Indie Spotlight Picture Book Writer MJ Belko – I Don’t Read Mysteries

Today’s indie author is MJ Belko. In her article she discusses the irony of not being a mystery reader and yet having written a mystery picture book for kids. Take it away, MJ.

I Don’t Read Mysteries

I don’t read mysteries.  I know, a pox upon me.  I don’t mind watching them, but I never felt compelled to read one.  I’m more of a nonfiction reader.  As a writer, picture books are my wheelhouse.  So, how did I end up writing Winthrop Risk, Detective—The Mystery of the Missing Hamster, an early reader with a nine-year-old detective who sounds like he just stepped out of a Raymond Chandler novel?

I certainly don’t have any disdain for the mystery genre.  I’m a rabid fan of Benedict Cumberbatch as a modern version of Sherlock Holmes.  I loved Derek Jacobi as Cadfael on PBS.  But write one?  Not on your life.  Plot twists and red herrings just aren’t my thing.

Picture books have always been my first love and I’ve written several, though I haven’t found a publisher for them.  I can only say that I stumbled upon my little detective.  He emerged out of an unfocused daydream, his character fully formed in my mind.

Winthrop Risk is a boy of about nine.  He’s smaller than his classmates and is considered by them to be something of a dork and an oddity.  Winthrop, however, has no doubts as to his skills.  He’s a first-rate gumshoe, and he knows it.  The school bully has it in for him and could easily beat the snot out of him, but Winthrop never runs from him.  He stands his ground.  Without fuss.  Without yelling.  Without threatening to tell the teacher.  Winthrop isn’t a boy on a journey of self-discovery (*gag*)—he knows damn well who he is.  I like that about him.

My inspiration came from a Steve Martin movie from years ago, Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid.  If you haven’t seen it, it’s brilliant.  Steve Martin plays a hard-boiled detective in the Philip Marlowe mold.  The movie was filmed in black and white, with scenes from old detective films spliced in to create a story.  It’s all there—the wisecracking detective, the beautiful dame, and the usual suspects; but I still didn’t have the framework for writing a mystery.

I began to watch more mysteries on TV.  I gorged on episodes of Murder, She Wrote and some of the more current “cozy” mysteries.  There’s a definite pattern to these stories.  An ordinary citizen, usually female, has a fascination with mysteries and routinely finds herself knee deep in corpses.  Because Winthrop was to be the hard-boiled detective type, I picked up a couple of Raymond Chandler novels and dove in.  Chandler had a fascinating way with the English language.  Before I had the plot fully worked out, I had a great deal of Winthrop’s witty repertoire written.  I formed the story around that.  The thing I found to be most interesting about the TV mystery shows and books is that the mystery itself is never really that baffling.  In fact, I’ve played games of Clue that were tougher to solve.  So what’s the selling point?  It’s the main character and the backdrop of the story.  The sleuth in these stories is always a keen observer, usually with no police training or experience.  In fact, of the mystery shows I’ve watched, the main characters include a Crusader-era friar, a baker, a librarian, a writer, a general contractor, a bookstore owner, and an antiques dealer.  Somehow, they end up stumbling over dead bodies at every turn.  The backdrop is usually some cozy little town straight off a postcard.

Naturally, I had to tone down the plot for my young audience, so there will be no dead bodies in the Winthrop Risk series.  Winthrop’s first adventure has him trying to find out what happened to the class pet, a hamster.  He’s hired by a classmate out of sheer desperation.  Over the four chapters of the book, Winthrop proves himself to be more than capable of solving the mystery, earning the grudging respect of his peers.  He’s funny, smart, confident, and has a definite way with words.  I think Philip Marlowe would like him.

With a bit of research and observation, I think I accomplished what I set out to do.  I have an interesting and relatable main character with witty dialogue, a missing pet, a class bully, and a “like” interest (that’s as heated as it gets for a nine-year-old).   The trick with the sequel is to let the characters grow just a little bit, without outgrowing the elementary school backdrop.  The sequel will involve slightly more risky circumstances—a gang of thieves stealing from Winthrop’s school.  We’ll learn more about Winthrop’s home life and why he never talks about his dad.  We’ll learn about the school ghost and what’s really going on at the local railroad yard.

Writing Winthrop Risk was a huge step outside of my comfort zone, but I love how it turned out.  Don’t be afraid to take some risks of your own with your writing.  That path you’ve wandered down a few times could lead to something terrific.

Write on.

MJ Belko (O’Leary) was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1963 to an Irish family of cops, firemen, and the occasional priest. She is a US Army veteran of the Cold War era and spent about seven years as a lieutenant on her city’s Community Emergency Response Team. After working for an arson investigator, a private investigator, homeschooling two sons, and spending years as a medical transcriptionist editing medical reports, she finally decided to pursue her dream of being a writer. She released her first children’s book, “Winthrop Risk, Detective”, on Amazon in 2016. MJ currently resides in Michigan with her husband of more than 30 years.

If you’d like to learn more about MJ, you can visit her website.

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