Today we have a fun guest post from kick-ass novelist Pepper O’Neal about clues and fair play in mysteries
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How did that get here?
I think one of the hardest parts of writing a novel is knowing when and how to put in clues. They have to be introduced long before you need them, and they have to appear innocent and innocuous. I know a lot of authors who spend a lot of time agonizing over how to do this. However, I have discovered that, if you let them, your characters can be a lot of help in this and sometimes they can turn innocuous items into important clues or important props that you hadn’t really intended.
For example, when I was writing the first book in my Black Ops Chronicles series, Dead Run, I wanted to give my readers a feel for what it was like to live in a foreign country. (Tess, my female lead, is on the run from the mob and is hiding in Mexico.) And when I was living and working in third world countries, one of the things that frustrated me most was the coins. Foreign coins, especially those from third-world countries, tend to be heavy and hard to tell apart. I, personally, hated to spend them. It seemed they were more trouble than they were worth, since most of them had very little value. However, they did have other uses. They were perfect for leveling a chair or table. We also used them to patch holes in the screens on the ancient motorhomes we used on occasion. And they made excellent poker chips on a rainy afternoon when we were all bored out of our minds and decided to play poker for lack of anything better to do.
So when I was writing Dead Run, I had Tess receive coins in change after she made a purchase. As Tess hated to spend the coins—she couldn’t tell them apart either—she’d accumulated quite a pile. When I wrote them in, I hadn’t expected them to do anything more than suggest a certain flavor of foreign places. However, Tess decided to put her mountain of coins in a sock and take them to the bank to exchange for paper money. As it happened, Tess never did get to the bank, but she used the sock of coins as a self-defense weapon and it saved her life on more than one occasion. Of course, taking a sock of coins to a gunfight isn’t the smartest idea, as one of my male leads was only too happy to point out, but she made it work for her.
In the second book in the series, Dead Men Don’t, which came out on June 28, 2014, it was an opal necklace. I wrote it in for Andi, my female lead, initially for something to think about as a distraction when she was kidnapped. Andi’s the daughter of a mob underboss and the necklace was a gift to her from her new boyfriend, who unbeknownst to her, is an undercover FBI agent using her to get to her father. But as the story unfolded, it became clear that both the necklace, and the man’s reasons for giving it to her, were much more sinister than I had originally planned.
I often find that when I need to insert some kind of prop in order to move the plot along, it usually works best if I can make something I have already inserted innocuously fit the bill. If not, I usually have to go back and insert it in innocently before I get to the part where it becomes important. I recently discovered that the same thing can happen with villains. In Dead Men Don’t, there is a mole in the crime family that Levi, my male lead, works for. When I started the book, I had originally planned for it to be one person, but as it turned out, that person was not the mole after all. I love it when that happens. As an author I am often surprised by what my characters do. Even when they refuse to do what I want them to, I find that if I follow their lead, the story always turns out better than it would if I tried to force the characters to follow the plot I had outlined in my head. It always makes a better fit when something I introduced as a whim or an afterthought becomes an important plot point.
I find the same thing is true when I read another author’s work. I’m a voracious reader and often read four of five books a week. And I am always disappointed when the author springs something important on me that hasn’t been mentioned in the story before, be it a prop or a villain. I have never felt that I’m being fair to my readers if I solve a character’s problem by inserting something or someone the reader hasn’t seen before. It’s like, “Oh, she needs a weapon here, so there will just happen to be a gun in the desk.” I don’t know about you, but I always feel cheated when an author does that. So I try not to do it. Because if my readers are anything like me, their response is bound to be, “Hey, wait a minute. How did that get there? You never said there was a gun in the desk. That’s not how it’s supposed to work.”
I always find myself going back through the whole book before that point to see if I missed the gun in the desk, or whatever it might be. And it often lessens my enjoyment of a story. And for you authors out there, yes, I know it’s more work to show us how and why the gun got in the desk long before it’s needed but I, for one, think it’s worth the effort. I don’t have any problem with the heroine finding a gun in the desk as long as I have been shown that the gun is there and why. In real life, when I come out my writing trance long enough to notice it, I’m always suspicious of coincidences. And even more so in my writing. If I needed a weapon in real life, I couldn’t expect to suddenly find a gun in the desk, so why should my characters have it that easy. After all, if I don’t torture and torment them, who will?
Award-winning author Pepper O’Neal is a researcher, a writer, and an adrenalin junkie. She has a doctorate in education and spent several years in Mexico and the Caribbean working as researcher for an educational resource firm based out of Mexico City. During that time, she met and befriended many adventurers like herself, including former CIA officers and members of organized crime. Her fiction is heavily influenced by the stories they shared with her, as well her own experiences abroad.