Tuesday, January 07, 2014

Posted by Laurel Garver on Tuesday, January 07, 2014 18 comments
Thank you, Laurel, for hosting me!

 I tend to be a bit of a goofball, so it may have escaped those of you who know me that I know some stuff. Writing mysteries has some tricks to it... which is GOOD, as the GOAL with genre mystery is to both give your reader everything they need to solve the mystery AND not make it too easy to solve—keep them guessing up until the end, but in such a way that they look back and think I SHOULD HAVE SEEN THAT!
 
One of the primary tools of this mission is the Red Herring. What IS a red herring? you may wonder (if mystery isn't something you've dabbled in). They are the clues leading the reader (and sleuth) directly to the WRONG conclusion.

Genre mystery tends to have a couple things and I am working with these as an assumption, so you should probably know what they are: a dead body, a sleuth trying to solve the mystery (with an amateur sleuth this tends to be because somebody she cares about is either dead or implicated), and suspects. I should emphasize that. SuspectS. More than one. The sleuth goes through the evidence and looks at the possible people, and generally changes her mind as she goes (most often because the clue that links them, turns out to have an alternative explanation, or the suspect is proven impossible (or turns up dead)...)

So how do I plot my herrings?

I generally start with my list of suspects and give ALL of them a motive to kill the dead guy. I like to draw this... 4 or 5 suspects is sort of the sweet spot with cozy mysteries, fewer in some of the darker sub-genres. But the point is, the SLEUTH at least can see a reason ALL of these people might want the victim dead. THEN I come up with the ways the sleuth might learn of those motives... the clues, all but one strand of which are herrings.

With so many suspects, it is best if a couple of them are connected to each other and those herrings are somewhat related, too. Otherwise the book can feel sort of 'listee'. (this is one of the reasons I like to draw this--I can link all the related pieces visually to help me make sense of it for plotting.)

So what ARE these?

Sometimes this is physical evidence [in my first cozy mystery, The Azalea Assault, the sleuth finds a CD proving two of the characters were formerly in a band with the dead guy, so it gives a history to look into], it could be a witness account, or gossip, or some other dug-up information (via internet or public records maybe) or perhaps it's a character acting 'out of character' (sneaking around). These can even be combined. I have a second tier character who is a police officer and his girlfriend is my sleuth's best friend, so sometimes what we are working with is rumors about physical evidence.

And a trick I learned from Elizabeth Spann Craig, which I find helpful... have ALL your suspects tell at least one lie... could be for as simple a reason as they are embarrassed, or as complicated as they think a loved one did it (whether they DID or not), but it is helpful to have the reader not 100% trust what ANYBODY says, not to mention the lie itself can be a clue or herring.

One of the tricks here is to mix it up—if you have an entirely gossip based fact-finding mission... *yawn* Another is to have a couple multi-pronged herrings (herrings that LOOK like they mean one thing, but ACTUALLY mean another... in fact maybe it isn't a herring AT ALL but a halibut leading you in the right direction, once you wipe off all that herring oil... or something.

Is the fish analogy going too far? Sorry about that. Seriously, though. The OTHER things herrings need are the REAL explanation. One by one all those herrings must be picked up and sniffed and if they ARE herrings, they need to be identified as such—it is unfair to the reader to just leave them out there unclaimed or unexplained.


Hart Johnson works as a social scientist at a large midwestern university by day, and by night plots grand conspiracies, life angst and murder. As a writer she suffers multiple identity disorder, writing cozy mysteries as Alyse Carlson, suspense and conspiracies under the name Hart Johnson, suspects she will need a new name when the young adult begins to be published, and blogs as The Watery Tart.

Hart's Books The Garden Society Mystery Series (by Alyse Carlson) feature Camellia Harris, the 30-something public relations guru, her best (zany) friend Annie, and assorted other friends and family.

The Azalea Assault and The Begonia Bribe are available through typical bookstores, and Keeping Mum will be released March 4. (All are also available through B&N or Amazon, but my local Indie bookstore has been so amazing, that I always suggest checking there first) A Shot in the Light: Hart is also serially releasing a flu conspiracy thriller tale, 100 pages at a time. The first six are available (about half). New episodes come out about once a month.

18 comments:

  1. This is something I've been thinking about with a book I'm working on, where the mystery provides the spine of the plot. I probably still need to strengthen a couple of herrings.

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    1. Her suggestion of having several strong suspects is a good one. Good luck with your project!

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  2. Thank you for the sound advice! I'm starting to write a mystery right now, and this is incredibly helpful.

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    1. Glad to hear it was the right information at the right time.

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  3. Thank you so much for having me, Laurel!

    Stu-I think they definitely help pull the reader in--get them wondering what is up.

    Faith-YAY for timely advice!

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    1. You're most welcome. Thanks for the informative post!

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  4. There's a bit of a mystery in my current manuscript, so this was helpful. Even if there are no dead bodies. Or fish. Sea kelp, perhaps...

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    1. Placing misleading clues can be used in romance and even to pump up humor. It's pretty core to unreliable narrators in literary fiction, too.

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  5. Yes, everyone does lie -- which is all right because nobody listens ... unless you are a sleuth -- which means you have to ask WHY did they lie? or worse tell a lie with the truth carefully worded! Great post, Hart!

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    1. Lying all around is an interesting technique to really test a sleuth.

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  6. I love red herrings -- especially when they're in a good wine sauce.

    Seriously, I'm really looking forward to this newest mystery with the ever resourceful Camellia Harris.

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    1. Also delicious with creamy dill sauce. :-) Thanks for visiting, Helena!

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  7. This was very helpful, Hart, even for those of who don't necessarily write mysteries :)

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    1. I've seen quite a bit of "red herring" technique used in love triangle scenarios. It can be a fairly multi-purpose technique for all kinds of stories.

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  8. I love how you explained the manner you use to plot your herrings. That's fantastic. And very simply put, I might add. Thanks so much, Hart! And thx to Laurel for having you.

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    1. She has been a fabulous guest, right? Thanks for coming by, Sheri.

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  9. Writing a mystery with good suspects and red herrings is tough! But with the way you've explained it (the drawing it) I can visualize it much more easily! :)

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    1. It is a good technique for lots of genres. I just finished Rainbow Rowell's Eleanor & Park, a YA contemporary, heavy on romance, that uses red herrings to keep it a mystery as to who is tormenting the heroine.

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