Thursday, February 10, 2011

Guest David Fingerman - Red Herrings

Today's guest blogger is mystery/suspense author, David Fingerman. Welcome, David. I can't wait to see what you say about the use of red herrings in your mystery/suspense/thriller, SPYDER, to be released soon.

Red herring (noun) a dried smoked herring, which is turned red by the smoke (New Oxford American Dictionary). Ha! Didn't think I was going to go there, did you?

Okay, to be fair: red herring 2 (noun) esp. a clue, that is or is not intended to be misleading or distracting.

Real life is full of red herrings. Defense lawyers do it all the time trying to create reasonable doubt; politicians use them to skirt around issues and campaign promises. Advertisements are misleading you constantly in order to convince you that you absolutely need their product. Even daters try to lead you down false paths.

"Your profile said you were 6'4", 220 pounds."
"I have a dyslexia problem, but the 220 pounds is pretty accurate."

"It also said you had brown hair and blue eyes."
"Well, my hair used to be brown, and my eyes are blue when I remember to put the right contacts in."

With life so inundated with red herrings, why do I find it so difficult to write them into my novels? How tough can it be? As a writer you are taking the reader on a guided path of suspended disbelief. Yet I have trouble taking the reader on that misleading temporary detour. When I write a novel, I generally know how I want it to begin and know how I want it to end. The challenge for me is connecting the two with around 250 pages. I'd get to a point and think, "Oh, I should lead them away from the villain now." The red herrings came out lame and artificial. I didn't believe it myself and that was one of the problems. Try to place yourself as the reader. Does it make sense to stray off the main path?

Unfortunately, I've read a number of authors who must've had the same problem that I have ~ and they got published. Did you ever read Whispers by Dean Koontz? If you haven't, don't waste your time. The plot was thin and that's being nice. It took me 50 pages to figure out the mystery (the book is over 400 pages). His red herrings were, well, lame. Every time he tried to lead me somewhere else, my main question was "What about the obvious?" Koontz wasted pages of taking the reader on detours that were obviously dead ends. (I don't mean to pick on poor Mr. Koontz, I've read other Koontz novels that were quite exceptional. I highly recommend Odd Thomas and Tick Tock.)

As a writer, how does one avoid that trap? For starters, don't make the ending obvious (I can sense the eye rolling). Okay, one way is keep your red herring as close to the truth of the novel as possible. Plant the seed. If you want the reader to think that Professor Plum stabbed the victim with a candlestick in the study, leave a bloody candlestick in Professor Plum's room. The reader can discover in due time that Colonel Mustard planted it there.

Another big thing I learned, and this is more of a mindset ~ as stated earlier, I try and make myself believe that the red herring can happen. It makes perfect sense to suspect Professor Plum. After all, not only was the candlestick in his room, but he was also having an affair with Mrs. Peacock.

Also, when taking your reader on a detour, make sure to block the main path. That was a major problem with Whispers. Koontz tried to lead me off the main path when there was no reason to do so. The smoother transition the better. Ideally, if you can make the reader feel like they've never left that main path, all the better. It's okay for your characters to lie. A good properly placed lie can mislead the reader for chapters. And one last piece of advice ~ don't forget to point a couple of clues at the guilty party. I've actually guessed the murderer in some novels because they were the only one that was never suspected.

So much for my expertise about red herrings, now mislead me. While you're doing that I think I'll try some of that red herring the dictionary was telling me about. Meanwhile, you can read about my upcoming release:

Thirty-year-old Spyder doesn't waste time thinking how much lower he can sink. When he finds his girlfriend dead as the result of drugs he supplied, Spyder contemplates his life and decides it’s time to do what he's avoided most of his days – join mainstream society. All he needs to do is kick the drug habit, find a job, a place to live, and earn some money. Easy. He’s done it hundreds of times, but never all at once. As always, Fate steps in and knees him in the groin. All the dregs he's ever known want their say. George won't stop his pestering, Sal needs a huge favor, Coon is hunting for a certain arachnid, and Spyder's dealer doesn't want to lose one of his best customers. As things spiral out of control, Spyder tangles himself in a web so tight that even he might never be able to escape.

SPYDER is a novel of gripping suspense, cutting wit, and twisted humor. It will leave you cursing and cheering for this most unconventional antihero

David Fingerman sold his first short story in 1993. Since then he has not looked back. After leaving his job of 24 years in the Hennepin County court system, David decided to write full time. Although he still loves writing short stories, he has switched his main focus to novel writing. In August 2010, L&L Dreamspell released his first novel, "Silent Kill." It will soon be followed by "Spyder" and "Playing the Hand She's Dealt."

David is married and lives in Minneapolis.


  1. As a mystery reader, I also hate "huh?" culprits (you mean the pizza delivery guy who appeared for two seconds is the mastermind behind it all? Really?) But as a mystery writer, I find that planting tricky but fair clues is dang hard. Thanks for some good techniques!

  2. It is dang hard. But when it works, it really really works ~ and as a reader, I so appreciate it. Thanks, Tina!

  3. Okay you guys, my book, Coming to Climax, is coming out in September for Labor Day. I DARE you to tell me who the killer is. And yes, I do plant many clues.

    Wonderful post, David. You don't have many comments, but believe me when I say the number of visitors to the site has been huge.

  4. Thanks Bobbye - you make me look good. : )

  5. I adore "unconventional anti-heroes" yum. Also, good reminders about red-herrings, I just hate it when I think "It can't be them, there's too much of a red arrow (herring?) pointing at them!"

  6. hi conda ~ good point - it can be over-done

  7. Great advice. I hate when I can guess the villain in the first few pages unless the reader is supposed to. I reworking a novel because the villain was too obvious. Drat, don't you hate that?

  8. thanks caroline ~ i do indeed!