Thursday, July 3, 2014

Interrogation Room #43: Diana Renn, author of LATITUDE ZERO

We get pretty amped around here when one of our own sleuths comes out with a new title. Today, we're talking to Diana Renn about her wonderful second book, LATITUDE ZERO. This mystery about a teen who gets caught up in a questionable death during a cycling race is a heart-palpitating, hair-raising ride with wonderful characters and a vivid setting. Here's the synopsis:

“I have to run,” said Juan Carlos. “You will call? Please? It is very important.” “Yes. I will call. Definitely. At two.” 
That’s what Tessa promises. But by two o’clock, young Ecuadorian cycling superstar Juan Carlos is dead, and Tessa, one of the last people ever to speak to him, is left with nothing but questions. The media deems Juan Carlos’s death a tragic accident at a charity bike ride, but Tessa, a teen television host and an aspiring investigative journalist, knows that something more is going on. While she grapples with her own grief and guilt, she is being stalked by spies with an insidious connection to the dead cycling champion. Tessa’s pursuit of an explanation for Juan Carlos’s untimely death leads her from the quiet New England backwoods to bustling bike shops and ultimately to Ecuador, Juan Carlos’s homeland. As the ride grows bumpy, Tessa no longer knows who is a suspect and who is an ally. The only thing she knows for sure is that she must uncover the truth of why Juan Carlos has died and race to find the real villain—before the trail goes cold.
And a little more about Diana:
I write contemporary YA novels featuring globetrotting teens, international intrigue, and more than a dash of mystery. My first novel, TOKYO HEIST (Viking/Penguin), came out in 2012, my next, LATITUDE ZERO, releases July 3, 2014. I am also the Fiction Editor at YARN (Young Adult Review Network), an award-winning online magazine dedicated to short form writing for teens. 

1. This is a highly original story—what sparked the idea, and what personally attracted you to it?

Two ideas fused together in this book, and for a long time I thought they might in fact be two separate books! First, I had an idea that I wanted to write something about Ecuador, because I once lived and worked there. In fact, the earliest seed of this book was probably a short story I wrote called “Latitude Zero,” using a washing machine for a desk, in the patio off of a room I rented. I was interested in writing about a country that was perceived as corrupt, and writing about a person who went there with an off-kilter moral compass, seeking freedom and confronting her own limitations. The story was too big to be contained in a short story, and never really worked, though I revisited the idea and characters for many years.

The second idea I had was for a mystery set in bicycling culture, which, at the elite level, is often seen as corrupt, tainted by doping and cover-ups, in the post-Lance Armstrong world. I played with both ideas and realized they overlapped in a fascinating way, with this issue of corruption. I’m also personally interested in international bike racing, and thought that combining my bike book idea with my Ecuador book idea would let me set this story on a larger stage and significantly raise the stakes.

2. Tessa is a wonderful, relatable protagonist because she's made some bad decisions, but she doesn't want to let these missteps define her, and her quest to solve the mystery of el Cóndor's death is also the quest to redeem herself. What surprised you most about this plucky character?

Thank you! She’s a girl whose moral compass has gone slightly askew, and that can happen to any of us. She has to figure out for herself what it means to be a good person, and to do good things in the world. I knew early on that her personal quest – finding her values -- would be enmeshed in the quest to solve the mystery. What I didn’t realize was how tough she really was. She became quite outspoken, able to advocate for herself and for others, in a way that I had not planned. She also became aware of the very real problems of other people in the world, not just her own problems, and developed more empathy.

3. With so many likely suspects for el Cóndor's death, Tessa has quite a challenge on her hands, and readers are drawn into a head-spinning number of possible explanations. Any tricks for fellow authors who might be managing multiple red herrings in their story?

Yes, there are a lot of suspects. My books are sometimes called “complex mysteries,” and that’s because they deal with more than one crime and quite a few suspects. In LATITUDE ZERO, this happened partly because I wanted the reader to question –as Tessa does—who is good or bad, or what that even means. As a result, many characters end up looking suspicious.

Mostly I have multiple suspects because of the nature of the world in which my crime takes place. Pro cyclists on a team just don’t operate in isolation, and there are people with close access and financial interests in them—which means opportunities and motives abound. In LATITUDE ZERO, an elite cyclist dies under unusual circumstances. In real life, and in this book, many types of people have access to elite cyclists, from managers to mechanics to masseuses. I made a list of everyone who would potentially be involved or implicated, then gradually narrowed it down.

If you have a mystery that takes place in a certain “world” – a sports world, the art world, whatever it is – you do have to think of the people who would have opportunity and motive, list them all, and decide which ones you want to deal with in your book. At least three, to keep the reader guessing, and probably not more than six. And if you cannot make a list of potential suspects, then you may need to widen your character’s world until you can come up with a list. For every person on that list, you should be able to think of a motive and opportunity for crime.

4. You open up new worlds to your readers here, whether it's Ecuadorian culture or competitive cycling. What sort of research did you do for this book? In what ways did your settings inform your plot?

I thought both cultures (Ecuador, cycling) would be relatively easy to portray. I am an amateur cyclist, and I follow professional cycling to some extent – I have passable knowledge of pro-cycling history and the current major players. I lived and worked in Ecuador. However, I still had plenty of research to do. I have never raced, and can barely change my tire – but I have pro cyclists and bike mechanics in the book. I connected online and through local bike shops with people who are in those worlds, and I had experts read my manuscript and vet the details. I was on sturdier ground with Ecuador but still connected with people from there or living there, and had readers check my details and language, since many things have changed since my time there. My sister traveled there for work when I was writing this, and she became my avatar, taking pictures for me, finding resources, and even doing a bike ride!

With both cycling and Ecuadorian culture, the settings gave me clear parameters I could establish and then move around in. Like pins on a map. I could figure out the types of bicycling events, venues, and people I wanted my teen sleuth to cross paths with. Out of that came certain clues, suspects, tools for the crime, and red herrings. In my Ecuadorian setting, I wanted to range all over the country—show the jungle, the Galapagos Islands, everything – but I had to remind myself I was writing a mystery novel, not a Frommer’s Guide. Tessa goes there in the second part of the book, the pace didn’t lend itself to leisurely sightseeing at that point, and I ended up restricting her movements to the capital city, Quito, and immediate environs. I do kind of wish she’d seen more along the way, but the story made certain demands on the setting at that point in the book. That is a hazard of setting suspense fiction abroad. If a character’s life is flashing before her very eyes, she’s probably not admiring Mount Cotopaxi or some baroque building façade. Allowing places for the unique setting to leak in, while keeping the tension high, is a fun challenge.

5. I know that the resolution to this mystery changed through your drafts. Can you talk about that process (without spoilers, of course)? How important is it for a mystery writer to know the ending from the very beginning and what tips would you offer to another writer who's rethinking hers?

I thought I knew the ending, but I was wrong. Then I was wrong again! I had my criminals all mixed up, and I even changed a big part of the crime. I spent a lot of time writing and then realizing things were not working, then deleting and starting over. That wasn’t very efficient, but I got great character insights and fresh ideas along the way. The main crime and the related crimes had to fit together. I felt like I was building an intricate machine, or a motor, and something kept rattling around and I’d have to take it apart again. And again. I think with some books you just have to try writing ideas and see if they work, and this was one of those. But what I’ve now just learned from my third book is this: if you can write mini-outlines of where you are headed, and float those ideas by trusted readers or critique partners before you do the actual writing, that can really help. Figure out the logic “off the page” as much as you can, so you will have fewer words to throw out if you find you’re heading in the wrong direction.

6. One of the things I love most about this book is the way you handle the villains. They're believably wrong without ever getting too mustache-twirly. Do you have any tips on conjuring up complex bad guys?

Thank you! I love mustache-twirlers, but those are stock characters and best avoided, so everyone here got a clean shave. I think villains are intriguing when they have complicated pasts, and when there are things about them that are relatable and even likable. Or perhaps they have lost sight of their original goals, or made a series of poor decisions, or made some horrible mistake, or told some lies, or done the wrong things for the right reasons. They’re human. I think it also helped me that my villains changed during the writing of this book, and so I had already done a lot of character exploration and seen these people as complex and multi-faceted before they got the villain label in my mind. Once I made firm decisions, it was a matter of going back and teasing out the bad behavior and thinking a lot about their pasts, who they were before the bad stuff, and how that informed their motivations.

7. This is your second book. What were some of the challenges in following up your debut novel? What was easier this time around?

People say the second novel is hard, and they’re right. You have less time to write it, and more voices in your head, and, in this case, people with financial investments in it. That’s a lot to carry around. New pressures. I did have to shake all that off at some point and just write it for myself and have fun with the writing. A big advantage I had this time around? Knowing that I was writing a mystery, from the outset. With TOKYO HEIST, I had written a book with “mysterious elements” that became a traditional mystery over the course of multiple revisions. So I had better planning going into this. And I learned so much from working with my fantastic editor, Leila Sales, that I had her voice in my head coaching me along the way. Pacing and scene management were much, much easier to execute. I had more tools in my writer’s toolbox. I knew what I needed to do, structurally.

8. At this point, I'd say you're the reigning queen of the teen travel mystery! What excites you about this genre?

Ooh – queen of the teen travel mystery? How fun is that!

So I think the teen mystery genre is just exploding. So many great mysteries have come out over the past several years, and keep coming out . . .  I can barely keep up! (For a partial list, check out the ongoing roster of all the YA mystery authors listed on our blog!). And all these great teen mysteries just keep raising the bar, making it harder for all of us! Especially when you get mind-blowing, genre-crossing mysteries . .. mystery + sci fi, mystery + paranormal, mystery + historical . . . I’m in awe every time I read about new publishing deals or forthcoming books.

I love the challenge of writing a complex YA mystery plot while simultaneously focusing on character development. Readers are demanding—they want fully realized characters AND plot twists, clues, suspense, all that. I think that’s why a lot of the YA mysteries on the market are quite long, compared to the classic Nancy Drews. We’re spinning a lot of plates, resolving mystery plots and character arcs and subplots all at once.

In terms of the teen travel mystery—I’m not sure if that’s a full-fledged genre yet, but I hope it will be. We need more books with international settings and diverse casts; why not mysteries? There are certainly lots of contemporary teen novels out there already in which travel figures prominently. I love books where teens travel partly because I had a huge case of wanderlust as a teen, and never got to travel until I was older. And partly because so many teens today are really out there traveling the world—volunteering, working, studying, visiting family, adventuring, exploring. There are more opportunities than there used to be, and fiction should reflect that. Teen travel mysteries present exciting opportunities for teens to unravel mysteries, encounter something new and unfamiliar, get lost, and find themselves in the process.

9. What are you working on now?

I’m in the editing phase of my third novel, BLUE VOYAGE. This one takes place in Turkey, and it’s about a teen girl who gets entangled with an international gang of antiquities smugglers. It’s coming out next summer. It’s been so much fun to write, to take a virtual trip to Turkey, and kind of refreshing to have the whole book take place there. And the main character is a real departure for me. I’m having so much fun with her voice and her complex circumstances.

10. IR Classic Question: Anything you'd care to reveal under the pressure of interrogation?

Here I am writing and talking about bikes and bicycle advocacy and sports . . . yet I have not ridden my own bike in nearly a year! Both the tires are flat and it’s literally gathering dust. My excuse? I was in a chair for the past year, writing and editing this book! (And then the next one!) But I will soon, very soon, be out on the road once more. If  I could bike and write simultaneously, that would be ideal.

Learn more about Diana and LATITUDE ZERO:
Find her on websiteTwitter and Facebook.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

I Pulled off a COIN HEIST...

... in print at least. My third YA novel, COIN HEIST dropped on Tuesday. Here's the synopsis.

The last place you’d expect to find a team of criminals is at a prestigious Philadelphia prep school. But on a class trip to the U.S. Mint—which prints a million new coins every 30 minutes—an overlooked security flaw becomes far too tempting for a small group of students to ignore.   
United by dire circumstances, these unlikely allies – the slacker, the nerd, the athlete, and the "perfect" student – band together to attempt the impossible: rob the U.S. Mint. The diverse crew is forced to confront their true beliefs about each other and themselves as they do the wrong thing for the right reasons. 
Elisa Ludwig's Coin Heist is a fun, suspenseful, and compelling thriller, told from the revolving perspectives of four teens, each with their own motive for committing a crime that could change all of their lives for the better—if they can pull it off.

In honor of this book, which was crazy-fun to write, I'm sharing a crazy-fun ’80s video for a song that is incredibly apt, with both a counterfeiting theme and prom-esque attire. (Don't trust anyone who only listens to "Love Shack" era B-52s, okay?)

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

BLIND SPOT Releases in paperback and giveaway!

Today the paperback edition of Blind Spot released!
It has a cool new cover. And I have to say, I was a bit surprised by that when first told it would be reprinting in paperback. I was in love with my original hardcover art. In a world where readers often do judge a book by its cover, I felt the original cover helped Blind Spot jump off the shelf. It was ‘eye-catching’ – pun intended! 

Original hardcover art
Despite loving the original though, I did fall in love with the paperback art too. The icy blue color scheme and the way the eye looks like it is peering through ice, fits the plot well. I was excited to share it with friends, family, and readers. But as I began preparing for its release, I found myself in a marketing dilemma – do I now totally ditch the original artwork for this new cover art? I had been so attached to my first cover, it seemed wrong somehow.

Well I got over that as soon as I saw the cool new bookmarks Amber at Me, My Shelf and I designed for me :) but it did get me thinking about what other authors have done when new editions were printed with new covers -- so many classic novels have had numerous cover changes over the years. So....for fun I thought I would post some of my favorite books and the different covers they have sported.

Nancy Drew mysteries have spanned decades and have needed updating from time to time. Here are two popular covers for The Clue in the Diary. I believe the one on the left is the original.

 One of my all-time favorite books is Don't Look Behind You by Lois Duncan. It has seen several covers over the years. Here are three. The one on the left is my copy from 1989.

 And how about The Giver by Lois Lowry? This left cover is the one I will forever identify with the book:

But the cover on the right I have seen often in classrooms and bookstores. It looks like a totally different book, doesn't it?

What are some of your favorite cover changes? Share them in the comments! :) 


Book Nerd Tours is giving away a BLIND SPOT prize pack which includes signed copies of BLIND SPOT and DEAR TEEN ME as well as BLIND SPOT swag. Click here for details and to enter.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Celebrating THE RULES FOR BREAKING release!

I am so excited to announce THE RULES FOR BREAKING, the sequel to THE RULES FOR DISAPPEARING, hits shelves today!

Truthfully, I am more proud of this book than the first for one simple reason - it was so much harder to write. When I wrote book one, I did so without an agent, without a publishing contract and without any expectations from readers. But writing Breaking was a totally different experience. Before the first word was written, I knew it would be published and that was super scary. And then when readers would tell me they were really looking forward to the sequel - that was super scary too.

And now it's here - out in the world - and I couldn't be more pleased with it.

Thank you to all the readers who love these characters and this world. I had a blast creating it.


To learn more about me, visit or follow me on twitter!

Today - THE RULES FOR DISAPPEARING is only $0.99! Get it here!
To check out THE RULES FOR BREAKING - click here!

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

A Little Twist

In an age of constant information sharing, twist endings still have the power to thrill and surprise us. Leaving your reader with a rug-pulling (yet always well earned) culmination can be the difference between a three-star rating and a review with an exclamation point. (I can't promise it will always be a positive review, but hey, the more punctuation the better, right?)

I'm learning this now firsthand that PRETTY SLY has been out for almost two months. The main reaction I'm getting back from readers is "Wow! I never saw that ending coming!"

As the author, it feels good to know that I could take my readers on a true adventure with an unpredictable destination, no matter how they felt about the particulars.

So when considering where to take your mystery, don't be afraid to get it twisted. Go ahead and turn the whole thing upside down. You and your reader will be glad you did.

P.S. I previously wrote about the pressure around and considerations for writing a satisfying ending here.

P.P.S. Cartoon courtesy of Aranel-Nenharma

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Words and Images

In 2011, when I learned that my first book -- SECRETS OF SHAKESPEARE’S GRAVE -- was to be published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, I immediately wanted to know what the publisher had in mind for illustrating the novel.  As a former art major, this mattered to me.  I felt that a mystery novel set in such wonderful locations as New York City, Mont St. Michel, London and Stratford-upon-Avon deserved proper illustrations.  My editor informed me that a gentleman by the name of Mark Edward Geyer would be providing the interior illustrations for the book.  At the time, I was not familiar with Mark’s work, so I immediately Googled his name.

The first thing I learned was that Mark had provided illustrations for two Stephen King novels -- ROSE MADDER and THE GREEN MILE.

My life, at that point, was complete.

I had grown up reading Stephen King.  I adored Stephen King.  His book -- ON WRITING -- is one of my most treasured resources as a writer.

Needless to say, I was a bit excited.

And then, to make things even better, I learned that Mark Edward Geyer lived in Atlanta -- just a short trip from my home in Warm Springs, Georgia.

I contacted him and set up lunch.  We met at a small restaurant in Atlanta.  I was instantly charmed.  His passion for art, for illustration and for writing was clear.  In the last three years I have come to know Mark not just as a colleague, but as a friend.  Moreover, the illustrations he has provided for my books have brought them to life in a way I could not have expected.  They are timeless renderings which capture the mood and whimsy that I so desperately wanted to express in my novels.

Illustration and art, as I learned, are in his blood.

Mark comes from a line of French Canadian artists. His mother, Joan Lavigueur Geyer, has exhibited at the Smithsonian and The Museum of Modern Art in New York City.  His maternal grandfather, Roch Oliver Joseph Charles DeLage deLavigueur, was a landscape artist and architectural draftsman.

Mark received his B.A. in Studio Art from Florida State University in 1979, and then spent many years as an architectural renderer. Upon breaking into the publishing market, he started out illustrating horror novels and, as noted above, is best known as the illustrator of Stephen King’s ROSE MADDER and THE GREEN MILE.   Fortunately for me, he is now illustrating for middle-grade novels. He has worked on two middle-grade series: THE INQUISITOR'S APPRENTICE and its sequels and THE SHAKESPEARE MYSTERIES. He is also providing illustrations for the “Who Was” series by Grosset & Dunlap, his work appearing first in the book WHO WAS ULYSSES S. GRANT?  

Mark is a busy man with tight deadlines.  As such, I was somewhat hesitant to ask him to answer a few questions about his craft.  As usual, however, he was ever so gracious.

What lead you to become an illustrator?

A love of pen and ink and a love of drawing. I started out as a fine artist, doing landscapes in pen and ink. Then I got into editorial illustration, product illustration, architectural rendering, and finally, book illustration. I had always wanted to contribute to books because of how well interior illustrations are suited to ink and because of the permanence that your work has once it’s in print.

How would you describe your style of illustration, and how did you develop your style? 

I never set out to acquire or shape a particular style. A style emerged naturally for me.  I’ve always just tried to make the most powerful and handsome images possible. This is a matter of heeding instincts in steering a piece so that it strikes the deepest possible chord in me once it’s finished. I guess I would describe my work as looking old-world or classical, and, although that’s a genre that I love, it’s not a genre that I set out to emulate.  

What illustrators/artists influenced you and why?  

My earliest and strongest influence was my mother, her artwork, and her high standards. I wanted so badly to draw like her when I was a kid. I especially liked anything she did in pencil, charcoal, pen and ink or ink washes. My mother’s father was an artist and my mother had saved some of his work—sensitive landscapes in pencil and dry watercolor. The sensitivity of his work was a big influence on me. Also, when I first started showing my work in art galleries in 1978 in the little town of Orange Park, Florida, there was a local artist named Teddi Jo Ryan and I was in love with her pen and ink and pencil work.

When you read a manuscript for the first time, what are you looking for as an illustrator?

I am looking for scenes and details and moods that light me up. I am wondering what I can do to enhance the work.  This is a fun phase because I always reread the piece a second time as I daydream about what would make the best illustrations.

What's the biggest challenge in bringing a book to life in illustrations? 

The biggest challenge comes when I am commissioned to do only one illustration for a novel: a title frontis or frontispiece.  This one drawing has to be a counterpoint to the author’s words. Not being a fan of collages or montages (these to me always end up having a dated 1970s look), the challenge is to distill the book down to one scene that I feel strongly about and hope that the editor and author approve of my idea.

More information about Mark Edward Geyer can be found at his website:  You can also follow Mark on Twitter at @mrkgyr.

Deron Hicks lives in Warm Springs, Georgia with his wife Angela, daughter Meg and son Parker.  His first book - SECRETS OF SHAKESPEARE'S GRAVE -- was published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Books for Children in September 2012.  His second book in the series -- TOWER OF THE FIVE ORDERS --  was published in October 2013.  You can follow Deron at Facebook or Twitter.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Easter Eggs from HIGH & DRY by Sarah Skilton

My second YA book, a desert-set mystery called HIGH & DRY, comes out today, woo-hoo!

What's it about? Framed for a stranger's near-fatal overdose at a party, blackmailed into finding a mysterious flashdrive everyone in school seems anxious to suppress, and pressured by his shady best friend to throw an upcoming game, high school soccer player Charlie Dixon spends a frantic week trying to clear his name, win back the girl of his dreams, and escape a past that may be responsible for all his current problems.

"A dark, well-constructed mystery with a strong voice." - Kirkus Reviews 

To celebrate the book's release, I thought I'd share some behind-the-scenes Easter eggs with my fellow sleuths.

1) Lead character Charlie Dixon is named after Dixon Steele, Humphrey Bogart's character in the film In a Lonely Place.

2) Charlie's scheming ex-girlfriend, Bridget Flannery, is named after Brigid O'Shaughnessy in THE MALTESE FALCON by Dashiell Hammett.

3) Mr. Donovan is the name of a teacher at both Charlie's school in Palm Valley, California, and at Imogen's school in Glenview, Illinois (the setting of my first book, BRUISED). One of the Donovans teaches history, the other, statistics. This was simple human error on my part. OR WAS IT? Perhaps one of the Mr. Donovans is an imposter! Perhaps there are clues placed carefully throughout one or both books... You decide.

4) There are three possible references to Breaking Bad in the book. This is fairly bizarre considering I hadn't seen a single episode of the show when I wrote HIGH & DRY. Since then, I've become a big fan, which is why I noticed that...

 a) In Breaking Bad, Skyler White's maiden name (and Walter White's alias) is Lambert. In HIGH & DRY, Charlie's father teaches new media journalism at a local liberal arts college called Lambert College.

 b) In Breaking Bad, Flynn is the name that Walter, Junior occasionally demands to be called. In HIGH & DRY, a Flynn Scientific baseball cap is evidence in a crime.

 c) Breaking Bad was originally set in Riverside, CA. Palm Valley is based on locations near the same Inland Empire locale.

You can pick up HIGH & DRY at any of these fine retailers:

Barnes & Noble




Sarah Skilton is the author of BRUISED, which received a starred review from Publishers Weekly, and which the Horn Book called, "nuanced and honest." She lives in southern California with her magician husband and their young son.
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