Guest Post: How to Write a Mystery by David MacPhail

Top-Secret Grandad and Me: Death by SoupWe all love a good mystery, and David MacPhail’s latest Top-Secret Grandad adventure, Death by Soup, is at the top of our to read pile. We caught up with David to get some top tips on writing mystery stories.

David MacPhail’s Top Tips for Writing Mysteries

Without any ado whatsoever (because that would just slow the pace), here are my top tips for writing mystery stories:

1. It’s all about the characters

As with any story, it is your characters who drive the engine of the story.

Your main character is your most important. Who are they? What are they like, what do they wear and eat, and what really grinds their gears?! How your main character sets about solving the mystery, and how they respond to adversity, will be a key driver to the story. Are they silly, smart, brave, funny, or maybe a combination of all four? People need to care for your main character, like your main character, and root for your main character.

At least one of your characters is up to no good: the villain of the piece! They’re trying to drive the story in their own direction. Why is your baddie acting this way? What do they want? What’s their motivation? Your baddie needs a good reason to be a baddie, so give them an interesting backstory.

2. Don’t lose the plot!

Plotting is massively important, but remember that plot comes from your characters – what they want, where they are going, and how they interact. Don’t get caught in the trap of plotting for plotting’s sake. What happens in the story, and how your characters respond, should be logical, natural and in character.

Pretend for a second that you are a stonemason. A master stonemason. Whether you’re building a cottage, a mansion, or a big and beautiful cathedral, you’ve got to have a plan. You’ve got to know how everything knits together, and though you are building from the ground up, you must know where all the building blocks are going to connect as you get higher and higher.

For Death by Soup, I created a huge mind map, by taping together 6 sheets of A4 paper. I drew little bubbles showing all the characters and where they fitted together. (I’d show you, but there are too many spoilers!) I had another big sheet with a timeline, showing where each of the characters were at every point. Putting together a detailed plot plan will flesh out your characters, iron out any kinks, and develop ideas. And, perhaps most importantly, it might help you avoid writing yourself into a corner. These things all help build the plan for your story.

3. Get into the mood

Setting can be very important. Death by Soup is set in a big old country house hotel. But it’s not everything. Death by Tumble Dryer is set in dreich old Glasgow. What I think is more important than setting is pace, suspense, and mood. The mood of Top-Secret Grandad and Me is humorous, but it’s also a little bit dark, with lots of folk being bumped off in weird and wacky ways.

Suspense is key! The footsteps in the dark, a shadowy figure in the bushes, a hand slowly turning a doorknob. Try to end every chapter on a cliffhanger so that readers want to keep reading. For really good writers at the top of their game, every page, every paragraph, nay, every sentence will lead you deeper into the story.

4. Gimme a clue

CluesWhen writing your story, layer in your clues throughout. Be careful, they must be not too subtle and not too obvious. I like to hide my most important clues in plain sight, usually hidden in a busy comic scene or a flurry of other information. It might be something tiny, something a reader might not notice until later, when the main character plucks it out during the finale. Jay Patel may only be 11, but his main skill as a detective is that he notices things.

Red herrings are vital. Red herrings are clues that seem important but lead in the wrong direction. This is where you have to be not only a master stonemason but also a magician, using sleight of hand. That’s why you need to give all your characters backstory, even incidental characters. Give them secrets that your main character can uncover as he or she goes along.

5. The Sidekick

Jay and GrandadDoes your main character need a buddy? Lots of famous detectives have sidekicks. For example, Sherlock Holmes had Doctor Watson. Sidekicks are good, they give the reader someone on their side. A sidekick can be someone the detective can talk to or argue with.

Grandad from Top-Secret Grandad and Me is a special sort of sidekick. Being a ghost, he is invisible. He can sneak around and poke his nose in places Jay can’t go! But he’s also a bit rubbish in that he hates walking through walls. He often gets mixed up, creating huge problems for Jay, like when he confuses cinnamon with cyanide! Quite often, Grandad has absolutely no idea what is going on. Like Sherlock Holmes, Jay is always many steps ahead of his sidekick!

If you’d like to know more about top-secret sidekicks, check out this post I wrote last year.

6. The Ticking Clock

You must give your character a good reason to stick around. Jay Patel is a school boy, so does he really need to put himself in danger and solve mysteries? The answer is yes. In Death By Soup, Jay’s nosiness and his knack of being in the wrong place at the wrong time lands him in deep trouble, as suspicion lands on him. This means he has to act fast to solve the mystery. Jay also has a bigger mystery to solve. He’s trying to track down his missing father. Try and give your main character a ticking clock, a countdown, as this will really build suspense.

7. The Pay-off

You need to give your readers a satisfying conclusion. Whether your hero or heroine is gathering suspects in a drawing room of a remote country house or swinging off the end of a crane on the banks of the Clyde, you need an ‘A-ha!’ moment. Your main character reveals all the clues, unmasks the murderer and ties up all the loose ends, allowing your reader to think back on all those tiny little nuggets of evidence that you laced through the story without them noticing.

And bingo! You have a story.

Tips for Teachers

1. Get your kids to practice loading verbs, and killing off adverbs!

Thus the phrase: ‘Sam walked up the street, sadly,’ turns into: ‘Sam trudged up the street.’ Trudged is a more loaded verb than walked, and it covers sadly too. It’s a verb that says ‘sadly’.

2. Get kids to practice the age-old writer’s mantra of ‘Show, not tell!’

If Sam is suffering from grief, rather than saying ‘Sam was sad’ can he stop by a shop window and stare at his reflection in the window. What does he see in his own eyes? Perhaps a tear trickles down his cheek. Similarly, ‘Ray made his way up the stairs, angrily,’ could become: ‘Ray clenched his fists and stormed up the stairs.’

About the Book

Since his dad literally did a vanishing act (he’s a magician!), Jay Patel has turned detective, and now, with the help of his ghostly grandad, he’s on a new case – a murder in a fancy country hotel where the cause of death appears to be – soup!

While Jay is surrounded by suspects, Grandad has his own informants – the ghosts haunting the hotel. But will they catch the killer before it’s too ladle?

David Walliams meets Agatha Christie in the soup-er second book of a new laugh-out-loud, weird-and-wacky mystery series for younger readers, by the author of Thorfinn the Nicest Viking.

Features for Teachers: Ruby McCracken Activity Pack

Are you looking for some Ruby Mc-Cracking activities for your classroom? Then look no further than this Ruby McCracken: Tragic Without Magic activity pack!

Based on Elizabeth Ezra‘s author events, these fun activities are a great way to help pupils engage with the book and get their creative juices flowing!

The activity pack includes:

  • Spell-writing workshop exploring rhyming couplets
  • Creative writing prompts
  • Printable Ruby McCracken bunting to decorate your classroom or library

Download the Ruby McCracken: Tragic Without Magic activity pack.

Ruby McCracken: Tragic Without MagicMore about Ruby McCracken: Tragic Without Magic

Ruby McCracken’s life is OVER. Her parents have forced her to move to the Ordinary World and that means — new home, new school and worst of all, no magic! Seriously?! A witch without magic? That’s LITERALLY tragic.

Ruby McCracken: Tragic Without Magic by Elizabeth Ezra is available now!

We can offer special deals on class sets. For more information, please get in touch.

Follow DiscoverKelpies on Twitter to stay up to date with all the latest Ruby news!

Would you like a Learning Resource Pack for another Kelpies book? Do you have a resource pack you’d like to share? Please let us know! We’d love to hear from you.

Author Interview: Alan Dapré

Alan Dapré is the author of over fifty books for children. He has also written over one hundred television scripts, transmitted home and abroad. His plays have been on BBC Radio 4 and published for use in schools worldwide.

Now, he’s embarking on a new chapter in his journey as an author with his Porridge the Tartan Cat series for young and reluctant readers. We spoke to Alan about how he became a professional writer, including tips and tricks for overcoming writers block, the challenges of writing for children and the joy of seeing your own work on the bookshop shelves.

Alan Dapré Author Interview

Alan Dapré

Hi Alan, thanks for talking to us today. Can you tell us a bit about your career so far?

I’ve been a writer for as long as I can remember. My passion for words stems from my childhood. Whilst I loved being outdoors climbing trees, building dens and exploring coastlines I also enjoyed sitting in a corner, chilling out with a book. The stories that captivated me most were full of adventure, humour and resourceful characters. As a teenager I spent hours on my Corona typewriter creating short stories and poems for my own amusement. However, it was only when I was studying on my Creative Arts degree that I began to think seriously about becoming a professional writer. Not long after I graduated, my play Comeback was performed at Nottingham Playhouse. This was followed by a radio play Kenny – broadcast as part of a BBC Young Playwrights’ Festival.

I trained as a primary school teacher, writing more plays and stories in my spare time. I also compiled anthologies, writing a teachers’ handbook for literacy lessons. Things came to a head when I was offered two jobs at the same time: the role of Literacy Consultant for Nottinghamshire and a job writing for children’s television. I chose TV and spent seven busy years as a ‘creative’ – working on shows including Brum & Boohbah. It was a busy time writing to deadlines, with lots of self-editing and having to think fast on my feet…keyboard!

When I got married I left my job to become a full-time dad and writing was put on hold for a while. When my daughter entered nursery school, I had more time to write again. I think living with a young child really helps to spark interesting ideas as before long Pearson were publishing both my playscript, The Finders, and a book of short stories, Mixed-up Myths.

What does your day as an author look like?

It varies a lot. Inevitably there’s the school run and a dog walk on the beach; I often work out my plots and stories while I’m out and about. Back at home, I’ll brew a half-decent coffee and get on with drafting my latest story. I’ll scrawl plot points on sticky notes, placing them in the pages of my notebook until I get the story working nicely. Sometimes I’ll be at my computer, drafting and re-drafting until I get it right. The key is to write the whole story before editing too deeply. Once the story is firmed up, I’ll edit more precisely to set the tone, humour and pace. I like to walk to my daughter’s school and pick her up. We chat en route home and I’ll write some more while Isla chills with her pals. I work well at night and sometimes don’t finish work until late.

Author Interview Alan Dapré

Show don’t tell

How does writing books differ from writing for television?

Not as much as people might think. Television is a visual medium and it benefits from a ‘show don’t tell’ approach. Writing children’s books is the same. Young viewers and readers prefer action and energy. Not too much hanging around. The worst thing a writer can do in either medium is to laboriously describe a plot point.

Illustrations really help children’s authors. They help to reinforce an idea that would otherwise take a lot of words to explain. I enjoy writing books because at the end of the process my creative vision and authorial voice are very much in evidence.

Author Interview Alan Dapré

Alan has plenty of writing tips and tricks with a little help from Porridge the Tartan Cat

Do you have any tricks in your bag for when you get writer’s block?

The trick is to get yourself writing. Something that will trigger this will often help. Here are some that work for me.

  • Write a note for your character – the sort you’d find left on a fridge. Make it funny.
  • Pick up a book and read the first line. Write what happens next. Make it completely different to what is already written.
  • Think of opposites. If your characters are too dull, then write a short piece where you get them to do incredibly interesting things. Go over the top. Aim for the moon – literally.
  • Use rhyme. Think of an object and rhyme something else with it. Cow – Plough – Row. Then write something that joins these new words.

Where did you get the idea for Porridge the Tartan Cat?

I was keen to write a series based on an adventurous family. I wanted each person to ‘star’ in their own book, where their secret would be revealed or a quirky thing happen to them (Gran was once in a groovy band, Dad a…well you’ll have to read Porridge the Tartan Cat and the Loch Ness Mess to find out).

Now I that live in Scotland a Scottish theme felt appropriate. I knew the books needed a narrator to hold them together; a laconic, quirky, all-seeing, barely-doing cataloguer of events. So I came up with Porridge the Tartan Cat. It felt immediately right. He’d toppled into a tin of tartan paint. Then it was a case of finding his voice and turning him into the reluctant hero who saves the day.

Author Interview Alan Dapré

Isla and Ross in a scene from Kittycat Kidnap, the third Porridge the Tartan Cat novel from Alan Dapré.

Your daughter Isla plays a starring role in the Porridge books – what does she think about being in the series?

Isla is delighted. I’d originally written Isla’s name as a placeholder but had considered retaining it. I tend to give my main characters short names, as they are easy to read and don’t slow the pace. She is easily recognisable in the books (I sent the publisher some photos of her and a brief description – ‘hair bobbed, with glasses and a big smile.’) Yuliya Somina’s illustrations look just like Isla and definitely capture her spirit and energy. My daughter calls herself ‘Real Isla’ to differentiate herself from ‘Drawn Isla’. She can’t wait to read the sixth book in the series all about ‘Invisible Isla’. It’s a lovely feeling for me as an author (and dad) to see my child grinning back at me in my books.

Are there any other authors that inspire you?

Ursula Le Guin who wrote the fantastic Earthsea books, Alf Prøysen of Mrs Pepperpot fame, Norman Hunter, creator of Professor Branestawm. I also find Roald Dahl, Philip Pullman, Babette Cole and Susan Hill inspiring. All of them create credible characters – sometimes incredible. They captivate their readers with imaginative flair, always leaving you wanting more.

Alan Dapré Author Interview

Porridge inspired by fish and fishy biscuits MeYum!


More about Alan Dapré

Porridge the Tartan Cat and the Loch Ness Mess, the brand new book from Alan Dapré, is available now!

Other books in Alan Dapré’s Porridge the Tartan Cat series include …the Brawsome Bagpipes, …the Bash-Crash-Ding, and …the Kittycat Kidnap.

Find out the latest Porridge the Tartan Cat news – follow DiscoverKelpies on Twitter!







Features for Teachers: Writing Superpowered Stories

Looking for a way to encourage creative writing with your class? We asked The Superpower Project author Paul Bristow for his top writing tips and he gave us some rather helpful advice!

Paul BristowThere’s lots of different advice for how to be a writer, but one of my favourite things someone said was, “Write the book only you can write”. I thought about that a lot. What was a story only I could tell? What were all the things that I liked, that could help me tell a story?

When I found the answers to those questions, writing my first book The Superpower Project, became a lot more fun, and a tiny bit easier too. So, I thought I’d share a few of the things I figured out, to help you write your story.

Mash It Up

Sometimes, a way to start getting ideas, to start telling a story, is to mash things together that don’t usually go together. Just to see what happens. Mashing things together, creates new ideas and questions, which will help you tell your story.

What I wanted to mash together, was superheroes, big giant machines, scary old buildings and history – all the things I liked.

Stop, Look and Listen

One of the other things that was really important to me, was that The Superpower Project was set in my home town. We are used to seeing superheroes battle it out over city skylines or exotic landscapes – they are rarely at the bottom of your street while you’re taking out the bins. Mashing together the amazing with the everyday creates a nice jarring contrast, which is good for sinister unease or comedy. Which just happen to be two of my other favourite things.

Looking around the places where we all live is another excellent way to inspire a story only you can tell. Sometimes, you can get so used to a place that you stop seeing it, even though you walk past it every day. However that does not mean that our places are any less magical than the faraway lands of myths and fairytales. So I started properly exploring my home town, taking photos of some of the more unusual places. And everywhere I went, I would hear stories about these places, and all of those stories gave me new ideas.

Question Everything

The library, as you know, is an excellent place to find new books to read, but it’s also an excellent place to find old books to read. Really old books. I looked through some of the old books, and found a story about strange lights flashing above the river Clyde one night in 1722. I liked that this was a really weird event from long ago, and decided to make it an important part of the story, tying it to local history. But there needed to be a reason. What are the strange lights? What do they have to do with Megan and her superpowers? By asking some more questions, I realised my story was becoming a mystery – and suddenly there were lots more questions to be answered. Each question pushed the story forward – occasionally it would push the story forward and straight into a dead end – but even then, I would have the question of how that happened and how to fix it…

The mash-ups, the exploration and the questions all helped me create a story only I could tell. The brilliant thing is, anyone can do that with your own favourite things, your own hometown legends and your own questions. After that, it’s really just a matter of sitting down and actually writing your story!

Read The Superpower Project as part of the 2016 Summer Reading Challenge!

Activity Sheets

Packed full of ideas for class and individual activities, our activity sheets offer fresh approaches to bringing local history and community to life in your classroom.

Download an Activity Sheet based on The Superpower Project

Author Visits

>> For more on arranging an author visit, go to our Author Events page.

>> For more on how we work with schools and teachers, visit our Schools and Teachers page.