Fall Weather as Writing Inspiration

Fall is the best time of year in Buckeye State. Cool nights, warms days, and little precipitation allows people to enjoy the fun and wonders of fall. So it was fairly easy for me to use fall weather as writing inspiration.

Harvest

Farmers in my county are in full harvest mode. Combines of all sizes are collecting the corn and soybean crops. If I wanted to write about that kind of harvest, I’d have to do research and interview farmers from my church. But one harvest I am familiar with is black walnuts.

Black walnut trees are plentiful on our property as well as all over the county. The trees drop their nuts, usually, the last week of September or the first week of October. Getting the meat out of a black walnut is a laborious process–the green husk must be removed and the black gunk (I tried to find a precise term for this stuff and couldn’t) between the husk and nut stains everything, but the hardest part, literally, is cracking the nut itself.

Black walnuts are much, much tougher than English walnuts. It took us years before we found an effective tool to break the shells without straining our muscles or dodging shell shrapnel as a less helpful nut cracker turned some nuts into mini bombs.

The whole process is ripe (pun intended) for a humorous story about a family tackling a black walnut harvest. Or it could be a family drama in which the harvest ties generations together.

Indian summer

We’re experiencing one right now in my county. Wikipedia states that Indian summer is a warm, dry period in October or November after a frost. The Old Farmer’s Almanac has a much more detailed definition. Either way, this kind of weather allows us to experience one last shot of summer before winter settles in.

That makes me think of using this weather phenomenon as a setting for a main character who gets one last chance to achieve something. I’m not the first writer to think of it. I found on Wikipedia that William Dean Howell’s wrote a novel in 1886 entitled Indian Summer about a man who falls in love in middle age.

Indian summer seems like the perfect backdrop for a reconciliation between friends, or relatives, or husband and wife. I could also use it for a character who gave up some passion that he loves, maybe painting, for a more traditional job and gets another chance to follow his dream. Any story about a loss and then an unexpected hope of recovery will work.

Blue Moon of Halloween

I hope those of you who celebrate Halloween got to experience the blue moon. It was a perfectly clear night at our house, and the full moonlight was magical. My husband and I took a walk into the woods under its silver glow. I’ve written before about how to use a full moon night as writing inspiration. What intrigues me was the fact that there hasn’t been a blue moon on Halloween since 1944.

What if in the waining days of World War II, the Nazis unleash some horrible evil force or entity that was only accessible on Halloween under a blue moon? A young soldier, who witnessed this act, has dedicated his life to fighitng it. Now that 2020 was arrived with another blue moon on Halloween, he has a chance to destroy the evil. But he’s in his nineties. He must assemble a team to help him. A group of Neo-Nazis could be defending the evil. I could even work in how the pandemic is hampering the good guys’ efforts.

What’s fall like where you live? How could you use fall weather as writing inspiration?

Prompt for NaNoWriMo

Happy National Novel Writing Month! For those of you who haven’t heard of it, NaNoWriMo is an effort to help writers write 50,000 words for a novel in 30 days. (Why they picked the month with a major holiday in it, I don’t know. I would have preferred March, but I wasn’t consulted.) You can sign up at the official website or create your own goal and keep track of it yourself.

The Monday Sparks this month will be prompts for NaNoWriMo. Today’s prompt is a setting, but it can also inspire characters and plots as well.

Where are these rooms? The beds have been slept in, and one looks like a make-shift bed for a guest. A purse hangs on the couch-bed. Who lives here? Who is the guest? Why did the guest come? Was he expected or unexpected? Welcomed or received reluctantly?

For more prompts, check out all my Monday Sparks.

I’d love to hear your perspective on this scene!

Three Tips for Writing YA Mysteries

I’ve loved mysteries since I first sat down in front of the TV on Saturday mornings to watch Scooby Doo. In the past two years, I’ve had two crime short stories published in anthologies from Mt. Zion Ridge Press. I could have written my short stories from any point of view, but I felt most comfortable writing from the POV of a teen. In the process of writing “Debt to Pay”, a country noir, and “A Rose from the Ashes,” a Christmas mystery, I learned some important lessons and want to share three tips for writing YA mysteries.

Teens make great amateur detectives.

Stories with amateur detectives have always attracted me because they are the ultimate underdog in mysteries. And I love underdog stories, making me empathize and sympathize wit the main character. Who could be more of an underdog than a teen, especially one who isn’t even a legal adult yet? Without the aid of official standing, fellow officers, or a crime lab, the amateur detective tries to solve a mystery relying solely on her intellect and abilities.

To make the amateur detective more believable as a character, I need to give her some qualities that she can apply to crime solving. She can have an insatiable curiosity or just plain nosiness. Maybe she can’t stand seeing someone bullied or has a deep desire for justice. If the mystery involves other teens, then the teen detective has an edge over the police because she can investigate in ways they can’t.


In “A Rose from the Ashes,” my teen detective, nineteen-year-old Rae Riley, shows great determination and courage as she tries to fulfill her late mother’s dying wish. She thinks if she uncovers who tried to murder her pregnant mother twenty years before, she may also discover the father she’s never met.


The investigation is about more than the investigation.

The teen detective’s pursuit of the mystery should mean more than just finding the answer. In the real world, the teen years are a time of change and discovery. Uniting those themes with a mystery makes for a richer story. The investigation can be a sign that the teen detecrive is ready for more independence or responsibility. Or maybe he’s a loner, who learns to rely on friends. Many of these themes can be applied to mysteries with adult characters, but I find them more meaningful when used within a YA mystery. In my story, Rae is desperate for a family since her mom died. She’s willing to take on a would-be killer if it leads to her father.

The teen detective must be active in the solution.

As a teen, I never wanted to read a YA book where the teen main character screws up so badly that an adult has to save him. Although it’s often true in real life, and because of that fact, I wanted something different in my fiction.

After encouraging readers to follow the teen detective through her investigation, I can’t have the police or some other adult solve it for her. Or, even worse, have the police rescue her from the criminal. Having the teen detective blunder so badly that she must be bailed out will only irritate readers.

That doesn’t mean the detective can’t make mistakes. The teen detective has to remain human. Only Sherlock Holmes can get away with perfect deductions. She doesn’t have to figure out every part of the mystery. She can unmask the criminal but maybe not understand all his motivations until after he’s arrested and questioned by the police. Or the criminal isn’t who she suspected, and when the true one comes after her, she captures him. But the teen detective must be essential to solving the mystery and never just a helpless bystander.

What are some of your favorite YA mysteries? I’d love to get some recommendations!

What’s the Mystery?

Last prompt of my month of mysteries! I chose a photo that could inspire a Halloween mystery, either a straight whodunit or a mystery with a supernatural twist.

What’s the mystery? Here’s my take:

“Okay, we’ve been in every room.” My cousin Made hurried to the front door, gathering her long skirt in her hands. “Now can we please go before the cops catch us in here?”

“We haven’t been in the basement.” Ava adjusted her gray-streaked wig.

“That’s not a room.” Made had her hand on the doorknob. “It’s a floor. The dare just said every room.”

“Oh, come on.” I started down the stairs, my flashlight highlighting every gross cobweb and dirt-caked corner. “It’ll take only one more minute, and then I can shove Erin’s dare in her face.”

The stairs creaked behind me as Madi and Ava followed. At the bottom was one closed door. I stopped, my breath coming short. I’d thought the basement would be open, like mine at home. I didn’t expect a separate room.

“What are you waiting for?” Ava said in my ear.

“Nothing.” The word was hoarse, but I took another step.

A thud reached us, and Ava and I jerked like it was a punch that had landed on each of us. Madi screamed.

Another thud, this time with wood cracking under it, and the door at the bottom of the stairs shook.

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?

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