The Giddy, Wind-in-Your-Hair Thrill of Writing By Kate Hannigan

Eleven-year-old Nell Warne couldn’t have imagined what awaits her when she arrives on her long-lost aunt’s doorstep, lugging a heavy sack of sorrows.

Much to Nell’s surprise, her aunt is a detective, working for the world-famous Pinkerton’s National Detective Agency! Nell quickly makes herself indispensable to Aunt Kate…and not just by helping out with household chores. As her aunt travels around the country solving mysteries, Nell must crack codes, wear disguises, and spy on nefarious criminals.

With nation-changing events simmering in the background as Abraham Lincoln heads for the White House, Aunt Kate is working on the biggest case of her life. But Nell is quietly working on a case of her own: the mystery of what really happened the night her best friend left town.

Based on the extraordinary true story of America’s first female detective, Kate Warne, The Detective’s Assistant is full of feats of daring and danger, bold action, and newfound courage.

I write for children, and my first mystery for young readers, The Detective’s Assistant, came out this month. It’s about America’s first female detective, who was hired by Allan Pinkerton to join his National Detective Agency in 1856.

When I first stumbled onto Kate Warne’s name and a sentence or so about her, I knew I had something. That it eventually would become a middle-grade novel – fictional history with mystery – wasn’t so clear.

But reading about Kate Warne’s role as a Pinkerton detective thrilled me. I dove into Pinkerton’s accounts of his cases, written later in his career as he reflected on his life’s work. And as I learned more about her – that she dressed up as a fortuneteller to snag a suspected killer, that she posed as a Southern belle, a wife of a jailed forger, and more – I became obsessed.

Just as readers are always looking for that amazing book that keeps them up all night turning pages, I think writers are perpetually in search of the fascinating story to tell. And as I dug deeper into Kate Warne’s adventures as a Pinkerton operative, I got that giddy, wind-in-the-hair rush of excitement.

I used to work in newspapers, so the fear of being scooped was hammered into me. I set a Google alert to inform me of any reference to Kate Warne on the web, worrying that if I’d found her interesting, some other writer was probably penning her story too. Sure enough, a Canadian production company was working on a TV show featuring Kate Warne and the Pinkertons I had to act fast!

I began to get up before the birds, neglect my family, ignore the dog, skip bathing or any other task that took me away from my laptop! I visited Kate Warne’s gravesite here in Chicago, strolled the Chicago History Museum for inspiration. I wrote as if a pack of wolves were at my heels. And once I finished, I urged my agent to get the manuscript out into the world quickly.

That it’s now on bookstore shelves brings me real happiness. And I have more writing projects on my plate that excite me, more ideas bouncing around my head and taking shape. But I don’t know that I will ever have the same exhilaration again that I felt in creating The Detective’s Assistant. Maybe it’s called a writer’s high. Or a manic phase. Or just sheer joy.

Whatever the name for it, I loved every minute. And I hope readers get a sense of that excitement when they turn the pages and meet the story’s characters, both fictional and real.

Do you have an inspirational historical figure who has captured your interest? Would you consider writing about her or him?

Chicago author Kate Hannigan writes fiction and non-fiction for young readers. When she’s not shuttling family members to ballet, soccer, or fencing practice, she can be found writing and researching her next books. Visit her online at


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