Penny Warner has been writing since she read her first Nancy Drew in 6th grade. Since then she has had over 50 books published, fiction and non-fiction, for adults and children. Her books have won national awards, garnered excellent reviews, and have been printed in 14 countries, including Russia, France, Spain, Germany, Holland, Australia, Canada, Indonesia, India, Israel, Poland, Japan, and China. My best-sellers include Healthy Snacks for Kids, Kids’ Party Games and Activities, Best Party Book, Games People Play, Kids’ Holiday Fun, Learn to Sign the Fun Way, Baby Play and Learn, Kids Pick-A-Party, and Kids’ Party Cookbook.
Penny had the following prompts to choose from:
Amy- Nancy brushed a strand of strawberry blond hair out of her eyes and froze when she saw the figure heading towards her on the boardwalk.
Cameron- The spy who shoved me.
Erika- It wasn’t the heat that got me. It was the…
Jen- Secret Rose Garden meeting
Wendy- One time, when I was a gypsy
And she chose…
My challenge comes from Amy, who wrote: “Nancy brushed a strand of strawberry blond hair out of her eyes and froze when she saw the figure heading toward her on the boardwalk…”
I couldn’t have asked for a better prompt! I learned so much about writing from reading Nancy Drew mysteries, and this is a perfect example of what makes a good story—a compelling opening line. As a reader, I’m already asking questions—Who’s the figure? Why did she freeze? What’s she doing on the boardwalk? And I want to read more to find out the answers.
I thought I might share a few other writing tips I garnered from reading the girl sleuth. Hope they help you writers as much as they have helped me.
- Create unforgettable characters: “You know Nancy.” All agreed she possessed an appealing quality, which people never forgot. ~ Clue in the Diary
All stories are based on interesting characters. Introduce the character a little at a time, using action and dialogue (showing), rather than a thumbnail sketch (telling). Then give your characters conflict—happy characters make dull characters.
- Use dialogue: Suddenly the young sleuth snapped her fingers. “I know what I’ll do! I’ll set a trap for that ghost!” ~ The Hidden Staircase
Dialogue makes a story come alive. It also helps move the story along, increases pace and creates drama. Keep attribution simple—use action or “said,” rather than adverbs and euphemisms for “said.”
- Set the scene: Many Colonial houses had secret passageways. “Do you know any entrances a thief could use?” ~The Hidden Staircase
A vivid setting pulls the reader into the story. It also intensifies suspense and becomes a character in itself. Show the setting through the character’s eyes and include all five senses, telling details, and occasional metaphors.
- Add mood and atmosphere: Nancy had heard music, thumps and creaking noises at night, and had seen eerie, shadows on walls. ~ The Hidden Staircase
Give a sense of foreboding through description. Mood and atmosphere give the story depth and stimulate the emotions of the readers. Use foreshadowing to give the reader a feeling of unease.
- Outline your plot: Ellen was alarmed. “We must do something to stop him!” “I have a little plan,” Nancy said. ~ Quest of the Missing Map
Before you begin writing, outline your plot so you know, generally, where the story is headed. You can keep it simple and just jot down the major plot points of the story—where the story takes a surprising turn and how it ratchets up the suspense.
- Start the clock ticking: “Hurry, girls, or we’ll miss the train to River Heights!” Nancy knew being on time was important. ~ Secret of Red Gate Farm
Begin with the inciting incident, which starts the clock ticking. Include not only the situation, but where it takes place, and who’s involved. This is where you ask the story questions: What if….? Think about your goal as start the story and where it will lead.
- Pack it with action: “How do we get in?” “Over the top, commando style,” George urged. “Lucky we wore jeans.” ~ Clue in the Crumbling Wall
Today’s reader wants action, so give your protagonist opportunities to do something physical. Give her a choice between fight or flight, and when she fights—make her strong but still vulnerable.
- Raise the stakes: In a desperate attempt to break down the door Nancy threw her weight against it again and again. ~ Secret of the Old Clock
The story begins with a challenge for the protagonist. But that’s not enough. As the story moves along, something worse must happen. And just when you think it’s safe to go back into the water, things become even worse. Keep raising the stakes to keep those pages turning.
If you get stuck, try reading a Nancy Drew mystery. It’s worked for me!
Penny Warner is the author of THE OFFICIAL NANCY DREW HANDBOOK, and the middle-grade mystery series, THE CODE BUSTERS CLUB. She can be reached at www.pennywarner.com.