One Writer’s Journey

March 3, 2014

Red Herrings: What I Learned in my February Reading

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:43 am
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Not the mystery in question! In fact, none of the books I’ve imaged are.

I’ve been doing a lot of mystery reading lately in part because I’m contemplating writing a mystery. I know I want to write one, and I even have a few ideas, but I’m trying to decide which one to write.  So, in a grand act of perseverance, I’m reading instead.

One of the things that I’ve noticed is how hard it is to position the red herrings in your story so that they work and work well.  For those of you who don’t know, a red herring is a false lead.  Red herrings are what make both the reader and the sleuth suspect that an innocent person is the bad guy.  They are essential but difficult to place well:

Make them too subtle and your readers feel cheated.  “Hey, there was no way we could solve this!:

Make them too obvious and you give away your surprise ending.

Make them too similiar and things feel weird.  This one is going to require some explanation.  I recently listened to an urban fantasy/mystery in which the killer obviously had medical knowledge.  His kills revealed the skill of a surgeon.  Suspect number 1 (a lawyer), briefly went to medical school.  Suspect #2 was thrown out of medical school.  The detective could go toe-to-toe with the bad guy because, in spite of the fact that she is an archaeology specializing in the Anasazi, she too has a medical school background.

Seriously?  I could see if one was ex-military trained in field medicine, one was ex-medical school and one had veterinary training but all three had gone to medical school.  I feel like I’m the only one who missed out.

When you lay out your clues and give your characters the background needed to make your story work, don’t always go with your first thought (medical school).  Get creative.  Come at some of the clues sideways.  Lay them out there but make sure they are believable.

Here is my February reading list:

  1. Admirand, C.H.  Welcome Back to Apple Grove (Sourcebooks/Cacablanca)
  2. Averbeck, Jim.  Oh No, Little Dragon! (Atheneum Books for Young Readers)
  3. Averbeck, Jim.  The Market Bowl (Charlesbridge)
  4. Baker, Jeanie.  Mirror (Candlewick Press)
  5. Blackwell, Juliet.  Home for the Haunting (Obsidian/Penguin Group)
  6. Campbell, K. G. The Mermaid and the Shoe (Kids Can Press)
  7. Carleson, C.J., The Tyrant’s Daughter (Alfred A. Knopf)
  8. da Costa, Deboarh.  Snow in Jerusalem (Albert Whitman and Company)
  9. Fleming, Candace.  Papa’s Mechanical Fish (Margaret Ferguson Books/Farrar Straus Giroux)
  10. Ilibagiza, Immaculee.  Left to Tell.  
  11. Kiefer, Erica.  Lingering Echoes (Clean Teen Press)
  12. LaRochelle, David.  Moo! (Walker Books for Young Readers)
  13. Preston, Douglas and Lincoln Child.  The Cabinet of Curiosities.  
  14. Root, Phyllis. Plant a Pocket of Prairie (University of Minnesota Press)
  15. Turnage, Sheila.  Three Times Lucky 


July 23, 2013

Descriptions: Making Them Work in Your Novel

Novel SettingLast week, I wrote a post about setting details in your picture book.  With such a limited word count, every picture book detail has to count and the best way to do this is to leave visual details to the illustrator.

But you should be just as careful when planting setting details in a novel.  Yes, you have a much larger word count but you will also create a stronger story if every detail is there for a reason.

  • Employing All of Your Senses: We all know to use our various senses in our writing.  Many writers I know make sure that they have 3 sensory details on each page of their novel.  But make these details count by making sure they are something your narrator would notice.  An artist will notice things that a surgeon would overlook.  An athlete will notice something else entirely.  In this way, you can use your sensory details to tell us about your character.
  • Characterization: Details can reveal the setting while also telling us all about your character.  What kind of home does your character live in?  What props does she choose for herself?  What things are chosen by people who should know her but don’t?  This can all reveal character to the reader.
  • Mood: Setting details can also reveal mood. If you want to lend an ominous mood to your story, the sky could be steely vs. pearly grey, the scent of flowers cloying vs. fragrant, the wind chimes jarring vs. melodic. 
  • Red Herrings: If you are writing a mystery, the setting is also the place to work in some of your red herrings.  A carelessly forgotten book, a misplaced pair of sunglasses or a torn jacket can all seem to say something ominous even when they would be innocent in any story other than a mystery.

Because a novel has a much larger word count that a picture book, many writers throw in setting details willy nilly.  Carefully plant details with a purpose and you will have a richly layered story that takes your reader from one carefully plotted location to another, all under the control of you, the writer.


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