Author Interview: Diana Renn Reveals Her Mystery Writing Process

By Elisabeth Norton

Diana Renn has written mysteries for adults and young adults about everything from cycling and spies to art and antiquities, set in locations around the world. But her newest book Trouble at Turtle Pond (Fitzroy Books, 2022) is aimed at younger readers, and is set much closer to home.

Diana, thank you for joining me!

It’s a pleasure to be here. Thank you for having me!

Your previous books have been for older readers (young adults and adults). What led you to write a mystery for middle grade readers?

I’ve always wanted to write for younger readers, but was writing international intrigue, and my globetrotting sleuths needed a certain degree of independence to solve such far-reaching crimes.

Several years ago, I was immersed in reading middle grade fiction with my son, and I started feeling a strong pull to write for that age group. At the same time, my son and I were doing volunteer work for a wildlife conservation group. I realized there was a story to tell about endangered freshwater turtles.

It seemed incredible to me that not everyone had heard of Blanding’s turtles, or their plight, or the people who work so hard to help them. I then happened to hear about a fascinating wildlife crime involving some very creative turtle poachers. Soon after, I started hearing Miles’s voice in my head. I had a mental picture of a group of self-appointed young wildlife rangers who called themselves “Backyard Rangers” and who operated a ranger station out of a cardboard box. Then I knew I had the ingredients for a middle grade mystery!

I learned so much about turtles through reading this book! How did your personal experiences with supporting endangered turtles inspire this book?

I’m glad to hear you learned a lot! One of my goals was to raise awareness of Blanding’s turtles. They live mostly in the north and northeastern United States and Ontario. They have suffered significant population decline through predators, habitat fragmentation, and poaching.

My son had two of these turtles as classmates in fourth grade. Our local schools partner with a conservation group that is trying to restore the turtle population here. Schools take care of hatchlings from Fall until Spring, and instead of hibernating, the turtles keep eating and grow faster. These “headstarted” turtles are better able to withstand predators when they’re released to the ponds in the spring.

I volunteered for class field trips to turtle sites. In the summer, my son and I joined field biologists for turtle tracking: looking for nesting turtles with radio telemetry equipment. I became fascinated by this process and the ways biologists were partnering with local residents and schools to protect turtles’ nests and turtles crossing roads. We eventually became a foster family for ten hatchlings, caring for them in our home before they went into the schools. The anxiety I felt at caring for such fragile beings certainly influenced my decision to write a mystery. I was terrified of any of them dying on our watch!

Our hatchling houseguests

I wanted my book to help make these turtles more visible and amplify their conservation concerns. I hope the mystery plot is a fun way to hook readers into understanding the very real issues that threaten these turtles.

Can you tell us more about the main character, Miles?

Miles is a huge animal lover, who has – or imagines he has – a special, telepathic connection to dogs and to turtles. He has a nurturing personality. He is highly creative. He can make anything out of a cardboard box. Including little turtles from recycled materials. (I must credit my son for this craft!)

Miles also has ADHD. Some people think that means you can’t focus or pay attention. On the contrary, people with ADHD may pay a lot of attention and can focus very closely, if they have a strong interest or motivation. Miles often pays close attention to things other people might not notice. This skill becomes integral to his process of investigating the turtle crimes in his town, and Miles comes to appreciate his hidden strengths.

A Blanding’s turtle hatchling

People with ADHD sometimes have other diagnoses that ride along. For Miles, he has some social anxiety, exacerbated by his move to a new town. He also has some sensory processing issues, which are not labeled as such, but are impacting him at times. He doesn’t love to wear a hat in the heat, or to walk through gross mud and muck. Sometimes field work is tricky for him, especially during a summer heat wave, when everything feels extra hot, smelly, or itchy. He also likes his video games, where he excels, and he’s not always sure that sitting in a cardboard box ranger station is what he’d like to be doing with his time.

While acknowledging some of Miles’s past and present challenges, it was important to me to write a strength-based portrayal of a character with ADHD. I can’t remember the exact statistic, but I learned that people with ADHD – formally diagnosed or not – receive a significantly higher amount of negative messaging, from corrections to judgments to criticisms, to outright teasing and bullying. Negative messages can be verbal or non-verbal. (You can say a lot with an eye-roll!) They can come from teachers, peers, and even parents and other close family members. People with ADHD tend to hold on to negative experiences, and their self-esteem can spiral. So I wanted to have a neurodiverse character who does something really great (while still acknowledging that challenges exist), and who gets increasingly positive feedback or finds ways to counter the negative messaging he receives.

Miles is also someone who tends to feel the burden of responsibility in a painfully acute way. He feels responsible for bad things that happened in the past, including a classroom pet that got away from him, and various troubles at his previous school that earned him the nickname “Mayhem Miles.” He now feels responsible for making his parents move to Marsh Hollow to seek a fresh start, and is terrified of making any mistakes. I think it’s pretty common for ADHD kids to feel this strong sense of guilt and shame. I see it firsthand in my own family, and I’ve felt it. It is heartbreaking. I hope that with an increase in books featuring all kinds of neurodiversity, and more positive portrayals on the page, we can start to provide correctives to this negative self-perception.

Blanding’s turtle hatchlings in their feeding tub

So just as I’m trying to raise the visibility of endangered turtles in this book, I’m also hoping, through Miles and some other characters, to make neurodiversity more visible, and to elicit feelings of empathy and compassion.

How is writing a mystery for younger readers the same as or different from writing for young adults or adults?

There is a lot of overlap because mysteries have certain conventions that readers expect. Generally, mystery readers of all ages expect at least one crime, a criminal, victims, a sleuth, suspects, clues, red herrings, reveals, and a satisfying solution that is plausible but not too obvious. Each suspect needs a means, motive, and opportunity. Readers also expect a satisfying emotional journey for the main character, as with any genre. I love when characters investigate themselves as they investigate a mystery, when they change or grow as a result.

Writing a mystery for younger readers involves adjusting the dials on all those mystery elements, as well as the emotional arc. I don’t want it to be too long or too complex, so I have fewer crimes and suspects. The crime needs to be appropriate for the age group, something young amateur sleuths could investigate without getting into too much peril, but still have an element of danger. When I brainstorm possible crimes for middle grade mysteries, they tend to center around missing things (like turtles), buried secrets, unexplained behaviors, or unethical activities that fall into a gray area between bad behavior and legally punishable crime. I also adjust dials on the degree of danger the younger sleuths face and their proximity to criminals and crime.

You’re the author of several mysteries. What does it look like behind the curtain when you know whodunnit, and you’re trying to craft a journey for the reader that includes clues, plot twists and the occasional red herring? How do you keep track of who was where, and who knows what?

Behind the curtain . . . oh boy! You had to ask! My process starts out with an organized system, and quickly becomes messy. But the mess is important too. At the risk of throwing open my closet doors, I will describe my process here!

I start with a journal. Handwritten. When I’m on the go, I scribble on Post-it notes, and just stick those in later. Or I dictate ideas on my phone, then print those out and tape them in. I know there are apps to streamline all of this, but so far this process has worked for me!

I quickly try to nail down the main mystery elements, starting with the sleuth. I list ideas and freewrite on questions like these: How does this person need to change and grow? What kind of mystery might fit the personality of this young sleuth? (Or what personality would best solve this type of mystery?) What unique skills does this person bring to the job? What weaknesses, or unhealthy self-perceptions, might get in the way? What other obstacles does this character face, both internal and external?

If I have too many ideas, I look for character traits that might be used for secondary characters. Sometimes a sleuthing sidekick or a whole investigative team can emerge.

I then do a lot of research to understand the worlds my main character lives in. One world is the setting. I draw a map or modify an existing map to fictionalize a town or neighborhood.

The other word is a particular “culture” the sleuth is already a part of, or stumbles into. In my books for older readers, those cultures included the art world, competitive cycling, and archaeology. In Trouble at Turtle Pond, the “culture” I needed to understand was the world of wildlife biology, field conservation work, and endangered turtles. As I start to understand the culture, I list possible character types who might also be there. These people may become eventual suspects or criminals. I also list potential crimes.

Now the mystery is starting to take on a shape. But I have a few more puzzle pieces to find.

I try to have three to four suspects and a potential “villain,” as well as a means, motive, and opportunity for each to commit a crime. If I can’t come up with these, I’m not ready to write. I can keep digging deeper into characters to get those insights. (Journal!) Or I can cast a wider net and learn more about the setting and the culture, in order to find the right people. (Research!)

I then list possible clues. More come to me when I write, so I don’t worry if I only have a handful. Usually my clues emerge organically from settings – details that might escape someone’s notice (even mine, at first!) but turn out to be significant. Or conversations that appear benign but reveal somebody’s secret they’re trying to protect, their potential motive, their hidden hurt.

I then try to summarize the novel in a page or two. If I can’t, it’s too complex, so I review the journal and try to hone in on the plot and character growth even more. I credit Jennie Nash for her “One Page Book Summary” approach and other exercises in her Blueprint for a Book system. Jennie’s system really helps me focus and think about what I am trying to accomplish with the book, the big takeaway messages, and the readers I wish to reach.

Finally, I map out, on huge pieces of paper taped to the wall, what the key mystery ingredients are, what my main plot points are, and where I’m hoping to end up. That way I have a rough road map. (I call it a road map, not a true outline). I need to have it right in front of me or I go down too many rabbit holes. But I’m free to revisit this map, and I redraw it periodically.

I hope I have the “who” in the “whodunnit” figured out, but this piece often confounds me. I either get bored with the first “villain” I come up with, or feel it’s too obvious, or I just change my mind. Perhaps some better prospect emerges. I’m always open to surprises.

At a point, I start to build in structure. I think about how many chapters I will need (I like 25-30 chapters for middle grade). Then I know approximately where the big plot turns will happen. If I skip this step, I will be so overwhelmed at the mere prospect of writing that I will instead find housecleaning tasks until the end of time.

So far everything’s been pretty organized. I know enough to write the opening chapters. And that’s where it becomes messy.

My writing process is iterative. I write in bursts of thirty to fifty pages, and then look back and take stock. When I hit a wall, it’s because there’s a lie lurking somewhere. I go back to find it, or get writing group help, and make repairs. Then I write the next batch of chapters, then take stock again, rinse and repeat, moving ahead in roughly 30-page increments. By the time I am done, my first draft is more like a fourth draft. Not polished, but hanging together. I scribble in my journal, and amend my wall outlines. At some point the outlines turn into Post-it notes everywhere in a way that only makes sense to me. I really love Post-its!

Here are the two biggest hacks I have found most helpful.

One is writing what I call a “question outline.” This is a chapter-by-chapter outline that only lists questions I want readers to have in their mind at the end of each chapter. If there are no questions, I have failed to advance the plot or the emotional arc, and I need to go back.

Diana’s workspace while writing a mystery.

My other hack is a Post-it system for managing upcoming scenes and distractions. (Did I mention I love Post-its?) I line up, on my computer screen, four or five “next-up” scenes. Seeing visible reminders of where I think I’m headed helps me stay on track. If I have little things to work in that I don’t want to forget, that can distract me, I’ll also put those on Post-its. When I’m fatigued, I’ll deal with a little post-it note problem. That alone will get me back into my book. Clearing my monitor of sticky notes becomes a fun motivator with a tangible result.

I used to work as an ADHD coach. I’m a parent and daughter of people who have ADHD diagnoses. And while I have not myself been diagnosed with ADHD, I definitely experience executive function challenges with large, open-ended tasks. So I really enjoy finding workarounds like this for creative work!

As a lifelong mystery-reader, I have renewed respect for the planning that goes into making one of my favorite genres. Will you continue to write mysteries for middle grade readers?

Yes, absolutely! I’m currently finishing up a second Backyard Rangers adventure (this one involving owls!) And I have more middle grade mystery ideas in the pipeline.

Thank you so much for talking with me today! It’s been a pleasure to learn more about how this book came to be.

You’re welcome! Thank you for reading Trouble at Turtle Pond and helping this book find its readers!

Cynsational Notes

Diana Renn is the author of three YA mysteries: Tokyo Heist, Latitude Zero, and Blue Voyage (all published by Viking / Penguin Random House, 2013-2015). Tokyo Heist was a Kids’ Indie Next List Selection, Latitude Zero was a Junior Library Guild Selection, and Blue Voyage was honored as a “Must Read” title by the Massachusetts Book Awards. Her new middle grade novel, Trouble At Turtle Pond, was published by Fitzroy Books / Regal House April 5, 2022.

Diana’s essays, articles, and short stories have appeared in numerous journals and magazines, including Publisher’s Weekly, The Huffington Post, Pangyrus, WBUR’s Cognoscenti, Mindful, Literary Mama, The Writer, Writer’s Digest, YARN (Young Adult Review Network), and others. Diana lives outside of Boston with her husband and son and works as an editor and book coach. Visit her website.

Elisabeth Norton writes fiction, nonfiction and poetry for young readers. Her poems have been selected for inclusion in several anthologies, including Things We Eat (Pomelo Books, 2022), edited by Janet Wong and Sylvia Vardell, and Imperfect II: poems about perspective, an anthology for middle schoolers (2022), edited by Tabatha Yeatts.

Originally from the U.S., Elisabeth now lives with her family in Switzerland where she teaches English as a Foreign Language (EFL). You can find out more about her writing on her website and her blog.