Check This Out: The World’s Greatest Detective

Hi, ho! Please help me welcome back to the blog the one and only Caroline Carlson. (Click here for Caroline’s last visit.) Today is the birthday of her latest middle grade novel, The World’s Greatest Detective! It was published by HarperCollins with a cover illustrated by Júlia Sardà. You can read an excerpt of the book at Entertainment Weekly’s website. Click here to do so.

    

Caroline is represented by Sarah Davies. Now, grab your deerstalker and magnifying glass, and let’s talk to Caroline!

El Space: Four quick facts about yourself?
Caroline: I believe there is an inherently delicious way to cook any vegetable, but sometimes that way is hard to find.
I can tap dance. I’m pretty good.
I am that obnoxious sort of person who likes to get to airports several days in advance of my flight.
I’ve been visiting schools and bookstores talking to kids for five years now, but I still get nervous every time!

El Space: You’re known for your pirate series—The Very Nearly Honorable League of Pirates. So, what inspired your new middle grade mystery novel, The World’s Greatest Detective? Is this a series also?
Caroline: I’ve always loved reading mystery novels and have wanted to try my hand at one for a while now. All three books in the Very Nearly Honorable League of Pirates series have elements of mystery in them, actually, but The World’s Greatest Detective is the first book I’ve written that’s styled after classic whodunits. Readers who are familiar with Sherlock Holmes or with Agatha Christie’s novels will probably recognize a lot of the story’s elements, and that’s intentional—one of my goals was to honor my favorite mystery icons and introduce kids to the genre in a fun and humorous way.

     

The World’s Greatest Detective isn’t part of a series, at least for now. I’d love to send Toby and Ivy on a new adventure someday, but I don’t want to write another mystery novel unless I have a really good idea for the mystery at the heart of the story, and that hasn’t happened just yet. It’s also been lots of fun, after working on a trilogy, to write a book that can stand on its own metaphorical feet.

      

El Space: Batman considers himself to be the world’s greatest detective. But he’s got money and gadgets to help him out. Without giving any spoilers, what do Toby and Ivy have to help them solve mysteries?
Caroline: I don’t know if Toby and Ivy would be any good at saving Gotham, but they do the best they can with their limited resources. Toby has learned a little bit about detective work from his uncle Gabriel, who has an office on the famous Detectives’ Row, and he also happens to be enrolled in a correspondence course to become a junior detective. Ivy’s got a huge library of true crime stories, a clothes rack full of disguises, a skeleton named Egbert, and a knack for setting traps with tablecloths and trip wires. Ultimately, though, they’ve got to put away their gadgets and rely on their powers of deduction to solve the murder that happens right under their noses.

El Space: Sounds exciting! Steve Moser, who was a former police detective in real life, gave some tips from this article at the Police Magazine website. Here is one of them:

Take time to step away and regroup. Sometimes you have to step back and either do something else or just take a break. Many ah-ha moments occur this way.

Would your characters agree? Why or why not? Why is this also good writing advice?
Caroline: Toby and Ivy would hate to step away from a good case, but I think they’d grudgingly agree that some of their most crucial insights have come at the moments when they’ve been forced to remove themselves from an investigation. And I certainly agree that breaks are essential to my own writing process. By the time I’ve finished a first draft of a book, I’ve been working on it nonstop for months, and I usually don’t have much of a sense of what’s working and what’s not. It’s hard for me to view the manuscript objectively—as an editor or a reader would—until I’ve taken some time away from it. Sometimes a writing problem that seems intractable can be solved with a little bit of time and distance.

  

El Space: Did you have a favorite mystery book or series when you were a kid? If so, what? Why?
Caroline: Yes, lots! I particularly loved mysteries that encourage readers to solve a puzzle along with the characters. My favorite example of this type of book is Ellen Raskin’s The Westing Game. There are a few subtle Westing Game references in The World’s Greatest Detective; let me know if you find them!

El Space: What will you work on next?
Caroline: I’m just finishing up a draft of my next book, which is a fantasy adventure tentatively called “The Door at the End of the World.” It has a little bit of magic, lots of jokes, and too many bees.

Thanks, Caroline, for being my guest!

And thank you to all who stopped by to chat with Caroline. Looking for Caroline? You can find her at her website, Twitter, Facebook.

The World’s Greatest Detective and other novels by Caroline can be found at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Indiebound. But I will send a copy of The World’s Greatest Detective to one of you who comments below. Winner to be announced on May 29. (Another giveaway also will be announced then.)

Author photo by Amy Rose Capetta. The World’s Greatest Detective cover courtesy of the author. Other covers from Goodreads. LEGO Batman from fanpop.com. Detective images from cctvcamerapros.com and clipartpanda.com. Veggies from clipartlord.com. Bee image from Pinterest.

Snake Surprise

When I told my dad about the butterfly and moth post I wrote recently, somehow we got on the subject of snakes. . . . Oh I know why we did. We were talking about crawfish (or crayfish if you prefer) and how I’d seen some in our backyard, along with snakes.

“It wasn’t my imagination, was it?” I asked, since I . . . um . . . had imaginary friends as a kid. I just wanted to make sure. . . .

He said that yes, there were burrowing crawfish in a hole in our yard, maybe two years after we moved into our house in Chicago—a house that had been newly built at the time. (Wondering about burrowing crawfish? Check this or this or even this.) And there were snakes too. When I was seven, I remember being terrified of a green snake crawling along the sidewalk in the front of our house, and wondered how it got there (after I finished screaming). Well, mystery solved finally on the snake front, after all of these years.

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“Your brother brought them home,” said Dad. (Note the plural pronoun them.)

My older brother and his best friend, both nine years old at the time, had gone exploring around an old factory (later torn down due to the expressway extension by our house) and brought home souvenirs—snakes to live at our house. Perhaps the others escaped their clutches. But one decided to linger at our house. When I saw it, I didn’t want to go outside ever again, especially since the snake chose to slither into the bushes at the front of the house.

“Oh girl, the snake’s not poisonous,” said my sympathetic parents. (Keep in mind that I was a city kid and had never seen a snake before, outside of a reptile house at the zoo. My parents had been raised on farms in a different state, and could readily identify a poisonous snake, having seen them.)

So I have my brother to thank for my trauma. I should have known. He also was the one who favored the old snake in a can gag.

Snake in a can

But how to thank him properly? Unfortunately, he lives over a thousand miles from me, so I can’t send a snake his way.

Or can I?

I had to Google to find out. Turns out I could through Ship Your Reptiles.com! It’s nice to know that I have options. Mwwwwahahahaha!

But this brings to mind another incident involving snakes. Back in my early days as a curriculum editor, the managing editor brought his pet boa constrictor to the office and parked him in one of the conference rooms. I was curious and a little bolder than I was at the age of seven, so I drifted into the room where a crowd had gathered. But I flinched as the snake’s head edged toward me.

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“Oh, let him crawl up your arm!” said the managing editor. “He’s friendly.”

Haven’t we all heard that one before, usually in regard to a snarling pet who might be friendly to the owners, but not to strangers? I didn’t want to look like a wimp, so I did. The boa was very smooth as he made his way up my arm. But since he did not provide flowers or candy nor ask for my phone number, our relationship was brief.

I can only hope that in the future no one else decides to surprise me with a snake. If anyone’s going to do the surprising, that person’s gonna be me.

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If you think of it, say happy birthday to Andra Watkins, who is two thirds of the way through her Natchez Trace walk! This is one for the history books!

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Snake photos from Wikipedia. Snake in a can from ebay. Birthday cake from great-birthday-party-ideas.com.

A Writer’s Process 9(a)

A funny thing happened on the way to the blog today—if you recognize that well-known setup to a joke, you’ll have an idea of the subject of today’s discussion: humor in writing. With me today and tomorrow is the awesome and splendiferous Shelby Rosiak, whose blog My Year with The Mouse just might be your cup of tea.

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Shelby laughing after a friend’s daughter cheated at pin the tail on the donkey

If you haven’t visited Shelby’s blog, click on the blog name above, and witness Shelby valiant visiting many wonderful places at Disneyland and reporting on them, thereby making us wish we were her. Alas, MYWTM is on a hiatus now while Shelby gathers her wits and tries to find at least two shoes that match.

Give yourself a gold star if you can guess where I met Shelby. CoughcoughVCFAcoughcough. Now grab your rubber chicken, bonk yourself over the head, and join us!***

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El Space: Let’s start with four quick facts about yourself, for those who haven’t sat in Noble Lounge on campus reading books about Scaredy Squirrel with you like I have.
Shelby: (1) When I was thirteen years old, I was on a TV game show. I lost, but got a VCR as a “parting gift.” (2) I have been to twelve countries including China, where my family adopted our now two-year-old daughter, Violet. Our four-year-old son Theo came with us—it was a real adventure. (3) I live near Disneyland and can see the fireworks from my back porch. It’s pretty much awesome, because who DOESN’T want to see Disneyland fireworks from their back porch? (4) I used to be a technical writer for the world’s largest computer company. I much prefer creative writing.

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El Space: Love the Disneyland fireworks! And I’m glad you love creative writing, since that brought you to that place I coughed about earlier. Who are the authors who most influence you?
225px-JudyBlume2009(cropped)Shelby: I think influence is a funny word because, to me, it implies that I’ve changed my work based on their writing. I can’t think of anyone like that, but I have been inspired by a number of amazing writers. I cried when I met Judy Blume [left]. I’m not kidding. She must have thought I was a total whackadoodle, but she was so sweet and gracious about it. As a young person, I was very inspired by writers who wrote strong female characters—Cynthia Voigt, Katherine Paterson, Jean Craighead George, Scott O’Dell. And you didn’t ask this question, but the three authors I wish I’d had a chance to meet before they died? Madeleine L’Engle, Maurice Sendak, and Roald Dahl.

220px-Dave-barry-post-hunt-2011El Space: I wish I could have met them as well. Now, everyone who knows you knows you’re hilarious. In a recent PBS interview with Jeffrey Brown, Dave Barry, considered one of the funniest writers in America, said this:

[W]hen I’m writing columns, it’s—all I’m thinking about is jokes, joke, joke, joke, setup, punch line, joke, joke, joke. And I really don’t care where it goes. I don’t have a point the [sic] make. . . . With a novel, you have to have a story. It’s much more important to have it matter to the reader what happens to people, and it has to make sense and end in a way that is satisfying.

What are your thoughts on humor and your writing? How do you make it satisfying as Dave Barry suggested?
Shelby: This is a great quote. Articles, and nowadays blogs, are perfect for short one-liners—off-the-cuff jokes for an easy laugh. Novels present a different challenge, but also a real opportunity for the humor writer, because you can establish something humorous, like an inside joke between the author and the reader, and refer back to it as an ongoing aspect of the novel and it can become funnier and funnier as you go. You can also start building humor with the narrative, with establishing a small joke and growing with it.

Think of the song, “There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly.” This old lady swallows a fly—that’s funny, but we also sing “perhaps she’ll die” at the end of each verse. Then the old lady swallows a series of animals, each funnier than the last (a dog? Seriously?). And at the end she swallows a horse, which is funny in and of itself, but then you get the HUGE payoff with “She died, of course.” By building the humor, you get a much bigger payoff than you would with a one-liner. And that kind of payoff in and of itself is very satisfying.

And that’s something that you can do with longer fiction that is more difficult with shorter fiction. I think the big difference is thinking long term in the humor, in addition to one-liners. Making it satisfying means tying it all back to story, because it’s always about story. The humor needs to serve the story, otherwise it doesn’t belong there.

The big drawback of being a humor writer, however, is having to cut funny lines. I’ll write something I think is absolutely hysterical, and my feedback says it has to go because it doesn’t serve the story. It’s hard to cut lines when you think, But that’s hilarious!! But it needs to be done. It always comes back to story. Always.

And we’ve run out of time for today. But tune in tomorrow and we’ll talk more with Shelby about humor. Don’t forget to bring your rubber chicken. In the meantime, if you have questions for Shelby about her process or want to share a tip about humor writing, please do!

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***Glad you made it to this footnote. Um, you don’t really have to hit yourself on the head with a rubber chicken, since we’re not talking about the physical humor you see in movies. I just wanted to see if you would do it. 🙂

Rubber chicken from spirithalloween.com. Disneyland fireworks photo by Kevin Hogan. Judy Blume and Dave Barry photos from Wikipedia.