Thursday, August 23, 2012

Lessons from a 5-year-old Gumshoe

I've created a mystery-loving monster. In the past week, my five-year-old son has transformed into a hard-boiled private investigator. To protect his anonymity, I'll call him Special Agent G--.

Special Agent G-- has become keenly alert to anything out of the ordinary or slightly off-balance. Menace lurks around every corner. ("Listen! Did you hear footsteps? Music? Squeaking?") Disaster looms. ("What if robbers break that loose door handle -- and steal my Legos?" Clues mount. ("Look! A dried green pea! A scratch on the placemat! What could it mean? We have to solve this mystery . . . before it's too late!")

Is this a boy who admires his mystery-writing mother and seeks to follow in her footsteps? A budding Encyclopedia Brown?

I can hope. But I suspect this is a child who's had a little too much TV on his summer vacation. In the mix might also be his developmental stage, as he becomes more aware of the world.

But I'm enjoying this phase. I love watching him work out possible mystery threads. In this long, last stretch of August, lacking summer camp or reliable childcare, trailing my young sleuth around the house is often the only exercise my mystery-writing brain can get.

For example: just this morning, after finding the dried green pea and the placemat scratch, and after hearing an unusual sing-song-squeak sound (really the dishwasher, overloaded and straining), Special Agent G-- gathered more clues. Then he listed them:
  • Writing, on an art print, that hadn't been there before. (In fact, the writing -- the artist's spidery signature -- had always been there. I just think he hadn't noticed it before, high up on the wall, and he's suddenly taller, so his vision range has changed. But what a cool idea, looking at an old print of a ship at sea, and imagining writing curling out of of the waves, all on its own)
  • Magnetic words on the fridge, suddenly rearranged. (OK, I'd bumped into the magnetic poetry that morning, but why not enjoy imaging more exciting scenarios?)
  • The dining room rug turned up on one end, a piece of garlic placed beneath. (I know the cat has an odd habit of batting things under there, but again, why settle for mundane explanation?)
I've learned a few lessons from observing Special Agent G-- on the crime beat this week:

1. Potential mystery is everywhere. Like my son, I can be more alert to the unusual, the out-of-place, the off-balance, the odd, especially in my everyday surroundings.

2. Clues can be right under your nose. Special Agent G-- doesn't roam far and wide looking for his clues. He combs the immediate area. He makes several passes. He goes deep. This is a useful lesson for my own writing. When I run dry, I'm tempted to build in a new scene, a new chapter, with some clue to be revealed. This approach can slow the pace or add needless pages. If I go back to previous scenes, and look harder for potential off-balance things, I may find existing clues, or places to plant clues.

3. Mysterious incidents can have multiple explanations. As adults, we are quick to rationalize, to reach for the easy explanations. But Special Agent G-- will stay with a potential clue longer, looking at it from various angles, coming up with several scenarios. My sleuths and sidekicks could do that too. Red herrings could be explored in this way.

4. Child characters in a mystery don't see the same things as adults. If I have young characters in my mysteries -- sleuths, sidekicks, or secondary characters -- they may notice different things depending on their age, developmental stage, personal interests,, or, simply, height. Would a 42-inch-tall person notice something amiss that a 5'7" adult would overlook? Would a kid who knows there are fun napkin rings to play with in the buffet discover the missing silver long before the adult who is focused on dusting the top?

We never did solve the Mystery of the Kitchen Phantom this morning. We had too much fun unearthing and discussing clues; we never followed them to a conclusion or thought about which clues might be linked and which were unrelated. That's perfectly okay. After all, we're not writing a story.

Oh, and as it turns out, my son is a gumshoe in more ways than one . . . there really IS gum on his shoe, which explains the unusual stickiness on the floor. And now I'm on to my next mystery. How to remove gum.


Diana was born in Seattle and now lives outside of Boston with her husband and son. TOKYO HEIST (Viking/Penguin, published June 2012) is her first novel.

1 comment:

  1. Love this. What a great reminder that what may seem mundane to us may hold mystery to our readers (and kids). :-)


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