Creating Characters That Children Love: Dr. Mandy Hartley on Her Award-Winning The DNA Detectives Series

In part two of our interview with scientist and author Dr. Mandy Hartley, she spoke to us about how she comes up with the storylines and characters for her series of award-winning books, The DNA Detectives, and how she’s still learning new things every day.

How do you decide on the plots for each story?

It’s really odd, but these stories (at least 6!) have been in my head for a long time! It’s a relief to get them out. For the latest story (The DNA Detectives: The Riddle of the Viking Treasure – coming soon), I wanted something that was based on the lock down as it had such an impact on everyone, including my family. I thought it would be interesting to have a crime, where the precautions put in place to stop the spread of Covid-19, actually help to catch a criminal.

When I am putting the plot together, I have to carefully plan each chapter. This is because I have to link together the evidence and the clues. It is important to remember what has been revealed or not revealed! That is one of my favourite parts of writing these books.

How did you create the main characters in The DNA Detectives series?

This was easy for me! The characters are all based on my own children, family and friends and even our pet dog Milly. The brilliant thing with this is that I know them all so well and know how they would react in different situations. My son and daughter are also completely different in their characters. I often ask the children in schools I visit whether they are more like Annabelle or Harry. The children can often relate to and are more like the personality of one of these characters. I think this helps them get into the story as they can understand why a character reacts in a certain way.

My children are also a constant source of funny things and real-life situations that fit the story. For me this is brilliant as I get to write down and remember these memories my children have created. That is very special.

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Was there anything that surprised you when writing The DNA Detectives? Did you learn anything new?

I was really surprised by the positive feedback and the impact the stories would have on children. I hadn’t even thought about that part of it and it was such a welcome surprise. To hear from the parents about children who were reluctant readers, disappearing off with the book and reading it in a day, was truly magical or the classes of children I have met over the moon to meet me and brimming with questions about the book! What was very special was finding out that children had dressed up as Annabelle and Harry for World Book Day. Harry in particular loved this and was chuffed when more children had dressed up as him, rather than Annabelle!

In terms of learning something new, I love carrying out the research for the books. I love finding out facts that I know children will love reading about. For The Smuggler’s Daughter I visited the Smuggler’s Museum at Jamaica Inn. There were lots of ingenious ways smugglers would hide the goods they had stolen, including inside a hollowed out bible, or in scooped-out potatoes hidden in a bag of vegetables. There was also an ornament of a hand with rings on it. When it was placed in the window of the local Inn, facing inwards, it meant there was nothing to sell. When facing outwards there were stolen goods to be purchased.

“To hear from the parents about children who were reluctant readers, disappearing off with the book and reading it in a day, was truly magical...”

In The Stone Age Mystery I also really enjoyed finding out about “The Red Lady of Paviland”, a 33,000-year-old ancient skeleton. The skeleton was found to be buried with shell necklaces and bracelets. For this reason, they thought the skeleton was female. Analysis, however, proved it was male. I am also, fascinated by how they can use DNA from tartar on someone’s teeth, to find out what diseases they had, what they ate and even what they looked like.

In my latest book, I am researching about the Vikings and forensic ecology. It is so interesting! Especially how scientists can use plants, soil, insects and pollen to solve crimes. It is going to make for a good read, and fits in perfectly with the science curriculum for rocks and living things and their habitats!

Check out The DNA Detectives series on Pickatale now by downloading the app or signing up to a teachers account.

About the books

The DNA Detectives: To Catch A Thief

The DNA Detectives, Annabelle and Harry’s pet dog Milly goes missing. The children sadly accept that the local pet thief has struck again. Join The DNA Detectives on their thrilling journey as they collect clues and learn about DNA.

The DNA Detectives: The Stone Age Mystery

The DNA Detectives meet archaeologists and scientists to unravel the mysteries of the Stone Age. Solve the crime of who stole the artefacts and discover fascinating details about cave paintings and extracting DNA from ancient bones to find out how people looked like.

The DNA Detectives: The Smuggler's Daughter

Join Annabelle and Harry, The DNA Detectives on their journey to find the smuggler’s tunnel. Find out how they use DNA to unlock questions about the past. Children will learn about DNA, cells, and forensic science.

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