Dan writes spine-tingling mysteries for middle-grade and young adult readers. (But we think adults will find them gripping too!) He is the author of The Mysterious Four Series, The Stone Child, and The Nightmarys which Booklist calls "a devilish delight." He lives and write in Brooklyn, NY.
Here is the full of transcript of our interview with Dan.
The Mysterious Four books take me back to my Encyclopedia Brown days. I was delighted by the small mysteries nestled in the larger ones, and was amazed by how many mysteries you had to build -- and then weave into a whole. Most of us have our hands full coming up with one mystery, let alone that many. Can you talk a bit about your process for gathering clues and generating good mystery ideas?
The sheer number of mysteries I had to invent for these books was the biggest challenge. Each of the Mysterious Four books contains around 14 stories total, plus the bonus mystery story that comes with Scholastic's free digital download. Since I wrote the three books in the series back to back, I ended up having to come up with 45 mysteries in less than a year. When I was in the thick of it, I really wanted to pull all of my hair out! At times, I'd be sitting in my apartment, or writing space, just looking around, trying to notice something, anything that could translate into a mystery or a clue. I had to stop myself from coming up with stories about heating vents, pens, pencils, desks, carpets, electrical outlets. Boring! Everything that was in sight could have been pulled into this project if I'd let it. Thankfully, I had some great friends and family members to bounce ideas off of. They helped get me out of my head.
Some of the mysteries came directly from the experiences of people who were nice enough to lend me their stories: for example, my father clued me in on the creepy appearance of bamboo roots and how quickly they grow. My editors also suggested that I peruse the "crime blotter" sections of local newspapers. Many ideas came from the actual crimes I read about there. "Ripped from the headlines!" Of course, I always put my own spin on whatever the "true" crimes were, to give them a Moon Hollow-feel. Some of the most implausible set-ups were actually based on reality. Someone stealing trees to turn them into telephone poles?! Yup! It really happened.
I always carry around a little notebook with me, and whenever I see an interesting object, artifact, or antique, I jot it down as something I might use in one of the mysteries. The copper weather-vane moose was one of these objects. The real one sits on top of a boathouse on a lake in Massachusetts. The "glass-snake" mystery came from my childhood fascination with that particular animal. And of course, I love ghost stories, so I knew I had to throw some of those in there.
I tried to keep in mind what captured my attention when I was eight or nine years old, and I tried to fill the book with those things. What would be the most fun mystery to solve? What would be the most fun way to solve it? This is what kept me going.
You are frequently compared to the mystery writer John Bellairs. Do you think that comparison is apt?
I'm flattered that anyone would compare me to John Bellairs. I loved his books SO MUCH when I was young, and I still do. I was inspired by Bellairs to write The Stone Child, so I suppose I can see why people would draw a comparison. Some of the themes are certainly similar: a young person moves to an unfamiliar town, meets quirky new friends, finds a mysterious object, encounters a supernatural threat, saves the day. I've loved reading these gothic stories, and now I love writing them.
You have a broad range as a writer, with The Nightmarys and The Stone Child geared toward older middle grade readers, and The Mysterious Four aimed at a much younger audience. Can you talk about some of the challenges you faced writing for a younger audience?
I've never really written for an adult audience. I feel like my voice is naturally geared toward young people - writing for middle grades comes naturally to me. I guess I'm mentally stuck in sixth grade! I have a strong connection to that time in my life so it's easy for me to access the memories. As for age group of The Nightmarys and The Stone Child versus the Mysterious Four, I think it was a question of genre. I knew that for the Mysterious Four, there would be nothing "supernatural," no one would get seriously hurt, no one would die. I suppose these rules influenced the language and complexity of themes.
In the older books, all bets were off. I could be as scary or dark as I wanted, within reason, of course. It really was a question of publishers' expectations, so I knew I had certain boundries and I tried to stay within the lines.
You've invented some truly ghastly monsters and other creatures. How do you come up with these? What helps you to visualize them?
Since I love watching movies, I'd say that my imagination is fairly cinematic. I often remember my dreams. I've pulled most of the monsters and creatures directly from memories of nightmares or things that frightened me as a child.
Otherwise, I like to travel to certain quiet spots that I find inspiring: my mom lives on a lake in Massachusetts; an empty library can be quite helpful; New York's Hudson Valley is full of ghosts! If I sit and think, and the place is deserted and dark, the monsters come.
I try to picture their physical features and think about why they may appear the way they do. What makes them tick? This is a good trick for telling scary stories, but bad for trying to get to sleep at night!
Eddie in The Stone Child idolizes the fictional horror writer Nathaniel Olmstead. What writers did you admire as a kid and why? What other writers have influenced your work since?
Well, Eddie's Olmstead-obsession mirrors the one I had with Bellairs. Like I said, he was always a favorite and I read his books numerous times. What kept me coming back was the cozy/ creepy balance that Bellairs handled so well. I knew his characters would be put through the ringer, but by the end of the books, the kids were always home, safe with their elderly companions, drinking hot chocolate, telling stories, and gearing up for the next adventure. I loved the feeling the books gave me - that I could handle the "scary stuff" too, that no matter what, I could come home to find comfort in my family or friends.
Some other writers I've loved: Bruce Coville, Mary Downing Hahn, Zilpha Keatley Snyder, Virginia Hamilton, Beverly Cleary, Judy Blume, Ray Bradbury, Maurice Sendak, Edward Gorey, James Howe. I liked each of their stories for different reasons, but what they had in common was the ability to make me want to turn the page, to discover the secrets hidden in an illustration or plot twist, to experience another laugh or thrill or chill.
In high school, I was obsessed with Stephen King and then Neil Gaiman. Since high school, I've actually looked into who had influenced the scariest of writers and discovered the gothic, ghostly pleasures of M.R. James and the nightmare worlds of H.P. Lovecraft - even Poe.
Seperately, I read a lot of young adult literature to see what is being published today, to try to understand why romance and horror seem to go hand in hand now. I love what Holly Black, Libba Bray, Barry Lyga, and Karen Healey do. And Rick Yancy and Daniel Kraus have taken young adult horror to new levels of totally awesome. They make me want to write for an older audience too.
Some of the scenes in The Stone Child have spooked even some of your adult readers! Since Halloween is around the corner, can you share any tips for writing scary stuff or at least inducing goosebumps?
I think the best advice for inducing goosebumps is following the trope of "less is more." In the films Jaws--one of the scariest movies ever--Steven Spielberg didn't even show the shark for the first half of the movie (mostly because the mechanical shark was malfunctioning). We saw the action from the perspective of the shark. What this did was force the audience to imagine what the creature looked like. I believe that there's nothing scarier than what our own brains can create. An author can crank up tension by only showing glimpses of "the monster," or evidence that something is wrong, by waiting to reveal the the thing with teeth until the last possible moment.
The scariest scene I've ever read is in Lovecraft's The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, when the main character enters catacombs beneath a Providence, RI mansion and peers into the shadowy pits there. The character sees creatures in the dark; however, the author never describes them. He only shows the main character's reaction to what he sees. And it's terrifying. It's the most effective fright device I've ever encountered.
What (if anything!) scares you?
The idea of being alone or trapped, confined in a small space. True ghost stories always give me chills. And simply thinking of deep water induces heart palpitations. There are so many genuinely scary-looking beasts down there in the darkness...
Thanks, Dan, we'll let you go free now so that you can keep churning out those spine-tingling mysteries for us. We hope your Interrogation Room ordeal wasn't too frightening!
Would you like to win Dan's book THE MYSTERIOUS FOUR: HAUNTINGS AND HEISTS? Even if you didn't correctly guess that Dan was our next suspect in The Interrogation Room, you can still win by commenting on any Sleuths, Spies & Alibis entry or following our blog by 10/31. Simply fill out our contest form here.