Tuesday, November 1, 2011
Fumbling for the Lights: Darkness in Mysteries for Kids
Mystery and crime go hand in hand. If someone or something goes missing -- or a dead body appears -- someone's responsible. Something horrible happened. But some mysteries place more emphasis on crime and criminals than others. Some stories veil the violent actions or keep them mostly offstage. Others force their sleuths -- and readers -- to confront unpleasant events.
When writing mysteries for young people, it's important to think very carefully about how graphically you want to portray crimes, perpetrators, and victims. How dark you want to go. If a young person finds a dead body, should the victim be known to the young person? What are the consequences? How close to the body should a young sleuth get? If a protagonist is kidnapped or hurt or trapped in some way, just how creepy do you want to make the assailants? What are the consequences? Will the young sleuth be emotionally resilient enough to keep facing danger and solve the mystery? Will readers stay with that sleuth?
The darkness issue is something I'm wrestling with in my current work-in-progress. How much should I expose my young sleuth to? Will I sacrifice some degree of levity, of comic relief, if I go too edgy, too dark? My natural inclination is to lean toward the light. But if it's too light, do I sacrifice plausibility and a sense of pressing danger? Do I sacrifice suspense? I think this is one of the greatest challenges in writing mysteries that feature young sleuths. They should be in some danger. But not too much. Right? After all, they're still kids.
Sometimes in mystery writing I feel like I'm constantly adjusting Venetian blinds, trying to get just that right slant of light.
To help myself with this adjustment, I've started thinking about my own encounters with crime. It's not easy. I don't have many experiences to draw on. I worked at a Wendy's in high school and was robbed at a cash register. Freaky, but that happened so fast, and it was a long, long time ago. A former boyfriend was mugged -- terrifying -- yet I was not there.
But earlier this year, my house was part of a crime scene. It's useful for me to think about that dark night and all the emotions I had.
We called the police and waited for a cruiser. No one came. We called back and were told that calls were pouring in from all over town; we were one of many victims (19, in the end) of a nighttime vandalism spree. In the morning, I looked outside and found a skateboard in the bushes outside that broken window. Soon after, police came to take it away as evidence. They never caught the kids who did this. Everyone repaired their windows and got on with their lives.
I can take that experience and imagine how a younger person might react. (My instinct was to protect my young son. A younger person might wish to feel protected, to seek out a parent or other adult. Or, he or she might get on the phone with friends and brainstorm ideas about suspects, being closer in age to the vandals than I am). I can also take stories from the news, local crimes I read about, and imagine how a teen or tween sleuth might react. I can envision how events in the news might get treated in mysteries for young people, compared to mysteries or crime fiction for adults. I've also been reading mysteries for young people and tracking the balance of darkness and light, literally highlighting them in different colors to understand the proportion. Then I think about the effects.
How do you feel about darkness in mysteries for young people? How dark should kidlit mysteries go? What mysteries have you read where the balance feels just right? What mysteries have you read where the balance feels off? Are there things that mysteries and crime fiction for kids should not deal with or show?
TOKYO HEIST (Viking/Penguin, coming June 14, 2012) is her first novel.