Elly: As we are celebrating the cover of your new series, The Gemini Mysteries, can you share your thoughts when you first saw your cover?
Kat: Before we even talked about cover design, they showed me work from the artist they had chosen, Kevin Hong, and I could not believe I had gotten so lucky. His work is beautiful and evocative, and having his art on my book felt like hitting the jackpot. When my editor sent me those initial drafts it was love at first sight, and it just got better from there. I love how moody it is; you can really feel the mystery, and then there’s that necklace. I’ve read this story at least a hundred times, and every time I see the cover I’m like, “Ooh, I really want to read that book!”
I remember that when you showed me the Smart Cookie cover, we were both thrilled with how it felt both perfectly Scholastic and perfectly Elly Swartz. It felt very distinct from Finding Perfect, which was published by FSG, but it also felt like it lived in the same world. When your readers talk to you about your books, do they talk about the covers?
Yes. Students are super curious and excited about both covers. With Smart Cookie, they love the cookies and the dog. And ask if it’s my beagle Lucy on the cover. (Spoiler alert – it’s not! But I love that they ask.) With Finding Perfect, they love how so many creative elements in the story found their way onto the cover. It’s like a story scavenger hunt. I am so grateful to the creative teams at Scholastic and FSG for creating such engaging covers that share the heart of the stories.
Have you always loved mysteries? If so, was that what prompted you to write in this genre?
When my editor, Sonali Fry, approached me about writing an interactive mystery series, I knew exactly what she wanted to do, because I had loved that type of book so much as a kid. I had always wanted to write a mystery, so this project was kind of a dream come true for me.
I have been a huge mystery fan for as long as I can remember; so much so, in fact, that I have a mystery-themed tattoo sleeve that continues to evolve as I add more favorites to it. One of the things I loved most about mysteries is the interactive experience of reading one. You’re constantly taking in information, evaluating, predicting, and then re-evaluating based on a changing landscape of clues. So much fun as a reader, and such a great tool as a teacher!
You know how thrilled I was when I read an early draft of Smart Cookie and discovered it was also a mystery! I love that you’ve woven a ghostly mystery in with Frankie’s hilarious and heartfelt search for the perfect family. Which came first, and how did you find those threads that tied the story together so perfectly?
For me, the character and the heart of the story always come first. But then this really interesting thing happened. Frankie’s search for her herd took me to a B&B in a small town in Vermont. And there the mystery came to life.
Do you have tips and strategies for writing a mystery?
Basically, I start by planning the crime first: the type of crime, the list of suspects, and the perpetrator. Then I begin to construct the rough plot structure. I like to break my books into three acts, and for mysteries I call it the Howdonit, the Whodonit, and the Whydonit. First the detectives have to figure out how the crime was committed, then they have to figure out who did it, and the last part is the denouement, where everything gets explained and revealed.
Writing the Babysitting Nightmares series got me into the habit of always outlining before I write. However, when I started working on Gemini, I quickly realized that I needed to approach plotting in a completely different way for this type of story, because there were things that I needed to know that I didn’t want my readers to know. So in addition to my usual outline I made a second, super-secret timeline just for me that was color-coded by suspect. It included what each suspect was doing several months before the crime, just before the crime, during the crime, and after the crime. This helped me make sure I didn’t accidentally provide any alibis, and it also gave me plenty of folks with means, motive, and opportunity. Because good criminals plan their crimes carefully, I had to do the same!
I know that your writing process often starts with voice and character. Was that the same for Smart Cookie, or did the mystery element change your process for this book?
My process remained the same for Smart Cookie. The story began with Frankie’s heart and spunk. Then slowly the mystery unravelled one crumb at a time. While this required a lot of revising and plotting as the story unfolded, it also allowed me, as the writer, to discover along with my reader. However, next time I decide to write a mystery, I’m going to try your Howdonit, Whodonit, Whydonit approach! I love that!
Gemini Mysteries has such a unique way of storytelling. I love how the reader can discover clues in the both the text and illustrations. It’s like you left a trail of breadcrumbs for the reader. Can you talk about this style of storytelling?
Once I had my crime planned and my suspects in place, I started brainstorming what clues related to the crime could also be shown visually. Some clues needed to implicate characters, and others needed to exonerate them. And because there is a clue at the end of every chapter, I then had to figure out how to turn that brainstormed list into a series of sequential links that logically led the detectives forward to each new clue. It required me to plan exactly how every single scene would begin and end. While that level of structure added an extra layer of challenge in the planning and plotting, it made things so much easier when I got to the writing, because I didn’t have to think about what was going to happen next. Instead I just got to enjoy letting the characters play out the scenes in my head.
I know that you have often described writing as your “happy place”, which is this beautiful idea that I absolutely envy! There are so many writing days when hitting my word count can feel like every single one of those words was pulled out of me like a tooth. But writing this book didn’t feel like that at all. It was really fun from start to finish, like solving the world’s most interesting logic puzzle.
Maybe you found your happy place in writing mysteries!
Sophia, one of the main characters in the story, creates a fundraiser to support gibbons at the zoo. Do you have a connection to zoos or gibbons, in particular?
Sophia’s dedication to protecting apes was inspired by a former student of mine, Emmie, who taught me about palm oil back when she was in fourth grade. I had literally never heard of it before, and this kid was already fighting hard to stop the terrible habitat destruction that comes from palm oil plantations. She gave me tools to change my own consumer habits and make more sustainable choices, and she also showed me how to be a better environmental advocate. I was very lucky to learn from her.
I have spent most of my own life working with animals in some capacity. I always loved caring for my pets as a kid, and when I got older I started volunteering in animal sanctuaries and zoos.
I am a passionate advocate for good zoos and responsible animal stewardship, and I love sharing the incredible work that’s being done to support animal care and conservation around the world. When I lived in Los Angeles I was a docent and major donor to the LA Zoo, and I also volunteered a bit at the Gibbon Conservation Center in Santa Clarita. Gibbons are rare and magnificent little apes, and their songs are some of the most haunting, thrilling, and truly joy-inspiring sounds you could ever hope to hear. I hope every one of my readers someday has the opportunity to sing with the gibbons!
And now . . . the cover!
Kat Shepherd is thrilled to write fast-paced series that are likely to engage reluctant readers because as an educator, she believes that reading should be a joyful experience for every kid. A former classroom teacher, Kat has also spent various points in her life working as a deli waitress, a Hollywood script reader, and a dog trainer for film and TV. She lives in Minneapolis with her husband, two dogs, and a rotating series of foster dogs. She is the author of the BABYSITTING NIGHTMARES series (Macmillan/Imprint, 2018), a spooky series that follows the supernatural babysitting adventures of a group of four tween girls. Her second series, THE GEMINI MYSTERIES (Bonnier/Yellow Jacket) is an interactive mystery series that debuts in March, 2019.
Elly Swartz loves writing for kids, Twizzlers, and anything with her family. Her debut novel, FINDING PERFECT (FSG 2016) is about twelve-year-old Molly, friendship, family, OCD, and a slam poetry competition that will determine everything. In her second book, SMART COOKIE (Scholastic, 2018), you meet the spunky and big-hearted Frankie. Frankie’s all about family with a dash of mischief and mystery! And then in 2019, say hello to Maggie in GIVE AND TAKE (FSG). Elly lives in Massachusetts with her family and beagle named Lucy. If you want to connect with Elly, you can find her at ellyswartz.com, on Twitter @ellyswartz, Instagram @ellyswartzbooks or on her webseries #BooksintheKitchen with Victoria J. Coe.