The “real photo” postcard shown here rests on my computer desktop, and when I have a little extra time, I slip back into research, trying to find more of its context. My husband Dave found it for me while I was writing Cold Midnight, a YA mystery that involves — at the center, but from an emotional distance — a Chinese man who, in real life, lived for 40 years and was murdered in 1921 in the next town over, commonly called St J, at age 75. Officially, the murder case was never solved.
But this photo card probably dates to about 1925 and wears on its reverse the penciled inscription “Al in St J Minstrel Show ‘Chinatown.'” It’s evidence of the enduring romance that small-town America had at the time with an idea of urban foreignness. I think it’s also evidence, in a sideways fashion, that people in and around “St J” continued to think about the death of Sam Wah.
The “what” of young adult (YA) mysteries, to me, is twofold: the mystery, and the vividness of life’s challenges in the teen years. Spinning the tight mystery plot is one part of the writing effort, and it needs to be close to flawless, to keep the reader within what John Gardner called the “fictional dream” — the world inside the story has to hold together. For most of us, that means lists, outlines, sticky notes, and more.
The second part is that fabric of teen life that we all remember in different ways. For me, the striking aspect (leaving out the profound mysteries of dating and falling in love) was and is the discovery that the ways of life I’d grown up with, what I thought was “normal,” made up only a small part of what the world included. And — gasp — I was going to have to make choices about which parts I wanted in my own life.
Even as I type this, the photo card pushes the old song “Chinatown” into my mind and I come close to humming it. But in adult life, writing life, research life, I discovered that the great Al Jolson’s version of Chinatown was a shockingly racist “story.”
Writing YA mysteries gives me the chance to face injustice and, as clearly as my (grown) sons would, to name it and look it in the face.
What’s the “What” of YA mysteries for you?