Tag Archive for Stories Behind the Story

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.

Stories Behind the Story: The Case of the Snowboarding Superstar

As part of a continuing (read: sporadic) series of posts, I take a look back at old Jigsaw Jones titles with the intention of providing my Nation of Readers with more “extra juicy” background info.

If you are like me, you might gag at the thought of yet another writer describing his “creative process.” There is something oh-so-wearying about it. The phrase, “Don’t be a gasbag,” leaps to mind. But let’s see if I can pull this off without too much self-aggrandizement. The simple truth is that I am proud of this series and I sometimes (often?) wonder how much longer they’ll be around. I see this blog as document, as archive.

Today’s title is seasonally appropriate, Jigsaw Jones #29: The Case of the Snowboarding Superstar. It begins with Jigsaw chatting with two of his brothers, Daniel and Nick, as they prepare for a family ski vacation.

Some background: My father was a veteran of World War II, who returned home, got married, went to college on the G.I. Bill — a great investment by the Federal Government, by the way — and looked with my mother for a nice place to settle down and raise a family. Suburbia, preferably. He found a newly-built home in Wantagh, Long Island, designed after the Levittown model (for a fascinating history on that, click here). They bought a three-bedroom house for somewhere along the lines of $12,500.

One problem: My parents kept having children. Seven in all. It got crowded. At one point when I was still quite young, my folks slept in the back bedroom, my two sisters (Barbara and Jean) shared a small room, three boys had the front room (John, Al, me), and my father turned the garage into a bedroom for the oldest boys (Neal and Bill). I have strong memories of those early childhood days, sharing that crowded room with two big and somewhat mysterious brothers.

Below, here’s my whole family except for Mom, 1967. We always dressed that way! I shared a bedroom with the two goons on the right — don’t let the ties fool you.

The dynamic in the book’s first chapter, with two older brothers schooling Jigsaw, springs directly from my sense of those times.

They are teaching Jigsaw how to talk cool, in the snowboarder’s hipster jargon:

“Let us quiz you, Jigsaw,” Nick said. “What do you call someone if you don’t know their name?”

I thought for a moment. “Dude,” I answered.

“Excellent!” Nick cheered. “What’s a face-plant?”

“It’s when you fall into the snow face-first.”

“Awesome, Jigsaw,” Daniel said. “Totally gnarly!”

“Gnarly?” I asked. “What’s that?”

“It means very, very cool,” Nick explained. “Do you smell me?”

I sniffed, confused. “What?”

“Do you smell me?” Nick repeated. “It means, do you understand?”

“Not exactly,” I groaned.

In the next chapter, Jigsaw gets to try out his new language skills on Mila Yeh, his partner and best friend:

“I’m jealous,” Mila complained. “I wish I were going  on a ski trip.”

“Snowboarding,” I corrected her.

“It sounds hard,” Mila said. “I hear that beginners fall down a lot.”

“Maybe,” I said. “But I think it will be sick.”

“Sick?” Mila asked. “Who’s sick?”

“Not who,” I said. “It. Snowboarding will be sick.”

Mila frowned. “I don’t get it.”

“It’s the opposite of wack,” I explained.

Okaaay,” Mila murmured.

“Do you smell me?” I asked.

Mila sniffed. “Well, now that you mention it, you do smell a little ripe.”

Don’t they have a nice friendship? Anyway, some random things:

* I loved the setup for the book, with Jigsaw away from Mila for the first time. It gave the book a different shape — and put Jigsaw in a tough situation. After all, this was #29 in the series, so I was eager to find new ways to keep it fresh. I know that some successful series, like The Magic Tree House, tend to follow a more rigid formula. And I understand the reasons why that’s appealing and reassuring for young readers. But it just wasn’t me. For better and for worse, I kept trying to mix things up.

* Mila mentions to Jigsaw that she’s practicing for a piano recital. Her song will be “The Maple Leaf Rag.” This comes from my son, Gavin, who also played that song in a recital.

* Grams and Billy are left behind to “mind the fort.” This expression, used by Mr. Jones, was something my father commonly said. I love his old verbal habits, the phrases he often used, and I try to keep them alive as best as I can — more than ever now that he’s gone. It’s a way of keeping that connection alive. I hear those phrases and think of Dad, all the more so when his words come out of my mouth.

* I once edited a book on snowboarding, written by Joe Layden. I learned a lot about the sport in the process, so it was comfortable territory for me to explore in the context of a Jigsaw Jones mystery.

In my story, a star snowboarder named Lance Mashman (love that name!) is at the lodge for an upcoming exhibition. However, someone steals his lucky bandanna — and with it, his confidence. While working on No Limits, I was impressed by many of the top female snowboarders, such as Shannon Dunn and Victoria Jealouse. They had a vitality and strength that inspired me, qualities I love to see in my own daughter. Also, they conveyed a refreshing take on competition, much different than you normally hear in the context of traditional athletics. So I invented the character of Tara Gianopolis, a rival to Lance, and a very cool young woman:

Illustration by Jamie Smith — crudely scanned.

“But you two compete against each other,” I said. “You are enemies . . . .”

Tara shook her head. “Man, you don’t know much about snowboarders, do you? This isn’t like football or basketball. We’re athletes, but we’re just trying to be the best we can be. It’s about nailing a backside rodeo or pulling off a perfect McTwist. It’s not about winning medals or beating people. It’s about freedom and creativity.”

“So you don’t care if you win?” I asked.

“I care, I guess,” Tara said with a shrug. “But as long as I ride well, I’m okay with whatever happens.”

* One of the suspects turns out to be Lance’s manager, Bubba Barbo, named in honor of my former editor, Maria Barbo. Once again, that’s a great aspect of writing mysteries. The genre forces the detective out into the world, this moral compass encountering life, making observations, going places, meeting new people all the time. As a series writer, that holds tremendous appeal — new characters in every book. Here’s a snippet from a conversation between Jigsaw and Bubba:

“It sounds like you think Lance is annoying,” I commented.

Bubba growled. “I don’t think he’s annoying. Lance is annoying. He’s always late. He drives me up a wall and across the ceiling.”

“You don’t like him?” I asked.

Bubba made a face. “Whaddaya, kidding? I love the kid,” he said. “Lance has talent. He’s a genius on a snowboard. A great athlete. And besides that, Lance has heart. He’s good people. You know what I’m saying?”

Yes, I knew what Bubba was saying. “I heard that he fired you this morning,” I said.

Bubba stepped back, surprised. Then he laughed out loud. “Lance fires me every week and twice on Sunday,” Bubba claimed. “It doesn’t mean anything. We’re a team.”

For fun, here’s a clip of Victoria Jealouse (and others) in action:

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Click below for other posts in this series. Some day I’ll get around to every book:

Jigsaw Jones #7: The Case of the Runaway Dog

Jigsaw Jones #15: The Case of the Haunted Scarecrow

Jigsaw Jones #16: The Case of the Sneaker Sneak

Jigsaw Jones #28: The Case of the Food Fight

Jigsaw Jones #10: The Case of the Ghostwriter

Stories Behind the Story: The Case of the Haunted Scarecrow

Here’s another in a series of “inside stories” about my Jigsaw Jones books, with the idea that it might be interesting and/or useful to teachers and students engaged in the writing process. Hopefully I’ll work my way through all the titles eventually, but don’t hold your breath. For similar posts, click here, or here, or here.

Illustration by Jamie Smith.

I’m not great at saving things; I’m more of a chucker than a keeper. But before writing this post, I pulled out my folder for this book, Jigsaw Jones #15: The Case of the Haunted Scarecrow. In it, I found a mess of index cards with words scribbled on them. Brief, typed passages had been taped to most cards (see below).

As I recall, it was an experiment in plotting, inspired by a method employed by a famous film director (forget who). I had this vision of all these color-coded index cards thumb-tacked to the wall, helping me see the flow of story. Some examples:


Scene: Jigsaw talks w/ X about Solofsky, who is always a suspect.

“He’s a real stone in my shoe.”


“It’s like a pain in the neck. Only lower.”




Tough questions.

What If —

Who profits from this, and how?



Mrs. Rigby on sidewalk. With broom. Witch-like. Scary.

Gives credence to magic scarecrow theory.

Does she say something to support this notion?

This goes back to my haberdashery comment from the other day. Like many writers, I begin with scraps and remnants that occur to me in the early stages of brainstorming — snatches of dialogue, an idea for setting, a key moment for a character — and later try to stitch them all together. In the process, a lot of fabric get pushed aside, swept into a heap, thrown away. In this case, the idea on CARD #3 was never used.

An early draft of the book begins with Jigsaw opining:

Don’t get me wrong.

I like leaves. But I like ’em when they’re hanging around. Not when they’re falling to the ground.

Sure, it’s not their fault. You can’t blame a leaf for being a leaf. It’s not like they want to dry up and die. So I blamed my father instead. He’s the one with the big ideas. Every year he makes us rake the yard . . . .

By the final draft, I deleted that preamble and began the book:

Every fall my dad makes us rake the yard, front and back. He calls it “The Big Fall Cleanup.” I call it something else.


There’s a strong Beatles element to this story. At one point, Jigsaw has to venture out alone for a dusky, dangerous meeting:

I walked down Abbey Road. The evening chill nibbled on my ears like a pet parakeet. I turned right onto Penny Lane.

The other Beatles connection is the old, lonely widow who lives in the spooky house, “the Rigby place.” If she keeps her face in a jar by the door, I never mentioned it. But I did think of my own grandmother when I described her:

There was nothing remarkable about Mrs. Eleanor Rigby. There were probably ladies like her all over town. She lived alone in a big old house. She had white hair. She wore a pink sweater with large white buttons. Her right arm, I noticed, trembled nervously.

And she smelled of butterscotch.

What else?

* I usually reference a real book in these stories, and in this one it’s Owls In the Family by Farley Mowat.

* There’s a moment when Kim Lewis, clearly upset over losing a necklace, hires Jigsaw. I like the way he responds internally, when his thoughts speak to the heart of detective work.

I’d seen the same look on other clients. Kim was counting on me. That’s the way it is when you’re a detective. You’re the guy who is supposed to make everything right.

And for a dollar a day, you do the best you can.

* The book features a Double Backward code in a note Jigsaw sends to Mila: EM RETFA DESAHC DNA EVILA EMAC WORCERACS A YRROS.

* People ask me to name my favorite books, and I’ll often reply that I have favorite “moments” in my books, chapters that I like, passages. Here’s one sly bit of humor, with a brief description that I think deepens the mood. While searching for clues, Mila and Jigsaw inspect the scarecrow in front of the Rigby place:

Mila slapped her forehead and exclaimed, “How could I be so dumb!” She reached behind the scarecrow and fumbled with the shirt collar. “My father’s a neat freak,” Mila jabbered. “He organizes everything. He even writes my name in the back of all my clothes.”

She smiled triumphantly. “Look,” she said.

I craned my neck to read the label. “We’re looking for a kid named Eddie Bauer,” I said.

“That’s the clothing label!” Mila said. “Read the other name!”

I read the name that was printed in black marker: BUZZY LENNON.

I looked up at the trees. There were hardly any leaves left. The sky was crisp and bright. Halloween was next week, then Thanksgiving, then the frozen days and nights of winter. I turned to the front door of the sad, old, silent house. “Let’s see if the doorbell works,” I said.

The door slowly opened with an eerie squeak. Mrs. Rigby’s small, red-rimmed eyes blinked in the sun.

“Yes, what is it?” she asked.

* Mrs. Rigby’s name was originally McCartney, to complement the character of Buzzy Lennon, but that changed along the way. Do young readers notice such things? Do they care? Probably not. But I like it, these little homages, and figure a few parents might enjoy them, too.

Alas, Haunted Scarecrow is yet another Jigsaw Jones title that appears unavailable in trade. On sad days, when rain streaks the windows, it doesn’t feel like I’m promoting these books — it’s more like I’m giving them a proper burial. The good news is — and there’s always good news — you can contact Scholastic Book Clubs at a toll-free number, 1-800-724-6527, or go to this website for more information. I hear they are receptive to customer’s requests, and will try to do everything possible to be helpful.

Stories Behind the Story: The Case of the Food Fight

My wonderful editor at Scholastic, Shannon Penney, suggested this title to me. That happens sometimes, when book club editors will come up with a desired theme or vague concept, and Shannon will be assigned with the grim task of conveying it to me: Halloween, snowboarding, Halloween, Ghosts, Halloween, or whatever. I try to be open to them, find ways to make it work. But here was an idea that I instantly hated. “No, no-no, no NO-no NO,” I said. “Jigsaw would never do that, and it’s the last thing I’d want to celebrate in these books.”

Yet I could not completely deny the appeal of flying meatballs. It would be a fun scene to write. I said I’d think about it. Maybe there was a way.

Next I made a phone call to Ellen Mosher, a second-grade teacher at Westmere Elementary. Ellen did not recall witnessing any food fights, but she said there might have been a few isolated incidents of smashed cupcakes, etc. I asked, “What if a food fight happened. Let’s say it was a huge misunderstanding, no one was at truly fault, but it just kind of got out of hand. What would happen next?”

“Oh,” Ellen said. “It would be a very big deal. The principal would definitely get involved. The kids would have to do the cleanup, and write letters of apology.”

Hmmm, I thought. Maybe there was a way into this story after all. It wasn’t so much about the food fight, but about everything that happened next, the consequences. A teachable moment.  And a story I could feel good about telling.


Many Jigsaw Jones books have a connection to the New York Mets, usually in the names of bit players. In this book, the lunch aide’s name is Mrs. Minaya, after the Mets’ General Manager, Omar Minaya. The other lunch aide, Mrs. Randolph, was named after the Mets’ sourpuss manager at the time, Willie Randolph.

For the mystery, Mrs. Randolph mistakenly accuses Joey Pignattano — named after a coach from the Mets (1968-1981), Joe Pignatano, an ex-Brooklyn Dodger famous for growing tomatoes in the bullpen  — of starting the food fight.

“Jigsaw, you’ve got to help me,” Joey pleaded. “I’m innocent!”

Do readers notice any of this? Does anybody care? I kind of doubt it. Mostly it’s just a thing I’ve always done in this series to entertain myself — and possibly some random Mets-loving reader out there. When it comes time to make up the name of a character, I’ll begin my search with former New York Mets.


Around the time of this book, Paris Hilton was on TV with a FOX reality series called “The Simple Life,” a show where two socialites (Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie) attempt to work a series of low-paying jobs, such as doing farm work, working in fast-food restaurants, and so on. That’s where I got the idea of Paris Hilton working as a substitute school nurse. Funny, right? You know, flipping through a magazine while some kid hurls into a garbage pail. I imagined that she’d say something like, “Could you keep it down, I’m trying to polish my toenails.” So I created the character of Nurse Hilton, placed her in the middle of the mystery, and  was on my way. When I added her dog, I had the key to the mystery.

Jigsaw described her this way:

She was impossibly tall and thin. She had blond hair. And long legs that went all the way to the floor.

Jigsaw will eventually discover that Nurse Hilton was hiding Tinkerbell, her pet Chihuahua, in the filing cabinet. In the nurse’s office, Jigsaw takes in the scene:

I glanced around the room. The desktop overflowed with stacks of folders. Some had even fallen on the floor. A travel magazine opened to a photo of Paris. I saw lipstick and a hand mirror.

Why were so many folders on the desk?  Why had there been reports of barking in the lunch room? Jigsaw and Mila figure it all out in time to save Joey. And as for Nurse Hilton, she hasn’t been seen since.

Stories Behind the Story: The Case of the Ghostwriter

In what I hope will be a recurring feature on an irregular schedule, I thought I’d try to convey some of the background to each of my Jigsaw Jones titles.

And in no particular order.

The Case of the Ghostwriter has a lot of cool little things in it that most readers might miss.

I dedicated this book to Frank Hodge, a near-celebrity local bookseller on Lark Street in Albany, who is known and beloved by many area teachers and librarians. He’s one of Albany’s living treasures. When I moved to the area from Brooklyn, in 1990, Frank’s store, Hodge-Podge Books, was right around the corner. Of course, I stopped in and we became friends. I actually put Frank in this story: a guy named Frank owns a store called Hedgehog Books. I even included his cat, Crisis. Jigsaw and Mila visit Frank’s store in the hopes of tracking down a mysterious author.

Chapter Eight begins:

Hedgehog Books was a cozy little store. Our parents had been taking Mila and me since we were little. My mom said that Frank’s favorite thing was to bring books and kids together.

In the story, there’s a series of popular books — The Creep Show series — loosely modeled on R.L. Stine’s “Goosebumps.” Mila has been eating them up, reading titles such as Green Wet Slime and Teenage Zombie from Mars. The author’s name on the cover, a pen name, is R.V. King. (Ho-ho.) There’s a rumor that he’s coming to visit room 201 for the “Author’s Tea.” Who can the Mystery Author be? I bet you can guess.

For me, the part I’m proudest of in this book is Chapter Seven, “My Middle Name,” a tribute to my oldest brother, Neal, who passed away in 1993, a few months after my first son, Nicholas, was born.

Ms. Gleason has the students reading family stories in class, Abuela by Arthur Dorros and The Keeping Quilt by Patricia Pollaco. The students, including Jigsaw and Mila, are asked to write their own family stories.

To research his family stories, Jigsaw interrupts his parents while they are playing chess. “Now’s not a good time,” his father replies. “I’m trying to destroy your dear mother.” (I always liked that line.)

At bed that night, Jigsaw and his father have a heart to heart. Mr. Jones tells Jigsaw about his middle name, Andrew, who was Jigsaw’s uncle. Now this part is totally true, because my son’s middle name is Neal, after his uncle.

“And he died,” I said.

“Yes,” he said. “Andrew died.” I heard the air leave my father’s lips. The sound of a deep sigh.

I put my head on his shoulder. “Why did you name me after him?”

They talk some more:

That’s when I noticed it. The water in his eyes. A single tear, then another, slid down his cheek. My father was crying. I’d never seen him cry before. It made me nervous.

“Don’t be sad, Dad.” I hugged him with both arms, tight.

He wiped the tears away with the back of his sleeve.

He sniffed hard and smiled.

“I’m not sad, Jigsaw,” he said. “It’s just that I remember little things that happened. Little things Andrew said or did. And I’ll always miss him.”

“Can you tell me?” I asked. “About the little things?”

My father checked his watch. “Not tonight, son. It’s late already. But I will tomorrow, promise.”

“Good night, Dad,” I said. “I’m sorry you’re sad.”

“Don’t be sorry,” he said. “That’s life, I guess. Sometimes we lose the good ones. Good night, Theodore Andrew Jones. Sleep tight.”

Then he shut the door.

I’d never attempt to read that chapter aloud to a group. I can never read it  without remembering, without crying. I guess in that scene, I’m Jigsaw’s dad — and my son, Nicholas Neal Preller, stands in for Jigsaw, trying to learn about an uncle, my brother, whom he never had the chance to meet.