Red Herrings and Rubber Snakes

Our backyard is a summer haven.  Over 500 flowers in various beds and hanging pots fill the air with their sweet scent.  In the midst of it all, we have a landscape feature that attracts starlings by the thousands.  These sleek, black birds strut around the middle of our yard from early spring until the orange and yellow leaves of autumn fall from the trees. 

It wouldn’t be so bad if they actually sang like a cardinal instead of squawking out ugly ditties.  It wouldn’t be quite as annoying if they sported beautiful plummage or hovered artfully in the air like a hummingbird.  Nor would it be nearly as disgusting if they used another area of the world for child care instead of our fence, patio and furniture. 

But no, these gruesome creatures clean out their nests, carry the debris in their beaks (by that I mean baby birdy feces) and unceremoniously regurgitate the slimey slop somewhere in my backyard haven.  Inevitably where I want to walk barefoot.

I got tricky, and so far, my farce has worked.

Every good mystery has a red herring or two to keep their dectectives headed in the wrong direction.  These literary tricks up the stakes and keep the reader engaged.  They also allow for OMG-I-cant-believe-that-just-happened moments.  In essence, they lead the MC (and the reader) on the wrong path and provide ample opportunity for poor choices to be made.

I love dissecting literature and trying to solve the mystery of what will happen.  It’s like a giant puzzle laid out before me in which I must mentally sort through the pieces and put them together before the MC does.  This is made harder when the author masterfully slips the red herrings in one at a time, so subtly I don’t even realize I’ve been handed another puzzle piece.

Alfred Hitchcock was a master at this, as was Agatha Christie.  They filled their books with twists and turns that surprised everyone.  Their stories were a childhood staple for me.  My favorite contemporary, Red Herring Genius is Phillip Margolin.  His books always throw me for a loop on the last page. 

Inspired by the greats, I became the backyard equivalent last Monday.  At least in Starling Land.

In the center of my yard I placed a very real-looking rubber serpent.  It’s about 3 feet long and has been known to play pranks on unsuspecting visitors who fear snakes–it looks that real.  Off to the side on one of my patio chairs, I coiled a very fake-looking, stuffed snake, while a small, hand-painted wooden one slithers onto the hardscape from the opposite direction.

Ironically, I strategically set up my red herrings right in front of the chattering birds.  They watched from the neighbor’s trees and spat invectives my way, as they simply despise their bathroom breaks being interrupted by us rude humans.  There was no art in my trickery, and yet it’s had the same effect as a skillfully-placed, literary red herring.

The starlings have changed their course of action in much the same way a Muddled MC would when faced with the misplaced evidence.  Instead of strutting around my yard, they have taken up residence on the fireplace chimney in the corner of the yard.  This habitat is new to them and far less desirable.  I can tell by the longing glances they cast at their old stomping grounds.  From their new perch, they mournfully call to their legions in the neighboring yards and keep them posted on the latest development: the damn snakes are still there.

I think it’s time to buy more. 

As readers, what author provides you with the most satisfying red herrings?  As writers, what is your favorite red herring you’ve written into a novel?  Do you find writing them to be difficult or easy?  What tips can you give for writing them well?

12 responses to “Red Herrings and Rubber Snakes

  1. Great idea, Cate. Been there, done that with the bare feet. I’m curious – does it keep squirrels out of your yard, too?

    (And, as usual, nice tie in with writing!)

    • Layinda,

      I don’t know about the squirrels. We don’t have any due to our lack of mature trees and our fence. I’m thinking of trying it out on the rabbits under the shed, however. I figure if I throw one under there, they will be less apt to nest over the winter. It’s worth a try anyway. The only sad thing is that I fear these sneaky serpents will keep all my birds away. And I do so love birds. Although with so many starlings, they’ve virtually chased my finches away already…

  2. I love love love red herrings. I love a villain so obvious that people think she can’t be the villain. And then I hint that, no, she might actually be it. Then, just as my readers are saying, “Well, I guess she IS the villain; I really saw that coming,” the real villain takes the stage.

    Mrs. Obvious was only there to make the reader watch her. It’s even more delicious when Mrs. Obvious is actually working for the true villain, making all the characters as well as the readers watch her. It’s soooo sweet when it comes off!

    I think it’s important to make secondary characters keep secrets. Anyone with secrets is suspicious, even if his/her secrets have nothing to do with the main plot. An MC who has to investigate everyone he/she knows is bound to stir up some tension as they prod into situations that are none of their business.

    • Barbara,

      I can tell this is a passion for you. Especially when I read your blog. I think you must be a master of suspense when it comes to red herrings and sneaky characters : )

      I can’t wait to read your stuff off the end caps!

  3. Nice post! I remember loving Agatha Christie books. haven’t read one in quite some time. I’ve started on Script Frenzy and better get back to it. 😉 Ttyl…oohhh tomorrow actually.

  4. I devoured Agatha Christie’s books when I was younger. I still reread them now and again – but she’s such an incredible writer, it takes a long time until I forget who the murderer is. When I teach grade 8, I get the kids totally addicted to her stuff by reading And Then There Were None. Great stuff 🙂

    • Jemi,

      Awesome. We read boring stuff in eighth grade. I wish Christie would have been on the list! And you’re right. Her stories are virtually unforgettable.

  5. I wonder if the fake snake idea would work to keep the wandering cats out of my flower beds (they use them as litter boxes). I think I’ll try it!

    Margolin is also one of my favorites. I love movies and books with a great twist at the end. And I’m pretty gullible so I fall for the red herrings every time.

    • I’d try anything to keep the kitties out of the flower beds! Good luck with that.

      You’re the first person I’ve known who has also read Margolin. Them others don’t know what they be missin’!

  6. This isn’t something I’ve thought about specifically, but now I am! Wonderful food for thought.

    As far as favorite writers go, you might want to check out Bellwether by Connie Willis. That might be one of those red herrings you’re looking for.

    Sarah Allen
    (my creative writing blog)

    • Sarah,

      Thanks for stopping by my blog and commenting. I hope my post gives you something new to consider…as if we don’t have enough already : )

      Also, thanks for the tip on Bellwether. I love new recs from readers and writer friends.


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