What I learned Writing Middle Grade Mystery

Before doing research for my middle grade mystery, I knew only the two principles set out by middle grade mystery superstar Chris Grabenstein, who says, the two essential elements of middle grade fiction are farts and underpants.

Armed with a farting ferret and a petting zoo wearing underpants, I started Kassy O’Rourke, Cub Reporter.


But even the loudest stinkers and baggiest undies don’t make a novel. Having a hard time getting off the ground, I reviewed various plotting techniques, including Alexandra Sokoloff’s screenwriting tips for novelists, tips from Hallie Ephron, Paula Munier’s Plot Perfect, and Jericho Writer’s Plot Template. I spent a lot of time combining techniques, making charts and filling out templates. Then one day I just started writing and didn’t look back.

Lesson one: I’m not a template kind of gal.

Reading up on middle grade, I discovered it’s pretty squishy and can be anywhere from 20-80K words, aimed at 8 to 12 year olds (although some say 7 to 14). MG can have multiple pionts of view but those POVs are presented in separate parts rather than alternating (eg. Wonder, The Candymakers). MG is split about half and half first person and third person.

What surprised me is how many are written in present tense. Although not MG, one of my favorite YA, The Hunger Games, is written in first person. So, I decided to try it. Kassy is first person present tense. My other novels are third person past tense.

Lesson two: writing in first person present is hard.

Of course, no sex (or even romance), no swearing, no drinking or drugs, and not much violence. I had to invent MG swear words like “Crapulence,” “Shitake Mushroom,” and “Shih Tzu Puppy.”

Lesson three: I can’t write a novel without swearing.

In fact, the main reason I decided to write middle grade was to kick my fictional swearing, drinking and drug habits. 

Middle grade mystery is like cozy with younger protagonists … missing what Becky Clark calls cozy dust. But if I can get my hands on some of her magic cozy dust, maybe I can cross-market Kassy. Any cozy readers out there like a well aimed fart? Okay, maybe not.

Another reason I decided to try middle grade is because my sense of humor, especially my penchant for madcapped slapstick action, is sometimes lost on adults. Hopefully kids will be more open minded when it comes to slipping on the occasional fruit or vegetable.

Less tied to adult expectations of believability and realism, I learned perhaps my most important lesson writing middle grade mystery …

Shih Tzu Puppy, writing middle grade mystery is a woodchucking blast!


yorkshire terrier puppy on green grass field
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

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Author: Kelly Oliver

Kelly Oliver is the award-winning (and best-selling in Oklahoma!) author of The Jessica James Mystery Series, including WOLF, COYOTE, FOX, JACKAL, and VIPER. Her debut novel, WOLF: A Jessica James Mystery, won the Independent Publisher’s Gold Medal for best Thriller/Mystery, and was a finalist for the Foreward Magazine award for best mystery. Her second novel, COYOTE won a Silver Falchion Award for Best Mystery. And, the third, FOX was a finalist for both the Claymore Award and Silver Falchion Award. JACKAL was a finalist for a Silver Falchion and a Mystery and Mayhem Award. The first novel in her new middle grade mystery series, Kassy O'Roarke, Cub Reporter, is out soon. And she has an Agatha Christie inspired historical mystery, MISS LEMON'S MYSTERIOUS ASSIGNMENT AT STYLES out in March, 2020. When she’s not writing novels, Kelly is a Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at Vanderbilt University, and the author of fifteen nonfiction books, and over 100 articles, on issues such as the refugee crisis, campus rape, women and the media, animals and the environment. Her latest nonfiction book, Hunting Girls: Sexual Violence from the Hunger Games to Campus Rape won a Choice Magazine Award for Outstanding title. She has published in The New York Times and The Los Angeles Review of Books, and has been featured on ABC news, CSPAN books, the Canadian Broadcasting Network, and various radio programs. Learn more about Kelly and her books.

13 thoughts on “What I learned Writing Middle Grade Mystery”

  1. Thanks for this post, Kelly! I enjoy reading MG every now and then. Until my daughter was that age, I’d forgotten how much fun MG books and stories could be. She’s mostly outgrown them at this point – she just stole a stack of Dan Brown’s out of our home library – but we both still grab a MG book to read now and again. This was a fun post! (And I, too, and trying to accept that I am not a template gal, in spite of having that same stack of books on my desk to help me be a better writer.)

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Kelly… I wish I could spare some cozy dust, but I need every little sprinkle! I started out writing MG, too, and I hope to get back to it some day. First person seemed exactly right for it, because of the immediacy, I think. Plus, for mysteries, it’s fun to have your readers and your protagonist find things out at the same time.

    And holy shitake mushroom! A good fart joke can still slay me!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I guess I’m old school. When I was middle grade, I read Edgar Rice Burroughs, Sherlock Holmes (The Canon), Doc Savage, Perry Mason, Rick Brant, Ken Holt and the Man From U.N.C.L.E. books and magazine, to name a few. I can just imagine how that reading list would go over in today’s educational environment. I have an eighth grader, and I must say I’m far from enamored of the books he’s brought home. I recently made him try Burroughs’ A Princess of Mars, and it was a very rough go for a kid who’s highly ranked in Language Arts by his school.

    Liked by 2 people

      1. I read all of Ms. Christie’s books as a teen, along with John Dickson Carr, Dorothy Sayers, Rex Stout, Ross McDonald, Earl Derr Biggers and many other classic authors. As a junior in high school, I did a presentation on the evolution of the mystery novel in America as an English class project. My latest Natalie McMasters mystery incorporates elements from Doyle and Rex Stout.


  4. It’s not middle-grade mystery, but I did write a middle-grade adventure fantasy series, HERO’S SWORD, under the name M.E. Sutton. Those who read it really liked it, but the marketing is, well, challenging and I’ve never quite figured it out. I have one more book to go to wrap up the series, but not the time to write it.

    Of course, I don’t have farts or underpants. Maybe that’s where I went wrong. LOL

    Liked by 1 person

  5. When I was a substitute teacher, my calls were for either kindergarten teachers (they have an alarming rate of cutting themselves with the paper cutter and having to leave immediately while the principal covers the class) and middle school teachers (who need substitutes all the rest of the days and usually leave bad lesson plans), so I have an odd understanding of the trials and tribulations involved in dealing with 7th graders’ minds.
    As for my own children, I have always stated that it was a good thing that they went to public school rather than “home school” because I would have killed them both and ended up in jail.
    From my experience as a certificated middle grade substitute and a parent of two children who lived, I can report that once the “alien-possessed middle school devil children” get to high school, they actually become human again.

    Liked by 3 people

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