Is that a problem when it comes to pitching clues? Oh, yes.
I've written ten Dandy Gilver mysteries now and I've been surprised at the end of four of them when I find out who the murderer is. Four or five. I can't actually remember who the murderer is in the one I've just finished writing because I haven't read it yet. (See other posts for extreme pantserhood).
When I changed my mind about the culprit at the end of Book 1, I reckoned I didn't need to change anything else earlier in the story. It was all there, pulsing on page. However, three out of four of the first ms readers didn't know whodunit when they had finished the book. That is not really a very great state of affairs. So I did change it to make things less oblique but I still come across readers who don't agree with me about whodunit in AFTER THE ARMNISTICE BALL. They don't seem to mind and who am I to argue.
But I started Book 2 determined to stamp all that sort of nonsense out and the result is that everyone always knows whodunit halfway through THE BURRY MAN'S DAY. Ah well. Again, people don't seem to mind.
Then there's Book 3 - BURY HER DEEP - aka The Concept Album, or in the words of Dave Headley of Goldsboro Books (one of my favourite bookshops and one of my favourite people) "the one where nothing happens". So the question doesn't arise but again no one seems bothered.
But I knew better than to try it twice. In Book 4, tons happens. It's a veritable circus. No, really - it's a circus. Look:
But even though THE WINTER GROUND is packed with incident and characters, not many of the incidents are clues and not many of the characters are suspects. It's still one my favourites, though. Because . . . circus.
Finally, came Book 5 where I got it juuuuust right. I did know whodunit all along, every character is a suspect, every incident is either a red herring or a clue, and it's my absolute favourite, because I knew I had cracked it. DANDY GILVER AND THE PROPER TREATMENT OF BLOODSTAINS was when all kinds of extra great things started to happen.
Still, I was back to changing my mind about whodunit for Book 6. I knew in Book 7. Changed my mind in Book 8. Changed it again in Book 9 and, like I said, for Book 10 I'll get back to you.
So . . . why all the covers, which are not really needed to answer this question? Well, I've just got the advance copies of the gorgeous, newly re-Dalmatianed US edition of A DEADLY MEASURE OF BRIMSTONE (November):
And also the brand-new and quite delicious UK Book 9 (July):
which is as stuffed with clues (and fake clues) as the title suggests.
It did occur to me, writing this post, that if I had ever taken a creative writing course, I might not have spent four books working out how to do it, but I love those four books and loved writing them too . . . so je ne regret (almost) rien.
But now that I have learned how to weave the clues and the red herrings, can I pass any useful tips along?
All the advice this week has been great - hiding in plain sight, balancing prominence (no guest-star baddies a la Columbo), shooting for 90% bamboozlement - but I'll offer one more. Well, I'm really just adding to what Lori said yesterday. The first clue has to come as early as possible, I think. Then, if they can flit in and out of sight at fairly regular intervals - not necessarily frequent, but regular - the truth is close enough to a reader's consciousness for the denouement to provoke an "Aha!" or even a "D'oh!". Too many clues too close together though can result in a nasty "Duh!".
And what they flit in and out of sight amongst are the red herrings. Those are the other trees that make up the wood that stops a reader seeing anything clearly. Ideally, they need to be spaced out just as carefully. Like this:
This draft (not Dandy Gilver - a stand-alone) is not quite there yet. Clearly there aren't enough orange things in the first half. But I'm working on it. Wish me luck.