Category Archives: Genres & Conventions

5 Ways to Create Red Herrings in a Mystery Novel (via Global Mysteries)

If you’re an aspiring mystery writer, or an aspiring writer in general, you should make Nancy Curteman’s Global Mysteries blog a regular stop on your social media rounds. She has great topics, posts more regularly than I do, and doesn’t dither like me.

Here’s her latest, another ball knocked out of the park.

5 Ways to Create Red Herrings in a Mystery Novel Red herrings play two important roles in a mystery novel. They heighten suspense and add greater challenge to a mystery puzzle by misleading the reader and/or the sleuth. A red herring is a false clue that a mystery writer uses to send readers and sleuths off in directions that do not lead to the apprehension of the real villain. Here are five strategies for creating red herrings: 1. Choose an innocent character and give him a motive that makes h … Read More

via Global Mysteries


The Green Acres Effect

After much delay at the hands of family matters, I’m back on the case of finishing The Amazing Secret of the Castle Omi La for this year’s VBS.

A little bit of history here. The first VBS play I did was The Terrible Misfortune. It was a pirate-themed show. It was influenced by every cliche in every pirate movie I’ve ever seen.

Next came An Unpleasantness At Lonesome Gulch – you guessed it – a wild west themed show inspired by every cliche in every western I’ve ever seen.

In line after that was The Incredible Adventure of the Frozen Man, a pastiche of cliches from the original series of Star Trek.

And for this year? The pre-knights of the roundtable tale named above. And it’s major influence is…

Robin Hood? Nope.

Camelot? Nope.

Monty Python and the Holy Grail? Nope – and I’m working really hard to keep it that way.

No, the major influence for this year’s show is the redoubtable Green Acres.

(Wait a minute – did he just say Green Acres as if it was something worthy of respect?)

Yes, I did. And here’s why.

While a lot of people saw Green Acres as a “hick show” that went along with a lot of the CBS lineup at the time (The Beverly Hillbillies, Petticoat Junction, Mayberry RFD, Hee Haw), it was quietly subversive by building one of the most surreal universes on television, at least until Twin Peaks came along (and David Lynch may owe some gratitude to GA for making TP possible).

It did this by taking the fish-out-of-water plot (city couple moves to the country) – and after the first few episodes to get everything established, it began to turn things inside out. Lawyer turned farmer Oliver Douglas suddenly found himself (ironically, since he was the one who wanted to make the move) operating in a world whose rules he could never quite comprehend. His ditzy wife, Lisa (who didn’t want to make the move) takes to this new world like a duck to water and understands it perfectly. But Oliver becomes the one voice of sanity in a place where sanity is optional.

After Green Acres, the fish-out-of-water plot was never the same. It was no longer enough to put someone in a strange place. The strange place had to have its own set of rules, to a point where reality became stretched rather thin. Hence the groundwork is set for Twin Peaks and Northern Exposure and… well, I’m sure there might have been a couple of others, but I’m not that big a TV watcher.

Granted, this idea of the misplaced fish is not a new one. Jonathan Swift and Aldous Huxley used the fish-out-of-water to great effect in their respective satires to point out the foibles of society as they saw them. The difference between them and Green Acres is that they used Gulliver and John Savage as why characters, a character that exists so the new world can be explained without resorting to clumsy dialogue and exposition. What made Green Acres so subversive is that the good folks of that universe never offered any explanation as to why it was the way it was. It simply existed that way and it was good enough for them. If Oliver Wendall Douglas couldn’t quite fit in or figure things out, that was his problem.

All of this extends its influence into my current VBS play to the point where characters veer off into an argument over subatomic particles “which haven’t even been discovered yet”, but most folks just seem to know about. There’s a goofy inventor who was consciously based on Hank Kimble, the scatterbrained county agent. And there are not one but two waterless fish – the young man who has come to claim his inheritance, and the nasty King who is blocking his way. Although while the newcomer is only moderately bewildered by some of the goings on in his would-be kingdom, it is the king who suffers the most by trying to get his subjects to conform to what his idea of medieval squalor should be.

Okay, maybe that’s a bit much for a bunch of grade school kids. But there’s enough slapstick and other goofy gags to make them happy, just like in all my other productions.

In the meantime, if you’re called on to discuss a novel or movie where one person is just unable to fit in with a universe that is becoming increasingly bizarre, you can throw a spanner into the works by insisting that the influence is not Swift or Huxley – but rather Green Acres.

And judging from the limited and under-educated viewpoint of many, many writers out there, you’d probably be right.

This is How it All Starts

Okay, so I’m at the fair last week, and somewhere along the line, either in the Men’s room or one of the Port-O-Lets, I notice the writing on the dispenser of hand sanitizer that now appears everywhere. It says, kills 99.99% of all household germs!. And I’m thinking, yeah, but it’s that other .01% you have to worry about, because they might grow up into something nasty.

That’s what gave birth to the short piece that you’ll be reading this Monday.

But of course, my brain didn’t stop working there.

See, I took something obvious, something that is worrying a lot of biologists, namely, that our psychological dependence on things like germ-killing sprays and alcohol based hand sanitizers instead of old fashioned soap might be making our immune systems lazy, and worse yet, breeding up a generation of supergerms who scoff at things like alcohol and penicillin. I just wrote it up for Monday in such a way that it has a dark, funny ending.

But really, that’s not an idea. It’s a concept. I call it a notion. Good for a 100 word story, but not strong enough to support a 100,000 word novel.

In order to do that, it needs to meet some other notions to really become viable.

Which of course, it did.

I’ve recently been wondering how much of the world’s population would have to be killed off in some kind of pandemic before our current infrastructure of internets (sic), power plants, and canned food would collapse. I’ve been wondering about loss of population percentages against a scale of technology, and what knowledge would be lost and need to be relearned in the event of something catastrophic like that.

Lost technology is something else that has caught my eye over the last couple of decades. Ever since I heard that, if for some reason we had to mount an Apollo-like mission into outer space, we could no longer do it. A lot of the Apollo-era engineers and scientists have retired or died, and we’ve spent twenty years on a “new” technology that is now wearing out.

All of this stuff, the hand sanitizer, the population numbers, and the lost technology, it was all drinking in the same bar when another of my notions walked in. Not really a notion, but a literary observation.

It’s about gunpowder.

Obviously taking a cue from history, there’s been a lot of writing in fiction that reflects the power of the invention of gunpowder. When it comes into play, it changes everything, at least in the hands of people who want to stuff it in tubes with a piece of lead on top of it, and not in the hands of folks who want to make pretty colors in the sky.

Basically, in literature, gunpowder marks a line – the beginning of an era that is reliant on science instead of mysticism. An age of enlightenment, a coming out of the dark. An age when we no longer believed in magic.

Or even, in certain pieces of fiction, a time when actual magic begins to fade from the scene as people flock to the concreteness of science. In other words, magic stops working because people stop believing in it.

This is an idea that has fascinated me for a long time, and gunpowder is such a perfect turning point. I can see why other writers have picked up this particular ball. But me? I could never suspend my disbelief to get through any fantasy piece outside of The Hobbit, which I read for a high school class. I seriously enjoyed the Lord of the Rings films, but that’s because the disbelief was already suspended for me with CGI creatures and effects.

So as much as I admired it, the whole magic v. gunpowder theme was a theme that I would pretty much leave alone.

Except now all of these notions are at the same table in the bar, and they’re laughing and drinking together and…

Are you there yet?

My subconscious said they belonged together. And pretty soon it bubbled up into my consciousness, which said, it starts at a county fair, with lots of people, food, and animals. A guy uses hand sanitizer, but it isn’t enough. Pretty soon, what he’s caught from somewhere has killed off so much of the world’s population that our technology infrastructure has collapsed, and a new dark age is beginning.

And that’s when… little by little… magic… starts… coming… back.

Now that is a sandbox I could play in.

It still needs a lot of work. I need characters and a time frame. Would it be a trilogy? Maybe just a single book, and by the end magic is not yet in full swing, but has shown up just enough to give a glimmer of hope.

Now I don’t know if I’ll actually ever do anything with this. It depends on if this group of notions that is now an idea keeps nagging me, keeps coming back to this same bar, and then some other friends show up…

But I bring this to you today just so you can see that this is how it happens. This is how writers take little things, like a dispenser in the Port-O-Let at the county fair and spin it until it has created an entire new universe worth exploring.

So the next time you see a writer stating out of a window, be assure that he is not simply enrapt with the squirrel skittering across the lawn – although he might be.

The long odds are, he’s probably thinking about gunpowder. And the .01% of germs that the bottle of hand sanitizer missed.

If you see something that looks like a star
And it’s shooting up out of the ground
And your head is spinning from a loud guitar
And you just can’t escape from the sound
Don’t worry too much, it’ll happen to you
We were children once, playing with toys

(via iTunes shuffle play)

Literary Snobbery

I’m not really writing Science Fiction right now, but this still ticks me off.

Gary Gibson, over at White Screen of Despair describes a run in he had yesterday with a literature snob. If you’re not into SF at all, you probably haven’t seen one in action, so in a nutshell – they’re the types who equate all Science Fiction with 1950’s black and white films like Mars Needs Women and therefore feel the genre is worthless and beneath contempt. They think that there’s nothing in the world that SF can bring to the table of intelligent thinking.


Let’s see. I’ll pick on John Updike for starters. What kind of thought provoking literature has he produced? Car salesmen having affairs in book after book. He’s never had a kind word to say about SF – until he produced his own SF novel – and even then he was quick to distance it from mainstream SF – “It’s not Science Fiction,” he told Newsweek. “It’s Updikeian Science Fiction” (emphasis Newsweek’s).

Incidentally, his SF project was a post-holocaust novel – a genre that’s a cliche within knowing SF circles. To be taken seriously, this kind of novel needs some kind of fresh, new twist, like David Brin did with The Postman (yes, the one mangled into a bad Kevin Costner movie).

Then there’s Margaret Atwood. Her novel The Handmaid’s Tale was nominated for a Nebula award, the equivalent of the Oscars for Science Fiction (the Nebula is voted on by peers – the Hugos are the equivalent of the People’s Choice awards, being voted on by the fans). She did absolutely nothing to acknowledge the nomination, and needless to say, didn’t show up for the awards.


Frankly, I’d take Brin or Connie Willis or Lois McMaster Bujold or the late, great George Alec Effinger over Updike or John Irving. While they’re worried about extramarital affairs and wrestling bears on unicycles, these SF authors are in the heat of the debate about real issues like genetic engineering, cloning, the rise of Islamic culture. And in years past SF has also debated things like pollution, overpopulation, bioterrorism, and yes, space travel and nuclear war.

Maybe I’m being a snob in reverse. But on the other hand, I get really, really annoyed at people who criticize things they know absolutely nothing about.

Okay. I’m breathing deeply… I am calm… I am calm…