January 24, 2017

The Best Mistake Mystery: Q & A with author Sylvia McNicoll

The Best Mistake Mystery
The Great Mistake Mysteries, Book 1
by Sylvia McNicoll
120 pp.
Ages 9-13
January 2017

Yesterday I reviewed Sylvia McNicoll's newest middle-grade book, The Best Mistake Mystery, the first in her new series The Great Mistake Mysteries. Today, let me share this interview with the book's author, Sylvia McNicoll, about her new book so that you can get a feel for your next great middle-grade mystery read. 

HK:  I think mysteries are great reads for hooking readers but the characters of The Best Mistake Mystery will grab readers just as easily.  Stephen could be any middle-grade reader who loves dogs, deals with humiliation, feels like he’s always making mistakes, overthinking everything he does.  Though he is no one special, he actually is someone very special in that he represents the majority of preteens on the cusp of puberty. How did you manage to create a character so real and likeable without making him so complex that readers couldn’t relate to him?

SM: Thank you, Helen. My life is full of quirky characters and I love observing, interacting and writing about them. Stephen is probably every writer I’ve ever met, over-analytical, and self-deprecating. Renée, too, asks too many questions and bubbles over with the information she discovers through her hyper-curiosity, very writer-like. I think the key is always to live and breathe through your characters as you write and if you like them, readers will too.

HK:  Stephen suggests that one of the biggest mistakes he might have made may have been misunderstanding Renée and almost closing himself off from a friendship with her.  But I think Stephen’s a fairly “open” character: receptive to new experiences and easily talking to strangers.  Is he modelled after someone or several kids you know, like your grandchildren whom you mention in your dedication?

SM:  My 15 year-old grandson Hunter and I used to walk to school together and we were always making up stories, usually involving the dog, on the way. At our house he chatted up the dishwasher repair guy or the neighbor planting his garden, everyone and anyone, always curious and interested. He was (I think he’s grown out of it) afraid of flying too, just like Stephen Noble which leads to Stephen’s greatest anxiety that feeds all the other tiny ones. Stephen fears for his own mother’s safety. The fearful mistake maker Stephen, however, is based more on the students to whom I teach writing in various workshops. They are always asking “Is this okay? Am I doing this right?” Or saying “Mine isn’t any good. I didn’t do it that way. I did it wrong.” You can’t try new things without making mistakes. Mistakes need to be applauded because they demonstrate effort, sometimes in a new direction.

HK:  You describe Ping and Pong, modelled after your own dog Mortie and your daughter’s dog Worf, as mismatched twins, because they are very  different in temperament and physical nature.  But mismatched as they are, they obviously miss each other when Pong goes missing.  Is the relationship between the two fictional dogs similar to that of Mortie and Worf?

SM:  Definitely Mortie and Worf’s relationship is bizarre and complex with  the same Ping/Pong rivalry i.e nudging each other out for pats, racing to be the first through the door, marking and remarking posts along their walks. Worf (aka Pong) is a usually a strong silent dog but Mortie (aka Ping) is a hyperactive barker who seems to goad Worf into a constant duet. Because of his height Worf, left on his own, will steal food off counters but we joke that Mortie eggs him on and certainly shares the gains. Usually Worf is food and toy possessive but I have watched the two dogs swim together, carrying either end of a stick in their mouths, perhaps only grudgingly sharing. At the leash free dog park, larger dogs may start a fight with Worf but tiny Mortie will yell at them and defend Worf. 

HK:  I loved the anecdotes Stephen’s mom likes to tell him that are related to animals and the people with whom she works at the airlines.  And I’m glad that the ones you let her tell Stephen always have happy endings.  Are these stories true?

SM:  All of the stories Mrs. Noble tells Stephen, from the dog escaping an airplane’s cargo and swimming away in a nearby harbor to the kitten who closes the New York subway for hours are true stories researched from news clippings posted on the Internet.

HK:  A great mystery, especially the cozies, use red herrings to throw the snoops and readers off the scent of the real culprit.  You peppered your story with red herrings in the form of potential suspects.  Without giving away the actual culprit, did you know from the onset of the story who would be guilty of the bomb threat and the Beetle crash or did the story evolve as you wrote it?

SM:  When I begin any Great Mistake Mystery, I have a definite idea about the “whodunit” part of the ending. But I still regard the rest of characters with suspicion and throw as much plausible motivation their way to create red herring suspects. Sometimes those characters persuade me that they are the best criminals and I end up changing the ending.

HK:  Your message that mistakes can be fortuitous is inspirational without being preachy.  How do you manage to be positive when meeting with challenges like mistakes?

SM:  It may surprise readers that I write story to explain the world to myself. As such, I am very much dealing with my own anxieties about mistake making when I write this series, many of the crazier mistakes are mine transferred to Stephen. Not surprising then is that writing The Great Mistake Mysteries is really helping me to just roll with my errors and look for their silver linings. Writing is very much adventuring onto the wrong paths and trying to navigate to the better ones.  

HK:  Could you please share some insider scoops about upcoming The Great Mistake Mysteries like the next titles, when they are set for release and whether the same characters will be featured?

SM:   Coming in September of 2017, is The Artsy Mistake Mystery, in which a whole city learns how important art can be. Besides Stephen, Renée, Ping, Pong and Attila most of the original cast makes an appearance.  However a new crossing guard Madam X (nicknamed such for the reflective tape X on her back) will make an appearance, also William Kowalski, the elderly jogger/painter. In January of 2018, The Snake Mistake Mystery will show Ping and Pong playing an important role in finding a missing slithery pet with which Noble Dog Walking is entrusted.  Janet Lacey, a rug hooking artist from The Artsy Mistake Mystery, will play a more leading role in her job as animal control officer. All of the stories will feature guest anecdotes from flight attendant mom, loveable dog antics from Ping, Pong and other canine clients, lots of mistakes, close to thirty, on the character’s part and a great meeting of all suspects where Stephen and Renée identify the criminals and solve the crime.

Thank you, Sylvia McNicoll, for helping readers to appreciate their mistakes as serendipitous circumstances, for bringing The Great Mistake Mysteries to print, and for answering my questions here. Thanks also to Dundurn publicist Jaclyn Hodsdon for arranging for this Q & A with Sylvia McNicoll and sharing a review copy of The Best Mistake Mystery with CanLit for LittleCanadians.

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