Vintage Writing Instruction

A podcast of classic articles on writing fiction.
Posted 05/17/2024

Episode 46: Mystery Stories for Children

Originally appeared in the September 1940 issue of Writer's Digest. As A reminder, it was a different time then. Thus some of this language would be offensive if written today.

By Ruby Lorraine Radford

If you can recall with genuine emotion your feelings at the age of ten when you explored a deserted cabin in the woods, or how you reached the seventh heaven on making the Freshman basketball team, then you have an important asset in writing For children. I suppose it’s because I genuinely love children, and somehow seem to be able to get into their consciousness, that I’ve been able to interest them with fiction for twenty-three years. Or maybe it's just because I still have a childish heart, and have never quite grown up.

I sold my first shorts way back in 1917 and have been at the juvenile fiction business ever since. I served my apprenticeship, in finding out what children like, during the brief years I taught boys and girls between the ages of ten and fourteen, and I’ve been writing for that age group constantly since I left the schoolroom.

Above all else, children love to unravel a mystery or to probe into a secret. There’s nothing more bubbling over with curiosity than a child approaching his teens, This curiosity will make him read page after page to find the secret you’ve hinted at in the early part of a book. And you can create an atmosphere of mystery and suspense out of most anything in the child’s world. Nor do you need blood, thunder and gun play to secure the necessary thrills. My ninth mystery book will be brought out this fall by The Penn Publishing Co., and I’ve had four hundred shorts and serials published, I only recall one in which a gun was fired and that was to bring out the lesson of the unnecessary cruelty of hunting. Juvenile mystery is not synonymous with blood and thunder.

How much better it is to let your suspense grow cut of the natural activities of the child’s world. I did a series of short-short mysteries for Child Life, based on the activities of two rival ball teams. In the first of these, Slim, a new chap in the neighborhood, solved a mystery about one of the team, who had disappeared, and so won a place for himself among the boys. In this series of six stories, each complete in itself, though carrying on the activities of the same group of boys, there was an old hermit, who knew something about archaeology and lent an air of mystery to the tales. In these short mysteries the opening was made in the midst of a tense situation.

After I finish each story, I go through it pretending that I have a "must order" to cut 20 words out of every page. Boiling out unnecessary words in mystery stories sharpens suspense.

In "Spanish Treasure,” which was published by Child Life, and reprinted in a school reader brought out by Bobbs Merrill, action begins with the first words:

"Wait! Come back, quick! Under the bushes!" warned Ned Arnold as Slim and his pup, Jip, started down the slope to the lake.

"What is it?" asked Slim.

"Old Fisherman Feanee," whispered Ned as they crouched in the bushes. "We don't dare let him know we're huntin' for anything at the old dug-out."

And so the action continues without a wasted word (I fondly hope) to the end, when the old fisherman has proven to be their friend and has helped them make a discovery of great interest in the ruins.

A mystery serial, "Cat's Eyes," was born one day when I saw an old man gathering shells on the beach. Two children offer to help him, and discover that there is something mysterious about his life. The solution proves vital in their own affairs, and so the reader is carried through five installments in Play Mate.

In recent years you find a great many trials and shorts bearing the title, "The Mystery of or "The Secret of,” but when my "The Mystery of the White Knight" came out in 1927 it was a sort of pioneer.

At the present time there arc about seventy-five children's magazines, both pulps and slicks, that use mysteries in both short lengths and serial form—rarely over ten chapters. This is a market worth considering, and one that has fluctuated less during the depression years than any other. Juveniles do not go and come over night as do the adult pulps. Once you are established in this field you can draw a steady return of checks, as long as your work, comes up to standard and you keep abreast of the changing trends in the juvenile field.

There are three important elements in the mystery story for children: a strong, tightly-knitted plot, really individual and live characters, and an interesting setting. But first and most important is the plot, for without cleverly devised dramatic action your mystery will be a flop. I depend on the plot to keep the child reading until the hook is finished, and upon the characters and setting for the real educational value of the story. Every juvenile editor looks for this before he will accept a story. Does it have educational and character-development value?

I never quite know where my plots come from, though I've felt that plotting is my strong points. Through a painful apprenticeship I had to learn how to put my stories on paper, but I've never lacked for a story to tell—plots seem to be everywhere, waiting to be put down. I generally get the merest germ of an idea, and around this nucleus incidents spring up like mushrooms.

Let’s take an example: "The Mystery of the While Knight" was buiit around a clear picture in my mind of an old retired seaman, collecting money at a toll bridge across the tide water. When an idea like that pops into my head I never try to force its development. I've learned that when you let it lie in your subconscious a while other pictures automatically gather around it until you find it has become a moving panorama when you settle down to think out your story.

So the picture of my grizzled old seaman, Cap’n O’Maro, kept bobbing up in my mind until he finally became rather active. Then one day I saw him going with his limping gait down to the bridge to collect toll from three children in a buggy.

Suddenly he began puffing vigorously at his pipe, surrounding himself with smoke.

"So—company for the big house, eh?"

"Yes. They’ve come to stay all summer." Evelyn said promptly as she handed out the toll.

"Eh, what? All summer?" His tone was harsh, his manner gruff. One might think him disgruntled that they had dared Invite company without consulting him.

So we are off to a good start and at the end of the first chapter the child's curiosity is stirred by this strange old man with his prying ways. Each succeeding chapter adds a new angle of mystery to the tangle of events. In order to build this suspense step by step and lead to the logical unraveling, I have always found it necessary to make a complete outline of a book before beginning the actual writing, chapter by chapter. This is generally about four or five lines giving the highlights to be worked out in each chapter. Naturally this outline must be flexible, for as the story advances in detail many adjustments have to be made.

In my mystery books I have always managed to hold off the actual solution of the mystery to the final brief chapter. But the threads of the plot must be so carefully woven that one jerk of a loose end at the conclusion will unravel the whole for the child. In order to do this, many preliminary explanations have to be made before you give the complete key to the situation. And everything must be explained to the child. There’s no place here for the subtleties of the adult mystery. Your youngsters demand a complete checking over at the end, with every clue bringing its results and every problem solved. They aren’t satisfied when you tell them Marjorie and Hal had a good dinner. You must bring on the hot biscuits and fried chicken, and let them see Hal's teeth become stained with the juice of the huckleberry pie. And, by the way, there’s nothing children enjoy more than reading about good eats, so I’ve served all the famous southern dishes in my stories, and always the cooks are fat and jolly and generous. But to return to the final tie-up of your story; this must also satisfy the child’s sense of justice, which is very keen. The villain must be put in his place, and just rewards meted to those who deserve them.

In my first book the real White Knight proved to be the mysterious Cap’n O’Maro, and all his peculiar actions resulted from his trying to prevent a boathouse on the plantation, where the children lived, from being used by smugglers. A chessman, a white knight, featured the solution of the mystery, so that the title had a double meaning.

This book gives a good illustration of how a juvenile mystery of 60,000 words may be developed step by step in such a way that the child can follow the story without growing confused. By the expedient of having the children themselves talk over the various clues, in their efforts to solve the mystery, you keep the young reader’s mind alert to all the implications.

In "The Mystery of the White Knight" there was a double mystery. The first half of the story was taken up with trying to establish the identity of the ghostly visitor to the plantation, for he has been the cause of the exodus of most of the negro laborers. When this complication is developed and dissolved, through the efforts of the children, themselves, the cause of this mystery, old Cap’n O’Maro himself, is brought into the plantation house, and more complications develop out of this partial solution.

The child’s mind is keener and more penetrating than most adults realize. You mustn't lay the cards too openly on the table, or he will get the solution before you are ready for it to be revealed. You must plant some clues that the young detectives of your story do not realize are important. Then when the quick unraveling comes at the end the juvenile render will see at once how the clues fall into place.

Though your mystery for children must be strong on plot it can only be brought to life by real, vivid characters. There are certain types of characters which lend themselves more readily than others to the mysterious atmosphere. You greatly simplify your work by taking advantage of these tricks. For instance, there’s always something intriguing about seamen. They may come from anywhere, and be up to all sorts of interesting things. There is no normal hoy or girl but dreams of sailing to distant ports on some old wind-jammer, and so a sea captain is sure-fire stuff to catch his interest. Knowing this, I've had many sea captains swaggering through my stories.

Foreigners, too, have about them an atmosphere of the unknown. I've found Chinese, Japanese and East Indians especially expert in getting my plots tangled up. In "The Mystery of the Bradley Pearls" a native of India was always spitting betel juice around, leaving obvious clues for the children to follow. In "The Mystery of Pelican Cove" a Chinese cook created a mysterious element, but proved to he a friend to the young people and helped them solve the mystery. He stirs the curiosity in the first chapter.

"You don't have to see his face but once to remember it," said Ed significantly. "I used to think all Chinks look alike, hut I'd recognize Joe Choy on the streets of Shanghai."

The boy dropped a shrimp on the beheaded pile, and lowered his voice, his gaze still turned on the bridge they were rapidly leaving behind.

I wish I knew what Joe Choy knows."

"You mean about Uncle Phil's affairs?"

"Yes, and more, too. You know there was a Chink working at that house before Uncle Phil bought it—may have been Joe Choy. There's something mysterious about that house—and Uncle Phil buying a place off there at the end of nowhere."

So we are off to a good start, and the child doesn't want to put down the book until he follows the group of youngsters to the mysterious house in Pelican Cove to see what it's all about.

Most books for children above ten are only for boys or only for girls, but mine have been for both. I try to keep activities about equally divided between the boys and girls, and usually they pull together harmoniously in unraveling the mystery. As the scene of all my mystery books is the southern coast country, negroes feature in all of them. They’re sure-fire stuff for touches of humor and pathos. My sister, who is a psychiatric Social Worker in South Carolina, is constantly bringing me humorous bits of dialogue from the negroes she contacts, so I never run out of new expressions of negro humor in my stories.

The third important element in a good mystery yarn for youngsters is the setting. Deserted and haunted houses have been done to death in mystery stories. I've tried to get away from this by using out-of-the-way settings which are interesting in themselves. I have spent much time along the Carolina and Florida coasts and on the outlying islands, so I am thoroughly familiar with the scenes of my stories. On these wind-rippled dunes most anything can happen. There's no spot more suggestive of mystery than a long avenue of moss-festooned live oaks on a moonlight night. In the marshy estuaries that interlace the Carolina coast around Beaufort and Charleston my fiction youngsters have experienced high adventure while following some fascinating clue.

Descriptions of settings must always be subordinated to plot action, however. Every child skips over long descriptions of the beauties of nature. They want continuous action. Your setting must be brought so that he who runs may read. It must be made a part of the action. In "The Mystery of the Bradley Pearls" as the children were arriving at their destination in an old Ford we get this description of the setting:

"I smell the salt water and marsh" said Floss, sniffing eagerly. "We’re getting there, Ann."

"Is that the funny scent I’m smelling?" asked Rollie, sniffing noisily.

None of them had ever seen the ocean except Florence, and naturally the boys turned to her. "That's it," she replied. The scent is always stronger when the tide is out. Yes it's way out now—see?"

Ann ripped away the useless curtain so they could get a better view of the green marshes blending into a misty horizon, Along the load and on points of land extending into the water wide-armed oaks stood motionless and dripping With moisture. How different Was this landscape from anything they had ever seen!

The setting of "The Mystery of the Nancy Lee" was an old Gloucester Schooner, which the youngsters discovered in a lonely inlet near Beaufort, The incongruity of a cod boat in southern waters instantly stirs the curiosity and sets the children on a trail that carries them, aboard the boat itself, through many exciting adventures before the question is finally answered.

The setting of "The Mystery of Mrytle Grove" is the costal orange-grove region of Florida, and incidentally the reader learned much about the citrus business, while he was going through the packing house and scouting through orange groves on the trail of some clue. "The Mystery of Pelican Cove" gave much sugar-coated information about pearl culture and shrimp fishing on the Florida coast. "The Mystery of the White Knight" was a moving picture of plantation life near Charleston.

And so around the skeleton plot of a juvenile mystery must grow the real flesh and blood of live characters, and intriguing setting and something of real educational value for the child. I've found it fascinating work, and not least of the rewards have been the many expressions of appreciation that have come to me from my youthful readers.