February 18, 2015

Another Exciting Mystery

The last piece of childhood writing I shared was Captain Bandorf's Treasure, a story from fourth grade that aspired toward adventure and mystery. As we saw, its epic adventure lasted about half an hour, less time than it took to dispense with the exposition, and its biggest mystery concerned the questionable genetics of various characters.

I've found another "mystery" story from fourth grade that shares some features with CBT (as fans call it, leading to several types of confusion), though it's less ambitious in scope. I'm unable to determine which story was written first, so it's unclear whether this was an earlier, more primitive venture into the genre or a feeble attempt to capitalize on a previous success. Either way, as you read this untitled story, look out for the following similarities:

→ The main characters are best friends named Jackie and Anne. We know they're not the CBT characters because they have different (but equally unremarkable) surnames, as well as different (but equally important to describe) hair and eye colors, and they live in modern times.

→ The dialogue crackles with wit.

→ There's a serious inability to get to the point.

→ The mom is once again limited to delivering a single irrelevant line, though at least this time it's a whole coherent thought.

→ All mystery and suspense is killed by the instant appearance of convenient solutions.

See if you can spot more parallels!

"Hi, Anne, it's Jackie. Come to my house quick." Ten year old Jackie Richards slammed down the phone and raced to the front door to wait for her friend.

Jackie had long brown hair and brown eyes. She loved to solve mysteries with her best friend Anne Davidson. Anne was also ten years old, and she had red hair that reached down to her shoulders. She also had blue eyes.

Mrs. Richards sighed and shook her head as she watched Jackie dash past her. "Doesn't that child know there's a whole afternoon before her? Why must she always be in such a rush?" she thought.

In a moment Anne appeared in the driveway, out of breath. Jackie ran out to greet her.

"What took you so long?" demanded Jackie.

"Jeepers, Jackie, I only live across the street you know. Besides, I ran all the way," said Anne.

"Well it was too long for me," complained Jackie.

"That's your tough luck. But anyway what did you want me for. A mystery?" asked Anne.

"That's true if a bird flies," replied Jackie.

"Tell me what the mystery is," begged Anne.

"Okay. Well you see I was cleaning my shelves..." Here Jackie paused and made a face which clearly showed that cleaning her shelves was not her favorite chore.

"Go on, go on," said Anne impatiently.

".....and I found a secret panel," continued Jackie.

"Then what did you do?" asked Anne, who was getting more excited every minute.

"I opened it," replied Jackie.

"What was inside?" asked Anne.

"A key," answered Jackie, "and a box."

"Was there a lock on the box?" Anne asked.

"Yep," said Jackie.

"Do you think that the key opens the box?" asked Anne.

"Yep," said Jackie.

"Did you open it?" asked Anne hopefully.

"Nope," said Jackie.

"Then come on, what are we waiting for?" yelled Anne, and she darted off towards the house with Jackie at her heels.

The two girls were in the house and upstairs in Jackie's room in a flash.

"Where's the box?" asked Anne.

"On my desk," replied Jackie.

Anne looked and saw a wooden box not very big, but too big to be called small. The box was locked shut with a brass padlock. Next to it was a key.

"Go on, open it," said Anne.

With fingers trembling with excitement Jackie took hold of the key.

She unfastened the lock and looked inside.

"What is in there? Let me see," Anne demanded.

Jackie took out a silk bag. "You open it," she said to Anne.

"Okay," said Anne. She untied the knot at the top of the bag and poured its contents out on the desk.

Out fell a pile of glittering jewels!

"Wow!" was all that Jackie and Anne could say.

Then Jackie said, "Well I guess you deserve half of them."

"Why?" asked Anne, very surprised.

"You deserve half because you are my friend," laughed Jackie.

So they divided the jewels into two equal piles and then Anne took her pile and went home because her mother was calling her for supper.

Many of my stories from fourth grade bear a signature from one of my parents, as the teacher required a parent to check up on our work. This story is signed by my father, who added the comment, "Another Carolyn Keene!" Dad remains one of my biggest fans.

Lately I've been thinking a lot about ways to tighten up the word count of stories. Among the easiest methods is to remove anything that's unnecessary or dull, or that halts the flow of the plot. This story is a great candidate for shortening, so I thought I'd rewrite it with these principles in mind.

Here's my revised version of the story. I hope it still captures the flavor of the original.

Jackie ushered her best friend into her bedroom with great ceremony and a few lame witticisms. "I guess I never found the secret panel before because I hate cleaning my shelves so much."

"Lucky you finally cleaned them anyway." Anne picked up the unassuming wooden box and studied the brass padlock with her highly relevant blue eyes. "And even luckier that the box and the key were hidden together. Thanks for waiting to open it."

"Of course. You're my best friend, after all." With trembling fingers, Jackie unfastened the lock and looked inside. She removed a silk bag and handed it to Anne.

Anne poured the contents onto the desk, and the girls stared in amazement at the pile of glittering jewels.

When at last Jackie was able to speak, she declared, "Well, since you are my best friend, you deserve half."

After Jackie and Ann shared a long hug, they began dividing up the jewels.

Jackie's mom entered. "Sorry, girls, but legal precedent in our state establishes that found treasure belongs to the property owner. Namely, me." She scooped the gems back into the bag. "Anne, it's time for you to go home for supper."

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Michael Bourne of The Millions examines a single sentence from several favorite novels to see what he can learn from The Page 40 Test: "Stripping away setting, narrative, and character development afforded me an unusual pinhole view into the mind of a writer at work. Some writers displayed infelicities of diction or grammar that I might have missed at full speed, but that, under close examination, helped explain a vague unease I had long felt about the author's work. Other writers, I found, expertly built their setting, narrative, and character development into every sentence, while still others seemed to lose the plot midway through."


Rubrick said...

This delightful story highlights a pedagogical dilemma: How do we teach our children about Checkhov's Gun at an early age while still making it clear that guns are Bad?

Lisa Eckstein said...

My parents didn't allow us to have toy guns, even water pistols, so they taught us about Chekov's Squirting Elephant.

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