Our readers are often curious about the process of writing and publishing books, and we’re happy to provide access to the experts. In this special Mystery Month installment of our Publishing U series, best-selling author and Edgar Award winner Blue Balliett reveals her “hazardous” process for plotting mysteries—one that relies more on assembling the right elements than it does outlines and time lines.
Here’s a warning, before you read another word: as a writer, I don’t like to feel safe. I seem to love flying by the seat of my pants. I’m always flinging myself into unknown territory.
You might not want to listen to my advice.
My first novel and first mystery, Chasing Vermeer (2004), was meant to be a read-aloud in my own classroom in Chicago. That’s the only reason such an unusual combination of provocative ideas found its way into a book for kids: I never thought it would become public. Otherwise, I would never have dared to write it.
Why did I put together such a crazy combination of big, puzzling ideas? Because I’d learned as a mom and teacher that kids thrive on big questions. They are serious thinkers. They are drawn to real puzzles and problems that adults think about, too—ones that need solutions.
Kids really do respond, like most of us, to the excitement of an unanswered, real-world question, one that matters. And curiosity feels good. It sharpens the brain, no doubt about it.
This plan, to offer curiosity about the real world to all young readers, is what drives the plots of my books. I do believe that curiosity can lead to getting involved, doing research, having a voice. Curiosity equals power.
That is why my mysteries are always more fact than fiction.
Okay. Here are the six key elements of my process:
A real, unsolved mystery. I pick one I can’t stop thinking about. The book grows from that. All of the major ingredients in my books really do belong to the world. Real mysteries surround us, and sometimes a puzzle exerts a pull I can’t ignore.
In The Wright 3 (2006), I tackle what it means to dismember an old house that is also a work of art, a sad event that happens all the time; in The Danger Box (2010), I chase Darwin’s stolen Galapagos notebook, one that really does need to be found; in Pieces and Players (2015), I place the terrible Gardner Museum heist into the hands of my readers, hoping they will come to understand and solve it.
Characters who don’t fit perfectly either with each other or with the world around them. Characters who offer unexpected, vivid ideas. In my mind, the mystery comes first, attracting the cluster of characters. They usually develop from people I’ve met.
An actual setting. Always. I think any real, everyday place can go from being uninteresting to fascinating if observed in the right way. I love the feeling of seeing possible intrigue on the way to pick up groceries. My settings and characters arrive hand-in-hand, with characters leading the way.
Solid ingredients pulled from the real world. Preferably ones that are passed over or forgotten. Out of print or little-read books have a special attraction for me, such as Charles Fort’s Lo! (Chasing Vermeer), H. G. Wells’ The Invisible Man (The Wright 3), or Langston Hughes’ The First Book of Rhythms (Hold Fast, 2013).
A weird combination of elements. This is big. I love to take a bunch of ideas or facts that don’t look as though they could possibly fit and end up with a finished puzzle at the end. This means I do lots of fumbling, stumbling, swearing, reweaving, and rewriting.
Nothing boring! The mysteries I put together must stay exciting to me after much revisiting. I play with the plot and contents for years before I actually write. If anything becomes ho-hum, out it goes! I’m ruthless about that.
I don’t plot every piece of action before I start writing.
I tried that with The Wright 3—and then threw out
my entire first draft and started over.
Surprise plays a part in staying curious, at least for me, so when I pull together the ingredients for one of my mysteries, I instinctively head for a combination that keeps surprise alive. For example, in Hold Fast, a number of widely disparate elements form the puzzle: the tragic fact of family homelessness in Chicago; a Langston Hughes book written for kids in 1954; a number pattern I noticed on the digital clock in our kitchen; the biggest diamond theft in the world, one that happened in 2003; a strange and secretive room in the Chicago’s largest public library; and so on. With each one of my books I aim to tease, startle, and keep the reader turning pages while gathering skills or ideas that they can take away and use.
As I’m a writer who needs to feel surprised herself, I don’t plot every piece of action before I start writing. I tried that with The Wright 3—and then threw out my entire first draft and started over. For me, knowing every detail killed the story. As I write, my characters often seem to help with the plotting.
In thinking about how my plot jells, I realize that most of it happens invisibly. I could be doing anything—chopping vegetables, doing dishes, taking a swim—while I sort through what I want to include. Some of my ideas have arrived when I’m almost asleep, and I have to jump out of bed to write them down. In The Calder Game, a sculpture first flew through the air while I was dozing.
I’ve been reading mysteries all my life. First Nancy Drew, then Konigsburg’s From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler (1967)—yep, that’s the one that came out when I was 12 and rocked my world!—and soon after that, Agatha Christie. I still love reading mysteries. If stuck on plotting, I read what inspires me. Georges Simenon is a favorite, as are Tana French, Muriel Spark, and Walter Mosley. Sometimes I add a dash of Stephen King. All writers learn from each other.
Plotting my mysteries is hazardous but thrilling. Because I’m drawn to real-world events and ideas that are both puzzling and ongoing, my written solutions may not stick. This is a good thing, a real thing. My dream is that eventually my middle-grade readers will grow up to solve all of the issues in my books. They’ll rewrite my endings.
I warned you.
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Blue Balliett is a best-selling author whose six novels for middle-grade and YA readers have been translated into 35 languages. Her debut Chasing Vermeer won the 2005 Edgar Allan Poe Award for Best Juvenile Novel; many, many other awards have followed. She lives in Chicago. Visit her website to find more at www.blueballiettbooks.com.