Mother- Daughter Mysteries: Utah Writers Team Up On New Series
BY NANCY HOBBS
THE SALT LAKE TRIBUNE
Utah author Gloria Skurzynski is a stickler for facts who will dog a question until the answer is beyond doubt -- and then some.
Her daughter, Alane "Lanie" Ferguson, also a well-known writer, is less detail-driven. She is fascinated by why and how people do what they do.
Rather than clash, the writers complement. They laugh together as they credit the bond of a 40-year relationship.
So close are they, in fact, that they are collaborating on a series of mystery novels set in America's national parks and published by National Geographic. The first book, Wolf Stalker, was just released. The project is new ground for the 109-year-old, nonprofit scientific society, which had never crossed the line into fiction.
"We wanted to reach out to young readers who might not be attracted to a straight, nonfiction presentation," said Barbara Lalicki, director of children's publishing for the National Geographic Society. Packaging facts into a fast-paced adventure is "kind of a painless way to absorb information," Lalicki remembers from her own youth.
Wolf Stalker does all of that, said the editor. Young readers are exposed to the wolf-restoration project and the Yellowstone environment within a story of youthful rebellion and loss.
Skurzynski and Ferguson dedicated their new book to Lalicki, whom Skurzynski has followed to five publishers over the years. She also was Ferguson's first editor, but when Lalicki moved to the National Geographic Society, the mystery writer figured their professional relationship was over.
Then Lalicki made a social call to Ferguson at her new home in Durango, Colo. Ferguson decided afterward that the editor was actually "testing the waters'' to see if mother and daughter might be willing -- and able -- to work together.
What the editor didn't realize was that the writers had just finished collaborating on three mysteries for Troll books, which sells inexpensive paperbacks through elementary schools. What they discovered, Ferguson said, is that "we're always on the same page. We bring different talents to this that make a perfect matchup. My mom is the research fiend; I do more of the people side of it."
That was exactly Lalicki's thinking.
"Alane Ferguson excels at having a light-hearted touch. She's great with dialogue and characterization. I knew Gloria would make absolutely sure everything was accurate and would bring authenticity to it. The combination of these two top-notch writers seemed perfect for us."
The writers' backgrounds are impressive.
Skurzynski published the first of 36 books in 1971. She is adept at writing juvenile fiction based on history and science, but also has written several nonfiction science and technology books for elementary-age students. The longtime Holladay resident won the American Institute of Physics' Science Writing Award in 1991 for her book Almost the Real Thing.
Ferguson took up writing during her third pregnancy in the mid-'80s and already has published 16 books. She received several honors for her first young-adult thriller, Show Me the Evidence, most notable being the 1990 Edgar Allan Poe Award. She was nominated again for that prestigious mystery-writers' award -- an honor in itself -- for Poison in 1995.
Given Skurzynski's insistence on exactness, readers of Wolf Stalker could actually follow the path of the book's protagonists through the Yellowstone park, experiencing the environment the authors describe.
"I've walked each step of the way, taking pictures and videos and notes," Skurzynski said. "The kids who read the book may want to retrace the path. . . . You don't want to ever have anything inaccurate for children."
Meantime, Ferguson is cooking up characters and conflicts. Her recipe for this mystery series is to use the same family, the Landons, in every book. Her "wild cards" -- used to mix things up -- are foster children who live temporarily with Steven Landon, a wildlife photographer; his wife, Olivia, a wildlife veterinarian; and their children, Jack and Ashley.
"By having a different foster child in each book, you can set the story around their problem and their resolution," Ferguson said. In Wolf Stalker, for example, a teen-ager named Troy is dropped off with the Landons just as they are about to leave for Yellowstone to help investigate a wolf attack and disappearance.
Troy is struggling with the inexplicable disappearance of his mother and rebels against being placed with an unfamiliar family.
The setting for the next National Park Mystery is Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, which Skurzynski researched with her usual intensity. That part of the job is "quite wonderful," she admitted with a smile. Next up is Mesa Verde National Park, and either Denali or the Everglades for the fourth and last book on their current contract.
That could change, as Lalicki says National Geographic is "hoping to eventually do all of the parks" -- which now number 50.