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Dropping clues -- a first or final draft process?
Posted: Monday, April 25, 2011 2:44 AM
Joined: 3/16/2011
Posts: 27

A fairly straightforward question for fellow mystery writers: when do you add valid clues and red herrings to your draft novel? Aside from putting the gun "on the set" in act one, do you drop clues intentionally while you're writing your first draft? Or do you find it necessary to go back once the story is complete and add clues along the way?
Posted: Tuesday, April 26, 2011 7:21 PM
Joined: 4/3/2011
Posts: 21

I don't do anything intentionally in my first draft. Half the time, I don't know until more than halfway through a draft who the killer is (at least consciously). The most bizarre thing that ever happened during a first draft was that I thought I had decided on the killer, then I killed him off! Ack! But it always seems to work out that there's a bad guy or two left at the end.

Once I've finished the draft, I do a "search" on the name of the person who turned out to be the killer and make sure sufficient hints are there.
Posted: Tuesday, April 26, 2011 8:13 PM
Joined: 3/11/2011
Posts: 157

For me, worrying about clues comes after I have a strong first draft. In the first draft, I like to focus on the action and the structure of the novel. I want to have that beginning to end experience drafted out. Once I do that, the place where the clues are found are usually there waiting for me. As I go through the rewrites and edits, those places are tweaked to account for the clues and the red herrings.

This also takes the focus and stress off "figuring out what the clues will be" during the writing process. That's where a lot of mystery writers freeze up. Trying to think about them while your writing can pull away from telling the story. Sometimes the clues turn out to be easier than we think.
Alexander Hollins
Posted: Wednesday, April 27, 2011 10:21 PM
Joined: 3/13/2011
Posts: 416

I've plotted a few mysterys out, but not drafted yet. I think I would use finding clues as goal posts in my draft, main points of time to then fill in in between.
Posted: Friday, April 29, 2011 4:07 AM
Joined: 4/28/2011
Posts: 4

My style may be more stream of consciousness than is normal, but I do agree with Laura in that part of the fun of writing a mystery is allowing the protagonist to figure it out for themselves. As the writer, I have my own suspicions about the answer and I'm sure my subconscious is supplying clues during the writing, but half the fun of writing is the not-knowing.
Posted: Friday, April 29, 2011 1:06 PM
Joined: 3/29/2011
Posts: 20

I tend to put big obvious clues in my first draft, then go back and rewrite them so they're a little more subtle in my second draft. When I first started writing, I was a complete pants-er versus a real (though open-ended) outline, but I tended to write myself into a corner without leaving myself the clues that I needed to throughout the first draft.
Blake Ovard
Posted: Saturday, April 30, 2011 12:28 AM
Joined: 4/30/2011
Posts: 1

I tend to let the story tell itself from whatever perspective I am writing from. Sometimes that includes clues being in the first draft, sometimes it doesn't. Obviously, the BIG clues will be there, but the subtle things I usually add later as I flesh everything out.
Joan Rylen
Posted: Monday, May 2, 2011 7:52 PM
Joined: 3/10/2011
Posts: 7

I’ve learned that I have to do both. We started writing Getaway Girlz knowing who we were killing off, but we didn’t know how we were going to get there. We spent a long time on revisions.

I’d rather have a sense of direction when starting a new draft, write in the bigger clues and red herrings, then go back later and finesse.

Of course, things are always subject to change.


Steve Yudewitz
Posted: Wednesday, June 29, 2011 1:38 AM
Joined: 4/28/2011
Posts: 24

I usually know the why behind the crime in my first draft, but not the who until I'm pretty far into it. That said, I place clues throughout the first draft, but these clues only allow the protagonist to narrow his/her list of suspects. My second and third drafts usually are where the additional clues pointing to the evil doers are sprinkled in. Red herrings and rabbit holes are more prevalent in the first draft than later drafts.
Posted: Saturday, July 30, 2011 8:27 PM
Joined: 7/16/2011
Posts: 2

I tend to do both. I often modify the clues I have put in the first draft and add others as the ideas come to me. I have yet to write a story that was planned out from the time I started and stayed that way to the end. I have occasionally changed thing half-way through and have to go back to correct things I had already written. I think its what you are most comfortable doing.
Dave McClure
Posted: Monday, November 21, 2011 10:58 AM
Joined: 11/17/2011
Posts: 21

I usually know who the bad guy (or girl!) is when I outline the book.  Mind you, I do most of my outlining in my head.  Nonetheless, I pretty much know who, because the mystery is more generally "why" than just "who."  As a newpaperman, long ago, I learned that the fundamentals of a crime are the standard pyramid:  who, what, why, when, where, and how.  If you stick to these, it helps define the mystery, IMHO.
Joan Curtis
Posted: Sunday, June 10, 2012 4:12 PM
Joined: 6/8/2012
Posts: 4

I've read through most of the responses and see that we all use different methods for dropping clues.  In the first mystery I wrote, I used an outline. I knew who the killer was. I worried I made him too obvious. Later I went back through to try and lead readers elsewhere.

In the second mystery I wrote I didn't use an outline and it flowed. I had no idea who the killer would be until well into the story. Then everything fell into place. It's amazing how that happens.

I don't know which way is best. My guess is whatever works for you will be your best approach.

Good luck!


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