Ready for Part II of Clues and Red Herrings?
Great! Let’s get down to the nitty gritty. Remember, don’t lose sight of your story or your characters as we discuss places to hide clues and showcase red herrings. The places are the same, as are the techniques. It’s a matter of (see Part I) character and story that will aide in these.
The lists: Pay attention to the weight of the items in the list. A good clue will seem inconsequential or at least blend in with the other items. Should there be a clue or a red herring in the list? Yes! Otherwise you need a different, excellent, reason for including a list in your discourse. Your reader isn’t on a trip to the grocery store.
Here’s a passage I made up (that isn’t in a story);
If you didn’t know you were in a small town, our weekly paper would tip you off. The pitiful lack of pulse pounding events had most stories sharing the first page. Today, Pamela’s murder shared the above-fold space with the city council meeting’s debate over the wetlands, while a suspected arson fire and a lengthy report on a successful neighborhood garage sale rubbed shoulders below.
Which is a clue or a red herring? I don’t know, but there should be one or the other.
Proximity: Something happens, an object discovered, or something is said that is then overshadowed by unrelated emotions or circumstances. The reader’s attention is then diverted from the clue to something “more important”. A crisis in a sub plot works well here.
You can use this technique with a red herring also, but you’ll want to bring up the event/object/something-said later on to give it some weight as a red herring. Otherwise, you’re just building word count – no one is impressed with that (even your characters).
The physical item: The fact that it is noticed or mentioned is powerful. You don't have to do things to it, it doesn't have to be out of place, but those are options.
Here’s an interesting point; the more you (or your characters) mention the object, the less intriguing or powerful it becomes (unless you’re meaning it as a joke, then that’s a whole other blog subject). However, if you mention it on page eleven and don’t bother to do so again until page three-hundred and twenty, your reader will probably have forgotten about it. Learn to strike a balance.
The Setting: The actual place the story occurs can provide significant cles and red herring opportunities. Time of day, day of the week, weather, time of year -- all can contribute. The added bonus is they make your setting more alive, more vital to the story and, some say, a "character." If you have a strong setting consider incorporating some elements of it into your clues or red herrings.
For example, if the weather is particularly hot of cold and the body is found outdoors, time of death may be difficult to determine.
If a character typically gets a day off on Wednesdays and that's when the crime occurs, who's going to believe he actually sneaked into his office to finish up reports in the morning?
Authors like Nevada Barr, who sets her series in different National Parks, uses setting as a major character. Laurie King's Sherlock Holmes mysteries are set in a number of different locations -- the moors, a gypsy camp, the Middle East -- and all contribute important clues to solving they mystery.
Remember, if your point of view character is new to the setting they will likely notice things that could misdirect or direct. If the setting is their usual haunt, then your reader may notice things that make useful red herrings.
Is there more? You bet there is! Part III is coming soon. There's many more ways to be nefarious (as a writer, of course!). You'll want to go through your draft and see if any of the above mentioned techniques can work to your advantage. Remember -- don't force. Weave!