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!
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.