Friday, June 21, 2019

The Red Herring of the Mystery Genre

 by Linda Thorne

One of the critical but perhaps the most entertaining part of any mystery is the continual misdirection of the reader. That ploy ensures a satisfying surprise at the end. To prevent premature exposure to who done it, writers often use a literary tool called a red herring, which leads the reader astray in two ways. One way presents false, distorted, or ambiguous information. The other distracts from the subject at hand either by changing to a new topic or allowing a new event to disrupt the current scene.

After teasing readers with clues of the mystery's true ending, a skilled writer often throws in a red herring to pull his audience away temporarily. This planned postponement adds deeper layers to the the plot and weaves in more doubts about previous suspects. However, the writer intends to reintroduce the same subject matter during the climax. At that point, the reader will likely remember many, if not all earlier hints, clues, diversions, and distractions, which can help him say, “Of course, I should’ve known that!”

Admittedly, in my first book I had almost too many red herrings and too many innocent characters for the reader to suspect. I started to remove one of the planted questionable characters, but decided in the end to keep them all because I did have logical reasons to to explain their innocence that would eliminate each as a suspect. Yet in revising my second book, A Promotion to Die For, I have found a shortage of innocent characters that look guilty. I have also found too few diversions and distractions. So, with book one, the red herrings came easily, but book two will take some work.

I’ve always wondered why this literary technique of trickery appropriated the name of a fish, a herring no less. More research revealed a long history of red herrings being dragged over ground to create scent trails to train dogs, and possibly horses. Apparently, red herring, a very smelly fish when dead, proved useful for distracting ardent searchers. One theory going all the way back to the 1600s included fugitives using red herrings to cover their own scent, thus, throwing off bloodhounds that were chasing them.

The turning point that popularized the name as an extended metaphor came to fruition in the early 1800s. An English journalist named William Cobbett wrote a story that told how he, as a boy, had used a red herring to mislead hounds that were following a rabbit. Though a fictional story, Cobbett used it to criticize what he believed was a naive press that fell for false information about a defeat of Napoleon. Supposedly, Corbett’s criticism caused the repeated republishing of versions of this tale for many years.

I think as writers, we may all appreciate how red herrings serve in the mystery genre. But, if you didn’t know the back story on how this term evolved, you now know as much as I do.

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Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Do You Ever Scare Yourself?

by Janis Patterson

Not too long ago a writer friend posted that she was having trouble figuring out how to poison a character. Nothing seemed to work, either through symptoms (she wanted the character to live), or availability, or treatment.

A bunch of us replied, trying to help find a substance that would fit her story's parameters. I contributed, reeling off a list of reasonably available poisons as well as their symptoms and antidotes. From memory.

I was sort of shocked. Yes, I've known for years that there is a lot of really weird knowledge tucked here and there in the messy storage of my brain, but for the first time it really hit me that I really do know this stuff to a frightening degree. Of course, anyone could look it up either at the library or on the internet, but to be able to rattle it all off from memory... it shook me.

Now I'm really rather a good person. I don't kick puppies, kittens or children (with one notable exception, but the animal torturing little brat totally deserved it!) ; I obey the law and take my fair turn at a 4 way stop sign; I recycle and give to charity. But I also know how to eliminate scores of people without even thinking hard. What on earth is St. Peter going to say - assuming, of course, that I get that far.

Which brings up another question: going on the assumption that I never commit a criminal act with my rather esoteric knowledge, what if someone reads my book and uses it as a blueprint to commit a crime? A real one? Does that make me some sort of accessory before the fact? While the idea is admittedly a stretching of probability, even if I were innocent in the eyes of the court, I don't think I would be innocent in the eyes of my own honor. Yes, the murderer could have just gone to the library or internet to do his research, but why should he do so much work when I've laid it all out predigested for him?

I can hear some of you scoffing now, saying I'm too sensitive and other, probably more unattractive epithets, but this is my mind and heart and sense of ethics we're talking about. However, I love writing mysteries and have no intention of giving it up.

So, I take refuge in following the footsteps of some of my betters and cheat. I use exotic poisons and poisons you can find in your kitchen cabinet now. I describe the symptoms and the dosages... but not all of the process. I always leave a little something out. People will always kill other people, but not with my help. If they want to poison someone, let them do the work on finding out. Leave me out of it. I'm just a storyteller.

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Let's Talk About Promotion

Recently, I was with three other authors and I suggested we have a talk about promotion. Guess what they said--"We don't do any promotion."

I was so shocked I didn't ask the obvious questions: "Do you sell any books?"

Of course I asked the question to perhaps find out something new I could try. I'd be willing to share what I've been doing.

So instead, I'll share with you:

Today is the 2nd day of having the first book in my Deputy Tempe Crabtree mystery series, Deadly Omen, the Kindle version free on Amazon. The reasoning, as I've said before, is to get people interested in checking out the rest of the series. This freebie is good until midnight on Friday the 14th.

I had my first book signing for the latest in the series; Spirit Wind, last Saturday, at a popular chocolate store (they make their own delicious chocolates), and I advertised it on Facebook and the newspaper. I had a good turnout, including a local video photographer who interviewed me, and a local newspaper reporter.  Lots of my family and friends turned out too--and it was a lively day. And yes, some folks who came into buy candy or a drink bought books too.

Two more signings aee coming, June 23rd, from 1-3 at the Tehachapi Museum in Tehachapi. Should be fun since this is where the book takes place.

And then on June 28th, I'll be on the porch of of the Wild Oak Coffee Shop in my home town of Springville from 1 to 3.

I hope you noted that all three of these venues are not book stores. Not that I have anything against bookstores, but we don't have any close by.

My books can be found in the Patton House in Springville--our local gift and 2nd hand shop. They are wonderful about keeping track and they pay once a month when books are sold.

I love going to book fairs and speaking to writers' groups. I have one big book fair in October coming, and I'm speaking to Night Writers in San Luis Obispo in July.

And the only conference I go to anymore is the Public Safety Writers Association, also in July.

Of course I do all the usual--have a webpage,,  a blog of my own: https://marilynmeredith.blogspot/, post here twice a month, and I'm on
the 4th Monday of every month, and I have a monthly newsletter. When asked, I guest on other's blogs.

I'm on Facebook regularly, post in some Facebook groups, Twitter periodically especially when I'm promoting something, and I'm a member of a few listserves I'm fairly regular on.

I know there's more I could do, but there's only so much time--and I do have a life too.

What I'd like to know is what are your favorite kinds of promotion to do?


Tuesday, June 4, 2019

Finding an Idea to write a book

Make Mine Mystery

June 5,2019

How do I come up with ideas for books. I look at things that I’m interested in, and still might interest my reader. So I ask myself, what am I interested in? This question should be a jumping-off point. You’ll hear the advice to “write what you know.” Yet what draws forth my best energy and talent is often the desire to learn more about things we don’t know.
The first step in finding the idea for a novel is to discover your world. My book, The Black Madonna A Pope’s Deadly Obsession came from my desire to know more about the lost documents found by sheepherders written by Jesus’ apostles. It helped me figure out who my characters would be, where the action would take place, and what would go on in that setting. Your choice should always be informed by your interests, so immerse yourself in books, television, movies, and anything else that inspires you. This will help you to create the building blocks for your novel. Trust your own tastes. You’re going to be working with these ideas for a long time, so choose things that interests you enough to sustain you.

Finding the core idea for my novel, is essentially what my book is about. In this question, I try establishing the main ‘idea’. It is the biggest, most essential promise that I’m making to my reader and should always reflect the story’s highest stakes. I promise my reader by the end of the novel  (as in Black Madonna) I will have answered questions like, will Luci find the lost codex written by Jesus? Your sole dramatic question depends on understanding the motivations of your hero and villain.

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

This Has Been a Busy and Exciting Time

Because good friend Lorna Collins decided to edit and re-publish all my Deputy Tempe Crabtree mysteries since my published closed their doors, I've been busy trying to promote them. Some have new covers that were created before anyone knew Mundania was going out of business.

In an effort to introduce more people to the series, I'm going to do a free e-book promotion for the first one in the series, Deadly Omen.

That will be going on from June 10 through 14th in the Kindle store. No way can I afford a BookBub promotion, but there are many other sites who promote free e-books. The only drawback is that it takes a lot of time--many are free, but other charge minimal fees.

Of course I've also been busy promoting the latest in the series, Spirit Wind. I've been visiting varios blogs and of course posting on Facebook.

My first book signing will be on June 8th at the sweetest place in Porterville, Stafford's Chocolates on Main St. from 11 to 3.

On June 22nd, I'll be at the Tehachapi Museum from 1 to 3. That one will be fun since Spirit Wind is set in Tehachapi. I'm anxious to see how the residents feel about the mystery.

On June 29th from 1-3, I'm doing a signing here at home, Springville, at the Wild Oak Coffee Shop (across from the fire station on Bridge St. This place has the best speciality drinks and sandwiches.

In the meantime, I've finished the latest in my Rocky Bluff P.D. mystery series. It still has to be heard and critiqued by my group, then I'll have it edited before I  sent it off to the publisher.

If anyone thinks being a writer isn't work--they aren't a writer.


Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Mystery and Modern Technology

by Janis Patterson

Modern technology is taking a lot of the fun out of mystery writing. I mean, with caller ID, DNA, tracking devices, the ability to ping cell towers, virtual reality crime scene re-creation, instant background checks through multiple databases, ubiquitous surveillance cameras, facial recognition, computer access.... well, you know what I mean. What is there left to detect? A computer geek with access to the proper modern toys can often solve the mystery without leaving the comfort of his ergonomic chair in his mother's basement.

The more widely spread such electronic goodies become, the harder it becomes for mystery writers to find ways for their electronically-challenged sleuths to create a believable scenario. Some have frankly given up and fled into the past, where real, human-based detecting is the norm. Others twist probability into pretzels by locating their stories on remote islands, during power outages, and the like. A few - a very few - writers have mastered the balance of solving crimes with electronically available data and human detecting in a palatable form. I salute them. Many, many more have not.

Let's face it - while many if not most people use electronic toys such as cell phones and computers, how many are really conversant with how they work? We hit one button dialing or click a screen to make phone calls, we surf the net with a few clicks, but that's about the extent of a lot of people's knowledge. I'm one of them, and to me it's boring where in a mystery the detective (either by himself or with his super-techy partner) look at a computer screen, spout a couple of incomprehensible tech words (which to the average reader might as well be Urdu or Dogon) and poof! - there is a clue if not the entire solution to the mystery. Somehow some TV shows do this well and believably, but in books.... boorrring! And I suspect somehow the palatability of super-tech in TV shows has a lot to do with how hot the actor is spouting all the computer jargon!

So what is a tech-challenged writer to do? We can't all put our mysteries on desert islands or during power outages or someplace else where instant information is not the norm. We can't all have our sleuth continually forgetting to charge his/her cell phone or leaving it behind. Most people in real life seem to have their cell phones surgically attached! Now we not only have to craft a believable mystery but also create logical reasons why our sleuth can't jump on the 'net, do a few clicks and find out at least half a book's information, including, of course, the one pertinent clue that solves the mystery. All of which, sadly, would in real logically take place on page 25 or so. Sigh.

I don't have any answers. I've taken heat from readers because my sleuths are tech-challenged, then declaring that my stories aren't believable because my sleuths aren't in constant contact with the 'net. One of my solutions is to have a sleuth (Flora Melkiot, EXERCISE IS MURDER, MURDER IN DEATH'S WAITING ROOM) who is elderly - but don't let her hear you say that - and finds modern technology both unmannerly and common. Plus, she is wildly nosy and loves winkling information out of other people. She is also quite rich, and I think I would like to grow up and be her!

Anyway, this problem is not going away. For those of you who can believably construct a mystery using modern technology in a way that is palatable with the majority of readers - I salute you! For the rest of us... I don't know. I just might follow my betters and escape to the past, where rotary dials are cutting edge, cars have manual transmissions (my favorite!), and privacy was not only the norm, but valued. I know I'll see some of you there!

On another note, I would like to say that my YouTube channel is up and running - and I would be most appreciative if you would drop by. It's called Janis' Tips and Tales, and a new episode is released on the fourth Thursday of every month. Thank you!