What Preoccupies Us as Writers Keeps Showing Up by Lynn Slaughter

The first time someone asked me to present a workshop on writing for young adults, I prepared not only by mining my own experiences as a YA mystery writer, but by reading extensively on the subject. A couple of themes emerged again and again: Young adult readers are above all concerned with the emotional journey of characters, their growth and transformation, and treasure some semblance of hope at the end that things can, or will, get better in the future.

Aha, I thought. No wonder I’ve been so strongly drawn to writing for this age group. I’m fascinated by the dramatic emotional journey that transpires during adolescence. On the cusp of adulthood, teens are trying to figure out fundamental questions of identity: Who am I, and who do I want to become? Where do I fit? And how do I achieve agency in my own life?

Often, this involves differentiating from parents who have definite scripts in mind for their children. In my novel, LEISHA’S SONG, for example, Leisha’s grandfather, the only parent she’s ever known, wants her to pursue medicine rather than music and certainly doesn’t want her to get involved with Cody, a sensitive cellist from a conservative white family. By the end of the novel, Leisha hasn’t just solved the mystery of her missing teacher, but she has also stood up to her grandfather, insisting upon pursuing her own dreams and the boy she cares about. Having spent her life as a pleaser who genuinely loves her grandfather, this is hard for Leisha. But it’s a transition that’s necessary to give her any hope for a future that’s a good fit for who she is and who she dreams of becoming.

What does this have to do with my first adult mystery, MISSED CUE, which came out earlier this month? What preoccupies me as a writer is apparent, regardless of what age group I’m writing for. Obviously, I love mysteries, but the similarities go well beyond that. My protagonist in MISSED CUE, homicide detective Caitlin O’Connor, also has some personal growth and maturing to do. While dealing with the most complicated case of her career, the suspicious onstage death of a revered ballerina, she’s involved in a relationship with the very married medical examiner. Despite the guilt she experiences, getting involved with married, ultimately unavailable men is a long-standing pattern for her. She finally goes into therapy to figure out why. Not surprisingly, she discovers some answers in emotional baggage she’s carried dating back to childhood.

By the end of the novel, Caitlin has not only solved the case but is on her way to a healthier relationship with herself. In other words, there is hope for a better future for her personally, as well as professionally.

The thing about writing is that you take yourself and your preoccupations and pour them into whatever you’re working on. That may be why I’ve had such a tough time responding to questions about the differences between writing for young adults and adults. At any age, we can always mature and grow and move toward a more hopeful future. And that’s the stuff that interests me above all.

Lynn Slaughter is addicted to the arts, chocolate, and her husband’s cooking. After a long career as a professional dancer and dance educator, Lynn earned her MFA in Writing Popular Fiction from Seton Hill University. Her first mystery for adults, MISSED CUE, recently came out from Melange Books. She is also the author of four award-winning young adult romantic mysteries: DEADLY SETUP, LEISHA’S SONG, IT SHOULD HAVE BEEN YOU, AND WHILE I DANCED. Lynn lives in Louisville, Kentucky, where she’s at work on her next novel, serves on the board of Louisville Literary Arts, and is an active member and former president of Derby Rotten Scoundrels, the Ohio River Valley chapter of Sisters in Crime.

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