Monday, July 21, 2008

Blame It On Nancy Drew

by Marcia Talley

I come from a long line of frugal New Englanders, so it’s no surprise that I tend to drive my cars until they practically disintegrate in my driveway. Thus, it was a sad, sad day when I waved goodbye to my beloved 1994 Chrysler LeBaron – which was crying out for its third transmission in almost as many years – as it was hauled away on a flatbed truck by a nice guy from Purple Heart. To replace it, I did my research, reading Consumer Reports and doing comparisons on the Internet before turning up at a local VW dealership looking to test drive a VW Eos convertible. “I want it in blue,” I told the salesman, Keith, but there was no blue model on the lot. “The paprika red is hot,” Keith said. “You can drive that baby away today.” I shook my head. He tried again, “Candy white? Island gray?”

I was in the middle of telling Keith why color was a deal breaker – it was going to be blue or nothing – when it suddenly occurred to me why the color was important. Blame it on Nancy Drew. She drove a snappy blue roadster, and so, doggonit, would I.

How is it that a series of novels that debuted in 1930 – decades before I was born -- have such an influence on me as a young girl that I became not only a rabid reader of mysteries, but a mystery novelist as well? How to explain why I was sitting in a squeaky leather chair, pouting until I got to drive off in a car just like Nancy’s? Another famous Nancy said it far better than I in the preface to the facsimile edition of The Hidden Staircase, “I owe it all to Nancy Drew.”

Statistics indicate that our nation’s children are spending less time reading and more time watching television or playing video games. This is alarming for many reasons, not the least being this – if there is going to be an audience in future for the kind of books we write, we need to start cultivating that audience today. That’s why I rarely turn down the opportunity to speak to children and young adults, in schools and libraries, and for community groups like the Girl Scouts. The kids I’ve met may be spending a lot of time in front of a television or computer screen, but I’ve found that they’re endlessly fascinated by mysteries, too.

This spring I was giving a talk during “Career Day” to a group of seventy 5th graders, and I asked how many of them had seen the television program CSI. Papers on the librarian’s desk fluttered as nearly every hand shot up. At a high school in my husband’s home town the English and Science departments collaborated on a joint study unit, “Forensic Science in Literature.” I was the literature half of the program. And on a balmy autumn weekend in San Diego, I gave the keynote address for a brilliantly organized sleepover that included a hands-on CSI workshop -- crime scene, evidence specimens, microscopes, white lab coats and all – followed by a mystery-writing workshop.

In my opinion, no better example of reaching out to kids about the love of reading a mystery can be found than the post-Bouchercon 2007 Authors to the Schools program sponsored by the Alaska chapter of Sisters in Crime. I was greeted like a rock star in Seward, where over the course of two days, I spoke to classes in the elementary, middle and high schools as well as doing an evening presentation for adults at the Seward Public Library. You know what? The kids were just as fascinated by tales of mystery, adventure, intrigue, justice and revenge as the adults, perhaps more so.

On the Monday, I took my talk “The Mind of a Mystery Writer” (illustrated with Power Point slides) to an auditorium of bright and attentive teens at Seward High School, answered their questions and worked with them as they penned their own mysteries. The following day, I visited the middle school. The students were enthusiastic and extremely well prepared for my visit; no surprise, as one of their teachers, Laura Beck, had just been voted Alaska Teacher of the Year.

Finally, I visited Seward elementary school where I did presentations for both the 5th and 6th grades classes, ending with a lively discussion initiated by the 5th graders on murder mysteries I could set in Seward based on either the Jesse Lee Home, an orphanage ruined in the earthquake and rumored to be haunted; or, a woman murdered in a bathtub (was she stabbed? shot? strangled? the stories varied) at Seward’s Van Gilder hotel.
And I’m thinking, hmmm, why not?

Remember that line in the 1989 Kevin Costner flick, Field of Dreams: “If you build it, they will come?” The same could be said about mysteries. J.K. Rowling turned millions of children on to reading with the adventures of Harry Potter, and if standing in line for hours in order to be the first kid on your block to read a book that’s more 700 pages long doesn’t prove that if you give kids good books, they will read them, I don’t know what does.
If we write them, they will come.

Do you need a gift for a youngster? Remember the solve-it-yourself mysteries featuring Leroy "Encyclopedia" Brown, the boy detective? For middle school children, how about Mary Stuart’s classic, The Moonspinners; or The Name of the Game was Murder by Joan Lowrey Nixon; or, Ellen Raskin’s The Westing Game. And for the high school crowd, you couldn’t do better than to recommend Josephine Tey’s timeless classic, Daughter of Time; Margaret Maron’s Bootlegger’s Daughter; or, She Walk These Hills by Sharyn McCrumb. And Agatha Christie, too, of course.
My recent stint as an Edgar judge for the juvenile mystery category made it clear that authors are still turning out such masterpieces, tomorrow’s classics like the books on this year’s Edgar short list.

or those that were nominated for an Agatha in the same category.

The Night Tourist by Katherine Marsh is a real stunner.

So the next time someone asks you to speak to a group of school-age children or young adults, say ‘yes.’ It’s not as hard as you think. Just like their parents, kids want to know ‘where do you get your ideas?’ and are fascinated when you talk about the whole creative process, from the germ of an idea up through publication. At one presentation, a bright-eyed 4th grader examined the marked-up, copyedited manuscript I’d brought along in amazement. “You mean grownups don’t get it perfect the first time either?”

And soon, there may be another resource to help you. Sisters in Crime is in the process of gathering different curricula and determining the best format in which to present them. Once they’re ready, we'll have a place on-line for members to pick up super, tried-and-true teaching ideas.

While I still love to talk to libraries, private book groups, and women’s professional organizations, kids remain my favorite audience. As one 4th grader wrote, “Thank you for coming to our school, Mrs. Talley. I learned that you don’t have to be a grownup to write mysteries.”
Thank you, Brittany. I couldn’t have said it any better.

Marcia Talley's 7th Hannah Ives mystery, Dead Man Dancing, will be released in the fall. She is Secretary of Sisters in Crime National.


storyknife said...

You were obviously the perfect person to send to Seward, Marsha. Those kids are probably still talking about you, are probably still writing their own stories, and are probably reading a lot more than they were before you got there. Thank you!

Dana Stabenow

Marcia said...

Dana, I have a feeling that all of the authors who participated in your super well-organized B'con and Authors to the Bush program had a great time. I know Deb Vanasse of Alaska SinC is putting together a collection of short stories and essays from the participants, A STRANGER COMES TO TOWN: MYSTERY WRITERS EXPLORE ALASKA. Can't wait to read it!