Tag Archive for Shannon Penney

A Jigsaw Christmas

Maybe the worst part of writing a series is the nagging sense that, after ten books or so, nobody really notices if the books are any good or not. Especially not your publisher. Your editor cares, for sure, but everyone else . . . shrug. The sum of your work gets reduced down to a number, the notion of “quality” gets subsumed by “quantity” — and the book is as good as its sales figures. I know, I know: Real World 101. But still.

So as part of my continuing “Stories Behind the Story” series, I’d like to put the focus on Jisgaw Jones Super Special #4: The Case of the Santa Claus Mystery. It’s one of my favorites in the series and it’s probably out of print.

When I wrote the book, I really tried to create a great holiday story — a story with value and content that could stand up to any of the Christmas classics. So I decided to tackle a tricky subject: Jigsaw gets hired to prove if Santa is real or not. Now I knew that I had a range of readers with a varying beliefs, and I felt a keen obligation toward them, so I was determined that my book would not spoil it for anyone. In essence, I wrote myself into a box, locked the lid, and like Houdini had to squirm myself out of it.

Here’s an early scene in Jigsaw’s basement office:

Sally Ann’s mood turned serious. She stared hard into my eyes. Her arms were crossed. “I want to meet Santa,” she demanded.

I cracked open my detective journal. “Santa?” I repeated, scribbling down the name. “Last name?”

“Claus,” Sally Ann said.

“Santa . . . Claus,” I wrote.

“That’s the one,” Sally Ann said.

“Big white beard? Wears black books and a red suit? Last seen driving a sleigh led by, let’s see . . .” I flipped through the pages of my journal and pretended to read, “. . . eight flying reindeer?”

Sally Ann didn’t like being teased. She never cracked a smile. Instead, she rummaged inside her pink plastic pocketbook. She pulled out the head of a Barbie doll — that’s it, just the head. Sally Ann frowned and continued poking around. She pulled out some baseball cards, a tissue (used, I suspect), a handful of rocks, beads, a hammer (!), and other assorted junk.

“Here,” she finally said.

Sally Ann smoothed out a dollar bill on my desk.

Illustration by Jamie Smith.

She was serious.

Sally Ann Simms wanted to meet Santa Claus.

And it didn’t seem like she would take no for an answer.

I asked her why.

“We have business to discuss,” she grumbled.

And so the book begins, fueled by the mystery. Along the way, a number of ¬†entertaining events occur — including a sly tribute to Dick Van Dyke.¬†With the help of Reginald Pinkerton Armitage III, sort of standing in for the character “Q” in the James Bond series, Jigsaw planted a hidden camera on Sally Ann’s mantelpiece.

After Christmas,. the only thing left to do was to retrieve the photographic evidence from inside the camera . . .

By December 27, Eddie Becker had already left three telephone messages at my house. I didn’t return the calls. I already knew what Eddie wanted.

A photograph of Santa Claus.

He wanted to get rich. But I just wanted to get it over with.

Mila had said it from the beginning: “I don’t think we should mess around with Santa.”

I was finally beginning to understand what she meant.

After lunch I clomped through the snow to Sally Ann’s house to pick up the daisy camera. I brought Rags so he could play with Pickles. Sally Ann had built a giant snowman on her front lawn. Actually, it was a snowman and a snowdog. She even used a real leash.

I returned home not long after. I brought the camera into my bedroom and stared at it for a long time. I thought about a lot of things. About Santa Claus, about Christmas, and about what it meant. I thought about my parents, and Equinox, and the smiles on the faces of the people when we delivered their holiday meals.

I picked up the vase and turned a leaf, just as Reginald had showed me. A small camera popped out. I remembered his warning. If I expose the film to light, all the photos will be ruined.

“Whatever you do,” Reginald had said, “don’t pull these petals.”

Down the hall, I heard the phone ringing. Probably Eddie Becker again, I figured, eager for his big payday. I took a deep breath . . . held the camera under my lamp . . . and pulled on the petals.

Poof, no proof.

The film was ruined.

Some mysteries don’t need to be solved. I believed in Santa, and I believed in the spirit of Christmas, and I didn’t need to dust for fingerprints to prove it. My heart told me everything I needed to know.

I wasn’t going to mess with Santa. The big man deserved that much. After all, I figured I owed the guy.

Case closed.

A merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night.

NOTE: This book was dedicated to my editor at Scholastic, Shannon Penney (who remains a loyal blog reader), and also acknowledges the charitable work performed by the staff and volunteers at Equinox, a nonprofit community agency that seres the Capital District area of New York. Jigsaw and his family spend a brief part of this book volunteering at the very same Equinox.

Oh, hey, I might as well include this little scene, because I’m fond of it. Setup: It’s Christmas Eve and Jigsaw is trying to fall asleep. Remember that feeling, in bed on Christmas Eve, just wanting it to come. Jigsaw’s mother enters the room and rubs his back. He’s still just a boy.

“How did you like delivering those meals today?”

I was getting sleepy. “I liked it, I guess.”

“Is that all?”

“It felt like we were doing a good thing,” I said. “I guess that made me feel good, too.”

My mother bent down and kissed me on the cheek. “Funny how that works,” she said. “Good night, Jigsaw. You make me proud. See you in the morning.”

“Good night, Mom. I love you.”

“I love you, too.”

I was alone again. Now my eyelids were heavy.

I didn’t want it to end. Christmas Eve, the most magical night of the year. I just lay there, enjoying it. And then, drifting off easily, tired and happy, I slept.

Revising on the Run: A Work In Progress

In our continued mission to pull back the curtain on the creative process — without, hopefully, going overboard on the me, Me, ME business — I submit the following:

Every writer works differently, and often individual writers might use different approaches for each book. There’s really no formula beyond: git ‘er dun.

While I recognize the value of blasting out that first draft — it’s time to turn on the faucet, not tinker with the plumbing — it’s not really how I work on a longer piece of fiction. I will take that approach for a scene, or for as long as the energy carries me (best, handwritten on a notepad). I’ll knowingly write sentences that are pure garbage and not fret in the least. Because it’s about riding that forward push of story while that fickle mistress, Momentum, has my hand.

Here’s a picture of what that’s like. You hang on and know that it will all come crashing down at any minute, so you try to enjoy the ride while it lasts.

But unlike some authors, I constantly circle back, fuss, reread, rest, and tinker — while I try to push the book closer to its conclusion. Maybe that’s not an advisable habit, I can’t say. (Cleaning as you cook, I guess, as opposed to my wife’s glorious mess in the kitchen.) In the best world, I tend to revise and write simultaneously. When it works — Six Innings, Bystander — the typical revision process is quick and painless. Other times, I’m just a mess all the way through and need to be saved by my editor, most recently in the case of Along Came Spider. Thank you, Shannon Penney.

Ultimately, I know this: No reader cares how you got there, the only thing that matters is the printed  page.


I don’t sleep well. Insomnia. The engine revs, the car’s stuck in neutral. So two nights ago I groggily scribbled some words in the dark of night, ideas for improving little scenes that were previously written. Here’s that scrap of paper:

Can you read it? That, folks, is my lefty scrawl. From a prone position, middle of the night, sleepy. Not that wide awake is much better.

Again, this is a YA novel, with characters around age 16. I’ll quickly take you through it.

“Hey you,” that’s promising

NOTE: There’s a conversation between two boys, analyzing a text message from a girl. I had the idea of tagging “Hey you” in front of the message, and adding some conversation (hopefully humorous) about the potential meaning of “Hey you” as opposed to, say, “Hi” or “S’up.” Jude’s friend, Corey, sees “Hey you” as a very promising sign of great import.

Tree — butt-ugly — umbrella

nothing can keep out the rain

NOTE: There’s a large, old, ragged maple next to the main character’s house, keeping it in shade. It’s a minor detail. As I’ve gotten farther into the book, this tree has taken on unexpected metaphorical responsibilities, and I felt I needed to insert another reference to it earlier in the text (it gets chopped down in the end, to let in the light). These quick notes remind me to have Becka, the main girl in the story, comment on the tree’s ugliness; to have Jude, the boy, convey that his mother — worried about sunlight fading the rugs, among other things — thinks of it as an umbrella; and Becka to reply, matter-of-factly, “Nothing can keep out the rain.” Typing that just now, I wonder if I should change “rain” to “weather.” Mostly, I have to be careful with this, keep a light touch, and not turn this into Big Meaningful Tree.

— you have green eyes

NOTE: I simply decided that Becka has green eyes. Actually, last night on a separate scrap of paper at 3:00 AM I wrote this sentence:

And then the word came to him: turquoise.

Finally, there’s this:

— why are you so sad?

— downturn to your mouth, when you are thinking.

NOTE: I haven’t written this scene yet — it’s actually on today’s “to do” list. I want Becka to recognize the unspoken sadness in Jude, that buried darkness he carries around. Of course, it’s part of what attracts her to him, his sensitivity and depth. That she sees it in Jude, a detail that most others miss, indicates they might be right for each other. It also serves as a tool to pry open his secret.