Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Nancy Drew: Detective … and Writing Teacher?

An earlier version of this post appeared on Write on Sisters in 2014.

I was hooked on mysteries with my first Nancy Drew (Carolyn Keene). Who wouldn’t want to be her, zipping around in her little red car with her girlfriend, George, and boyfriend, Ned? She was intrepid, daring, smart, and very independent. In the 1950s, when I was reading Nancy Drew books, there weren’t many examples for preteens of strong, smart girls/women figuring out things as the men tagged along. She solved things without being saved. She used her wits to outwit culprits above what her punching weight would expect. And there are 84 books. 84!

Feminist literary critics have analyzed the character's enduring appeal, arguing variously that 
Nancy Drew is a mythic hero, an expression of wish fulfillment, or an embodiment of 
contradictory ideas about femininity.

It’s interesting to note that a number of high-profile women (e.g., Laura Bush, Sandra Day O’Connor, and Hillary Clinton) cite the influence of Nancy Drew on their formative years. Nancy Drew mysteries, published from 1930-2003, positively affected generations of women. We were imbued with her can-do attitude and clever problem solving, and

Nancy not only introduced me to action-taking women and the mystery genre, but also I learned, in a rudimentary way, how to write. Yes, Nancy Drew, writing teacher. Of course, she didn’t set out to be that, but the elements of genre writing were clearly demonstrated.

Genre fiction has been criticized for being clichéd, predictable, and hackneyed. But that might not be so bad for a youngster who reads a lot. Reading lots of genre books implants, subliminally, elements that are harder to teach out of context. In reading genre fiction, it is as if the young reader internalizes elements of fiction without being aware of it and before having labels to attach.

Compare the internalization of fiction elements to learning to drive. In America, the majority of young children and teens have the opportunity to observe driving elements thousands of times before ever getting behind the wheel. They are easier to teach how to drive because of those observations.

Just imagine how hard it would be to explain all the components of driving to someone who had never seen it done. Adjust the mirror before engaging the engine. Huh? Put on your right turn signal far enough in advance to let others know a turn is coming. Uh, how far is that? Three pedals and two feet in a stick shift car. How does that work?

By experiencing elements of character development, for example, as recurring facets as well as deepening aspects over books, the young reader learns what it takes to give a character unique as well as universal appeal. From Nancy, I learned there need to be distinguishing traits or tics that separate characters one from another. I learned that I had to make my characters likeable but flawed so the reader can relate. I learned that in series writing, keeping characters familiar but still fresh results from testing characters in new ways. All from Nancy Drew!

Now, did I recognize that at the time? Heck, no! I was a kid reading for the mystery, thinking along with her, trying to solve it as fast as she did. But later, in my own nascent writings, I found elements revealing themselves there.

I am reflective by nature and reflecting on how to create interesting characters others would like to know led me to the revelation of the origins of my earliest writing lessons. Those books, and others from my youth, imprinted me, in the psychological sense, with a basic understanding of the fiction elements of plot, setting, conflict resolution, and character development.

That wasn’t enough, of course. I have taken classes, discussed character development with critique groups, and read books and articles about character development. But it all began with Nancy. How did you get hooked on mysteries (or some other genre)? Want to see what I tried. Here's the link to Mission Impastable.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Hi, Sharon - Yes, Nancy Drew was really great fiction for girls back then. Also, there were a few mysteries shown on the Mickey Mouse Club that I fell in love with, esp Corky and White Shadow.
    @dino0726 from 
    FictionZeal - Impartial, Straighforward Fiction Book Reviews

  3. It is amazing, isn't it, how we internalize aspects without being aware it's happening. Decades later I am writing mysteries. It's been BUSY at mi casa. I haven't been online much. I'll be popping in to your place again now that the dust has settled.

  4. Anyone familiar w/ the Beverly Gray mystery series? I read every one, over & over. Tried to find them online but didn't have much luck. Similar to Nancy Drew, I think. I loved them!

    1. Sue, I don't know these books and sadly, apparently, I never will. I'll look in used book stores. Maybe they are hiding there.

  5. I've actually got a copy of The Secret of the Old Clock that I picked up when I was at my late mother's house last year. My sister used to have the who collection--I don't know what happened to the rest of the books but this is the one that was left and since my sister didn't want it I thought I'd go ahead and keep it rather than them give it away or sell for a few cents at a yard sale.

    I still have some of my Hardy Boys and Tom Swift collection. These were all wonderful books.

    Eventually I'll read that Nancy Drew book as well as my old books. I read one of the Tom Swift books last year and was surprised how contemporary some of the science sounded. And the story wasn't too bad either.

    Arlee Bird
    A to Z Challenge Co-host
    Road trippin' with A to Z
    Tossing It Out

    1. Thanks for stopping in, Arlee. There certainly are dated elements (and also in the classic Sherlock Holmes!), but a good story is a good story. These books you and others mentioned are enduring stories because the situations still seem relevant and we can think along with the mysteries rather than having them resolved as if by magic as in Charlie Chan.