What Harriet the Spy Taught Me

HarrietSpy6

A couple of posts back, I flippantly said that if Harriet the Spy was my favorite book in fourth grade, why would I ever deviate from that genre when writing?  To my surprise, a few of you messaged and said that you, too, loved Louise Fitzhugh’s Harriet, and before I knew it, I was taking a trip back to where my love of mystery and thrillers began. 

My earliest screen-viewing memories include Clue, Macgyver, The Twilight Zone, and perhaps my favorite as a kid: Murder, She Wrote. When I had to write about the merits of The Scarlet Letter in high school, I focused almost entirely on the who-REALLY-is-the-father mystery and the psychology behind choices made. A good foundation built for my future self as a Law and Order junkie.

And then I discovered Agatha Christie. Maybe it was my Harriet the Spy training (I did run around my grandma’s neighborhood one summer with a spy notebook), but my thirteen year old self had gotten pretty good at solving those Murder, She Wrote episodes. When I picked up Hallowe’en Party, I was blown away. I didn’t have Angela Lansbury’s knowing glances to help me along, you know, and it was Christie’s writing that taught me what close reading really was. I also thoroughly blame her for my initial feelings of inadequacy when contemplating penning a mystery. My feelings were such that my first true attempt at a novel was in a completely different genre. We know where that landed.

When I was doing a bit of research for this post, I found a Writer’s Digest guest column by Jennifer McMahon, author of The Night Sister and The Winter People, in which she says to “think about the books you love, the ones you really lose yourself in. If those are mysteries, don’t try to write an historical romance or a quiet literary novel…Write what you love.” I only wish I’d found this post a couple of years ago. My current work-in-progress is mystery/crime fiction with a historical twist. I agree with Ms. McMahon: if it’s in your gut, if it’s in your heart, write it. Don’t try to write what you aren’t. Or, as Harriet the Spy’s nanny, Ole Golly said, “Sometimes you have to lie. But to yourself you must always tell the truth.”

Readers and writers, what books have been instrumental in making you who you are? I know there are as many varied responses as there are personalities out there! (And if you’d like to know more about Harriet the Spy, check out School Library Journal’s commentary. If you have kiddos, it’s a wonderful book to share.

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