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?

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?

Writing Tip — Why I love Mysteries, Part 2

mortalityw2-401222_1920.jpgIn my post on Tuesday, I discussed two parts of what makes mysteries so compelling for me, the puzzle and the investigation. Today, I’ll cover the other two.

The Detective

The detective character is what people remember and the reason they return to a series. Few people know the details of Sherlock Holmes’s cases, beyond, maybe, The Hound of the Baskervilles. But almost every human on the planet knows who Sherlock Holmes is. The same is true for Agatha Christiie’s Hercule Poiroit. Readers know the detective, but the only case they can name, if any, is Murder on the Orient Express.

The detective should be someone I want to be with as I follow her investigation. She can be admirable or likable or relatable, but she must have some quality that makes the reader want to spend time with her.

The Solution

Locked RoomSitting by my bed was The Black Lizard Big Book of Locked Room Mysteries. When my youngest saw it, he asked, “Why do you read all those books about blood and murder? You must like murder.”

I said that, no, I didn’t like murder. I read those stories because I want to see justice done and the guilty caught. Or, as several authors said at the Killer Nashville International Writers’ Conference, readers want to see the world made right again and order restored.

As I said in my last post, the stakes of the puzzle should be high to involve the reader emotionally as well as intellectually. That doesn’t mean it must be gory or sordid. Just high enough for readers to care. The solution is the pay off, satisfying again both the intellectual and the emotional parts of the story.

Puzzle + Investigation + Detective + Solution = Great Mystery

When those four components come together in a meaningful or surprising or fun way, then that’s a mystery I will read again and again.

Those components are also what I kept in mind when I wrote “A Rose from the Ashes,” a short story that is my first true whodunit. As I wrote it last December, I wanted a puzzle that grabbed readers’ minds and hearts, an investigation with lots of twists that will reward readers for spending their time with it, a likable detective whom readers can root for, and a solution that leaves them feeling satisfied.

I hope I pulled it off. If you read my story in the anthology Christmas fiction off the beaten path, let me know if you think I succeeded.

Writing Tip — Why I Love Mysteries, Part 1

mortalityw1-401222_1920Since this month’s theme is mysteries, I thought I should write about why it’s my favorite genre. But when I came to write this post, I quickly got stumped. I’ve been in love with mysteries for so long that I find it hard to step back and explain why. But after some serious, deep thinking — I’ll take an aspirin later — I’ve discovered four reasons.

The Puzzle

I love puzzles that challenge my intellect. The mystery starts with something that is wrong in the lives of the characters. A series of robberies have occurred, and the police must stop them. The obnoxious newcomer to town gets killed. A high school senior receives threatening texts from an anonymous source. The puzzle must be solved in order to put life right again.

Sometimes, I just like a puzzle, like the stories by Agatha Christie. But if the puzzle can have some kind of emotional stake tied to it, that’s even better. The detective faces dire consequences if he doesn’t solve it. If the detective is in a series, it may stretch believability to the breaking point if ever mystery is high stakes for him. But it can be high stakes for some character the detective it trying to help.

The Investigation

How the detective solves the puzzle determines how much readers will enjoy it. Agatha Christie is still the gold standard for whodunits because the process for uncovering clues and drawing conclusions made sense in most of her stories.

I’ve read mysteries that were entertaining but the detective’s explanation of how she pierced together clues to reach her solution didn’t make sense to me. So while it was a good story, it wasn’t a good mystery.

In the novella Kill Now—Pay Later by Rex Stout, Nero Wolfe accepts as a client the daughter of the man who shined his shoes for three years. A man at the business where the daughter worked as a secretary was murdered. The police think her father did it because the man seduced the daughter. When the father is found dead, the police believe it was suicide. Case closed.

The daughter tells Wolfe that she was not seduced, and her father would never have believed that about her. She offers Wolfe all the tips her father collected from Wolfe over the three years. Her father wanted to save the money for something special.

Wolfe later tells the police he believed the daughter’s story because if the story of the seduction was true, she had no reason to make up her tale and offer what was for her an exorbitant amount of money. Therefore he knew both deaths were murders.

It’s those kind of deductions, ones that ring true to life, that I love to come across in a mystery.

It must be the librarian in me, but I also love when the detective has to conduct serious research into a mystery, especially a cold case. In the 1973 TV movie, The Night Strangler, reporter Carl Kolchak is investigating the strangulation murders of several women. He visits the newspaper’s librarian, or what used to be called the “morgue attendant”. The librarian remembers a similar set of strangulation murders from some time in the 1950’s. They haul out the huge books that have the old editions for the paper pasted in them. The librarian was right. A set of strangulations murders occurred in 1952, all women.

The librarian and Kolchak dig more and discover that six women have been strangled every twenty-one years from 1889 to 1973. The scenes for these discoveries is the dark basement of the newspaper building. Eerie musical cues screech each time Kolchak opens up an old book to discover yet another newspaper article on the murders.

Unexpected discoveries that a detective unearths during his investigation thrill me as a reader, or viewer, and makes mysteries so intriguing.

I’ll have the other two reason I love mysteries in my next post.

Writing Tip — Favorite Book: Police Procedures and Investigations by Lee Lofland

Police procedureIf you are looking for one resource to introduce you to the world of law and order, I highly recommend Police Procedures and Investigations: a Guide for Writers by Lee Lofland.

Last winter, I got the inspiration for a a new mystery series and realized I needed to know a lot more than I already did about police work, which was zero. This book covers such areas as how men and women are trained at a police academy, the proper process for arrests and searches, the different departments of law enforcement in the U.S., how the court system works (I’ve never understood which courts try which crimes), and much more.

The copyright date is 2007, so some of the science may be out of date. My favorite chapter is the last one. Mr. Lofland writes about how many Americans believe they understand law enforcement from what they see on TV. This leads to people on juries misunderstanding forensic evidence because it’s not presented in a trial like it is on the C.S.I. shows.

Mr. Lofland offers some quotes of what real police officers think of their fictional counterparts.

“Police officers don’t fire warning shots! For goodness’ sake, what goes up must come down!”

“TV cops return to a crime scene over and over again to collect evidence. In real life, you usually get one shot at the scene.”

All of these quotes are from officers in Ohio, which is especially helpful to me, because that is where my series is set.

Another part of the book that I found fascinating were the short, personal essays. The author relates stories concerning the first autopsy he watched, putting a gang under surveillance, and trying to arrest a mountain of a man without using his gun. Those stories make law enforcement seem real to me.

No one in my family, except for a cousin, who is now a member of the Army police, or my husband’s family is involved in law enforcement. So reading this book has opened my eyes to a life I knew nothing about. As a writer, I want to tell a compelling story. But not at the expense of reality. I want to write about the men and women in law enforcement in a realistic way. I’ve found the more research I do hasn’t limited my inspiration. It has actually sparked it.

What book do you recommend for mystery writers?

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