DSC_6334_smallWelcome to my writing pages!  The main focus of this page is to explore ways beginning writers can find inspiration.  You’ll also find information on my published works and the ones in progress. My schedule for posting is:

Monday Sparks: Writing ideas to fan your creative flame

Thursdays – Writing tips based on a monthly theme

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How to Create Clues and Red Herrings

A lot of the fun of writing mysteries is creating clues and red herrings and then figuring out how to insert them so readers has a fair chance of solving the mystery but not a walk in the park. For those who are new to the mystery genre, red herrings are the false clues that are designed to mislead readers and the detective, or sometimes, just the detective.

At the Killer Nashville International Writers’ Conference, I attended a panel with authors Jill Orr, Mariah Fredericks, Rich Zahradnik, and Saralyn Richard, who represented a variety of subgenres. With their advice and my own experience, here are some tips about how to create clues and red herrings.

Give clues and red herrings the same emphasis.

By that, I mean each should have close to the same amount of space on the page. If the detective finds three clues but only thinks about one in depth, the reader knows it has significance and the two others not as much. Giving almost equal space to all three will make it harder for the reader to determine which are the real clues and which are red herrings.

In “A Rose from the Ashes,” my teen detective Rae Riley must find out which one of three men is her father and the person who tried to murder her mother. One man could be both. To prevent myself from telegraphing the ending, I had share Rae two scenes with each suspect, creating interactions that might point to their guilt or innocence.

A problem with this approach is that I could waste a lot of space, and readers’ time, on a red herring. So…

The red herring should reveal something important to the story.

To the story, not necessarily the mystery. The red herring can enhance a character, revealing some aspect of his or her personality or history. For example, the detective is sure an elderly woman is guilty when associates think the detective is wrong. Later in the story, it’s shown that the grandmother of the detective abused her. Now readers understands the detective saw a similarity between the suspect and her grandmother and let her past sway her judgement.

This kind of red herring provides depth and fallibility to the main character. It’s difficult for some mystery writers to let their detective makes mistakes. No one wants to follow a detective who’s a blithering idiot. But by allowing the detective to fall for a red herring based on who she is makes the mistake more realistic and understandable.

Red herrings must be explained.

This advice was mentioned during the panel discussion, but I didn’t understand it until I was working on my novel, the sequel to “A Rose from the Ashes.”

Let’s say I have a grumpy elderly male character who was seen arguing with the murder victim shortly before she dies. Then the old man lies to the detective. If the old man is not the guilt party, the detective has to find out why he argued with the victim and why the old man lied to him.

I know in real life that all sorts of interactions with people happen that leave us puzzled, and we never find a solution for our confusion. But readers expect red herrings to be explained. It’s one of the rules of the mystery genre. That’s why it’s so important to read in my genre and understand the rules.

In my novel A Shadow on the Snow, my main character Rae is trying to figure out who is sending her nasty notes about her late mother’s notorious past. I had her discover a newspaper article about a woman who was stabbed at a wild party and Rae’s mother discovered the victim. My original plan was for Rae to conduct a minimal investigation and dismiss the story as unconnected to her stalker.

But that didn’t feel right. The article felt like a major clue. It could still be a red herring, but I had to use it better, either to seriously mislead Rae or to reveal something about her personality or background or that of another major character.

Red herrings should mislead readers, not trick them.

Above all else, writers must play fair with readers. Here is the way for me to check if I’m playing fair. This approach was recommended by the panel at Killer Nashville. Once readers have discovered the solution, they should be able to go back through the story and see how the clues pointed to the solution. If they can’t, they’ve been tricked.

For example, the solution to the mystery hinges on the detective knowing the Etruscan language. But readers don’t know this is the key until the detective says so during the climax, adding that he’s studied Etruscan for years.

If a mystery offers that kind of solution, readers have every right to throw the book across the room. If it’s an ebook, I hope they can restrain themselves.

Writers, what advice do you have on how to create clues and red herrings?Readers, what mysteries have you read that used clues and red herrings particularly well? Or ones that tricked you?

What’s the Mystery?

Another photo to prompt another mystery. What’s the mystery about a burning building in a cemetery? Here’s my beginning:

Even though Jace and I stood like a football field away, we could still feel the heat of the fire that ate up the caretaker’s building in the Union Cemetery.

Lots of people had come into the cemetery to watch: Father Mihalic, Mrs. Hudson, who worked as a janitor at our school, mean, old Mr. Olsen, Mayor Coleman, some other kids on their way to the middle school.

Jace elbowed me. “Did you see the mayor?”

“You can’t miss him.”

He was closer than anybody to the fire, except the firefighters, walking fast, back and forth, shouting if they were sure Mr. Delaney hadn’t been in the building.

“Mayor Coleman’s acting real upset,” said Jace. “Do you think he’s scared he killed Mr. Delaney when he set fire to the place?”

I tried to remember what we’d seen in the early dawn when we’d left the house because Dad had finally come home.

I shook my head. “I think he’s scared he didn’t.”

The Best Way to Research Crime Fiction

I’ve been working on crime fiction long enough now to realize how much research I need to make my mysteries have at least a nodding acquaintance with reality. This fall I’ve had a special opportunity to discover the best way to research crime fiction: getting to know the men and women who work in law enforcement.

Once a year, the sheriff’s department in my county offers a citizens academy that’s absolutely free. All a resident of the county has to do is apply with a paragraph about why they would like to learn about law enforcement and give two references.

In the 11-week class, I’ve heard from officers and staff who work in:

  1. The detective division.
  2. The drug task force.
  3. The SWAT team which is composed of over twenty officers from various agencies within the county.
  4. The dispatch supervisor.
  5. The clerks in public records.
  6. A sketch artist.
  7. Patrols.
  8. CSI.
  9. K-9 unit.

The hands-on activities are what most crime writers needs. I’ve aimed a lidar gun at traffic, acted as an officer performing a traffic stop or dealing with a tense confrontation, and learned how to sweep a building. These activities also provide me with glimpses into behind-the-scenes details that writers love to work into stories if they can. Facts like many officers suffer from lower back trouble after years of service because when they wear their bullet-proof vest and belt, they carry an extra twenty-five to thirty pounds.

I’m standing in the top hatch of an armored personnel vehicle own by the sheriff’s dept.

What I find even more interesting are the stories the officers tells, such as the detective who was assigned to a ten-year-old cold case and how he and his partner finally solved it. Or how a K-9 officer found the people who had broken into an abandoned jail. Or what does a rookie cop learn on the job that he can’t learn at the academy.

Most most fascinating of all is hearing how the officers view their work. One detective said he was doing “God’s work.” The sheriff spoke to us on our first night. After four decades in law enforcement, he is now hiring deputies younger than his children. The dispatch supervisor conveyed how protective the dispatchers are of the deputies they are helping in the field.

Whatever crime fiction story you are writing, try to get interviews with people who work in the particular aspect of law enforcement you are writing about. My WIP novel is set in a fictional, rural county in Ohio. Not all that I’ve learned about my home county’s sheriff’s department will apply because it has a much bigger population. So I conducted a phone interview with the chief deputy from a rural county. I was very nervous about calling the office because I’m an author with only two short stories to my credit. But he was very nice and answered all my questions.

That’s an attitude all the officers I’ve met through the academy have had. They want the citizens they protect to understand their jobs. As Clay Stafford, found of the Killer Nashville mystery writers conference, said, law enforcement professionals are flattered when writers bother to try to accurately represent their work.

Writers, what research have you done for a crime story? Readers, what mysteries have you read that seemed particularly well-researched?

What’s the Mystery?

This photo looks perfect to prompt a scene from romantic suspense, in which a couple fall in love while trying to solve a mystery or fight a crime. If you love romantic suspense, what’s the mystery this couple could be involved in?

Romantic suspense is a subgenre of crime fiction I rarely enjoy. So this photo inspires me to take a twist on it.

We pounded down the concrete, under the road, Sean’s breath harsher than mine own.

We had to catch them. Had to. They were the key to the rest of our lives together.

Sean darted up a flight of stairs, and I followed him. If I had to be in this mess, I was glad he was in it with me. No one else had his courage and determination.

We raced along a catwalk that ran beside the deserted road. Below and ahead, two figures came into view.

Sean kicked up the pace. If he could just get close enough …

One figure stumbled, and the second bent over.

Sean stopped and raised his gun.

If he could kill them now, we’d be safe. No one would ever suspect my husband’s death was anything but an accident.

Sean fired.

The Black Lizard Big Book of Locked Room Mysteries by Otto Penzler

Since I love mysteries, picking one to feature this month is so difficult. So I chose one book with a ton of mysteries, The Black Lizard Big Book of Locked Room Mysteries by Otto Penzler. The series of books under the Black Lizard banner is a great way to sample the best in mystery short fiction since the genre was created. I own four in the series, and Locked Room Mysteries is my favorite.

Locked room mysteries and impossible crimes are a subgenre of crime fiction as old as the genre itself. Edgar Allan Poe’s first published mystery short story, “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”, is a locked room mystery and the first story in the collection. The sixty-eight stories are arranged in different categories, such as the seven “most popular and frequently reprinted impossible-crime stories of all time”, stabbing under impossible circumstances, people who disappear when they couldn’t possibly do so, and murdered bodies found without any way for the murderer to have reached or left the victim.

After reading so many of these stories, I’ve noticed a trend in locked room mysteries: an author either hits it out of the ballpark or fouls badly. There isn’t any room in the subgenre for an okay story. The explanation either works so well it astonishes readers or is so contrived it makes them groan.

Below are my favorite stories from this collection.

The Adventure of the Speckled Band by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

One of the best Sherlock Holmes stories. A young woman hires Holmes after her sister dies under mysterious circumstances, her last words being “The speckled band!”

The Doomdorf Mystery by Melville Davisson Post

This story features one of my favorite detectives Uncle Abner, a strong-minded, Christian cattleman, who lives in West Virginia before the Civil War. The Uncle Abner stories, written between 1911 and 1928 may be the first example of historical mysteries.

Uncle Abner accompanies Squire Randolph to confront Doomdorf, a man whose liquor is raising havoc in the area. When they arrive at his home, they find he’s been shot while locked in a room overlooking a cliff. The solution is one of the most imaginative I’ve ever read.

A Knife Between Brothers by Manly Wade Wellman

I enjoy this story because the setting is so unusual for its time. Written in 1947, the detective is David Return, a policeman and member of the Tsichah tribe. His grandfather is the senior policeman on the reservation. David goes to settle a dispute between two elderly brothers and finds one murdered. He knows the living brother wasn’t strong enough to commit the crime, but how was the man murdered in an isolated cabin?

The Twelfth Statue by Stanley Ellin

This is another story I liked because of the setting, a B-movie unit working in Italy in the 1960’s. Mean, greedy, lecherous movie producer Alexander File disappears from a movie studio near Rome one night. With no shortage of suspects, the Italian police get nowhere. The writer working on the movie is equally baffled until he watches the finished product.

The Problem of the Old Oak Tree by Edward D. Hoch

Edward D. Hoch was the master of the mystery short story. One of his detectives, who appears in this story, only solves impossible crimes. Dr. Sam Hawthorne practices medicine in a rural American town in the 1920’s through the 1940’s. A stunt man dies in a scene being filmed near the small town. He’s found strangled with a wire after jumping from an airplane. And there’s no way anyone could have strangled him after he left the plane.

The Locked Bathroom by H.R.F.Keating

This is a fun story. Shrewish Mrs. Marchpane is in the bathroom with her husband when he disappears from the shower. No one can explain the disappearance but the cleaning lady Mrs. Craggs, who figures out the Great Locked Bathroom Mystery isn’t that mysterious at all.

What locked room or impossible crime stories do you recommend?

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