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?

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.”

What’s the Mystery?

October is mystery month on my blog. What’s the mystery this photo might inspire? Here’s my idea:

The two men talked as they walked, but they seemed more focused on each sound that made them glance over their shoulders or peer toward the end of the tunnel.

“It’s all set then?” said the younger man.

“Unless you have any more questions.” The older man adjusted his hat.

“Just one.” The young man stopped. “Should we go through with it?”

The moisture dripped from the ceiling of the tunnel.

His head bent, the older man said, “What choice do we have?” He jerked upright. “Someone ran across the entrance.”

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.

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