If you're a regular Sleuths, Spies, and Alibis reader, then you're likely familiar with these clever and slippery creatures. They swim through novels, leading detectives down incorrect paths, only to circle back, stick their tongue out teasingly, then flit away to beguile the next gullible gumshoe. If you don't know about Red Herrings, then let me clear this up for you. The name is as misleading as its purpose. Here, I don't mean tasty smoked seafood, but a clever misdirection. A false clue. (And sometimes) The stuff of my nightmares.
Because no mystery is fun if you can guess the perpetrator easily! Red Herrings ramp up the difficulty for the sleuth and the reader. Lately, I find myself waking up in cold sweats because I think I haven't been managing the care and keeping of my Red Herrings properly. Did this twist work? Is the killer super obvious? Why was I ever allowed near a keyboard and a word processing program? ARGH!
So, I traveled the seven seas searching for techniques/strategies/magic (not really magic...well, maybe a little) that would help me breed the biggest, juiciest Red Herrings you can find this side of that bargain seafood restaurant with it's own dubious red mascot (don't you find the idea of Endless Shrimp suspicious? I do). Here are a few tips I was able to cobble together:
Don't Overdo ItReaders want to use a hook, not a net. If you're giving them a whole school of Red Herring to chase, it may wear them out. While many fish breed in the hundreds, it's best to keep the Red Herring population in your novel under control. Think Aquarium, not Atlantic.
The Swim Better Be Worth ItWhatever path your Red Herrings lead the reader down should not be pointless. No swimming for the sake of the swimming. The misdirection should relate to the larger story. In other words, if there's a dipping cup of savory tartar sauce at the scene of the crime, and the sleuth keys on it's smooth, spicy goodness, then tartar sauce should mean something...even if it's only there to trigger a memory of the sleuth eating Red Herring as a child with his father, who happened to be a Private Investigator, and taught him/her some long forgotten skill that does help solve the bigger mystery. That's a stretch, yes. But, there should be a connection. And, tartar sauce....yum!
Red Fish, Blue Fish
It's okay to have other fish in the tank. There are classic mysteries where every character other than the sleuth is a potential suspect, thus making them all Red Herrings. It can still work, and can even be really fun, but you don't HAVE to go there. A little variety will make your Red Herrings all the more special.
What say you diligent sleuths? Any fishing tips for this old man in the sea? If you have some thoughts on Red Herrings, leave them in the comments below.
'Til next time...
Lamar "L. R." Giles writes for adults and teens. Penning everything from epic fantasy to noir thrillers, he's never met a genre he didn't like. His debut YA mystery FAKE ID is about a teen in witness protection who investigates his best friend's murder and stumbles on a dark conspiracy that leads back to his own father. It will be published in Summer, 2013 by HarperCollins. He resides in Virginia with his wife and is represented by Jamie Weiss Chilton of the Andrea Brown Literary Agency. Find out more on his website, Facebook, Twitter, and Goodreads.