Talking with Alane Ferguson and Gloria Skurzynski

By Jamie Kyle McGillian

The Mysteries in Our National Parks series weaves science with mystery and adventure. Taking middle-grade readers by storm, the series features the Landon family and their teenage children, Jack and Ashley, two brave and clever sleuths. Each story presents a mystery that involves the featured park's wildlife. In the first title,
Wolf Stalker, Ashley and Jack work together in Yellowstone National Park to figure out who is trying to kill the wolves that have recently been reintroduced there. In the thirteenth title,
Night of the Black Bear, Ashley and Jack investigate a series of bear attacks in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. A detailed park map at the front of each title and the authors' thorough research of each setting help give readers a solid sense of the geography and natural phenomena of these stunning regions.

The authors of these action-packed mysteries are a mother-daughter writing team. The mom, Gloria Skurzynski, is an award-winning science writer. Her daughter, Alane Ferguson, is an award-winning mystery writer. Here's what they had to say about writing the series and the process of collaboration.

JKM: Do the books follow a formula?

AF: Our books always feature Jack and Ashley's mom, Olivia, a wildlife biologist, as the catalyst to get the Landons into a particular park. Jack and Ashley are in every story, but the real wild card has been the foster child who stays with the Landons. He or she has been different in every book, which has given us a lot of liberty with the plot lines.

JKM: Gloria, what made you decide to start collaborating on the Mysteries in Our National Parks series with your daughter?

GS: Gilbert Grosvener, former head of all National Geographic Divisions (and grandson of Alexander Graham Bell), had the idea for the series and passed it along to Barbara Lalicki, who had become the editor of the newly formed National Geographic Children's Books division. Previously, Barbara had published my books as well as Lanie's, so she knew I could write science and Lanie could write mysteries.

JKM: Alane, how does writing together enhance your relationship with your mom?

AF: It's an amazing experience to see your mother as more than a mom, as a collaborator, co-creator, and, most important of all, friend. We take an idea and weave a story from that premise together—one writing the warp, the other providing the weft—until a pattern emerges that satisfies us both.

JKM: How do you actually collaborate? Do you brainstorm, then go off on your own to write parts of the book? What technology do you rely on?

GS: Because I live in Idaho and Lanie lives in Colorado, our writing has to be done long-distance. Before we begin, we have the plot firmly in mind, but the unraveling of the plot is always fluid, open to fresh suggestions from either one of us. We have no formula for dividing the work; all 12 books have been written without any preconceived guidelines as to who's going to do what. When we're working on a book, we talk on the phone every day and send pages back and forth by email.

JKM: So Alane, let's say you're at a big family dinner. Will you start talking shop and get the whole family involved in plot, character, and other story elements?

AF: First of all, when you say “big family dinner,” you're absolutely right! As the fourth out of five daughters, I'm here to tell you that an extended Skurzynski family dinner means husbands and children and grandchildren and dogs and chaos and a whole lot of fun! Now it's confession time: because my oldest sister, Serena, is a doctor, my mom and I have been known to pepper her with questions-even when she's trying to eat. For example, while writing
Buried Alive, we needed to understand what would happen to our characters in extreme Alaska temperatures, and we were able to tease out information right at the table. There are four engineers, a nautical expert, an ophthalmologist, an animal ace, and a businessman in our clan, which means mom and I can go to them whenever we needed help on a technical point. But the plot and the development of the characters have always been a process exclusive to the two of us. We've hashed out the Landon trials and tribulations, sometimes talking into the wee hours, and no one else has been involved except Mom and me.

JKM: Gloria, what kind of research do you do for the books?

GS: We've traveled to each of the 12 parks in the series, spending about four days at each park interviewing rangers, naturalists, biologists, geologists, and the park police. I take slides and Lanie takes video while we're there so we can recall the physical details of the park when we're writing. The park staff is always extremely kind and helpful, and three or four park people will read the manuscript before publication to make sure everything is accurate.

JKM: I loved Out of the Deep
because of my passion for whales. Which books, because of their subject matter, were most special to you and why?

AF: I have always been in love with wolves, so our first book,
Wolf Stalker, was very special in that it introduced the wolf's haunting mystique to our readers. But after researching subsequent animals, I came to a startling conclusion:
every living thing, from condors to bats to whales to wolverines, is amazing in its own right. I'm now passionate about many wonderful creatures that inhabit our planet, and am equally passionate about preserving their habitat.

JKM: What makes a good mystery?

AF: Since I am the mystery end of the duo, I'll answer that one. A good mystery pits the reader against the writer, and when the game is played fairly (that means no last-minute revelations, but rather well-hidden clues sprinkled throughout the text) it's fun for everyone. The plot should be tight, but the real energy should come from the characters. Many of our readers write to us concerning Jack or Ashley or the foster children, and often the readers speak of our characters as though they were real people. That's when we know we have really done our job!

JKM: What do you hope young readers will gain from the science and real-world technology concerns that you write about?

GS: At each park, we've been impressed by the dedication of the park staff. These people really care about the environment and the park animals and vegetation, devoting their working lives to preserving these amazing tracts of wilderness. Once species become extinct, they're gone forever. In each book we try to tell our readers how important it is to preserve our natural heritage, because each of the parks is struggling with insufficient funding and dealing with the encroachment of technology and industry onto public lands. It would make me very happy if some of our readers are drawn to careers in the National Park Service.

JKM: How would you encourage young people to believe in their abilities as crime solvers or truth seekers?

GS: It's
always a kid who solves the case. I encourage kids to think for themselves, to question everything, to search deeply for answers, and most of all, to pay attention.

Sampling Skurzynski and Ferguson

Mysteries in Our National Parks series. National Geographic. Individual books. 160p., $15.95; paper, $5.95. Gr. 4-6.

Jamie Kyle McGillian, a freelance writer, is the author of
The Kid's Money Book (Sterling, 2003) and
On the Job with a Firefighter (Barron's, 2001).

This article appears in the July 2004 issue of Book Links