Kids’ Book Review is delighted to welcome Australian author Jennifer Walsh to talk about writing stories filled with adventure and mystery. Jennifer’s latest book, Crooked Leg Road, is published by Allen & Unwin and was released this month.
It’s not hard to guess why I like to write mystery adventure stories. When I was a kid, I longed more than anything to have adventures. I wanted to get lost and find my way home through great perils, I wanted to discover a crime and solve it, I wanted to rescue someone who was in trouble – anything, really, as long as it was exciting and dangerous. Luckily I lived in the country, so I got the chance to climb trees, to ride my bike down deserted lanes pretending someone was chasing me, to swing on ropes across creeks; but that was about as far as it went.
If I couldn’t have real adventures the next best thing was to make them up, so I would get an exercise book and start writing. The stories I wrote were pretty silly, but writing is one thing you can get better at with practice.
One reason why my early efforts weren’t much good was because I wanted to make up a mystery but I didn’t want to spoil it by knowing the answer. Well, that doesn’t work, because eventually you have to make up a solution that fits all the clues, and it will probably be ridiculous. If it’s going to be a good mystery the writer has to know how the story turns out, and work back from that.
Still, to keep it interesting, I find it’s better not to know all the details. I don’t want to give too much away about my own books, but imagine that the mystery concerns something very important that’s hidden somewhere, and the adventure is about finding that thing before your enemies get to it. You can build all that into a story without really knowing, for a while, exactly what the important thing is.
Apart from a plot that keeps even the writer guessing, I find you also need good characters. If I want to write about characters who are going put themselves in danger trying to solve problems, it’s important that you should like those characters and care what happens to them. So I spend time showing my characters in their everyday lives, interacting with their friends, worrying about some things and feeling happy about others. I think if you show enough sides to a character most readers will see something of themselves there, even if it’s just a little thing: “Oh, he’s scared of spiders! Oh, she hates people telling her to play sport!”
Finally, and in a way it’s part of that, I have been setting my stories in the real world, a world that we all recognise. Of course, stories set in invented worlds are great too: scary futuristic worlds like in ‘The Hunger Games’, completely alternative worlds like in ‘Lord of the Rings’, extra dimensions of our own world like in the Harry Potter books – these are all wonderful feats of the imagination that give us a whole new sense of reality. In fact, I’m thinking about doing a series set in an imaginary world too, because I think it might be fun.
But for the mystery adventures I have been writing, ‘The Tunnels of Tarcoola’ and ‘Crooked Leg Road’ and probably one more in the future, I still like the idea that you, the reader, could walk down a street in your own suburb, or through the gates of your school, and think, ‘Something like that could happen to me. How would I deal with it? Those kids in the story weren’t superheroes. They hadn’t been chosen by a wizard to become world leaders. They were just ordinary kids like me. Could I do what they did?’
I suppose I’ve been writing these books for myself, the way I used to be, in the hope that there’s another kid somewhere out there just like me.
Jennifer Walsh is an author of novels for children and adults (writing as Jenny Spence for her adult fiction). Her latest book, Crooked Leg Road, is the second adventure set in the Sydney suburb of Balmain. The first book, The Tunnels of Tarcoola, was published in 2012. Visit Jennifer's website for more information about her books and writing.