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.