Clue, Clue, Who’s Got the Clue, or How to Sneak Your Way to a Good Mystery

by Janis Patterson

Writing a mystery means walking a very fine line.

You want to play fair with the reader and give him the chance to solve the mystery. Sort of.

Readers love to play along and see if they can match/beat your sleuth to the correct solution. In almost every case (so said because there is an exception to everything) nothing makes readers angrier than the solution just coming out of the blue with nothing leading up to it. Worse than that, it’s lazy writing.

So how do you do play fair and still mystify the reader?

Be sneaky.

Put your clues out there, but make them appear to be inconsequential, throw-away things that have no relation to the case. Also put out fake clues leading to a different conclusion (some call them red herrings, but I don’t like fish), but put them out in two ways – some as inconsequentials and some as great big whacking things that might as well have CLUE in blinking neon above them.

No one said you had to play completely fair, did they?

There’s also a traditional ploy called a MacGuffin. Sounds sort of like it should be some kind of fast food, but it’s real – trust me. The MacGuffin is a lovely tool of misdirection. That’s the word I’ve been looking for – misdirection! Just like a magician, you direct the reader’s attention in one direction with one hand while the other hand – in semi-plain view – is actually doing the trick, but no one is really looking at it.

Anyway, the MacGuffin is what everyone in the book seems to want – such as everyone believes the vicar was murdered in a foiled robbery attempt to steal an ancient chalice. All the characters go rushing around trying to figure out who wanted to steal the chalice and why, while the vicar was really murdered because his tulips were certain to win the annual flower show away from the Grande Dame of the village who dislikes losing. The chalice is only a MacGuffin. Now that’s an extremely simplistic example, but in reality the MacGuffin is one of the best tools in the mystery writer’s arsenal.

MacGuffins and misdirection – use them well, and you will keep your reader happily amused and hopefully confused. Or is it the other way around?

(For those with very good memories, you know I wrote this blog several years ago. I am reposting it now because (1) it is still true and relevant and (2) for several days before this appears and for several days after I am up to my earlobes in a very intense professional conference. It seemed better to share a ‘golden oldie’ than to just cobble together something or skip posting entirely. Hope you understand. Also, because I will not have my computer available, please forgive if I am not able to okay comments until this madness is over. I promise I will then!)

Murder Without Violence

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I had the great pleasure this past weekend to attend a meeting of my local chapter of the Sisters in Crime (the Delaware Valley Chapter). The guest speaker for the meeting is a Conservator at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (which is, coincidentally, where I earned my PhD in Anthropology). Because it is a museum of archaeology rather than fine arts, Molly Gleeson conserves artifacts and other specimens. That includes human remains.

It was a fascinating talk — as they always are at these meetings. Ms. Gleeson prefaced her talk by warning us that she was going to show us images of human remains, then admitted that for this particular audience that might not be a problem. We all write and read about murder. We’re used to human remains, right?

IMG_2463Well…maybe. A murder mystery can be many, many things. It can be light hearted and funny. It can be chic lit. It can be dark, gritty. And it can be gory, a story of violence and evil. When choosing a new book to read, a mystery reader has to know what she’s getting into — or she reads at her own peril.

Personally, I prefer not to read gruesome stories. I particularly avoid books that include rape scenes, but I generally skim through (or avoid altogether) stories with too much gory detail, too much vividly painted violence. I write the books I like to read. Relatively dark mysteries, gritty even, but with the violence taking place almost entirely off the page.

As an aside, one of the most beautiful death scenes I’ve ever read was written by the late, great Ruth Rendell (who, incidentally, did not shy away from violence when she felt it was called for). I always picture that pretty corpse floating peacefully and elegantly down the river, surrounded by wildflowers, whenever I’m trying to write my own murder scenes. I have not yet achieved Rendell’s level of artistic description of death, but I’ll keep trying.

Screen Shot 2016-03-20 at 2.05.07 PMWhich brings me back to the Delaware Valley Chapter of the Sisters in Crime. Each month, a technical speaker is invited to come to our group, to share his or her knowledge of biology, ways to kill a person, how crime scenes are handled, even about ancient methods of human preservation (mummies). To an outsider, we probably seem like a pretty gory bunch.

Quite the contrary. In our group, you’ll find cozy writers, young adult writers, and many, like me, who write traditional mysteries that are high on mystery but low on sex and violence. But one thing we have in common: we’re all well-informed on those gory topics that inform the background of our stories, but don’t make an appearance on the page.

How about you? How much violence do you want to see in the mysteries you read?

janegorman.com

 

 

Lifus Interuptus by Paty Jager

This photo is why my post is late. Grandkids have taken over my office!

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I started out 2016 telling myself I wasn’t going to push so hard. Last year I wrote and published four mystery novels, three western historical romance novels, and one novella. The three projects at the end of the year were almost more than I could handle. That’s when I made my decision for 2016 to write two novels and a novella in the mystery series and two historical western romance this year.

However, due to catching the virus going around and family visiting, I’m already behind my slower pace for this year. Killer Descent was to be published by now but it is a week to two weeks out.

Killer DescentKiller Descent book five in the Shandra Higheagle Mysteries

Abuse…Power…Murder

Once again Shandra Higheagle finds herself a suspect in a murder investigation when an ex-lover is found murdered on a Huckleberry ski run. A past she’d planned to never divulge now must be shared with the first man she’s trusted, Detective Ryan Greer.

Ryan puts his job in jeopardy when he’s booted from the case and uses all resources plus a few extra to prove Shandra is innocent. The information leads them down a road of blackmail and betrayal of the ugliest kind.

This past weekend, one of my daughter’s went with me on a road trip to a book signing. On the way back we started brainstorming the Christmas mystery I’ve been thinking about writing this year. It was fun, since she’s read the books in the series and knows the characters. She gave me some fun ideas. Have any of you ever read a book where and animal is the main suspect? I’m thinking about making Sheba, Shandra’s canine sidekick,the suspect.

And I plan to introduce a couple of new characters into the next couple of books to also use as suspects. That is the fun of writing a mystery series, incorporating characters you know will be suspects or the killers in books to come. I’m always thinking two to three books ahead when I write a book to drop small clues to what may be a next book.

As  a reader do you you like clues to a possible next book dropped in? Or does it make you upset if that little nugget isn’t the next book in the series?

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patyjager.net

Writing into the Sunset

 

 

 

 

 

Name that tune

By Sally Carpenter

In my mysteries I use song titles as my chapter headers. The protagonist in my cozies is a former teen idol, so the stories slanty heavy into music. And just saying “chapter one, “chapter two,” etc. is boring.

The chapter title makes some reference to what’s going on in that section so I can keep track of how the action progresses throughout the book. And I like the challenge and fun of finding songs to fit. It amuses me.

And no, quoting song titles in a book does not violate copyright law. If it did, writers would be in trouble every time they used phrases like “she loves you” or “I feel fine” or “I want to know” or even the word “misery.”

 Below are the chapter titles to my upcoming cozy. “The Quirky Quiz Show Caper.” See if you know the artist who recorded the song.

1. Monday, Monday

2. I Want To Know

3. We Just Disagree

4. Carry On Wayward Son

5. Be True to Your School

6. Stiletto

7. (It’s a) Family Affair

8. If You’ve Got Trouble

9. Call Me

10. Games People Play

11. Xanadu

12. Listen to the Band

13. Sometimes She’s a Little Girl

14. Saturday in the Park.

15. Up, Up and Away

16. We Can Work It Out

17. FM (No Static at All)

18. (I Never Promised You a) Rose Garden

19 You Won’t See Me

20. Diary

21. Your Lying Eyes

22. Mr. Success

23. Thanks for the Pepperoni

24. I Can’t Get Her Off My Mind

26. Garden Party

26. Live and Let Die

27. Last Dance

 Answers:

1. The Mamas and The Papas

2. Eric Clapton and The Powerhouse

3. Dave Mason

4. Kansas

5. The Beach Boys

6. Billy Joel

7. Sly and the Family Stone

8. Beatles, but didn’t appear until “Anthology”

9. Blondie

10. The Spinners

11. Olivia Newton-John from the movie soundtrack

12. The Monkees

13. Boyce and Hart

15. Fifth Dimension

16. Beatles again

17. Steely Dan

18. Lynn Anderson

19. Beatles one more time

20. Bread on the original version but Micky Dolenz recorded it years later

21. The Eagles

22. First recorded by Frank Sinatra but I have a version by Bobby Sherman

23. Extra points as this one’s obscure. An instrumental jam on the third disc of George Harrison’s “All Things Must Pass” opus.

24. Monkees once more

25. Ricky Nelson

26. Paul McCartney and Wings

27. Donna Summers

 Cross posted in The Cozy Cat Chronicles

 

Researching a Mystery by Paty Jager

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I’m not a forensic coroner or a lawyer or even a law enforcer. I’m the wife of a rancher and I write murder mystery.

As I write this next book in my Shandra Higheagle Mystery Series I’ve come across questions that have required answers by professionals. When I start a book I know how the victim will die and where. But I ultimately need to know what their injuries would look like say if they fall off a cliff or are stabbed with a blunt object or shot at close range with a small caliber gun.

These are all things coroners have seen and can tell me. But how do I get a coroner on speed-dial or in my case speed e-mail? I’m part of a yahoo loop that is filled with every kind of occupation a mystery or murder writer might need expertise about. The yahoo loop is crimescenewriter@yahoogroups.com

That’s how I connected with a coroner who not only answered my question I put on the loop but also emailed back and forth with me as I asked more questions and what-if’s. She has lots of knowledge and being a budding writer is willing to help out fellow writers.

Writing the opening and how the victim is killed and what is discovered went well, knowing I had the correct information and knowledge. Then I brought in some secondary characters and a sub-plot. For the sub-plot I needed some legal information. I turned to my niece who is a para-legal and what she couldn’t answer she knew where to send me to find the information. After my niece and I discussed the issue I wanted brought up in my book and how I wanted it dealt with, she suggested I contact a law enforcement officer.  I happen to have one in the family. 😉

I sent off an email explaining what I wanted to do, how would it be handled, and after some back and forth ,that element of the sub-plot was worked out.

Writing mystery books is my favorite writing experience. Not only do I have to puzzle out a mystery that will keep the reader thinking, I have to make sure the forensics and laws will work in the story and enhance the overall realness of the crime and the killer.

Have you read books where you could tell the writer hadn’t researched the laws or forensics? Did it bother you while reading the book or is that something that doesn’t bother you?

~*~

Award-winning author Paty Jager and her husband raise alfalfa hay in rural eastern Oregon. She not only writes the western lifestyle, she lives it. All Paty’s work has Western or Native American elements in them along with hints of humor and engaging characters. Her penchant for research takes her on side trips that eventually turn into yet another story.

You can learn more about Paty at:

her blog; Writing into the Sunset

her website; http://www.patyjager.net