Wednesday, April 25, 2012
David A. Kelly, author of Ballpark Mysteries
I’d like to introduce author David A. Kelly. Welcome to my blog, David!
I know you as the author of Random House’s Early Reader series, Ballpark Mysteries, but you’re also the Business Travel Guide for About.com, you’re a technology analyst for Upside Research and you’re a guest columnist for the website IT Briefcase. Incredible! Tell us a little about these other facets of your writing life.
I never really set out to be a writer. When I was in school, my mother had to review everything I wrote, to check for all manners of misspellings, mistakes, and simple laziness. It was definitely not an auspicious start. I guess over the years I developed a facility to write, but never really thought it might become a major part of my life. Instead, I went to school for computer science and found myself working in a variety of technology-related jobs, from programming to product management to marketing. After spending a lot of time writing marketing reports and customer case studies, I realized I actually had an aptitude for writing and that when I thought it about it, it was fun. So I started exploring it a bit more. I branched out (back in the 1990s) and started writing travel articles for newspapers like the Boston Globe and the New York Times. Writing travel stories taught me how to write interesting articles with lots of useful information. The experience is actually really helpful for my current focus, children’s literature and my Ballpark Mysteries series.
I continue to write occasional travel articles for newspapers, as well as articles for About.com, where I’m the Guide to Business Travel. At About.com I focus on business travel, from hotel reviews to miles and rewards to travel technology. In addition, I write for technology companies like Oracle and Oracle Magazine, as well as consulting with other technology companies on marketing and content development.
Can you switch easily from technology writing to writing for children? How are these types of writing the same and different? Do prefer one type of writing over another?
I usually can switch pretty easily, but it does take a day or two to get into the right frame of mind to be really productive when I’m writing for children.
For me, writing about technology and business isn’t really that different from writing baseball mysteries for children. I strive to make both types of writing clear and concise. (Okay, I can use bigger words and longer sentences when it comes to technology writing). All things being equal, I’d probably say that I find writing for children to be more interesting than technology writing because I get to explore a wider range of ideas and have to push myself a bit more to create a compelling story. But if I’m looking at my bank account statement, I’d have to say that technology writing is lot more interesting (at least for the moment!).
How did your career as a children’s writer evolve?
I have two boys, who are now in high school. When they were in third and fourth grade we were spending a lot time playing baseball and reading books. They were really the first inspiration for starting to write children’s books.
The Ballpark Mysteries were inspired by my love of reading and the level of excitement my two sons found from playing baseball. When I was younger, I used to love mystery stories—from the Hardy Boys to Encyclopedia Brown, and even to the Partridge Family mystery stories (try to find those now!). As I was reading books to my boys, the excitement and fun of mysteries came back to me. But my sons, like lots of boys and girls, were interested in sports and physical activities. They were so interested in playing baseball or watching baseball games that it opened my eyes to the power of sports and activities like baseball to fire the imagination of boys and girls. I looked around for children’s books that featured both sports and mysteries, but didn’t find many that fit the bill. That's when I realized that there was something missing in the market—adventure/mysteries that were set in the dozens of really cool cities and ballparks around North America.
What’s it like writing a series like the Ballpark Mysteries? Is it very different than writing a stand-alone title?
In each Ballpark Mysteries book, boys and girls can expect to discover something new (did you know that astronaut's don't eat pizza or that there's a hidden message in Fenway Park's scoreboard?) as well as be absorbed by an interesting whodunit that takes the main characters, Mike and Kate, into some interesting situations. The Ballpark Mysteries are simply mystery and adventure books set in baseball stadiums.
Each Ballpark Mysteries book is set in a different major league ballpark and while it usually involves a baseball game (book five is set during the Home Run Derby and All-Star Game!), baseball is more of a backdrop to the action, adventure, and mystery that drives each story forward.
Readers certainly don’t have to know anything about baseball (or other sports) to enjoy them. And because each baseball park and team is so unique there are great opportunities for even the biggest sports fan to learn something new. In each book, Mike and Kate visit a ballpark to take a tour or see a game, but lots of the action may also happen outside the ballpark. In the third book they visit a number of interesting landmarks around Los Angeles, while in the fourth book (set in Houston), they get to visit NASA and try on space suits.
I hear you travel to ballparks and watch games as part of your research. How cool is that! Can you tell us some interesting anecdotes about your trips?
Great question. It’s really pretty good that part of my job is to head out to a couple of baseball stadiums each year and spend a couple of months writing about them! Again, I never would have expected that would be part of my job a few years ago, but it I love it.
Since each of the Ballpark Mysteries is set in a different MLB park, I have to write about a new baseball team and stadium for each book. Usually I start by going out and spending 5 – 7 days in each city that I’m going to write about. I take a tour of the ballparks, and usually try to watch between 2 – 4 games if my schedule allows. I also have to spend a fair amount of time sightseeing and checking out all types of possible sights, attractions, historical areas, and shops that might fit into the story or mystery. At this stage of the writing I never know what the mystery will about, or what I’ll need to write the book, so I hustle to take lots of notes, lots of pictures, and see lots of sights.
In terms of interesting anecdotes from my trips, I’m not sure I have many, though I still shiver with thoughts of the night games I watched in San Francisco. It was the middle of August and I’ve never been so cold in all my life! Everyone around me had warm, wooly hats on and winter coats. After a few nights at Giant’s games I can fully appreciate Mark Twain’s alleged remark that the coldest winter he ever spent was a summer in San Francisco! Other than that, I’ve had great times in Kansas City, Houston, Dallas, Chicago, Los Angeles, and more. But usually, I’m so busy writing and taking pictures not that much interesting happens!
Your latest Ballpark Mystery, The Astro Outlaw, takes place at the Astrodome. Tell us about that story.
The Astro Outlaw (set in Houston, book 4) is an exciting book because it covers a lot of ground—NASA’s Johnson Space Center, the Apollo Moon missions, a missing moon rock, and huge steam train (right in the stadium!). I had a great time writing it because it combined another favorite topic of time (space and technology) with baseball. The story is also one of my favorites because I was able to tie an interesting baseball play into the story in a way that becomes critical for the main characters, Mike and Kate, for solving the mystery.
You also wrote a nonfiction book about baseball, Babe Ruth and the Baseball Curse. Can you tell us a little about that?
Babe Ruth and the Baseball Curse is a chapter book for elementary school children about baseball great Babe Ruth and two main teams he played for—the Boston Red Sox and the New York Yankees. It explores Ruth's hard-luck childhood (six of his seven brothers and sisters died as babies!) and the "curse" that befell the Boston Red Sox after trading him to the New York Yankees.
I came up with the idea to write the book after my editor at Random House asked me to write a true-life adventure story. I thought Babe Ruth would be perfect. He’s just such an amazing character. He wasn’t always nice and he didn’t always do the right thing, but he was one of the best athletes ever, and he had a heart of gold. Of course, living in Boston it’s almost impossible not to be a Red Sox fan, so I wanted to combine Ruth's story with the excitement of the 2004 Red Sox World Series run, where the team battled back from incredible odds to finally win another World Series after decades and decades of draught.
So far, all your children’s books have been for Early Readers. What draws you to this age group? What are the special challenges of writing for this group?
Well, would it be bad to say “the length?” Or, more specifically, “they’re short enough so that I thought I had good chance at finishing one?”
Seriously, I never really considered writing books or stories for a living. I didn’t think I would be able to really write and publish a book, so I thought that if I was going to try, I should at least try something that wasn’t going to waste too much time. That ruled out adult books, as well as middle grade and young adult books. I looked at the types of books my boys were reading, and pretty quickly figured that I could at least have a chance of writing one of a similar length (about 10,000 words).
While now I envision actually writing some books for older children, I love writing for this age group (ages 6 – 9, roughly, although the books really seem to appeal to old, reluctant readers really nicely). The stories have to move along quickly. The writing has to be clean, short, and interesting. And things can’t be too crazy. I think over the series (I’m up to book 7 now), my writing has gotten crisper and cleaner and I have a better understanding of what works and what doesn’t.
I don’t think there are really any special challenges in writing for this group. I don’t worry at all about specific word choices or vocabulary, but do I do work hard to make the sentences short and keep things clean. I’ve also learned over and over again to show, not tell, when I’m describing something. I think that’s particularly important for this level.
You have a new book coming out called Baseball Mud—really, Baseball Mud. Can you tell us about that book?
Sure. Baseball Mud is a picture book scheduled to come out in the spring of 2013 from Lerner. It’s the great story of Lena Blackburn and how he discovered baseball mud. Most baseball fans might know a lot about their team, but they probably don’t know that every one of the 70 – 90 brand new baseballs that major league teams use every game have to be rubbed in mud before the game! And that the mud that’s used comes from a secret, hidden place in New Jersey! And that it comes from one company, which has been supplying major league teams with mud for 75 years!
I had come across the fact a few years ago, and after finishing Babe Ruth and the Baseball Curse I was looking for something that would make a good picture book. Out popped Baseball Mud. It’s a story that’s a lot of fun to share with people.
Is there anything else you’d like to share with our visitors?
I can’t think of anything. Other than perhaps a question that I get asked a lot about how to become a children’s book writer. The key for me was persistence (and luck!). My first attempts at a baseball mystery story were definitely weak, but I worked to solicit feedback from other writers and editors and received a lot of very helpful advice and suggestions. I worked hard to incorporate them and eventually broke through by selling my first manuscript. I think you not only have to be a good writer to get published, but you have to persistent AND be willing to flexible. I was never wedded to one particular story or one way of writing, which was really helpful as I received feedback and revised my works.
And one last thing—don’t forget to look for the next book in the series this June. The All-Star Joker (book 5) takes Mike and Kate to this summer’s All Star game in Kansas City, where they have to find the culprit who’s playing practical jokes. Random House will also be releasing an audio book compilation of the first five books in June, which is really cool as well.
Thanks so much for joining me on my blog! Don’t forget folks, if you’d like to be entered in a chance to win a signed copy of David’s book, The Astro Outlaw, just leave a comment on this post.
You can find out more about David and his books at http://davidakelly.com/, the Ballpark Mysteries website: www.ballparkmysteries.com, or his Facebook page (www.facebook.com/ballparkmysteries).