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How to Handle the Case of the Wintry Mix February 2, 2011

Posted by laurenrobbins6 in writing.
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The face of a black windup alarm clock

Image via Wikipedia

A few snow storms ago, I was poking through a very clever book, which is called (if I remember correctly) The Quotable Lawyer. And it was filled with inside jokes and law truisms–all much more interesting than it sounds. There was one quote in particular that caught my attention:

The lawyer’s first thought in the morning is how to handle the case of the ringing alarm clock.–Edward Packard, Jr.

 The image that first popped into my head was someone in a suit staring quizzically at a ringing alarm clock. Or something a la Sam Spade with a smoky office in black and white and a private investigator taking down a statement from someone who was awoken by their still ringing alarm.

 But, I thought, by no means is this quote limited to lawyers. You could subsitute a lot of other professions and people instead. For instance: “The writer’s first thought in the morning is how to handle the case of the ringing alarm clock.” 

If you think about it, it’s true, isn’t it?  A writer is constantly looking around for potential stories. And if one is trying to write a mystery, this quote is particularly appropriate. How could you make a mystery out of a ringing alarm clock? What if some dastardly villian set all the clocks back so that they could rob a bank?

Today, looking out at the 2-3 feet of snow that has accumulated, everyone is probably thinking “How am I gonna get out of this?” The case of the wintry mix begins. Picture a smoky office in black and white and a grizzled PI sitting behind a desk reading a newspaper while a neon sign blinks through the blinds. Someone in a heavy coat, hat, gloves, scarf (a grizzled New Englander–the kind you see out in every kind of weather) comes through the door. Behind them, snow, rain, and sleet blusters in before the door closes. The PI looks at them inquiringly and the New Englander says, “I’m in a real jam, Sam.”

How I Wrestle with Red Herrings or, The Herring Stratagem January 30, 2011

Posted by laurenrobbins6 in Characters, Plot.
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Cover of "Clue"

Cover of Clue

I have decided, rather foolishly, to try to learn how to write mysteries. Old fashioned mysteries with, you know, suspense, thrills, intellectual puzzles and all that. NOT to be confused with “mysteries” following such clichés as “the man against the system”, “the D.A./attorney/doctor with a vendetta”, or “follow the ancient clues to a conspiracy theory”…not naming any names (Dan Brown).

What I’m thinking about is something more along the lines of a Wilkie Collins/Agatha Christie sort of mystery. Which brings us to the question of the red herring. I find, at least, that red herrings are always the key to a good mystery. (If anyone is familiar with Clue! it’s also the key to a good spoof). But whenever I attempt to write a mystery, it always ends up being blazingly obvious “who dunnit” or so obscure that the motive is obliterated, never to return to any semblance of believability.

Writing a good mystery is no easy feat! And writing a thriller/mystery is even more of a challenge because you have to set the tone and mood with a wide, varied, and brilliantly descriptive vocabulary in your arsenal. Reading Mary Stewart novels, for instance, has been like seeing so many old friends  I’ve been out of touch with. I’ve stumbled across some very good, descriptive words that I haven’t heard for ages…especially in the real world, and perhaps in America. And, of course, you need to be descriptive about what your hero/heroine is feeling–“blood racing”, “heart pounding”–things like that. A good way to do this is to take particular notice of how YOU feel in terrifying situations (or, if you can’t think of anything particularly terrifying and have been incredibly happy-go-lucky, you should go watch some horror/thriller movies at the cinema). 

As I see it right now, the formula for a red-herring mystery is to set up your hero/heroine who necessarily (according to the rules) is above suspicion and perhaps a trustworthy sidekick/victim (unless you are Wilkie Collins and even the main character is not eliminated from the list of suspects). Then, you should plant at least two to three more characters with varying personal histories/motives. Either your protagonist or reader should, at this time, begin to suspect one character in particular, putting more trust in the other characters until… *Bam!* It turned out that the planted character that you trusted the most was the culprit!

I still, obviously, have more tweaking to do on the formula, more mystery novels to read and movies to watch (Hitchcock is particularly good for this sort of research).

If anyone has suggestions for good red herring stratagems, I would love to hear them!

A Rag-tag Team of Misfits July 13, 2010

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courtesy of amazon.com


I would just like to preface this post with the fact that I like spotting patterns. I love trends and seeing the similar in the seemingly dissimilar. In fact, the subject for my thesis arose out of this very habit. Too many times, I saw Jules Verne pitting his English characters against his French characters for it to just be a coincidence. And why was it that every single biographer called him a science fiction writer when the term did not even exist in the late 1800s?

Anyway, a little while ago, I amused myself by watching science fiction tv series…as procrastination from this same thesis. The pattern in the really good sci-fi series in space (and I’m talking about Firefly, Buck Rogers, and Farscape in particular) is that a rag-tag team of misfits outside of the law serve justice, protect the innocent, and have some pretty cool moves (not surprisingly, this also applies to westerns).

That, of course, is an easy comparison to spot. However, on closer inspection, you can see that even character roles are repeated. In these particular shows, the main character is a man with a high level of integrity and (in Buck Rogers and Farscape) is even a stranger in a strange land. Inevitably, there is the love triangle, the androgynous but brilliant sidekick (sometimes a robot, sometimes an alien), the gung-ho, trigger happy guy, and, of course, the character of the ship itself.

This pattern can also be seen in the early Star Wars movie (and by this point I think that I’ve revealed that I’m a huge geek). The rag-tag team in that example is made up of Han solo (the gung-ho trigger happy guy) the wookie (the androgynous, most alien-like one), and Luke Skywalker (debatably the main character with a high-level of integrity). And, of course, it exibits the classic love triangle with the only woman on board.

The point of this rant is that this set of patterns also occurs  in fiction (written fiction) with many different genres. Most commonly, I’m thinking of mystery. A really good mystery will throw out a red herring or two and just when you have your suspicions, the real culprit emerges–the bad guy becomes the good guy and the good guy becomes the bad guy. For me, at least, mystery is a very hard genre to write in because it takes a lot of planning ahead in novel structure–something I don’t do well. However, once you pick up on the patterns of the genre, it’s easy to have a starting point.

In later posts, I plan to look at the patterns of more genres. Please comment if you have a suggestion!

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