Merrill Wyatt is the author of Ernestine, Catastrophe Queen, and Tangled Up in Luck. Her newest, Tangled Up in Nonsense, (Margaret K. McElderry Books, release date November 29) has young detectives Sloane and Amelia trying to crack a case that happened over a hundred years ago. Set in a creepy mansion during a peony competition, Sloane and Amelia work together to piece together the clues to attempt to find out who kidnapped a dog and where millions of dollars are stashed. The Kirkus review raves, “A warmhearted, very funny, madcap caper.”
Welcome to From the Mixed-Up Files of Middle-Grade Authors, Merrill!
It is such a pleasure to interview an author who lives in my backyard. (Well, not quite, but you live here in my city of Toledo.) Speaking of backyard, Tangled Up in Nonsense is your second novel that features Northwest Ohio in the plot. What made you choose our beautiful area as the backdrop for your mystery?
There’s so much history and mystery in this area! Not only was Toledo a major stop on the
Underground Railroad, it was a hotbed of crime in the 1920s and 1930s. As in major robberies,
hidden gambling dens, gangster shootouts from speeding automobiles, and bootlegging – so much
bootlegging. If you were into crime in the 1920s, Toledo was the place to be. Which is why Sloane
and Amelia are searching for Bootleggin’ Ma Yaklin’s Missing Millions.
Young sleuths Sloane and Amelia run into all kinds of nonsense as they try and solve several mysteries nearly a hundred years ago; who kidnapped a bootlegger’s dog and where is the two million dollars that disappeared around the same time. What, or who inspired you to create this plot?
I’m a big animal lover, so animals frequently pop up as minor characters in my books. The bootlegging piece is straight out of Toledo’s history. If you talk to anyone who was alive during the 1920s or 1930s, they all have stories to tell you about gangsters and bootleggers. There’s a restaurant just down the street from where I live – I could walk to it – and one time, my dad casually said, “That was a big gangster hangout back when I was a baby. Licavoli and his guys went there all the time.” Licavoli was a major Toledo gangster with ties to other gangs all over the country.
Sloane and Amelia are rather fearless. What scares you?
Everything! Dolls creep me out – yet I love dollhouse miniatures. I can’t explain that. There’s a scene in Tangled Up in Nonsense in which Sloane and Amelia go upstairs to check out an attic in the middle of the night. As originally written, it swung between creepy and hilarious as Amelia convinced Sloane that there was probably an army of haunted dolls on the other side of the attic door. I had to cut a lot of that out because – even though it was funny and creepy – it slowed down the plot too much. There’s still a little bit of it in there, though. I couldn’t bring myself to cut out everything. I mean, if I was in the attic of a one-hundred-year-old mansion, I would definitely be worried about haunted dolls. We once had raccoons break into the attic of our very-normal house, and all the thudding and bumping woke us up in the middle of the night. But neither my husband nor I had the courage to go upstairs and check it out until it was daytime.
The mystery resolves around a time that many young people may not be that aware of…Prohibition of alcohol and bootlegging as a result. What drew you to this time frame? Are there history lesson tie-ins with the topic?
My grandmother could remember that time period very clearly, and even my parents have memories of what Toledo was like not long afterward. It really was the city’s big, shining moment. A lot of the city’s beautiful, older neighborhoods like Old Orchard, Ottawa Hills, West Moreland, and a lot of the developments along River Road date to around that time. Plus, the downtown area was gorgeous during that time. If you google “Toledo 1930s”, you’ll be able to see all these stunning buildings that are no longer with us.
If you’re looking for history lessons, a lot of the federal policing structures took shape around this time. Without Prohibition and the bootlegging that resulted, you wouldn’t have the FBI. That came directly as a result of all the crime Prohibition caused. And speaking of the FBI, one of its early directors once referred to Toledo as the most corrupt city in the country! Apparently, the mayor and the police knew they had all these gangsters living here, but they didn’t care because it brought business to the city! Also, this is when the police first got police cars. They didn’t really have them before the 1930s. But the gangsters did, and so the police would be trying to chase after them on horseback as the bootleggers drove off in cars. It didn’t work well.
The shenanigans of the various characters reminded me of some of the Three Stooges’ antics, which my kids loved when they were younger. What slapstick comedians did you have in mind when creating the characters?
You know, I loved The Three Stooges when I was a kid too! There’s just something timelessly funny about physical comedy. I was definitely thinking of them as I was writing this. And to be honest was definitely inspired by a lot of the slapstick comedy you see on Disney and Nickelodeon shows, too. I watched so many of those with my daughter, and you can tell they are inspired by the Stooges, too. I would also add Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. You can find their movies on YouTube, and they still hold up well even a hundred years later. Slapstick comedy is timeless.
I know you work full-time, are married, and have a teenage daughter. How do you balance it all? What does your writing process look like? Are you a plotser or pantser…do you plot out your storyline, or fly by the seat of your pants in writing your novels?
I start with a general plot and try to map out as much as I can. As you mentioned, I’m super busy every second of every day. I have to snatch the writing time whenever I can get it. Having a well-mapped-out plot helps with that. That being said, sometimes I’m really detailed in that process and sometimes my notes include things like, “and then something happens. Figure it out later.” Other times, once I start writing, I find that the story very naturally progresses in a different path than I thought it would. If that seems to be working, I try to follow it as much as I can while still bringing it back to my main goal. Typically, when I start writing, I have a clear beginning and a clear end. I sometimes refer to the middle as the “soggy middle” or the “squishy middle” because it’s the part that changes the most.
I know that writing fiction requires research, and I imagine you studied the Stranahan home which served as the inspiration for the mansion where the peony competition takes place, as well as Prohibition. Could you share your research techniques with readers?
You can do a lot of research online. I usually start with just general searches, reading blogs and looking at a lot of pictures. Images definitely inspire me. After that, I start to get more detailed. I’ll only focus on online library archives and historical societies because they are more factual and trustworthy. The Lucas County Library has a terrific collection of online photographs that include details about them. Next, I’ll go to the library itself and start pulling books. The Main Library in downtown is absolutely fabulous, with incredibly knowledgeable librarians. I also went to the Stranahan Mansion at Wildwood, which is open to the public year around, though the best time to go is at Christmas when it’s decorated for the holidays. If I could, I’d be like Amelia and dress up as Nancy Drew. In fact, when I was writing Tangled Up in Nonsense, I checked out “Nancy Drew clothes” on Pinterest – and that led me down a wormhole that it took hours to get out of. I almost ended up with an adorable cloche hat and houndstooth cape. But they were sold out, sigh.
Is there a third mystery in the works?
There is! It’s called TANGLED UP IN MAYHEM, and it takes place at Cedar Point. Sloane and Amelia are hired to investigate a lost time capsule. They’re thrilled that someone actually wants to pay them for their detective work – until both their nemesis Mackenzie and a ghost show up to stop them.
Thank you for your time, Merrill!
Merrill has agreed to give away a complimentary copy of Tangled Up in Nonsense to a random winner. To enter, click here.