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July 8, 2014

A Tale of Two Sleuths --- Guest Post by Diana Renn

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Here’s a math problem for you: What do you get when you’re writing one novel and have one title…but have two separate computer documents and two different protagonists? A bit of a problem, according to Diana Renn, author of LATITUDE ZERO. You have to choose…and it’s not easy. Below, Diana introduces us to her YA mystery’s current protagonist, Tessa, and shares why it was so hard to let the runner-up, Mari, go.


When I started writing my second YA mystery, I joked that I was having twins. What I really had was indecision. For months, I had two separate documents growing on my computer. Both were titled LATITUDE ZERO. But they featured entirely different sleuths!

In one version, my main sleuth was Tessa Taylor, the teen host of an educational TV show called KidVision. Almost as soon as I had her name, I was able to fill up a notebook with facts about her. I knew her TV show profiled young activists and entrepreneurs, but she was tired of reporting everyone else’s great ideas, longing for some great achievement of her own. I knew she was a do-gooder at heart, coming from a progressive prep school with core values of community service and activism. Yet she’d recently strayed from those values and made poor decisions.

I also knew Tessa’s secret dream was to become an investigative reporter. So she’d be a sleuth who would dig deep to find answers. She’d be unafraid of talking to people or going undercover. Above all, she had a journalist’s ethics and a desire to realign her own moral compass. She would stop at nothing to find the truth behind the death of Juan Carlos, a famous Ecuadorian cyclist she knew --- and whose death she felt partly responsible for on a bicycle charity ride.

Tessa Taylor seemed like a great fit for investigating the crime I wanted to write about, but I had another candidate vying for attention: Mari Vargas. The sleuth in version two of my draft.

Mari also knew Juan Carlos, but as a bike mechanic at a shop where he spent some time volunteering, she had a very different relationship with him. They shared common ground with both bicycling culture and Ecuadorian culture; Mari had roots and family in that country. Mari and Juan Carlos spoke the same language and confided in one another.

Since the answers at the heart of the mystery would be found in Ecuador, Mari would be the perfect person to travel there, using her family connections and language skills to uncover the truth. And when the bike that Juan Carlos went down on needed to be inspected, Mari, a skilled mechanic, would be perfect for that job, too.

I got a few chapters in with each version, telling the story from these two points of view. Then I knew I had to make a critical decision. I could only write one book.

I agonized. I liked both girls so much. I saw Tessa so vividly. I heard Mari so clearly. I was emotionally invested in each of them, and fascinated by their different connections to Juan Carlos, and by their different motivations for uncovering the truth behind his tragedy.

I attempted a dual point of view novel. But that didn’t work. Information repeated. The pace dragged.  I also wanted to tell this story in first person. I knew I had to choose.

I really wanted it to be Mari’s story. How many Ecuadorian-American sleuths do we get to read about? How many bike mechanic sleuths? I knew Mari would make for a really original and engaging investigator.

Then I took a harder look at my twin versions of the book. One had grown significantly longer. The version with Tessa as the narrator. I wondered if it was because I started the project with Tessa in mind, or because I knew Tessa better. Her background and experience were closer to mine.

I wanted to write across cultures and feature Mari as the narrator and sleuth. But the fact is, I am not a Latina writer, and while I lived and worked in Ecuador, I’m not from there, and have no family history there. Similarly, I love riding my bike, but I can barely change my tire. Though I love to write about different experiences, writing entirely in the voice of an Ecuadorian-American bike mechanic felt like a double stretch. I did not feel I had a true handle on Mari’s personal life and perspective in a way that would carry her through an entire book. I didn’t feel I could inhabit her, hard as I tried. I couldn’t sustain her voice or see far enough into her past to craft a novel-length character arc for her.

I hope that my writing about tourists and travelers in different countries will inspire more people to write mysteries across cultures.

A part of me wishes I had risen to the challenge of writing across cultures with my protagonist. We need more diversity in YA fiction. We need more diversity in mysteries, too. I would love to see a more diverse offering of sleuths. Why should they all resemble Nancy Drew?

But in my heart, I felt Mari’s was not my story to tell. So I went with Tessa’s voice and perspective and retained Mari as a strong supporting character. It was the right choice for this particular book.

I am reluctant to call Mari a “sidekick,” though. She’s not Watson to Tessa’s Holmes. Each girl brings her own strengths and skills to this complex mystery. Tessa uses her media skills and experience; Mari uses her technical expertise and cultural and linguistic knowledge. I also tried to make sure that Mari offered up many ideas for their investigation and took the lead at times. Even though the novel has only one narrator, it was my goal to give both girls significant jobs to do as co-sleuths.

But we really do need more diverse YA mysteries, you guys. I hope that my writing about tourists and travelers in different countries will inspire more people to write mysteries across cultures. YA mystery is a burgeoning genre. There are lots of job openings out there for young sleuths from all backgrounds. Let’s fill those positions!