Clues, Clues Everywhere, or The Truth Hiding in Plain Sight

by Janis Patterson

What is a clue? I can hear all of you now saying “Duh! A clue is something the sleuth notices that helps solve the crime.”

Okay, that’s right – as far as it goes. The problem is, how do we make a series of clues that will help solve the crime that is neither so blatant that the story is over on page 19 or is so esoteric that the reader doesn’t understand it even after the crime has been solved and the clues explained?

I remember reading an Ellery Queen mystery (sorry I don’t remember the title – I was only seven or so) where the deciding clue was based on a particular letter of the Phoenician alphabet. The murder was cleverly done, as I recall, but the idea that both the killer and the sleuth (Mr. Queen) would be in the same rather mundane place at the same time and both know the Phoenician alphabet so jarred on my infant sensibilities that I remember it to this day. As I recall the setting was a house party at a rich man’s mansion, but I might be wrong about that.

Adding in clues is sort of like adding garlic to a casserole; too little and it is flat and uninteresting, but too many and it is unappetizing or perhaps even unswallowable.

In my opinion, the best clues are the ones that grow out of the characters and the storyline in an almost organic process. The truly best clues are the ones that sometimes even you don’t know are there.

An example. Years ago, when I was writing my first Janis Patterson mystery THE HOLLOW HOUSE I knew from the beginning who the murderer was going to be, but as I am a pantser, not much else. The story was ticking along quite well until about five chapters from the end, when I suddenly realized that my pre-determined murderer could not have done it. I floundered around for a while, then all of a sudden ‘Wow! Of course! So-and-so did it.’ And I wrote on, for another half chapter or so before once again it came to me that my new murderer couldn’t have done it. Truth is, from that first realization to the climax I changed the murderer some five times. Finally, as I was desperately trying to decide who did it, I suddenly realized who it was – someone I had never considered.

I don’t know why I had never considered this person, but it was perfect. The only bad thing was I knew I’d have to go back through the whole book and put in clues pointing to this person. Sigh. However… when I did start through the book, the clues implicating this person were all there already. I think I added two.

So – clues not only have to be there, they have to be subtle. How did I do it? I don’t know. The creation of a book, in case you hadn’t noticed, is very much akin to magic.

One way, I believe, was put forward by some famous mystery writer years ago – sorry, but I don’t remember which one. He said that the best way was to make everyone capable of being the murderer, then exonerate them one by one, just like your sleuth. I know there are those mystery writers who pre-plot every clue, and there are some who do it very well. Joy go with them. I can’t do that – I would be so bored that the book would never be written. I guess I have to be as much of a sleuth uncovering the truth as my detective.

Commercial : For those of you in the Denver area and those of you going there to attend the Historical Novel Society conference, I will be there both at the booksigning and presenting a paper on Egyptology and Elizabeth Peters. Ms. Peters (aka Barbara Michaels and Dr. Barbara Mertz) was an incredible author and a friend. She is very much missed.

14 thoughts on “Clues, Clues Everywhere, or The Truth Hiding in Plain Sight

  1. Wonderful post, Janis! I’m also a pantser and there have been a number of times when the killer was someone other than the one I’d originally planned on. I’m glad to hear I have company. By the way, Elizabeth Peters was (and is) one of my favorite authors. I was able to meet her one time, and I’ll never forget her. You’re fortunate to count her among your friends.


  2. I heard at a conference once that there should be three clues leading to the killer and then the clincher. I tend to make all my suspects appear guilty. Sometimes the guy I planned to be the killer turns out to be the red herring. So even though I am a plotter, things can change along the way.


  3. The most difficult part for me is figuring out how the killer gives himself away subtly enough that the sleuth figures it out before the reader. In my WIP, I’m thinking the killer does something he wouldn’t normally have done because of his knowledge of the crime. But what that’s going to be and how to keep the reader from figuring it out mid-book is giving me a headache. Maybe my problem is the same as in your example, Janis. I’m going to see if changing the killer gives me the answer.


  4. I love clues! I’m one of those readers who focus on figuring out whodunnit. Sometimes that means flipping back through the book a few times (while reading it) to remind myself about any thing I think might be a clue! But in my writing, I do find they happen organically – and I do give all the suspects at least means, motive or opportunity.


  5. Good post! I have a list of suspects when I start the book. I have motives why each could have killed the victim and then I let the story organically flow from there. Writing mysteries is as much fun as reading them!


  6. Those clues I somehow plant in my stories are as much as surprise to me as my readers. I’m a pantser, too. I would love to attend your presentation in Denver, but if I took our only car and drove away for a few days, my husband would wonder. Elizabeth Peters was, is, one of my favorite authors. Great post, Janis.


  7. I really have no idea how to plant clues. Probably why i don’t write mystery and suspense. SIGH. wish I did! Love reading them, though. Great post. Love a glimpse into the mind of a mystery writer.


  8. Excellent post! I often have the same problem, even though I’m writing the book, the guilty party turns out to be someone different than what I planned. This is part of the fun of writing mysteries.


    1. June 26-28. I don’t know if the conference is sold out or not, but the booksigning is open to the public.


  9. Hi, Janis,

    I agree that a good mystery writer leaves clues scattered throughout the work indicating the real perp. However, it should never be obvious who is guilty. Multiple suspects are necessary. Mysteries are great fun and wonderful mental exercise.


    1. Thanks, Jacqueline – I agree it should never be obvious, and if you don’t have multiple suspects who could be equally guilty, that is going to be one short mystery! The fun of a mystery to me is the puzzle.


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