Tuesday, October 20, 2015

A Conversation with YA Mystery Author Diana Renn

Omnimystery News: Author Interview with Diana Renn

We are delighted to welcome author Diana Renn to Omnimystery News today.

Diana's new young adult mystery Blue Voyage (Viking; October 2015 hardcover and ebook formats) and we recently had the opportunity to spend some time with her talking about it. You can also Enter To Win a copy by visiting this post on our site.

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Omnimystery News: Introduce us to the lead character in Blue Voyage.

Diana Renn
Photo provided courtesy of
Diana Renn

Diana Renn: Zan was inspired by a girl I saw on a "blue voyage" cruise off the coast of Turkey. My husband and I shared a boat with two families who were traveling together, each with three kids. The older teen girl stood out because she seemed to be pulling away from the group. She seemed slightly secretive, distant, troubled, and had some kind of tension with her mother. I was intrigued by her, and by the idea of someone separating from family in this bucolic setting. I wrote a short story about her, then set it aside for a number of years. When I realized my story really wanted to be a book, and it came time to develop this character, it occurred to me that she was from a powerful political family on the verge of collapse. I loved that she was traveling through Turkey, with its rich history of civilizations that have risen and fallen since ancient times.

OMN: Blue Voyage is your third mystery, and all three have been stand-alones. Why did you choose not to create a recurring character in your books?

DR: I think of each book as a crossroads: an intriguing place, a crime or a set of related crimes, and a young woman on a voyage of self-discovery — learning to use her strengths and skills or discovering what they are, in order to navigate this new culture and in order to solve or stop a crime. They're all very different characters in very different places, and the mysteries they are investigating help them to solve mysteries in their personal lives too. I would not be able to plop Violet, my introverted manga fan and comic book artist from Tokyo Heist, into the bike mystery or Ecuador in Latitude Zero. Zan from Blue Voyage, investigating fake versus authentic antiquities while trying to excavating her own authentic self from her public persona, would be out of place on Tessa's journey to uncover corruption in Latitude Zero. Because my mysteries are complex and character-driven, featuring young sleuths on very particular journeys, I feel that they have accomplished something major by the end of each book and need not go on to a fresh adventure — although I'd be open to the possibility, I suppose.

From a practical standpoint, it has occurred to me that it would be easier to send the same character to different locations, rather than build from the ground up each time, but I've really enjoyed following these three distinct girls on their individual journeys.

OMN: Tell us something about Blue Voyage that isn't mentioned in the publisher's synopsis.

DR: Zan has a skin disorder called vitligo, which causes her to lose patches of pigmentation. It's something she is very self-conscious about, especially as a girl who is a politician's daughter, frequently photographed and often in the spotlight. The development of her skin disorder and how she copes with it in Turkey, while under great stress and exposed for different reasons, becomes an unexpected source of strength for Zan.

OMN: Describe your writing process for us.

DR: I have become more of a planner with each book. I think with mysteries you have to have at least a rough plan in place, although you can always depart from it. It is helpful for me to know in advance the crime(s) the villain(s), the victim(s), the suspects and a few red herrings. I may or may not know the final outcome until I'm closer to the end. I write a rough synopsis, then a detailed one. I do mini-outlines for each chapter and rough road-maps of about three chapters at a time so I know where I'm going. After the entire first draft I do a detailed chapter-by-chapter outline in a spreadsheet. If it's hard to outline I can immediately catch the plot holes, logical gaffes, or unwieldy scenes.

OMN: Your mysteries are set around the world. How did you go about researching these locations? Have there been any particularly challenging or exciting topics you've come across?

DR: Each book was inspired by a trip I took to the region or, in the case of Ecuador in Latitude Zero, a place where I once lived. For financial and family reasons, it has not been practical for me to return to these places to do research. I do a lot of internet research. I read numerous guidebooks to the region and look at travel forums like at Lonely Planet. I talk to people with connections to these regions or who may be traveling to them — I hire them as spies. (With Latitude Zero, when I found out my sister had a business trip to Ecuador, I sent her with a list of things to photograph and a bike-riding itinerary, which she also filmed for me!) I definitely consult with experts. Every book has been read by at least two people who are native to each country. They check for language use, geographic accuracy, cultural accuracy, and the avoidance of stereotypes.

My most challenging topic to research was the bicycle scene in Ecuador because that really didn't exist when I lived there. (Fortunately I found an ex-racer from Ecuador working as a bike mechanic down my street!) My most exiting topic to research was rock climbing, which, in Blue Voyage, is Zan's hobby and her superpower. This involved actually attempting to rock climb myself, which involved attempting to conquer my fear of heights. (I'm still working on it!)

OMN: How true are you to the settings in your books?

DR: I try to be accurate in terms of using actual cities/towns and checking travel distances from one place to another — my characters are often on the move, chasing or being chased, and they have to cover a lot of ground. I love figuring out travel logistics in real life too, so this is a fun challenge. I do take liberties with things like neighborhoods or street names, often inventing a fictional bend in the road or a suburb of a suburb — I don't want to get hung up on whether a particular nightclub or restaurant is still there.

OMN: Suppose we could send you anywhere in the world, all expenses paid, to research the setting for a book. Where would it be?

DR: OK, this is my favorite question ever! That would be a dream! I would want to go back to the Amalfi Coast in Italy. I've been there before, very briefly, and the hills and tiny towns seem steeped in mystery.

OMN: What are some of your outside interests? Have any of these found their way into your books?

DR: I'm a bicycling enthusiast, and that definitely inspired Tessa's journey in Latitude Zero. I have done long charity bike rides with my husband, and while on one of these I dreamed up the bike disaster that Tessa encounters in the book. I've never raced though, nor do I know much about bike mechanics, so as I delved deeper into the bike world for the story, I still had to do a lot of research. I have also taken taiko drumming lessons and even performed for a few years with a taiko group here in New England. I have yet to write a book about that, but I'd really like to — maybe something for younger readers.

OMN: What is the best advice you've received as an author?

DR: "Find other people who are doing what you want to do." It was general advice I got right after college about having a creative career. I wish I had gotten that advice earlier because I isolated myself in high school and college. Not many people knew I wrote, I didn't take classes, I rarely shared my work — and I improved slowly as a result. Once I started taking some writing classes, finding mentors, forming a critique group, talking to people who were further down the road, things started to take off and I began publishing stories and essays — and producing more work, and improving. I think having a community is so helpful. We don't have to write in a vacuum.

OMN: What kinds of books did you read when you were young?

DR: I read a lot of fantasy and sci fi as a child. I loved Lloyd Alexander, Ray Bradbury, T.H. White. I somehow thought those were the genres I'd write in. But I did also read a lot of mystery: John Bellairs, Zilpha Keatley Snyder, Lois Duncan (more as a teen), and, of course, Nancy Drews. My mom and grandmother were also big mystery readers, who got me into Agatha Christie eventually. They also devoured the Mrs. Polifax books and other "travel mystery" writers like Mary Stewart. So I'm sure mystery had a big influence on me. I didn't set out to write mysteries; they snuck up on me. It took me years to realize my first book, Tokyo Heist (which originally had a different title) really wanted to be a mystery. Once I realized that — after a writing group member gently pointed it out — I was finally able to complete a draft!

OMN: And what do you read today for pleasure?

DR: I read across genres and markets. I have a young son who is just moving from picture books and chapter books into early middle-grade fiction so it's a joy to read with him — I'm reading the Nick and Tesla mystery series with him as a read-aloud and really enjoying its inventiveness!

I read YA because I love it, and to keep up with my primary market as best I can. I do read YA mysteries, which seem to be on the rise these days: I especially enjoy YA mysteries by Ally Carter, Lamar Giles, and Elle Cosimano. I just read a FANTASTIC new mystery that's coming out in December called Half in Love with Death by Emily Ross — I'm so excited about this book, which evokes the 1960s so beautifully, introduces a resilient and appealing young sleuth seeking a missing older sister, and portrays a creepily appealing young male villain based on a real-life case. I don't read many YA series, but I do love Elisa Ludwig's "Pretty Crooked" trilogy (Pretty Crooked, Pretty Wanted, and Pretty Sly). These stories are like a modern-day Robin Hood telling with a mystery/crime twist. I love how there is a larger mystery in the sleuth's personal life that takes three books to unfold even as smaller, individual mysteries are spun out in each book. I think it's so skillfully done. Part of the challenge with a mystery series for teens is the plausibility issue, I think. Having kids bounce from adventure to adventure, solving crime after crime, when they still have to deal with homework, exams, relationships — not to mention the therapy they'd probably need from dealing with one crime after another! Nancy Drew is able to have adventure after adventure because we place fewer demands on her. We don't expet her to have a rich, realistic life — she's not a very complex character. YA mystery readers expect the realistic, relatable characters they find in contemporary, fantasy, and other genres these days — AND a satisfying mystery. That can be hard to pull off across a series.

That's one reason I'm a huge fan of Peter Abrahams, probably my all-time favorite mystery writer for kids. These kids are real, on relatable personal journeys, and solving mysteries that matter. In his Echo Falls series, Ingrid is such an appealing 13-year-old sleuth; in addition to solving pretty high-stakes mysteries, she's going to the orthodontist, soccer practice, math club, drama club, and dealing with family stuff. I love her!

OMN: What's next for you?

DR: I am working up proposals for new book ideas and have a personal project — not yet sold — that I'm in the early stages of and really enjoying. It's a YA mystery set in Washington State (where I'm originally from) and involving teens who stumble into a mystery about the past, related to one of the worst disasters in Washington State history that is, mysteriously, rarely taught or talked about. Much as I love travel mysteries, on this new project it's been fun to come home.

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Diana Renn, the author of two young adult mystery novels, is the Fiction Editor at YARN (Young Adult Review Network), an award-winning online magazine featuring short-form writing for teens. Diana grew up in Seattle and now lives outside of Boston with her husband and son.

For more information about the author, please visit her website at DianaRennBooks.com and her author page on Goodreads, or find her on Facebook and Twitter.

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Blue Voyage by Diana Renn

Blue Voyage by Diana Renn

A Young Adult Mystery

Publisher: Viking

Amazon.com Print/Kindle Format(s)BN.com Print/Nook Format(s)Kobo eBook Format

Zan is a politician's daughter and an adrenaline junkie. Whether she's rock climbing or shoplifting, she loves to live on the edge. But she gets more of a rush than she bargained for on a forced mother-daughter bonding trip to Turkey, where she finds herself in the crosshairs of an antiquities smuggling ring. These criminals believe that Zan can lead them to an ancient treasure that's both priceless and cursed. Until she does so, she and her family are in grave danger.

Zan's quest to save the treasure — and the lives of people she cares about — leads her from the sparkling Mediterranean, to the bustle of Istanbul's Grand Bazaar, to the eerie and crumbling caves of Cappadocia. But it seems that nowhere is safe, and there's only so high she can climb before everything comes tumbling down.

Blue Voyage by Diana Renn


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