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Author Archives: melaniejackson

Big Dip reader provides a big thrill for yours truly

Young NY reader wants to jump right into the story and find the mysterious rose 

RoseCould THIS be the mysterious Margaret rose?

A young reader from Long Island wrote me recently to share his adventures in reading my Orca young-adult thriller The Big Dip. In fact, just reading about protagonist Joe Lumby’s hunt for a mysterious flower wasn’t enough for my correspondent. Not usually an enthusiastic reader, he wanted to jump right into this story along with Joe!

BigDipGrateful note to my correspondent: You could not have given me a more encouraging
compliment. I write because I love to escape into fictional adventures. If you feel that same yearning, that you’d like to dive right into
The Big Dip, I am thrilled! I’d take that compliment any day over dozens of long-stemmed roses.

Here’s the letter this thoughtful young man sent me:

“I read your very interesting book The Big Dip. To be honest, I’m not a big fan of reading books but your book caught my attention from the very beginning. I just couldn’t pull away! I liked your description and the suspense that was portrayed, starting at the roller coaster.”

This roller coaster ride was to be the old man’s last…

“Furthermore, I got very interested when it was noticed that the old man died from a gunshot wound! This sparked a lot of mystery and I couldn’t stop wondering why the old man on his last breath mentioned something about “a Margaret rose getting back to he police.” That made me want to jump right into the book as the protagonist Joe, and find out immediately.

“I was fond of how you made Joe sound like a brave, intelligent, and thriving character. Like on page 22, it really depicted how Joe used his sport skills to save himself from choking. ‘I stopped gasping for air. I practiced small, steady breaths––runner’s breaths.’ He could do this because he is a track runner.

“I can compare myself to Joe because he and I are very observant of our surroundings. While Joe was on the Big Dip [roller coaster] he right away noticed the old man in front of him that kept leaning forward. As the ride ended Joe did not leave because the old man remained leaning forward. Joe was the first to see he was dead.

“Ultimately, I really wish there was more description on the Margaret rose, because I wasn’t well aware of what the importance of it was. Other than that, the book was amazing and I’m looking forward to reading more books written by you. Thank you so much for your time and patience.”

No…thank YOU! And thanks so much for writing to me.

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‘It’s the fruit of death, Mrs. Jackson!’

How the infamous pomegranate became the seed of my new novel from Orca Books

It was Edith Hamilton, with her pomegMythology, who got me addicted as a girl to the great myths of Ancient Greece and Rome. (That’s me at the right, fruitfully employed.) I read and reread Mythology until the page corners curled and the dustjacket tattered. One of my favourite myths, as retold by Edith, was that of Persephone, daughter of Demeter, the goddess of the harvest.

It wasn’t only people on earth who admired Demeter’s beautiful daughter. There was one ogling Persephone from below the earth, too: Hades, the god of the underworld.

Not being the most subtle of beaux, Hades kidnapped Persephone. Zeus, the king of the gods, ordered Hades to let her go. But, as Hamilton tells it, “the lord of the dark underworld… made her eat a pomegranate, knowing in his heart that if she did so she would return to him.”

Zeus couldn’t reverse Hades’s spell, but he could modify it. So, Persephone at least got to live with her loving mom above ground in the warm, blossoming, food-growing months of the year. She returned to the underworld in winter. For that reason Demeter was too upset to let things grow; neglected, earth turned barren and cold.

The curtain rises on Death Drop

Inspired by the Persephone myth, I wrote a mystery novel, Death Drop, set in a thrill ride of that name. On the ride, passengers get to experience a gravity-defying version of Persephone’s drop into the underworld. One visitor, a young baseball pitcher named Zeke, gets some value-added: a mystery involving a missing child and Rossetti’s painting of Persephone (or Proserpina, as he called her).

In December, I was reading aloud from this story, now newly published by Orca Books, to a Grades 6 and 7 audience in a school library. I came to the first mention of that red, bittersweet, tasty fruit, the pomegranate.

I paused. Before the kids came in, the teacher-librarian had suggested I explain what a pomegranate was. There might be some kids who hadn’t heard of one, she said.

Sounded fair to me. I’m not sure I knew what a pomegranate was when I was in the intermediate grades. You know, back in the Pleistocene era. As I recall, I had enough on my mind avoiding the ghostly-pale, teeth-licking blonde girl who wanted to beat me up. I didn’t have time to think about members of the fruit family.

(Oh, don’t worry. She never managed to. And funnily enough, there’s an unlikable pale, teeth-licking character in Death Drop.)

So, like I said, I paused in reading from Death Drop to ask if anyone knew what a pomegranate was.

Wow. Hands shot up all over the room!

I called on a boy who was practically hurling his arm out of his socket in his eagerness to speak.

He shouted, “I know what a pomegranate is! It’s the fruit of death, Mrs. Jackson!

Pity the poor pomegranate

In this blog post, I thought it would be fun to explore just why the pomegranate, an otherwise respectable and very pretty fruit, has this dire image.

Here we go, in a few bite-sized pieces of info…

The name comes from combining the Latin words for apple and seed. So, it’s a seeded apple. The difference is, you eat the seeds of the pomegranate. (I mean, you could eat the seeds of an apple, too, but… )

As well as from the Persephone myth, the fabled fruit may have gained ill repute because it resembles the colour and shape of a poppy, whose seeds have a narcotic effect. Just think of Dorothy and the Lion dropping senseless to the ground in the Wizard of Oz poppy field.

However, the Greeks eventually did an about-face. They adopted the custom of bringing a pomegranate to anyone who had just moved into a new home. The pomegranate signified abundance, fertility, all the good things the goddess Demeter was responsible for. Maybe the Greeks figured the pomegranate would remind Demeter of her beloved daughter.

Or maybe the pomegranate had a really good P.R. firm.

The three very sinister mystery genres

 

Three

I based the following on comments I made as a member of the Vancouver Sun Book Club to our discussion on Fraser Nixon’s Straight to the Head. The original, briefer comments were printed in the July 30, 2016 Sun Review section. Oh, and the photo: West Van Public Library statues plus one.

I figure there are three types of crime genre. The first is the Raymond Chandler type, with the noble but world-weary detective crusading the mean streets and saving those in trouble. The stars of this genre include detectos from Chandler’s Philip Marlowe to Agatha Christie’s fluttery, seemingly dithery Miss Marple to Ms. Perfect, flawless teen sleuth Nancy Drew to my own young, impulsive, flawed but heart-of-gold singing redhead Dinah Galloway.

The second is the protagonist-in-distress type, with the lead character trapped in a web of deceit and danger mostly not of their fault. Classic example: Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca, about the timid, mousy wife who weds a dashing, wealthy Brit only to find the memory of his previous wife—that would be Rebecca—casting a sinister shadow over their marriage. More recently Nicci French’s novels, before their (Nicci is a couple) mystery series featuring a psychiatrist, are wonderful, gorgeously written, scary examples.

My amusement-park chillers fall into this second genre. Literally fall, in frightening—though fun, I hope—plunges into mystery: as examples, Big Dip, about Vancouver’s antique roller coaster at Playland, and Death Drop, a Hellevator-ish ride featuring Prosephone, she of myth who also took a fall… into Hades.

The third, and very amusing genre, is the Elmore Leonard type, filled with rogues you can’t totally like or dislike. That distance between you and them is what makes the story fun. When bad things happen to them you—well, you do kind of chuckle. Straight to the Head falls into this category. Ted Windsor, the attractive protag, is nevertheless amoral and selfish. His attraction to light-fingered Dorothy is genuine, but for Ted genuine doesn’t necessarily mean steadfast.

I laughed and applauded Ted’s escape from villains’ clutches. I winced at Dorothy’s stealing, yet rooted for her not to get caught. I even had some sympathy with Renard, the contract killer. I relished their misadventures because I knew they were mis-heroes, if you will. Ultimately they’re playing out a comedy in the Restoration tradition.

(If you don’t know what I mean by Restoration, it’s the period after the no-music, no-theatre, no-Christmas Puritans. It’s when my favourite monarch, known as the Happy King, Charles II, came back from exile and restored good times. My friend K.S. from Twickenham, U.K. knows all about this. So does my Vancouver friend J.H., who gave me some Chas II stamps!)

Trains, buses and other inspirations

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Recently I received an email from a student in West Vancouver. He posed the following questions about the creative writing process, and I thought I’d share my answers. Pictured above: It’s June 2015. I’ve just disembarked from a train in my hometown of Aberdeen, Scotland—having overheard some VERY interesting snippets of strangers’ conversations.

What do you think are the most important things to know when you write a children’s/young-adult book?

I’d say the most important things to know are:

  1. What your setting is, that is, the place where your story occurs, so you can make that place vivid both to yourself as a writer and to your reader.
  2. What your main character is like: what they are interested in, such as singing or cooking or baseball or running, and what their strengths and weaknesses are.
  3. What the problem in your story is going to be that the main character will have to resolve. You must set that problem out for the reader right away so they want to keep reading!

What kind of experience is an advantage when you write a book?

I think the best experiences you can have as a writer are:

  1. To be interested in the people around you, both the people close to you as friends and family and those you meet as acquaintances, at school or the community centre or even people you see on the bus or pass on the sidewalk. The great English mystery writer Agatha Christie got a lot of her ideas from riding buses and trains. She would overhear snippets of strangers’ conversations and use them in her stories.
  1. To read many, many books. The more you read, the better you write and the easier you find it to write!

When you write a story, what kind of steps do you follow?

Here are the steps I follow in creating a story:

  1. Like I said, know first of all the problem you are going to create for your protagonist to solve. Maybe there’s been a robbery, and your main character is framed for the crime! Or, the protagonist sees something that might tip them off to who committed the crime. A story is like a quest, a journey, a search the main character has to go on.
  1. As I also said above, also have a specific setting for your story. Maybe it’s your own neighbourhood. After all, you know your neighbourhood well, and therefore can describe it vividly. And know your protagonist! Make sure your main character has both strengths—kindness, concern for others—but also weaknesses, such as maybe a bad temper or a tendency to speak sarcastically and hurt others’ feelings without meaning to.

And…

Remember to have fun with your writing! That’s most important of all.

Pssst! You can find all my blog posts here.

 

Secret to attracting readers? It’s — shhh! — schadenfreude

Bart

Reading about fictional characters’ problems is therapeutic. Your own problems pale by comparison. You empathize with the suffering character. You learn from them as they cope, or not.

Sure, at first blush schadenfreude, or “pleasure derived from the misfortunes of others” (Wikipedia definition), sounds cruel. But we do come away wiser and more understanding from enjoyably reading about someone else’s problems. Look at the gent above. He’s about to tumble into a deep canyon and possibly drown in the crush of the waterfall. With any luck, and with some clever writing, he’ll manage to clutch at a spindly tree branch or a clump of wildflowers in his fall. He’ll just manage to escape.

Vertigo, or fear of heights, is the problem that plagues Chaz in my new suspenser Eye Sore. In a tense climax, Chaz must overcome his vertigo to stop his dad from selling their beloved Ferris wheel, or Eye. You may enjoy reading about poor Chaz and his adverse reaction to spinning high on the Eye. But maybe while being entertained you’ll also learn something about vertigo and Eyes. Schadenfreude isn’t all bad.

I’m having a great time teaching mystery units at two Vancouver high schools this spring. Tip of the hat to the Lord Byng student who defined schadenfreude this delightful way: “You’re on an elevator. You see someone running for it. You press the close-doors button. Then you laugh as the doors shut in the person’s face.”

I cannot top that.

Young woman shares what Dinah means to her, and I am very happy

Dinah

A few days ago a young woman sent me the following letter via email. She speaks for herself more beautifully than I can recap. I will just say on introducing her letter that I need no more reason than this for being glad I chose the writing path I did.

I am 17 years old and live in London. I am hoping to study English Literature at university next year and then go into publishing/journalism.

I am presuming that the majority of yours and/or Dinah’s fan-base are a little younger than me!  I understand that I am (slightly) older than the recommended reading age but my mum has always instilled the value that you can never be too old for a good story. I have been in love with your writing since my cousin (she lives in BC) sent over her copy of The Spy in the Alley six years ago. I have reread The Dinah Galloway Mysteries many times and in each and every instance I have found them a rewarding experience.

Many books I have read do not illustrate a realistic representation of society in Western countries. This was difficult for me as I was growing up, as I was constantly wondering why ‘people with my name/colour skin etc’ were not in my favourite books, and if they were, they were stereotypes of what we were supposed to be. In fact, the media, films/TV shows are poor in including people of colour but I do believe that it is getting better. However, your books are full of characters of different ethnicities. Not only do these characters, e.g., Pantelli Audia, Cindi Khan, Principal Chen, exist, but they are prominent parts of Dinah’s life and are well developed/written. Also, they are not stigmatised or based upon a stereotype and that is so important! The power of appropriate cultural representation is phenomenal and allows young readers, such as myself, to feel included in literature.

In addition, the feminist aspect to the series is wonderful! It is brilliant to have so many well-developed female characters. I love the way Madge and Dinah are portrayed so differently but are both strong minded individuals. They teach young girls that there is no right way to behave/look; this is such an important lesson, as it takes such a long time to come to terms with being OK with you. In The Queen of Disguises, I thought you tackled body shamming very well and that particular storyline really resonated with me. Dinah is such a fantastic role model, and I feel lucky to have grown up with her.

I recently reread the whole series – instead of revising for my upcoming exams (whoops) and I noticed at the back of The Queen of Disguises that you were writing a seventh instalment. I was wondering if you are currently writing or have finished writing it and how many books are there going to be overall?

I confess, I have not read any of your other books, as it is hard to get them over here. Luckily, I am visiting my family during the Summer and I am itching to go book shopping – in the hope I can buy a few of your ‘older reads’.

Thank you for being such a superb writer, inspiration and for bringing The Dinah Galloway Mysteries into the world!

Pictured: cover of the original (first printing) The Spy in the Alley.

Spin this idea: a literacy club!

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Often, when I visit Vancouver’s Hastings Library, I espy a room full of spinners at their wheels. At first blush, a library might seem an odd place for spinners to convene. Yet a club can easily weave in reading as well as spinning, or any other valuable pastime, for that matter.

My friend Meredyth Kezar, former later literacy consultant with the Vancouver School Board, shares a great idea in her latest blog post. Just as you form a basketball club to teach basketball, or knitting to teach knitting, why not form a literacy club to encourage reading? As Meredyth relates, “Long ago a journalist turned educator, Frank Smith, wrote a book called Joining the Literacy Club. He talked about how if you want to learn to sail you might join a sailing club, etc. And he talked about how teachers need to create literacy clubs. You need to create community.

“As a teacher, I would often tell my students that one teacher wasn’t enough so that they had to be teachers as well. In some areas they had better skills than I did. I coached basketball but my basketball skills are practically nil, but I never had difficulty finding other students who had the skills and were willing to help.”