Help! I Need Fish

Question marksWhen is a Clue Not a Clue? When it’s a Red Herring.

I’ve just unearthed a cozy that I started and abandoned a few years ago after an idea for a paranormal seized my imagination. The desertion was made easier by the fact that my mystery was floundering.

All my life I’ve devoured mystery stories. My trips through the library stacks began and ended in the section where all the spines had yellow Sherlock stickers. Since whodunnits and gothics topped my reading wish lists, it seemed like a no-brainer to choose the mystery genre for my first foray into writing. How hard could it be?

I went into the proposition with a character-based idea. I knew the protagonist. She was formed from all the women I’d read about with authors like Sue Grafton and Janet Evanovich. My protagonist, however, would be an amateur sleuth, a la Miss Marple.Miss Marple

The first chapter sped along and ideas for my characters bloomed. I described them and their relationships with each other. I supplied the corpse. I inserted a love interest and dreamed of the book tour. Things that I’d neglected? A good reason for the murder, a good candidate for the killer, and any kind of clues or red herrings. What? I’d been so focused on characters that I’d ignored plot, and in mysteries, the plot with its many twists is king. So, I bailed. Left my protagonist in the lurch and headed to the land of ghosts and magic powers.

A few months ago, I dusted off the manuscript, did some work on it, and read the first few chapters to my writing group. Before I finished, someone asked me about one of the characters. “Is he the killer?” Rats. He was. I really liked the story and wanted it to work. What was I to do? The answer seemed obvious, more suspects. I needed Red Herrings.

All you mystery authors out there, who drop red herrings throughout your work like croutons in a salad are probably chuckling. For me, that answer, though simple, was difficult to pull off. So, I resorted to Google and found a plethora of information on the term, “red herring”.

red herringMost people agree that the term “red herring” originated in Britain. One reference that I liked reported that the ripe smell of a herring was used by early animal rights activists to throw the hounds off the scent of the fox. The “red”, it was thought, probably came from the color of smoking and curing the fish.

I was surprised to learn that “red herring” is not just a literary trick. It can be found not only in mystery and suspense novels, but also in movies and real life. For instance, any attempt to deflect someone from their purpose by trying to redirect their thoughts is called a red herring. People in trouble often try to steer the subject of their transgression in another direction. If you’re looking for a good example of a red herring, listen to a political smellydebate or pay attention any time tough questions are aimed at our wiley politicians. They are masters of the art of deflection.

Back to my story. How can I incorporate successful red herrings into my tale? I use the word, successful, because it would be easy to toss in a bunch of suspects to try and throw the reader off the trail. The difficulty here lies in the plausibility of the red herring. Will the reader believe that a suspect might actually be the murderer? And, how cleverly have I handed this suspect to the reader? Not only should the red herring be conceivable, but it should be something the reader believes in, through the characters’ or his own deduction, not something handed to him by the writer.

This is where I become stymied. I have a host of people for suspects, but how can I weave their possible culpability into the story without disclosing my sinister motive? Enter the great and wonderful internet once more, “How to introduce a red herring.” I found a blog with excellent information:

There I learned some valuable truths about formulating suspects. In order for a suspect to have plausibility, he has to: 1) benefit from the crime, and 2) have means and opportunity. That way, the reader as well as the investigator will include the person in his list of suspects.

Other less obvious, but equally important, clues can evolve using setting, where the crime takes place and how that place relates to each suspect. Also, what you see or don’t see at the scene of the crime is important. Does an item at the scene have some relation to Agatha Christieone or more of the suspects? Does the absence of an item say something about the killer? What about the item itself? Could it have different meanings that point to more than one suspect? Agatha Christie, the Grande Dame of mystery, would know.

Sometimes, a clue is simply a clue, but if introduced during the middle of an emotional subplot, can be initially overlooked by the reader. While the reader is concentrating on the immediate problem, the writer can slip in a clue that later resonates with the reader. How many times have you said, “Oh, right, I remember that.” Sometimes, I get so caught up in the plot that I miss the clues, but I always seem to fall for the red herrings. That’s part of the lure of the genre. I enjoy trying to guess the identity of the killer, but don’t want to figure it out too early in the book, and I really appreciate a good twist at the end.

The last advice I’ve gleaned from my research is to read, read, and re-read in the genre. I’m going to have to dust off the old collection, and dig in to some of my favorite mysteries. This time, though, I’ll go through them like a writer, watching for the clues and red herrings, and hoping I can add some of that magic to my own work. Ooh! I’m already feeling more devious.

If you have any suggestions for me, I’d love to hear them. In the meantime,

Keep Writing!




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