Vision: A Resource for Writers
Lazette Gifford, Editor
Vision@sff.net
Holly Lisle's Vision

Writing Mysteries for 
Children's Magazines

by Ron Brown

© 2002, Ron Brown

Like many, I grew up reading the exploits of The Hardy Boys and Encyclopedia Brown.  I loved to gather clues with the young sleuths and strive to solve the mystery before the last page.  Children today have the same desires, and magazines that target this audience are seeking good mysteries for their pages.

The challenges to writing a good mystery for a children's magazine are many.  First, the word count is often limited.  Children's magazines usually want shorter works that can be completed by a younger reader in a single sitting.  As a result, few will accept stories longer than two thousand words.  Even in the shorter story, however a good mystery will still contain the elements of setting and character in addition to a good plot.

The second challenge is the degree of tension allowed.  Though murder is the staple of the adult mystery, and even young adult mysteries frequent the waters of such issues as death and kidnapping, these themes are not generally appropriate for children's magazines.  The target audience, children eight to twelve, is not likely to be able to relate to the issues of such works.  A tough situation for a child in the age group would be a missing bike, or the accusation of cheating in school.  The readers will be able to immediately identify with the anguish of the situation.

Now, with the degree of problem set, and the understanding of the tight word constraint, the writer of the children's mystery must construct a plot that is not only digestible and believable, but also involves enough twists to be interesting.  False leads are key to this element.  If the young reader detects the red herring, he or she will feel like the detective in the story.  If not, the surprise ending will entertain the reader as well. 

The last element is the most important: Creating a detective that engages the reader.  Avoid clichés.  Encyclopedia Brown has been done, as has the Scooby-Doo gang, and such clichés no longer appeal to editors.  The child detective agency has lost its attraction along with the bookworm who lives with his books only to emerge with a crucial fact needed to solve the riddle.

A good character is well rounded.  Different cultures, backgrounds, and abilities should all be used.  The one thing that must remain, though, is the ability to solve the mystery.  A story that involves the young detective who is given the answer by an adult will fail.  The child must use her own brainpower to solve the problem.

With these points in mind, a good mystery for children should be within your reach.  Once you have a story in hand, you can begin looking at such magazines as Cricket, Highlights for Children, Hopscotch, and Boy's Quest.  These magazines are always looking for new mysteries.

Good luck and good writing.