Monday Musings: Scattering Breadcrumbs

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by Kathleen Valentine

werewolfMy preference in books tends to run to mysteries and suspense stories and, as a writer, those are also what I prefer working on. Not all of my books are mystery or suspense but nearly all of them have an element of mystery or a twist of some sort in the story. I love a good plot twist.

A few years ago I read a book—I forget the name, probably purposefully—that was labeled a mystery about a woman with a young child who was being stalked and terrorized. There were several male characters in the story who could have gone either way as good guys or bad guys. It was a good story but throughout you weren’t sure and I was genuinely mystified. It made for an exciting read—until I got to the climax. It turned out that her stalker was none of the characters so far but rather her ex-husband who had been mentioned very briefly at the beginning of the book and never appeared again. That annoyed the heck out of me.

It is my belief that the essence of good suspense/mystery is if, when the climax is reached, the reader can say, “I should have guessed!” This means that there have to be hints dropped in along the way. I call that scattering breadcrumbs. The reader follows the path and knows there is something going on here—they’re just not sure what.

As a writer what I have learned is much of the breadcrumb scattering has to be massaged into place as the story develops. This requires a lot of writing back and forth. As the plot unfolds I find myself going back and planting clues in places that I hope will be unobtrusive. The story I am working on right now is another in my series of Marienstadt stories and, while it is far from a mystery, there is a little twist that I hope readers will like. I’ve done a tremendous amount of massaging to get it to work.

One of the most useful tools in this process comes in understanding the psychological nature of your characters. Each one has to be created with an eye to them being the sort of person who could do whatever it is that they are ultimately going to do. These days there are a lot of characters who are sociopaths or psychopaths and they can be very compelling to create if you understand their psychological makeup but you can’t fake that knowledge or the whole story falls apart.

We writers are world-builders and our worlds have to make sense. There is an old adage in mystery writing that if you mention a shotgun hanging over the fireplace in the beginning of the book, that shotgun has to come off the wall at some point. We can’t just toss in clues for the sake of confusing the reader; they all have to lead the reader down a path. It is a painstaking process and requires focus and a LOT of revision.

In my most recent novel, The Crazy Old Lady’s Secret, there is a huge twist that comes about two-thirds of the way through the story. I was somewhat apprehensive about doing that because it is not the way stories usually unfold but the results of the twist also make it possible for the story to go where it needs to go. Was my gamble successful? We’ll find out as more people read it.

So, as you work, don’t be afraid to backtrack. Scatter those breadcrumbs but scatter them carefully. You want the reader to come to the climax and think, “How did I miss that?” not “That came out of nowhere.”

Thanks for reading.

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Focus Friday: The Crazy Old Lady’s Secret

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By Kathleen Valentine

CrazyOldLadySecret-OriginalVolume 4 of The Beacon Hill Chronicles

It was nearly ten when Viv left Mattie and the children in Brother Maksim’s care. She wasn’t sure what she was doing but the more she thought about Brother Maksim’s suspicions, the more she was convinced he was right. When she called Joe an hour earlier, he told her he and Kevin were still at Handsome Molly’s and, from the loud music and noise in the background, she believed that. She tried calling Ramin but her call went straight to voice-mail.

Mattie stood with her arms folded tight against her chest. “Viv, I know you’re good at looking out for yourself, but what do you think you’re going to do? I can’t believe after everything we’ve been through that house is still in our lives.”

You sound like Stan.”

If Stan were here he wouldn’t let you go, you know.”

If Stan were here he’d go.” Viv pulled on her jacket. “And I’d sneak out after him.”

You know this is crazy.”

Mattie, honey, your grandmother’s house is the definition of crazy.”

Mattie laughed but there wasn’t much humor in it.

Many of the shops along Tremont Street had grinning illuminated jack’o’lanterns in their windows and bunches of cornstalks that rustled in the night breeze by their doors. Gold twinkle lights wrapped around lamp posts and decorated trees. Whoever had strung the lights in the trees did so in such a haphazard manner that they appeared to have been placed there by a wizard too drunk to operate his magic wand. Though all the little trick-or-treaters were gone from the street, adult revelers in costume were everywhere. Music spilled out of bars and restaurants and the cool night was festive in a nerve-wracking way.

On the Common a group of musicians dressed in black outfits with glowing white skeletons on them played music by the Visitor’s Center. A pushcart vendor sold hot mulled cider and pumpkin cookies to ghosts and zombies, mermaids and monsters. Viv cut across the Common and, once she crossed Beacon Street to the Hill, all the noise seemed to fall away. In the glow of gaslight she saw that many of the houses had pumpkins on their doorsteps and in their flower boxes, but the decorations were mostly natural and discreet. Walking past number eight Walnut Street, Viv noticed someone had spread cob webs between the columns on either side of the door and she could not help thinking of George Parkman who once lived there and the grisly way he was murdered. It was not a good night to think about gruesome murders. She walked faster and turned down Mount Vernon Street.

A few lights were on in Ramin’s house—the sort of low, subtle lights that anyone would leave on while they were away. Viv hurried around the corner and entered the little alley behind the house. Except for the dim glow of windows the alley was dark. Shifting, moody clouds broke to reveal a brilliant crescent moon that was just as quickly swallowed by another cloud. As she approached the iron gate to Ramin’s back garden, Viv saw that it was closed and that his Aston-Martin was gone. She stood for a minute trying to decide what to do and, as she did, she heard footsteps behind her. Someone entered the alley and, instinctively, she ducked between the wall of the garage and an old lilac bush. The shadowy figure was large and walked briskly. She worked herself into the shelter of the garage’s side door and held her breath.

What is The Crazy Old Lady’s Secret about?

Return to Boston’s Beacon Hill where the Thorndike mansion, the scene of imprisonment, murder, and hauntings, has been sold. Mattie and Stan are happy in their Cape Cod home. Viv and Joe have a new little daughter and their life in Boston’s North End is good. Joe has a publishing contract to write a series of books on famous Boston crimes. Viv is actively involved in the city’s art world. For a while everything is bliss. But as Joe gets caught up in researching the 19th-century murder of a prominent Beacon Hill physician, mansions on the Hill are being broken into and people die mysteriously. At the opening of a posh new gallery, Viv and Joe meet the owner who seems to know more than anyone about a beautiful local artist who made scandalous paintings that shocked the Brahmins, but who died under mysterious circumstances. Then there is the new owner of GrammyLou’s townhouse, an art dealer from Paris. Ramin Aria is devastatingly handsome, extremely wealthy, and completely mesmerized by Viv.

With the help of the old historian, Doctor Anteus Roosevelt Jones, the feisty knitting shop owner, Calista Defarge, and defrocked monk, Brother Maksim Gromeyko, Viv and Joe get caught up in mysteries from long ago when they discover the crazy old lady’s secret. 

Bonus Material: The book contains a gallery of images and descriptions of locations mentioned in the story.

Where you can get it

Buy the book on Amazon 

About the author

KV-300pxKathleen Valentine was born and grew up in the Allegheny Highlands of Pennsylvania. She graduated from Penn State with a degree in The Arts and worked for over twenty years in the art/marketing departments of high-tech corporations. Since 2003 she has run her own design business, Valentine-Design.com. She is the author of “Fry Bacon. Add Onions”, a cookbook/memoir of growing up Pennsylvania Dutch, as well as 4 novels, several novelettes and short story collections, and knitting instruction books. She has been listed as an Amazon Top 100 Author in Horror. Her novellas, “The Crazy Old Lady in the Attic” and “Ghosts of a Beach Town in Winter” were Amazon Top Ten Best Sellers in Horror and Ghost Stories for over 20 weeks.

Her blog at KathleenValentineBlog.com has been read by thousands of readers since its beginning in July 2005. She currently lives in Gloucester, Massachusetts, America’s oldest seaport, and is writing every day.

Visit her:

And follow her on Twitter @Kathleen01930

 

 

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