Our new feature series (Kick-butt Kidlit Spotlight On:) continues this month with a focus on MYSTERY NOVELS! Specifically middle grade mystery because MG is our jam!
Let’s give a big Kick-butt welcome to our guest author for today, Kara LaReau!
Unintentional Mystery, Intentional Humor: Writing The Uncanny Express
The Uncanny Express was the first mystery I ever wrote, and my decision to write a whodunit was fairly arbitrary: The Jolly Regina, the first story in the Unintentional Adventures of the Bland Sisters, took place on a ship and played with all the tropes of pirate and seafaring stories. It felt right that the second story should take place on a train, and what better tropes to celebrate than all things Agatha Christie, particularly in her masterpiece Murder on the Orient Express?
I already knew this book was going to be hard to write, especially as the second book in a trilogy, but I had no idea just how hard: the twisty plotting, the suspects and their alibis and motivations, getting the homage to Agatha Christie just right. And on top of all of that? It had to be funny. Thankfully, I just needed to follow Agatha Christie’s lead. The premise of her mysteries lends itself to a comic setup: the earnest detective set among eccentric characters is pretty much the straight man-funny man archetype, and I already use that archetype quite a bit throughout the series. Jaundice and Kale are the ultimate straight men — or would that be straight sisters?
But I don’t go “straight” to comedy when I write. My first (and second, and third) drafts are completely devoid of humor, or any detail, really. They’re all business, usually just the dialogue and direction that moves the plot forward. As I flesh things out and the characters come to life and the natural rhythms of the story become clear, the humor manifests, and it’s almost as if the jokes start telling themselves.
Some of the humor is in the naming of the characters, one of my great joys as a writer. I love finding just the right name to fit a character, and I especially love names that are fun to read and read aloud. For instance, my stand-in for Christie’s Hercule Poirot is the great detective Hugo Fromage, which is French for big cheese. A tweedy, put-upon maid is named Vera Dreary. Another character on the Uncanny Express is Countess Ima Goudenoff, which inspired this exchange:
“What is your first name, if I might ask?” inquired the great detective.
“It is Ima,” said the countess.
“Ima Goudenoff?” Jaundice said.
“You are,” said Kale, patting her sister’s hand.
I love a good joke (obviously), but I also love using literary and cultural references to enhance my humor. Sometimes, my references are meant for kids, and other times, they can be a bit more sophisticated and adult. For instance, here’s a little joke that cheekily references Murder on the Orient Express:
“Everyone looks guilty,” Jaundice whispered.
“Well, they can’t all have done it,” said Kale. “How silly would that be?”
I hope that kids of all ages will enjoy The Unintentional Adventures of the Bland Sisters, so I’ve included all kinds of humor — physical comedy, wordplay, even a bit of scatological humor (despite those who might pooh-pooh it) — for maximum entertainment. Also, I think the best stories are the ones you can come back to again and again, and discover something new and different and funny each time. I especially love going back to stories I loved as a kid and discovering whole new meanings with my (semi-)adult sensibility. It’s like a gift that keeps on giving.
I don’t know if I’ll ever write another mystery — though I’ve learned to never say never when it comes to writing stories. I’m glad I can say I wrote one, and I like to think that it works as a funny, punny read and a solid whodunit. I hope you agree.
Kara LaReau was born and raised in Connecticut. She received her Masters in Fine Arts in Writing, Literature, and Publishing from Emerson College in Boston, Massachusetts and later worked as an editor at Candlewick Press and at Scholastic Press. She is the author of picture books such as UGLY FISH, illustrated by Scott Magoon, and Good Night Little Monsters, illustrated by Brian Won; an award-winning chapter book series called The Infamous Ratsos, illustrated by Matt Myers; and a middle-grade trilogy called The Unintentional Adventures of the Bland Sisters, illustrated by Jen Hill. Kara lives in Providence, Rhode Island with her husband and son and their cat.
Add THE UNCANNY EXPRESS (THE UNINTENTIONAL ADVENTURES OF THE BLAND SISTERS #2) on Goodreads!
Click here to win a copy of THE UNCANNY EXPRESS (THE UNINTENTIONAL ADVENTURES OF THE BLAND SISTERS #2)!
The final giveaway will be for EVERY SINGLE book featured in the Kick-butt Kidlit Spotlight On: MYSTERY blog series so make sure you check it out on every post! (New options to enter will be added with each post.) Draw closes on Friday, October 5th at the end of our series.
Stay tuned for our final Spotlight on MYSTERY series post from Natasha Tarpley!
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