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The Sirens of Suspense




Kathryn Miller Haines is an actor, mystery writer, and award-winning playwright. She is the author of Rosie Winter mystery series (HarperCollins). In the early 40s, Rosie Winter has her eyes set on Broadway, but murder and the war get in the way. She also writes a new young adult series set in 40s, the first of which, The Girl is Murder (Roaring Brook Press, a division of MacMillan), has been nominated for the 2012 Edgar Award for best Young Adult Mystery, nominated for an American Library Association YALSA award, and named one of the best books for young adults by the Texas State Library Association. A sequel, The Girl is Trouble, will be released July 3, 2012.

Find Kathryn on Facebook and Twitter.

The Case of the Changing item1

Nobody was more surprised than I was when I made the move to YA. It wasn’t a deliberate choice. My agent had suggested that I come up with a proposal for another World War II series and that resulting synopsis just felt YA to both of us, even though he’d never sold YA before and I’d certainly never written it. When the project sold on the basis of that proposal and a few hurriedly drafted chapters I was thrilled and terrified. How on earth was I going to write YA? What did it even mean for a book to be YA?

What followed was a crash course in reading as much YA fiction as I could get my greedy little hands on. It’s an amazing genre full of extraordinary writing. As I poured through the books, I discovered that the differences between writing for adults and young adults were subtle and, in many ways, liberating.

The first change was the ratio of dialogue and action to narrative. I think we can all agree that more action and dialogue makes for a faster read, but when you’re writing historical mysteries, like I am, there’s often an expectation that you’ll spend time dwelling on minutiae, educating your reader on those exciting details you uncovered while doing your research. YA readers have no tolerance for that, however, and only want a flavor of the times. For someone who tends to the verbose like me, this was a challenge that really paid off in the end. I loved having to be more economical about recreating 1940s New York. It allowed me to create a much more energized and—hopefully – engaging story.

The other major change, of course, is who your characters are: teens as opposed to adults. This presents its own set of challenges. Younger characters don’t have access to the same resources, don’t have the same clout, don’t necessarily have the same ability to process and analyze information and emotions. Sure, you can create a teen sleuth who’s extraordinary -- and they should be in some way since you’re aiming to create a character that readers want to be -- but if you want to write about a realistic world, you have to limit them in some ways.item6

My protagonist in my adult series, Rosie Winter, was very self-aware. She knew when she was being selfish, when and why she was emotionally torn, etc. I wanted to be careful to avoid creating a similar character when I was writing about Iris Anderson. She’s only fifteen years old, after all, and she’s under the spell of that potent cocktail of hormones and adolescent self-centeredness. She makes assumptions about herself and the people around her, but she’s often wrong.

And there are pitfalls when writing YA fiction that I was hoping to avoid:

• Absent or ineffective parents. It was really important to me, at least in The Girl is Murder, that Iris’s father is very present in her life and she needs his help for her to solve her first mystery. Yes, he gets things wrong too at times, but he’s the professional with years of experience under his belt.

• Stupid adults. Related to the above point, I hate it when teens are smarter than all of the adults. Yes, there are stupid people in all age groups, but the world wouldn’t function if every adult was an idiot.

• The protagonist who is the “chosen one.” Nobody decrees that Iris is born to be a detective except…well…Iris. She thinks it’s her fate because it’s what her family does but her skills, frankly, don’t bear out to that assumption. She’s only going to get good if she works at it.

• Preachy or moralistic tone. I grew up in the age of ABC Afterschool Specials (remember those?). I think we believe everything young people encounter has to have a lesson wrapped up in it. And while it’s great if there’s a takeaway where they learn something, I think the very best of YA fiction entertains the reader first and subtly educates them in the process.




TELL US WHAT DRIVES YOU CRAZY IN YA FICTION, OR ASK KATHRYN A QUESTION by commenting below or visit us and share your thoughts on our Facebook page and be entered to win a pair of Kathryn’s books THE GIRL IS MURDER and THE GIRL IS TROUBLE!

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