Little kids are pretty trippy

First, a confession. If it were socially acceptable, I would play with dolls every day.

Yesterday, I took part in the enormously fun Ask Big Questions “Living Library” event hosted by Virginia Tech and the Blacksburg Library. Each invited presenter represented a job the attendees (preschool and elementary school aged kids) might be interested in learning more about. The llama farmer, who’d brought an actual llama along with her, was tough to compete with, but I still got an enthusiastic crowd of pint-sized storytellers visiting my table.

My exhibit focused on writing and storytelling. Attendees could create their own stories using the characters including a small Barbie, a wizard puppet, a plastic donkey, a squishy frog, a creature made of shells, a Minion doll, and others. I also provided settings in the form of pictures of tropical islands, palaces, dark forests, etc. I’d created some ready-made story prompts, thinking some kids might be stuck for plot ideas, but the kiddos sure didn’t need those! They came up with dozens awesome stories all their own. One little girl even pulled out a purse full of Disney princess dolls and added them to the story. After all, what story couldn’t benefit from a purseful of princesses?

Making up stories with kids is a little like dropping acid or listening to one of this year’s presidential debates. If you just sit back and don’t think too much, the spectacle can be pretty amazing. The stories zigged and zagged in ways I never could’ve predicted. One minute, the wizard character was nice, teaching a class full of wannabe wizards how to fly. Another kid would take over the story and suddenly the wizard would be trapping the plastic donkey in a cave above a secret lagoon, trying to destroy all her kindness with his evil spells.

Here are a few of my favorite story lines:

Not all the kids who attended were able to read and write yet, but those who could were invited to write little mini stories to share with the world via my blog.

Today I am going to a birthday party!

The makings of a great adventure story, for sure. 🙂

It started in China. When I was a little girl when one day I got to go on the plane.

Intriguing, huh? Writing was still pretty new to this little one, but she clearly has a knack for writing a compelling hook.

When I grow up I want to be a zookeeper.

Zoos are great settings for stories. And given how interested this little person was in the animal characters, I’m sure zookeeping is a solid career choice.

One day, I was coming home from school when… OH! I forgot to introduce myself! I’m Shell Dog and I live on a tropical island. Well, back to the story.

I was coming home from school when a dozen six-foot tall Minions, led by Kevin, came up to me wearing bikinis.

“Do you want to go swimming with us?” asked Kevin.

“What the heck.” I said.

Eventually I decided to go swimming with them, and they were super nice. After that, I went swimming with them pretty much every day.

A fun story from one of the slightly older kids, inspired by the characters and settings I’d brought. I didn’t have to correct the punctuation or spelling at all. She even got the hyphen right! An English professor in the making?

How to Write a Really Terrible Mystery

On October 28th, I’ll be giving a talk at the Blacksburg, VA Public Library. “How to Write a Really Terrible Mystery (and HowHow to Write a Really Terrible Mystery Poster Not To)” will feature tips from my alter ego, Mandy Quagley. Below is a little sneak peek at the kind of colossally unhelpful advice Mandy will give to mystery readers and would-be mystery writers.

There will be lots of audience participation, and lots more terribly hilarious writing samples. Hope to see you there!


Instead of laying cunning clues that lead your reader little by little toward the finale, withhold all information. I mean, this is a mystery, people! Be mysterious. You don’t want to give anything away. So at the end, dump all the information on your reader like a trash collector tipping his load into a fetid landfill.

Take one or more chapters right at the end to reveal in excruciating detail who committed all the murders and how they did it. Ideally, they should do this in one really, really long monologue while your protagonist is tied to a chair or something, but I know this isn’t always possible. A good rule of thumb is that this exposition should recap your entire book.

Here’s a quick example from The Weiner Schnitzel Conundrum by Mandy Quagley:

“Remember that jar of poisoned pickles in the first chapter?” Baron Otto Von Killerstein said, stroking his menacing goatee. “Well, they weren’t poisoned after all!  That character just had a heart attack, you fool! But actually that gave me the idea to poison those pickles in Chapter Five. The ones the other character ate.”

“You mean Count Nebulous Throckmorton died from eating poisoned pickles?” Juliette asked, her blonde curls quivering with fear.

Nine, he’s the one who got bitten by the snake. Don’t you remember? I just told you about the snake I trained specially to be attracted to the scent of mango chutney, and then I gave Count Throckmorton the mango chutney scented cologne?”

“Oh, oui. So it was Professor Leopold von Fingerschweitzen who ate the poisoned pickles.”

Nine! Think about it. Chapter Five? The one with the redhead and the hunchback?”

“Wait, you mean you and Bavaria Bumbersnickle were working together this whole time?” Juliette asked, her ample bosom jiggling with anxiety.

Baron Von Killerstein pulled back the cleverly fitted mask that covered his face. “I am Bavaria Bumbersnickle!”