.” When Sir Claude Champion is found stabbed to death, the police assume the killer is John Boulnois because Sir Claude was pursuing his wife. But Mrs. Boulnois insists her husband is innocent. He was never jealous of Sir Claude, a childhood friend, although Sir Claude was wealthy, aristocratic, accomplished, and celebrated. Father Brown understands and quotes from the book of Esther. “And Haman began to tell them … of all the things wherein the king had honored him; and he said: ‘All these things profit me nothing while I see Mordecait the Jew sitting in the gate.”

I learned that if I can make a character, clue, or plot point appear one way but then reveal that it indicates the exact opposite, it surprises the reader and gives that part of my story greater weight.

Around this same point in my life, I dove into the mysteries featuring the detective Uncle Abner. These short stories, set in West Virginia before the Civil War, have some of the best descriptions of settings I’ve read. I feel like I’ve entered the world that existed in the Appalachian mountains more than 150 years ago. For more on the Uncle Abner mysteries, click here. I learned not to overlook my setting. Settings can perform certain literary tasks, like setting the mood, much more easily than character or plot.

Now it’s your turn. What stories have influenced your writing? Or what stories have stayed with your through the years?

Collaborative Mystery, Part 1

Welcome to Mystery Month on JPC Allen Writes! All the prompts and tips relate to mysteries. This October is especially exciting for me because I’ll be revealing the cover and promoting the pre-release of my debut YA mystery, A Shadow on the Snow! As part of the celebration, I’m trying something new with my prompts for Monday Sparks. All the photos this month will be prompts for a collaborative mystery.

What is a collaborative mystery? Collaborative fiction is when multiple authors write different parts of one story. Here’s how it will work on my blog:

  • I’ll write two or three sentences in the comments to start the mystery.
  • Anyone who wants to may write two or three more sentences.
  • Please no graphic content.
  • Next week, I’ll take the last sentences in the comments from this week and repeat them as the lead sentence for the next photo prompt.
  • By the end of the month, we’ll have a story!

Who wants to be part of a collaborative mystery, part 1?

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