Questions From a Reader – Isabel

Dear Matthew,

I was wondering how did you come up with the idea to write The Real McCoys? And when you started writing it did you know who was going to be the villain?



Hello, Isabel,

So nice to hear from you. And thank you for your question. I like it, in part, because I didn’t immediately know the answer, and in the process of figuring it out, I learned something about myself.

The truth is, I had no idea that The Real McCoys was going to be The Real McCoys when I started. I started by sitting down at my desk one morning and writing out a few paragraphs about a puckish little boy named Herman and his quiet-but-observant little sister Maddie—narrated by a wise-and-all-knowing narrator. I had always loved the wise-and-all-knowing narrative voice in Lemony Snicket’s Series of Unfortunate events books, and wanted to try and do something like it. I thought this book would be called “As Herman Sees it.”

ADVICE: Don’t try to write like your favorite author. Because 1) you will probably not be able to pull it off, 2) even if you pull it off, it won’t be original, and 3) you should always write like YOU.

I wrote a few paragraphs and realized I wasn’t able to pull it off. But instead of giving up on Herman, I ditched the wise-and-all-knowing narrator, told the story through the main character’s perspective instead, changed Maddie to Maggie, and (at the advice of my agent), made Maggie the puckish main character/narrator, and made her little brother Herman the quiet-but-observant sidekick.

And then I was able to write like me. Which is to say, I was able to write the story of a headstrong, enthusiastic, over-confident ten-year-old girl who believes herself to be an ace detective and who cares for nothing more than ensuring justice for all citizens of Tiddlywhump (even those who happen to be named Dublinger).

As for whether I knew who the villain was going to be when I started writing, I did not. I don’t know how it works for other people who write mysteries, but because I had never written one before, coming up with the mechanics of the owl theft itself was the most challenging part of writing this book. To pull it off, I came up with the crime and list of possible suspects and then followed Moxie (though her name was still Maggie at the time) through the process of trying to figure things out. At each step, I tried to solve the crime right along with her, until, at long last, all of the suspects had been eliminated but one. Once we got to the end, and figured out who had stolen the owl, I went back and planted a few hints and clues that would help the reader do their own sleuthing as they read (or re-read the book).

Finally, you didn’t ask, but I feel like I need to clear up the mystery of how Maggie and Herman came to be Moxie and Milton.

Our editor Erin agreed to publish the book (and its sequel) after reading a draft in which the main characters were named Maggie and Herman. But she didn’t feel like those names were quite right. In publishing, names are VERY IMPORTANT, and she asked us to TRUST HER, and try VERY HARD to come up with more interesting ones.

At first I was not pleased at the thought of changing the names. The characters and I had become very good friends at that point, and the thought of calling them anything else was about as pleasant as the thought of using someone else’s toothbrush (as Moxie might say). But one of the characters in an early draft of the book was named Mrs. Moxie, and Robbi pointed out that Moxie was a nice-sounding name. And I had to agree. Especially because Maggie had so much moxie. Once Moxie had her name, I wanted her brother to have a name that sounded good standing next to it. I also wanted it to be a formal sort of name to match his formal behavior. I created a list of possibilities, and Milton rose to the top. I just liked how they sounded together. In part because of the alliteration, which is just a fancy way of saying that they start with the same letter.

It took a while, but I eventually stopped thinking of Moxie and Milton as Herman and Maggie, though my kids, who heard the original draft of the book at bedtime a few years ago, still sometimes refer to them that way.

Maybe sometime in the future, I’ll tell you how Moxie and Milton got their last name.

Thank you so much for writing. And for giving me a chance to remember these old stories. As crazy as it sounds, I started working on this project three years ago! Books sure do take a long time to get born.

Please give my best to your entire family, and thanks again for the question!


PS – According to spellcheck, I originally spelled 11 words wrong when I wrote this response. Which is to say, the ability to write a book and the ability to spell words correctly must come from different parts of your brain.

First Sip of Moxie

Matthew Swanson here. I’m the author of The Real McCoys series, which recounts the adventures of an indomitable ten-year-old named Moxie and her complement of a little brother Milton.

I started writing the first book suddenly one day, chasing down a voice that had popped into my head. I shared the early draft with our agent Meredith, and she made a few excellent suggestions (not the least of which was that Moxie should be girl (in that early draft, she’d been a boy named Herman).

I wrote and wrote, and a story emerged, the tale of a sister/brother problem solving team named Maggie and Herman. Meredith pitched the book to an editor named Erin (who was already publishing a few of our picture books), and Erin said yes. There was tremendous hooting from the Barn (Robbi [my wife and the book’s illustrator] and I work and live in the hayloft of an old barn). Erin liked the book very much. But she was not sold on the names Maggie and Herman.

And so we thought and thought. Eventually, the name Moxie came to mind. Robbi thinks it was her mind, and I think it was mine. We may never solve that mystery, but a love of alliteration led us to round out the pairing by convincing Herman to change his name to Milton.

But what is Moxie? Beyond a word that means “force of character, determination, or nerve”?

Moxie is a soft drink that originated in 1876 as a patent medicine known as Moxie Nerve Food. I’ll let Wikipedia do the heavy lifting, but the thing I didn’t know until I did a little research was that the adjective “moxie” derives from the beverage and not the other way around. Apparently, the marketing campaign was so successful that it made people want to drink a beverage of unquestionable bitterness. And so successful that it became synonymous with vitality and pluck.

I mean, look at this guy. Have you ever seen such moxie?

In book 1 of The Real McCoys, our heroine Moxie explains her name by telling us that her mom bought her dad a bottle of Moxie on their very first date, wanting to make sure he liked the taste because it was “just like her, a perfect blend of bitter and sweet.”

The author in me liked the sound of Moxie and I liked the backstory, but because Moxie is bottled only in New Hampshire and not terribly well-known in the Mid-Atlantic, the consumer of beverages in me had never actually TASTED it.

But last year when were were in Decatur, Georgia for the Decatur Book Festival, we found a novelty shop that offered hundreds of varieties of soda, one of which, was Moxie.

We bought a bottle. I took a sip.

I tasted the bitter. I tasted the sweet. I contemplated the complex happenings in my mouth.

The conclusion: I would drink Moxie again. Maybe not every day. But sometimes. When I want to embrace the power of contradiction. Or maybe when I have a cold that will not seem to lift.

Robbi had a different take.

Which is to say, I’m glad that I’m not Moxie’s mom. And I’m glad that Robbi isn’t Moxie’s dad.

Though in a way, we certainly are her parents.