NOTHING WILL ENGAGE YOU LIKE A MURDER:
Young-adult mystery author Alane Ferguson
By Donna Freedman
After Alane Ferguson's best friend was killed, she was asked for details on Savannah's life. The police told Ferguson not to hold back, because any information she could offer might s some light on her friend's death, and might help them convict the killer. As the tape recorder spun, Ferguson began to realize that the authorities already had their own pet theory: that Savannah had been two-timing her fiancÚ, and he killed her in a jealous rage. Their theory so wrong as to be laughable and allowed the real killer - the security guard at Savannah's building - to walk free for almost five years.
That murder and its aftermath reverberate in the pages of "Show Me The Evidence," her
Edgar Award-winning young adult mystery. Its teenage protagonist, Lauren, struggles fiercely in the face of police skepticism to clear a friend's good name. Ferguson concedes that today's young readers are pretty jaded about the justice system, bombarded as they by Court TV a shows like "Hard Copy." Yet she trusts them to know what's fair and what's right. "They still want to have an ordered world, although intellectually they know better," says the author. "I wrote a story where the killer got away, they'd be furious."
Although she broke into the business with a picture book (That New Pet!) and has also written young adult novels such as Cricket and the Crackerbox Kid and The Practical Joke War, it's mysteries that keep her hopping. She's already published three so far, including "Poison and Overkill", and is under contract to write three more. And with her mother, children's novelist Gloria Skurzynski, she's also producing a series for younger children, called "Mystery Solvers Inc."
Ferguson is enthusiastic about the genre as it applies to younger readers:
Q. You've said you're interested in how the concept of justice fits into our lives. Do kids appreciate this?
A. I think they have a keen sense of justice. But they're jaded. They don't have a lot of blind faith in the system. You'll hear kids of 15 years old saying "O.J. (Simpson) can buy justice.' They have a very sophisticated idea of what happens with justice - and they're right. Yet I do think that under all those layers of sophistication, there's a keen sense of fairness.
Q. What's toughest about writing mysteries for young readers?
A. One of the biggest challenges of writing for middle-grade, or even young-adult readers, is that I don't want to have too much violence in it - which really limits what you can do. It's important that they're not just bloodbaths, or glorifying violence. I always try to show that a person who dies leaves a hole. There's grief in my books. We're a society that has glorified violence; I believe that desensitizes people to what happens when someone is ripped out c your life. But it doesn't end. The pain goes on and on.
Q. How do you handle the concepts of danger and death?
A. I'm just absolutely confident that there's not an 11-year-old who doesn't know about death, so I'm not going to introduce something new. Nobody's criticized the violence. It's one of the rules of mysteries. What would you have if you didn't have a murder in a mystery? You'd have something for the lower-level readers. When you get up into the upper levels, there's nothing that will engage you or compel you or get your emotions churning like a murder. It's the ultimate stakes. If your purse is stolen, it's just money. If your friend is stolen from you, you can't replace her. It's absolutely permanent.
Q. Your writing celebrates the day-to-day aspects of friendship - not the kind of thing you w find in a Nancy Drew book.
A. I write about relationships, particularly strong female ones. A Nancy Drew book is very
different. It's very plot-driven. I'm trying to create unique friendships and individual characters. My goal is that you're going to connect to the character and the jeopardy that they're in. You connect on an emotional level and invest yourself in the outcome. I've tried to blend elements of the novel with elements of the mystery. Friends are very important to me. I'm really connected to people, and my relationships with people are paramount, so I write about relationships, particularly strong female ones. In my family there were six girls born in five years. We were best friends. And my parents raised all of us as first-class citizens. That gave me a real appreciation of strong females and strong female friendships.
Q. Your plots are often inspired by real life. Is that because truth is stranger than fiction?
A. When I hear something that makes me say "I don't BELIEVE that!," if it hits me in the gut I know I can make a good story out of it. If it engages me, it should engage my readers. If I tell a story that I heard - say, the one where a girl killed her father - and I hear kids gasp, I've got 'em.
Q. What's the attraction of mysteries for kids?
A. It's the interactive nature: if you're giving them a puzzle, they're going to want to solve it You're making it more complicated because you've given them characters with whom they vicariously feel in jeopardy. You want the authorities to establish order, but the protagonist helps to establish this order. It lets the readers have a little control. Other novels I've done take you on an emotional journey. Mysteries challenge your intellect. You're pitting your wits against what's happening. If you don't guess (the ending), you say, "Wow, I didn't see that." You're never 100 percent sure of who's innocent and who's guilty. It's really hard to know what happened. Yet at the end of the mystery, it's all wrapped up. Life isn't like that. Wouldn't it be nice if it were?
Donna Freedman is a feature writer for the Anchorage Daily News, and a member of Sisters in Crime, Alaska chapter (motto: "Where the trail is always cold"). Her writing has appeared in American Girl, Boys Quest, Time Magazine For Kids, Girls' Life, Hun Dumpty, Jack & Jill, and Kid City, as well as in a handful of grownup publications.
Interview with Jamie McGillian - Creative Classroom
Gloria: What made you decide to start collaborating on the Mysteries in our National Park. series with your daughter?
Answer: Gilbert Grosvener, former head of all National Geographic Divisions (and
grandson of Alexander Graham Bell) had the idea for the series and passed it along to Barb Lalicki, who had become the editor of the newly formed National Geographic Children's BOI division. Previously, Barbara had published my books as well as Lanie's, so she knew I could write science and Lanie could write mysteries - Lanie had won the Edgar Allan Poe Myster: Writers award. Barbara called us and offered us the job, which we were delighted to accept.
Lanie: How does writing together enhance your relationship as mom and daughter?
It's an amazing experience to see your mother as more than a mom, but as a collaborator, creator, and most important of all, friend. We take an idea and weave a story from that premise together - one writing the warp, the other providing the weft, until a pattern emerge that satisfies us both. What has been unique in writing these books as co-authors is that it forced us to deal with each other beyond our mother/daughter roles. I have always counted myself blessed to have Gloria Skurzynski as my mother, but after undertaking this project I quickly realized my good fortune in having such a talented writer as my partner. I may never have fully realized that brilliance if I had not worked side-by-side with her.
Gloria: How do you work? How do you actually collaborate? Do you brainstorm together, then go off on your own to write parts of the book? What technology do you rely on to complete your work?
Because I live in Boise, Idaho and Lanie lives in Elizabeth, Colorado, our writing has to be done long-distance. Before we begin, we have the plot firmly in mind, but the unraveling of plot is always fluid, open to fresh suggestions from either one of us. We have no formula for dividing the work; all twelve books have been written without any preconceived guidelines
and who's going to do what. When we're working on a book we talk on the phone every day and send pages back and forth by email
Lanie: Let's say you're at a big family dinner, will you start talking shop and get the whole family involved in plot, character, and other story elements?
First of all, when you say "a big family dinner," you're absolutely right! As the fourth out of 5 daughters, (all born in six years) I'm here to tell you that an extended Skurzynski family dinner means husbands and children and grandchildren and dogs and chaos and a whole lot of fu Now it's confession time: because my oldest sister Serena is a doctor, my mom and I have been known to pepper her with questions - even when she's trying to eat. For example, writing Buried Alive, we needed to understand what would happen to our characters in extreme Alaska temperatures, and we were able to tease out information right at the table. There a four engineers, a nautical expert, an ophthalmologist, an animal ace and a businessman in the clan, which means mom and I can go to them whenever we needed help on a technical point. But the plot and the development of the characters have always been a process exclusive to the two of us. We've hashed out the Landon trials and tribulations, sometimes talking into the wee hours, and no one else has been involved except Mom and me. I guess it's because the Landons live inside our heads. It's made the mysteries fun for our family to read, though - I books are full of surprises, and they never know until the end how it will work out!
Gloria: What kind of research did/do you do for the books? Do you have to travel much? I you find most scientists and other specialists helpful?
We've traveled to each of the twelve parks in the series, spending about four days at each
interviewing rangers, naturalists, biologists, geologists and the park police. I take slides and Lanie takes video while we're there so we can recall the physical details of the park when writing. The park staff is always extremely kind and helpful, and three or four park people read the manuscript before publication to make sure everything is correct.
Lanie: I loved Out of the Deep because of my passion for whales. Which books, because their subject matter, were most special to you and why?
I have always been in love with wolves, so our first book, Wolf Stalker, was very special in that it introduced the wolfs haunting mystique to our readers. But after researching subsequent animals, I came to a startling conclusion: every living thing, from condors to bats to whales wolverines, is amazing in its own right. I'm now passionate about many wonderful creature that inhabit our planet, and am equally passionate about preserving their habitat.
Gloria: What makes a good mystery?
Since I (Lanie) am the mystery end of the duo, I'll answer that one! A good mystery pits the reader against the writer, and when the game is played fairly (that means no last-minute revelations, but rather well hidden clues sprinkled throughout the text) it's fun for everyone. The plot should be tight, but the real energy should come from the characters. Many of our readers have written to us concerning Jack or Ashley or the foster children, and often the readers speak of our characters as though they were real people. That's when we know we have really done our job!
Lanie: Do the books in the series follow a certain formula? (For instance, do they all deal Olivia's work as a vet, Steven's work as a photographer, Jason and Ashley, and a foster child?)
Our books always feature Olivia as the catalyst to get the Landons into a particular park, and we of course feature Jack and Ashley in every story. The real wild card has been the foster child. He or she has been different in every book, which has given us a lot of liberty with the plot lines.
Science and Real-World Technology
Gloria: What do you hope young readers will gain from the science and real-world technological concerns that you write about?
At each park, we've been impressed by the dedication of the park staff. These people really care about the environment and the park animals and vegetation, devoting their working liv to preserving these amazing tracts of wilderness for all the American people. Once species become extinct, they're gone forever. In each book we try to tell our readers how important to preserve our natural heritage, because each of the parks is struggling with insufficient funding and dealing with the encroachment of technology and industry onto public lands. It would make me very happy if some of our real were drawn to careers in the National Park Service.
Lanie: What advice could you give young people who would like to collaborate on a writing project with a family or friend? (EXCELLENT IF YOU COULD OFFER 5 OR 6 PRACTICAL TIPS or do's and don'ts).
1. If you want to collaborate, you need to be a great listener. Much of what my mom and I create happens when we share our unique perspectives about a character's motivation or when we try to create an exciting plot twist. (You can't be inspired if you're too busy
yammering about your own idea.) Two heads can be better than one, but only if you take t talking and listening. That way, you get twice the payoff!
2. Be aware that everyone has strengths and weaknesses, so be sure to capitalize on your partner's strengths and be the gatekeeper for the weaknesses. For example, my mom loves research while I love to play with dialogue. We each try to do what we enjoy the most, and give each other room to do it. Still, at times I've had to tell my mom she's inserted too mud information, and she in turn has had to cut some of my wordy passages out of the text. We make a great balance for each other, and we know what each one does well and how to emphasize the good stuff.
3. Hold up your share of the load. Our collaboration worked where others have failed because we each work as much as the other. We are a team.
4. Respect each other. That may sound obvious, but I witnessed a writing team where one writer secretly thought she was better than the other, and it turned out to be a disaster both their book and in their relationship. (They're still not speaking!) My mom and I have a lot of respect for each other, and I think it shows in our work.
5. Have fun. My mom and I are always laughing, and I think it's critical to have a solid relationship with whomever it is you want to collaborate. (see #4) When you enter into a