Collaborative Fiction Part 3

Today’s photo prompt is for our collaborative mystery, part 3. If you want to read part 1 of the mystery, click here. For part 2, click here.

If you are new to this kind of writing prompt, here are the rules:

  • I’ll write two or three sentences in the comments to start the next section of the mystery.
  • Anyone who wants to may write two or three more sentences. 
  • Please no graphic content.
  • Next week, I’ll take the last sentences in the comments from this week and repeat them as the lead sentence for the next photo prompt.
  • By the end of the month, we’ll have a story!

Collaborative Mystery Part 2

Today’s photo prompt is for our collaborative mystery, part 2. If you want to read part 1 of the mystery, click here.

If you are new to this kind of writing prompt, here are the rules:

  • I’ll write two or three sentences in the comments to start the next section of the mystery.
  • Anyone who wants to may write two or three more sentences. 
  • Please no graphic content.
  • Next week, I’ll take the last sentences in the comments from this week and repeat them as the lead sentence for the next photo prompt.
  • By the end of the month, we’ll have a story!

Collaborative Mystery, Part 1

Welcome to Mystery Month on JPC Allen Writes! All the prompts and tips relate to mysteries. This October is especially exciting for me because I’ll be revealing the cover and promoting the pre-release of my debut YA mystery, A Shadow on the Snow! As part of the celebration, I’m trying something new with my prompts for Monday Sparks. All the photos this month will be prompts for a collaborative mystery.

What is a collaborative mystery? Collaborative fiction is when multiple authors write different parts of one story. Here’s how it will work on my blog:

  • I’ll write two or three sentences in the comments to start the mystery.
  • Anyone who wants to may write two or three more sentences.
  • Please no graphic content.
  • Next week, I’ll take the last sentences in the comments from this week and repeat them as the lead sentence for the next photo prompt.
  • By the end of the month, we’ll have a story!

Who wants to be part of a collaborative mystery, part 1?

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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