Although the “young adult” (YA) mystery series I’m now writing is set “today” in Vermont’s capital city of Montpelier, I also write YA mysteries set during other time periods. On school visits, I encourage students to try this themselves! History, since it already arrives in the research tray with personalities, events, and surprises, can be a great thread to weave into the plotting process.
In fact, I have a standing offer for teachers and librarians (and home-schooling parents): Send me your location, and I’ll send you the start of several mysteries that could be set in your town — and that relate to what really happened there. I did this recently for a class in Bonesteel, South Dakota, and last week, three eighth-graders sent me their proposals for their own YA mysteries. It’s a great way to begin a story. And an especially nifty aspect of this kind of exercise is: If you don’t like the way a history-mystery is starting to “plot out,” you’re likely to discover what the other aspect is that really interests you more. That’s a magical moment, because you will have just found the start of the book that’s most directly of interest to you as a writer.
In case you want to try this, here’s an example of how it worked for Bonesteel, South Dakota — a location that I’m now determined to visit in person!
1. When Lewis and Clark visited the Bonesteel area in 1804, they were shown the 45-foot-long skeleton of a “fish” that actually had been a dinosaur. Merriweather Lewis and William Clark were fascinated by the animals and plants along their journey, and needed to give the President a full report of those. (Why did the President want to know?) What if a 12-year-old boy in the expedition crew was making his own drawings of the creatures along the way — and someone stole his drawing of the “fish” skeleton. The thief saw a way to make money from the drawing. How will this boy find out what happened? Where will he have to go to get his drawing back? Who will he meet along the way?
2. It’s going to take some hard work to sort out the Yankton, the Dakota Sioux, the Lakota Sioux, and other tribal groups whose territory this was. (I am saying “territory” instead of “home” because here in Vermont, Native Americans lived seasonally, moving to different places in the region according to what foods were where, when — fish in the rivers, big game in the fall, fruits and vegetables in summer — so they “used” all of the region, even though their houses weren’t permanent in any one place. I bet those who lived around Bonesteel might have done that, too.) The stories told by the Native peoples held necessary survival information. Imagine a girl who is a gifted storyteller, and who learns stories quickly from the people around her. She also is an investigator who tries to encourage justice through her stories. What does she discover about an important family’s past? How does she change the stories being told? How does this put her into danger, from someone trying to get more than their fair share of, say, power in the community? Who will threaten her? How does she use her skills to win?
3. During the construction and use of Fort Randall (1856-1892) three groups of people interacted in unexpected ways. Take one point in time — maybe 1865, just after the Civil War ends? — and create a mystery that involves three kids, one from each of these groups: the soldiers from out East, the African American troops, and the Sioux from Rosebud. They discover something of enormous value, maybe a map, or the written records of a miner, or something that was buried for safekeeping 57 years earlier (when Lewis and Clark were there). How do they protect it? Who wants to steal it? How will they decide where it should be taken — and what will they learn about each other in their adventures? (Reminder: Fort Randall was built to protect BOTH the settlers and the remaining Native American groups.)
4. The “Battle of Bonesteel” was an exciting time that involved people trying to own land (maybe the first chance in their families!), people trying to work con games on them, businessmen getting rich, and Native Americans seeing another treaty betrayed (as Rosebud was turned into settlements instead of a reservation). I see a teenager whose dad is there to work a con game — maybe he’s a card shark, or a magician, or someone who forges land ownership papers. The teenager decides to protect someone (Dad? or the person being cheated?) and faces danger, as well as discovering romance.
5. Bonesteel was named for “day freighter” H. E. Bonesteel. What is a day freighter? I’m picturing trains involved, and wagon trains, and the Pony Express. Find out the facts and research some timetables on how and when freight was moved. Then create a family that challenges Bonesteel for his business — and a 12-year-old character who is so good with numbers that he (she?) can see where the weak points are, on each side. This person — I’ll use the name Kit, which could be a guy or girl — Kit suspects two different people of faking the accounts to make the business tip in a different direction. The two friends who help Kit get to the bottom of this are also involved in hiding a runaway, about their age. How can the four of them prevent a takeover of Bonesteel?
6. Sort out the police forces of Gregory County and Bonesteel. It looks like there was a police chief in 1904 when the Battle of Bonesteel took place — named Jim Nelon. Imagine that his grandson became a police officer or sheriff in Bonesteel at the time of World War II (1942-1945). He’s thinking of signing up for the Army, but his twin son and daughter are sure he shouldn’t go, because of something they know (about him, or about something happening in town that’s illegal, so their dad is needed to enforce the law). How do they prevent him from enlisting — or, if he does enlist, what will they do to make sure a crime doesn’t happen and justice is served?
7. Tag Willoughby lives in Bonesteel today. Tag discovers a plan to create a new source of energy just outside the town, one that could be risky — a wind farm with an outrageous design, or a way to use the river that might end up killing a lot of fish — and Tag asks a local reporter to dig into the story. But Tag’s best friend, who uses a wheelchair because of a horse accident, thinks Tag is doing the wrong thing. How do the two friends find a way to work together, and whose ghost seems to keep getting involved in mysterious communications with the newspaper? And why does the history of the Fort Randall Dam play a role in this story? And how can you weave in the story of horses in Bonesteel, including the large number of horse farms there now? Why did so many horse farms develop, and is there something each summer that involves them, that also involves Tag and friend? I couldn’t find out enough about the horse farms from here, but I bet students who live in Bonesteel can!