Archive for November 20, 2009

Stories Behind the Story: The Case of the Runaway Dog

As we close in on Thanksgiving, and turkeys grow nervous, I thought I’d take a look at Jigsaw Jones #7: The Case of the Runaway Dog, since it features a Thanksgiving subplot.

The book opens with Ralphie and Jigsaw discussing the relative merits of various holidays.

“How about Thanksgiving?” Ralphie asked.

“I’m not crazy about the food,” I complained.

“You know what bugs me about Thanksgiving?” Ralphie said, shaking his head. “Stuffing! I mean, what IS stuffing, anyway?”

“It’s a mystery to me,” I answered.

My sentiments exactly, especially when I was Jigsaw’s age. Rags disappears while on a dog walk in the park, after Jigsaw lets him off leash to play “Pilgrims and Turkeys.” Rags was the turkey, and they chased him around with pretend axes. I modeled the park in the book after Washington Park, in Albany. There’s the open field on the hill, the lake, the bridge, the boathouse. It was a place I knew well, since it was where I used to run and where I took my old dog, Doolin, many times.

The big challenge in writing a series is trying to keep it fresh — for the readers and for me. Therefore, I always avoided the strict formulas employed by some other series. Another tactic was to introduce new characters along the way, or to put the focus on a hitherto secondary character. It was a transfusion of energy: new blood. In this book, a key witness came in the form of Mr. Signorelli, named after one of Nick’s preschool friends.

He was a retired old man, without family nearby, who enjoyed the park. He tells Jigsaw, “I spend most of my days in the park. I’ve made friends with a few squirrels. I bring ’em peanuts and we keep each other company. I don’t know who looks forward to our visits more — me or them.”

I had a minor conflict with my editor at the time, Helen Perelman, over Mr. Signorelli. He smoked cigarettes. Helen wanted me to change that. But I wasn’t advocating it, just recognizing that some people smoked, and it didn’t necessarily make them Bad People. After all, both of my parents smoked all their lives, and I liked them pretty much. Persuaded, Helen allowed me to keep Mr. Signorelli intact.

In these books, I often try to include a school element. Ms. Gleason introduces an “I Am Thankful For . . .” project. It helped give the story a stronger connection to a typical elementary student’s life, where that kind of project is often done at this time year. It also lent the narrative another through-line to follow. For me, it can’t be plot/clue/mystery all the time. The truth is, when you break it down there’s not much detailed mystery to these stories; what I love, what I’m after as a writer, is all the other fabric wrapped around that basic skeletal structure.

When I grew up, my brother Billy, ten years my elder, was the #1 motorhead in the family. He loved cars and even worked at the Citgo gas station. For me, it was pretty awe-inspiring to have a big brother who pumped gas, who could open a car hood, tool in hand, and say, “Ah, I see the problem.” When he came home, he always had so many coins jingling in his pockets! I remember Billy spending a lot of time washing his hands, trying to remove the grease from underneath his fingernails.

So of course it was Jigsaw’s older brother, Billy, who borrows mom’s car to take Jigsaw on a ride to the Animal Rescue Shelter. To write that scene, I visited a rescue shelter in Menands, taking notes as I walked around. On school visits I sometimes tell kids that research isn’t always about dusty books in quiet libraries. Often it’s about getting out into the world, seeing things, talking to people. That is: it’s kind of interesting.

The dogs were kept in another room. It was like a big garage, with a cement floor and cement walls. The dogs were locked behind high, narrow fences. Some dogs sat and stared as we walked past. A cute Dalmation leaped against the fence, whining sadly. Most dogs barked. You didn’t have to be Doctor Dolittle to understand what they were saying — “Take me, take me. I’ll be good. Take me!

Other dogs just lay on the ground beside their water bowls. They didn’t seem to care one way or the other. They only lifted their heads and followed us with blank eyes.

It was one of the saddest places I’d ever been.

Jigsaw returns to the park to find Mr. Signorelli. Jigsaw advises him to quit smoking. The old man doesn’t seem very receptive. After some sly detective work, Jigsaw and Mila, along with the help of Ralphie, manage to track down Rags. Case solved, Jigsaw has one more thing to do. He again (conveniently, I’ll admit) finds Mr. Signorelli at the park on Thanksgiving morning. Jigsaw asks, “What are you doing today? For Thanksgiving, I mean.

I love this next paragraph, because I always like it when straight physical description can convey the inner feelings of a character:

He scratched the end of his nose and looked out across the lake. I followed his gaze. But there was nothing there. Just water and emptiness.

Jigsaw notices that Mr. Signorelli isn’t smoking.

Mr. Signorelli waved his hand, like swatting away a fly. “Don’t make a big deal out of it,” he said. “I’m not making any promises. Maybe I’ll quit. Maybe I won’t. We’ll see what happens.”

Jigsaw invites the old man to his house for pecan pie. His parents had already approved the gesture, and even Grams said it sounded like a terrific idea.

We walked out of the park together.

Just an old man, a dog on a leash, and me.

“Happy Thanksgiving, Mr. Signorelli,” I said.

“Yes, it is,” he said. “It really is.”


Happy Thanksgiving, folks.

Watch Me, Dad

Lisa went out with Maggie last night to buy a new pair of basketball shoes, as they call ’em these days. Used to be sneakers, but whatever. Maggie was thrilled; she’s very excited about playing hoops on the grades 3/4 travel team. She practiced dribbling all night — in the kitchen, in the living room, wherever it might give me a headache. Lisa and I watched and said, “Good, good, keep at it.”

At bedtime, Maggie asked if she could bring her basketball to bed with her. She wanted to sleep with it. Yeah, sure, knock yourself out, just don’t forget to brush your teeth.

This morning I drove Maggie to school. We were running late. Maggie, of course, wore her spotless new kicks. Just before climbing into the car, she said: “I can run faster now.”

“You can?”

She nodded, smiled. Oh yes.

“Put down your backpack,” I said. “Let me see.”

“Where do you want me to run?”

“I don’t know, across the front lawn to Don’s driveway.”

She walked to the far end of the lawn, methodically got herself into running position, and said, “Tell me when to go.”

“Go,” I said.

She raced across the yard.

“Good,” I said. “Now run back on the street. Let’s see how they do on cement.”

So she did, just as hard and determined as she could.

“Wow, Maggie, that was a lot faster — and I mean a lot. Those are pretty fast shoes.”

She smiled, proud and happy, pleased with her new powers.

Don’t you just love being a parent?

Fan Mail Wednesday #68

I’m sure that any reasonable reader of “Fan Mail Wednesday” will remember Jack from Golden, CO. I answered his letter last week. Well, here’s a nice follow-up note:

Dear Mr. Preller,

Thanks for your awesome answers to my questions. I cleaned Mrs. Brink’s clock. 🙂  She couldn’t believe that my Mom and I had written you. I definitely scored LOTS of brownie points. THANKS!

I am enclosing a picture of me (on left) and my friend Carson in front of the report board.

Everyone loved hearing about DAY Z.

I told them my favorite book that you had written is The Case of the Snowboarding Superstar. I wish you would write a Jigsaw mystery in which Jigsaw is in Colorado skiing.

I had a couple of other questions for you.

1. Did you have a collection when you were in second grade?
I collect typewriters, cars, coins, and coffee grinders.

2. Did you have a pen pal when you were growing up?

I am thinking about getting one. The love of my life from preschool, Elise Dickenson, moved to San Francisco. She asked me to write her.


P.S. I’m sending the Colorado Academy newsletter to you…I am on the cover convincing my big buddy that Jigsaw Jones ROCKS!

P.P.S  My Mom thanks you to . . . She is going to ask the school to bring you to us for a visit.

I replied:


Great photo. It looks like you put a lot of work into that report. That’s good news about the Brownie Points! It always helps to store those up — you never know when you might need to cash them in.

I guess I collected a few things when I was younger, baseball cards and nickels and, of course, Peruvian Wind Chimes. But doesn’t every boy?

Wait, hold on. Coffee grinders? You collect coffee grinders? And typewriters? Hmmm. You are certainly an interesting young fellow. No wonder why Elise Dickenson thought so highly of you. I mean, if you meet a guy who collects coffee grinders, well, you want to hold onto something like that. I think you should totally write to her. I wonder if she likes San Francisco? Maybe she’s even seen seals sunning themselves on the rocks. It’s a great city.

Be well, my friend. Keep reading those books! And be sure to thank your mother for helping out with the emails. It was awfully nice of her, don’t you think?


P.S. Quick DAY-Z story. Wonderful dog, great with kids, not the sharpest tool in the shed. My wife and I were out walking with her, and I was trying to get DAY-Z to sit when we came to a corner. After all, she sits perfectly well at home when we give her a treat. Well, on this walk, it just wasn’t working. I could not get it through her head. “Sit,” I’d say. “DAY-Z . . . SIT!” Then I’d kind of push down her butt in a firm manner, saying, “Sit. Sit. Sit!”

Lisa said, “You know, I don’t think DAY-Z associates sitting with being outside on a walk. She associates it with getting treats in the kitchen.”

“The problem,” I told Lisa, “is she doesn’t associate SIT . . . with actually sitting.”

Ah, sigh. She’s a work in progress. Like most of us, I guess.

P.P.S. Please note that I am changing the name of “Fan Mail Wednesday” to “Jack from Golden, CO Wednesday.”

Celebrating 40 Years of Sesame Street: Muppet Dopplegangers

I’m just passing this along. You’ll have to click here for the full megillah.

But here’s a few samples of Muppet Dopplegangers . . .

Thanks for the tip from Whitney at my favorite pop culture site, Pop Candy.

The Charles Chips Man

Does anybody remember Charles Chips?

I do, or just did, recently, after not remembering it for years and years. Suddenly, once again, there it was: a specific object of memory newly recovered, pressing up against my skull. That big 16-ounce drum of Charles Chips.

For me, pushing 50, closing out the first decade of the 21st century, it’s an almost dreamlike memory. Not that there was once a company that made chips and pretzels. But that those items were delivered, from home to home, in a truck that looked like this:

My brother, Billy, you see, was once a Charles Chips Man. He drove a truck exactly like that, wore some kind of brown uniform, and had a route that carried him to various points on Long Island. I don’t really know the specifics of his job; I’ll have to ask him about it over Thanksgiving. But I do remember, as concrete image (for “image” is the container of memory; we need to “picture” those wisps of time), those tan-and-brown tin drums on top of our refrigerator. I can remember my fingers prying open a tin, working around the lid in a circle, lifting bit by bit. We loved our Charles Chips at 1720 Adelphi Road in Wantagh, New York. Seven kids, remember. So on a regular basis, that familiar truck would pull up to our house and the delivery man would ring the bell. Oh, the excitement!

“Mom, the Charles Chips Man is here!”

He’d ask if we needed any, and of course we did, three or four cans every time. We’d return the old cans, which I suppose were reused, and then off he’d drive to the next Charles Chips-loving house on the route.

How was such a thing ever possible? Could it be true? Oh, it was true, and glorious. A man would drive around in a truck delivering potato chips and pretzels from house to house, and how we loved it.

And one day — I suppose it was one day — he was gone. Not enough business to sustain the route, or perhaps not enough children left in our house. The Charles Chips Man stopped coming, stopped ringing our bell. And this afternoon, when I told Nick and Gavin about it, they looked at me as if I had lived in another land, a distant impossible time before they existed, when their father was a boy.

Does anyone else remember?