The shotgun has to be on the wall in the cabin in scene one if you are going to use it in your ending. It can’t just appear: readers will feel cheated if this happens. This is a clue. Clues are seeds. They plant question and doubt in the reader's mind. The farmer, author, must cultivate them, water them, allow them to grow. Be careful with the true clues -- the ones that go directly to the solution. If you're a confident writer, and you know what you're doing, you can make them obvious and let them make a lot of noise, hoping the reader would think they're a smokescreen, only to be surprised that they are true. Or they can be gentle asides, almost an afterthought, not really considered serious. Or they can be blended in with the false clues, or the facts that seem to matter but don't.
Red herrings are bait, leading the detective (and reader) away from the truth. But treat them like any other regular clue for the best effect. They are false clues. Make them part of the puzzle -- not the puzzle itself. If you make the detective run all over the place chasing nothing but false clues, the reader's going to have trouble believing when the real ones pop up, taking the air out of your literary sails, so to speak.
Red Herring:
You're a transit bus driver. You leave the station at 6:05 AM, and at your first stop you pick up three passengers. On your second stop you pick up five passengers. On your third stop, four get off and nine get on. On your fourth stop, three get on and five get off. On your fifth stop, eight get off and seven get on.
Got all that? Okay, good. What color are the bus driver's eyes?
A mystery is a puzzle -- the answer is there if the reader thinks about it in the right way. It is the author's job to give the reader the clues that point to the answer; then muck it up by throwing in clues that have nothing to do with the answer at all . . . but appears as if they do.
That's what just happened in the above puzzle. I gave you all the facts, and told you everything you needed to know. Did you answer the question correctly? I don't know the answer, because I don't know the color of your eyes, but if you were sitting there adding and subtracting passengers only to be asked a question which seemingly has no relevance; then I was successful in planting the clue and distracting you with the red herrings.
Clues are the facts that lead to the truth. Red herrings are fish that stink really bad and draw a lot of attention but don't mean anything because they don't actually exist. In other words, they are false clues.
Let's start with planting clues. This sounds really complicated to someone who wants to write a mystery story or novel -- How do I give clues to the reader without giving away whodunnit? Well, maybe it is a little complicated, but no worse than, say, devising a plot or creating an interesting character.
There are two ways to approach planting clues. One is for you highly organized types: Work the plot out beforehand. (Plotting is much more complicated than planting clues, but it's also a whole other workshop lesson.) If you know what's going to happen, then you'll have a better idea of where to plant the clues.
Approach #2 takes it a step further: Write the whole thing, then go back and plant the clues.
You might write an entire novel and not be able to decide whodunnit until you're 3/4 of the way through. Once decided, you can go back and add the appropriate clues. This type of writing can allow you to concentrate on the story and characters; then figure out the mechanics of the mystery later.
Or maybe the way you write may be different -- you may like to know everything before you write the opening line -- and that's great. But remember that you don't need to worry if you don't know all the answers. A lot may change as you work your way through. You may decide your idea doesn't work -- that you'd rather have the murder victim strangled than poisoned. Or the character you thought was a bad guy really isn't all that bad. Characters tend to develop as you write. These things will probably change the clues.
So, how do you plant a clue? That, too, depends. (I know, I know -- I wish there were hard and fast answers on this stuff, but we're talking about art here, a fluid, personal thing.) So, let me give you some examples.
If you're writing a "traditional" detective story, the clues will probably be more specific and follow the evidence collected by the detective -- who said what, alibis, murder weapons, bits of hair, fingerprints, etc. For example, you might have a brown hair discovered at the scene of the crime, and two or three suspects who have brown hair. Or maybe a partial fingerprint from the neighbor on a can of Diet Coke found in a room of a house she claims she was never in. Those are pretty straightforward clues, and you're not planting them so much as using them as “furniture” -- you want the reader to notice them.
Dialogue can be a clue. That woman who says she was never in that house provides a clue. The neighbors who said they were awakened at 3:45 by a barking dog provide a clue. The man who says he never, ever wore such ugly shoes. Whether it's an accurate clue or not is another matter.
Relationships can be a clue. If two brothers hate each other, or a husband and wife divorces, or rich Uncle Willy is mean to his adopted son, these can be clues -- especially if one of the parties is the murder victim.
You might think all these are relatively easy, and you'd be right. What's hard is determining when to reveal them to the reader. If the murder victim is found in chapter one, do you reveal the sibling rivalry in chapter 2 or chapter 20? Is the fingerprint discovered early on, or is it not found until later? You see, just like everything else in your story, presentation means everything.

Your assignment is to read a mystery novel or short story. As you go through it, make a note of each clue. When you're done, study how the author used the clues: Which were true clues (the shotgun), which were false or had nothing to do with anything (red herrings)?

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List of mystery books you might want to look for at the library

Let's review where to find clues (Red Herrings or Shotguns):
  • Detective: brown hair, coke can with finger print, size 9 shoe print
  • Dialogue: The person said, someone said, someone said they saw
  • Relationships: How characters get along, how they interact with one another,
    • How people say they get along and how or what they say about there relationships. (Is there a contradiction?)
  • Foreshadowing: Music or sounds heard, altering voice quality: pausing, stammering
  • Visuals: Actions that a person takes, a sudden departure or phone call made, a trip to a professional, business, relative,or acquaintance. A search through someone's garbage, surveillance of another character, or the taking of an item from the scene
  • Facial clues: eye blinking, fidgeting, avoidance of eye contact or eye contact with a specific individuals, surprise
Download these to help you take notes:

Two Minute Mysteries

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Writing a Mystery:

Read some mystery stories in the genre you want to write in. Some good stories are Sherlock Holmes, those written by Agatha Christie, and the short mysteries paying attention to details--conversations, normal, everyday events--and try to think of a plot developed along those lines. If necessary, do some research about the time or place that you plan to set your mystery.

Think of some good main characters. You don't need a lot of characters--sometimes just two or three works well. Try to develop distinct personalities.
Download the assignment:
Fill one out for a published book.
Then fill one out for your story.

Include a red herring. This is when you make it appear that one of your suspects is the criminal when it was actually somebody else. You must also make your readers believe it was the red herring who did it, until it has been made clear who the real criminal was. (Note: Many people think a red herring is a misleading clue. This might not be right.) Include your shotgun subtly.

Describe the setting: (Remember you have chosen your setting dependent on your characters goals, treasures and banes)
Download a copy for each major setting:

Now fill out this graphic organizer.

Write out the plot of your story. If you have more than one plot at first, don't worry about it. Choose one you like the best and go with it. You can put the others aside for later.

*Here are some ways to include gripping emotion. Remember; you want to make your character cry on the inside at some point in your story.
  1. Interrupt/upset the life or routine of a character
  2. Betrayal by trusted friend, colleague or family member
  3. Shocking revelation that changes or colors a long-held character belief
  4. Block or impediment to character reaching a goal
  5. Professional Loss of job or school
  6. Legal Loss (criminal charges, arrest, etc)
  7. Emotional Loss (friend, family member, love, hope, trust, confidence)
  8. Physical Loss (loss of health, injury, sickness, disease, deat
  9. Settings that impede/block/halt the character from reaching goal
  10. Time limit on reaching minor or major goals in the story
  11. Any shock, twist or surprise
  12. A proactive, determined and formidable adversary
Download this plot skeleton.

Write the first draft. Don't try to get everything right the first time. The first draft is just to get all of your thoughts in an orderly place and put some structure into your mystery.

**Edit** the first draft. If you want, you can have someone else read the draft and give you ideas.
Write the second draft, and this time, be sure to get someone else to read it. Consider the advice that your 'test reader(s') give. Consider if it will work well with your story, or if it's good advice or not.

Keep writing and editing until you think your work is polished and just fine the way it is. Box in the Box, Explode the Moment, Dig for Potatoes, Tweak your snapshots.

How does Stephen Cannell do it?

  • Don't worry if it takes a long time to edit your story until it's just right. Don't forget to take breaks in between editing and writing to give your brain a rest, and to develop the plot further in your mind.
  • There are a lot of different mystery styles. Going with a 'stereotypical' mystery plot isn't such a bad thing. It's not so much the type of plot you use, but how you use it. There are the 'locked room' mysteries, 'unidentifiable poison' mysteries, and 'impossible clue' mysteries. Work with whatever you like, or invent a whole new plot. Also, giving a chance for the readers to solve the mystery is a good idea.
  • Don't worry if someone is a little harsh in their criticism. Don't take things personally if someone doesn't like a main point of your mystery. You don't have to change the story if you don't want to. But try to get as much criticism as possible. Tell people to be perfectly honest and steel yourself. Don't take yourself too seriously.
  • You don't have to publish your story if you don't want to--you can just file it for your own enjoyment. But if you do want to publish it, be sure to research the options (unless you're writing for a specific thing, like a school paper or mystery magazine). It's also a good idea to research the publication you choose to make sure you know what style they publish, etc.
  • Try to make your characters realistic; some good advice is to base the characters a bit on characters from real life. They don't have to be exact copies of your friends and family, in fact, they can be the exact opposite. Just be sure to be consistent with your characters.
  • The ending must "snap." A long explanation of causes and effects is to be preceded by the "Eureka!" moment every time. Otherwise, it would be boring. Always surprise the reader, who is trying to solve the mystery before you reveal it.
  • Make sure you proofread your work.
  • Have fun. Don't try to write just because you 'have' to. It's all right to put a story down for a couple of days or weeks, just as long as you get it done.
Here are a few ideas if you need one:
The Wishing Well Horror
I hated drawing water from the dank, bug-infested well house to begin with. When the bucket came up heavier and more slowly than usual, I sensed that something was wrong. But I was totally unprepared for the horror that followed...
The Smell in the Cellar
We kept the cellar door locked. No one went down there. One day when I went by I smelled an odd, familiar smell, like something I hadn't smelled since I was little. The odor got stronger, until finally I opened the door and went down the rickety steps.
The Missing Photo
I loved to look through our old family photos. One day, I noticed that a certain picture had been removed. I asked the whole family and no one seemed to have taken it. Was someone hiding something?
The Secret Room
Tearing down a wall to build an addition to our home, I discovered a small narrow room hidden between the walls for decades and what was in it gave me the shock of my life.
The Thing in the Pond For years, I've visited a pond in the woods near our house. Recently I saw something more than sand, rocks and a few fish and turtles. Something much, much more...
The Letter from Yesterday The envelope that came in the mail looked really elegant and I was hoping that it was an invitation to a party. It was an invitation. For a party dated, July 30, 1927.
The Silent Boy We were all playing in our fort by the creek. A tall thin boy with dark eyes and long hair appeared silently from the woods. He came out every day for two weeks but he never said a word. Until one day...
The Creature
My cat likes to bring home an odd assortment of creatures. Not that he kills them. I think they are his friends. One day the cat brought home something I have never seen before in my life and I doubt that I ever will again.