Cultivating Clues – A Fun Hobby

You’ve heard the expression, “he doesn’t have a clue.”  I feel that way often–especially when it comes to writing the next mystery along.  I love reading mysteries and watching them on television, but I never really sat down to ask “what is a clue all about?”

Recently, I started a new ideas notebook and one of the sections is all about lists. List the things that bother you in life. List the places you’ve lived (and could possibly write about). List all the best restaurants you’ve eaten at.  The list of lists goes on, limited only by your interest and imagination. So I sat down the other day and jotted down “types of clues” on one of my list pages.

photo of evidence-iStock_000038589296Small

Get a clue–mysteries are built on them!

I sat for a while with no more than two or three ideas.  I’m trying to stick to the kind of things an amateur sleuth like Daisy Arthur would stumble upon and recognize.  Then it hit me.  Something this important requires research and study.  Immediately, I felt that bubble of excitement that comes from a great new adventure.  So I re-listened to a CD from the Colorado Gold Writing Conference–Become a Clue Master: How to Plant Clues, by Kris Neri. Kris does on-line writing classes as an extension of UCLA, and if you get a chance to work with her, I’d recommend it.  I really liked this class and get a lot out of it, each time I listen to the CD again.


Let’s start with a clue mindset.  A few of the authors I looked up (after listening to Kris) mentioned that clues are like magic shows–they lead, manipulate, and misdirect the reader in order to create suspense and final satisfaction when you work out or read the climactic “who done it” scene.  Guess what subject I’ll be studying next.

For me, though, clues are a great way of playing hide-n-seek. You remember, don’t you?  As a kid did you hide in a spot so well that you almost fell asleep waiting for siblings and friends to find you?  Didn’t you give clues? Didn’t you say “beep” every once in a while?

And how about the “you’re getting warmer, no, you’re getting colder” game? Isn’t that all about leading and directing people with your clues? And admit it. Wasn’t it at least tempting to think of sending someone in the wrong direction by saying “warmer” when they were really getting “colder” all along?


Okay. Spoiler alert. If you like reading mysteries and don’t want clues to jump out at you, you may want to stop now.  Here are a few specific models that help make writing more fun:

  • The list clue–Detective walks into a room and starts jotting down the contents of a closet: pair of black dress shoes, a work boot, four tennis shoes, three belts, six pairs of pants (on hangers) and a sweatshirt dropped on the floor.  Much later in the story that detective might piece together that a work boot footprint outside the victim’s window might match the one from that closet way back. He retrieves the boot only to find that it’s from the wrong foot, and the right boot is missing. Dun-duhn.
  • Parallel Logic–Some expert the detective talks to, gives an in-depth explanation of how something works. You, the reader, can’t get through that page fast enough. Talk about your blah, blah, blah moment. You might even find yourself saying, “I could write better than that!” Then, a few chapters later, a situation comes up where you have the same structure in logic being used, and the detective needs to remember what boring old expert said (was it the red wire or the green that you clip in order to shut off the timer on the bomb you’re tied to?) Tension plus moment.
  • Access clues–This one is so straight forward, I’m embarrassed to say I haven’t used it before. Pick an object, a setting, or information and ask yourself “who had access to this at the time of the murder, abduction, theft, etc.?” A person can’t be guilty if they have no access to what’s important in your scene.
  • Last One; I’ve got a secret–In writing a mystery almost everyone should have something they’d rather keep to themselves.  And if that something happens to make them look guilty even when they’re not, so much the better. What’s your secret?

Do you like puzzles and clues as much as me?  What’s your favorite kind of clue? If you’re writing a mystery I hope you have a writing session devoted to clue-making. It’s so much fun.

IMPORTANT P.S. I will be doing an extra post on Monday, August 18th as part of an author’s blog hop.  Please look me up then.

Here’s An Idea . . .

Last night my good guy surprised me with a wonderful dinner out.  If you like french food and live in the Denver area, I’d recommend trying La Merise in Cherry Creek.  Prices are way too high, and the meal takes forever and a day to put in front of you, but the food is well worth it.

Anyway, on the drive home, and after a glass or two of wine, we got to talking about books. My guy said he’s probably read six books this month alone.  Six books! How great is that? He works a full-time job, writes on Facebook, stays up with politics and sports, ballroom dances, yet still makes time to read voraciously. Wow.

photo of books about ideas and more

Getting and organizing ideas.

I had to admit I haven’t completed any. Yes, I’m in the middle of Harold Robbins’ The Predators, but I’m also reading High Probability Selling by Jacques Werth and Nicholas E. Ruben as part of my consulting work, still dipping into Story Engineering by Larry Brooks and have just started to dive into a fun read called Where Do You Get Your Ideas? by Fred White.  Guess I like my reading the way others like eating tapas–a small bite at a time.  You could call this reading style either Attention Deficit Disorder run wild, or you could be kind, and say I have eclectic reading tastes.  I prefer the latter, thank you.

But I want to share with you the concept of capturing ideas for writing from Where Do You Get Your Ideas?  I’ve seen whole books on the subject of organizing story ideas before, and I have to admit that Mr. White’s proposed binder with wandering spiral is intriguing.  He even goes so far as to recommend different colored paper to capture notes in different ways.  This kind of system has always appealed to me in the past.  The challenges come for me in the process of maintaining an idea file or notebook.  Here’s why:

  • Jotting ideas down, to me, needs to be a regular habit.  If I were to wait until I was inspired, I wouldn’t have any published work yet. And just carrying around a pocket notebook isn’t a guarantee of anything more than having a scratch pad for the grocery list you need for tonight’s dinner.  But, I have to admit, I keep that notebook handy–just in case.
  • The binder Mr. White recommends should hold about 400 pages. Whew! I could fill that up, but given my clumsiness, I could see me accidentally dropping the book and all those pages flying around the room.  Then the dog would get excited and start chasing them, while the cat would screech and run off to a hiding spot.  And with my luck, just at that moment, there would be a fire alarm with “abandon the house!” orders . . .  okay. Imaginative moment. Sorry.
  • I have kept idea files, drawers, boxes, etc. before. Can’t seem to find them when I need them.  And to be honest, on that rare occasion when I come across them on a lazy afternoon of “there’s nothing to do, so let me look through all my junk,” most of the ideas are pretty lame.  I don’t pitch them, because you never know.  To me, I suspect that ideas have a shelf life of maybe a few months.

I’ve seen the concept of capturing ideas often. I have several spirals with scraps and starts. But one more notebook seems to me to be that last straw.  So here’s what I plan to do:

  1. Keep that wandering pocket notebook.  I bought a purse with a big pocket just for that purpose.
  2. Buy a one subject spiral with about 100 sheets of paper.  This is where I’ll jot notes from reading, story starts, character sketches, and all bits of creative writing.
  3. Once a notebook is filled, I’ll set aside an afternoon (or day or week) and type up the best exercises, lists, story ideas etc.  These documents will be filed . . . on my computer.  Then I can either pitch or store (yes, I can feel my mother cringing–NO STORING JUNK!) the old spiral and treat myself to a new one.
  4. I like to sketch ideas too, so I’ll need to become skilled at scanning documents, but this isn’t a rocket science skill so that shouldn’t be a problem.

How about you? How do you capture your great ideas? How do you get rid of old spiral friends? I’d love to hear from you.

Have a creative week, my friend.