What do mystery writers have in common with fishermen?
You wouldn’t be wrong if you said red herrings. While kippers are certainly tastier than false clues, the term ‘red herring’ could be called indigenous to the language of both groups. But the answer I’m looking for has nothing to do with deceptive evidence or smoked fish. I’m thinking of something much more important to the success of writers and fishermen alike.
I’ll give you a hint. If you want pan-fried trout for dinner, you have to set the hook quickly when the fish takes the bait. Hesitate, and that beautiful Rainbow will slip away, probably to be caught by a better fisherman than you.
Excuse the pun, but are you catching on now? Of course you are! In the case of mystery writers, the ‘bait’ is the book. An attractive cover or a great review may tempt a person to thumb through a few pages of a new title. But the ‘hook’ is the thing that whets the reader’s curiosity as to who did it and how it was done. It’s imperative for a writer to 'set the hook' early on in a mystery if he wants to capture the attention of potential fans. Whether through dialogue, action, or narrative, the 'hook' must be set in a compelling way. If it’s not, the reader will toss that book aside and move on to someone else’s work.
Let me tell you how I came up with the 'hook' for my first novel.
The basic plot of A Merry Little Murder had been in my head for years. I’d written a first draft of the novel while still in my twenties, but the manuscript lay buried in a desk drawer, untouched until inspiration in the form of a Christmas tree caused me to dig it out again in 1992. Stripped of its original characters and greatly modified in dialogue and setting, only the bare bones of the plot remained in what became the first book in the ‘Rhodes to Murder’ mystery series featuring ER nurse Caroline Rhodes and professor of history Carl Atwater.
The inspiration I speak of occurred on a particularly frigid Saturday in early December. By mutual agreement, my husband was tackling the outdoor holiday decorations while I remained in the house assembling our artificial Christmas tree. The arrangement was working rather well, neither one of us being able to hear the grumbling of the other as we fought our individual battles with tangled lines of lights. I figured my husband had the easier of the two jobs. All he had to contend with outside was a rickety ladder and a bit of frostbite to his toes. I, on the other hand, faced the daunting chore of matching several dozen branches to their corresponding holes in the trunk. Not an easy task considering the branches had lost the paint dabs marking their place on the tree.
Forty-five frustrating minutes of arranging and rearranging greenery resulted in what I thought was a darn good looking tree. Another half-hour and the lights were strung and the ornaments put in place. Thinking I was finished, I plugged in the lights and stood back to admire my work. Much to my dismay, the middle string that had worked so perfectly when tested earlier now refused to glow. Another twenty minutes passed while I stripped the tree, strung a new line of lights, and replaced the ornaments, all the time grumbling madly to myself. Once more I plugged in the cord. The tree looked beautiful – for exactly two minutes. Then the top string of lights made an eerie little popping noise and gave up the ghost. Teary eyed, I began again to strip, string, and replace.
After struggling with the tree for the better part of an afternoon, I was not a happy camper when my husband walked into the living room red-cheeked and radiating holiday spirit. He cheerfully informed me he was done with the outside work, all the lights having worked perfectly from the start. Then he cocked his head and, ignoring the dagger looks I cast his way, he examined my efforts.
"You've got the wrong branch there," he said, pointing to one particular piece of greenery that stuck out an inch farther from the trunk than its neighbors. "You'd better switch it with the one below."
Saint Paul wrote that wives should be submissive to their husbands. But Saint Paul never trimmed a Christmas tree. Nor did he have a wife. Not known to be submissive even in the best of times, I choked back a snarl and yanked out the branch, sending my husband’s eyebrows soaring. They soared even higher when I spun around and almost ran the poor man through with the long metal tip.
Two things stopped me from plunging that branch into my beloved's stomach. First, I recalled the lines of a country western song, "Papa's in the Graveyard, Mama's in the Pen". Imagining my children tearfully singing those words as they stood outside my jail cell was enough to stay my hand. Then I thought, what a nifty way to knock off someone in a mystery!
After carefully replacing the greenery, I kissed my now thoroughly confused husband and ran off to write the first chapter of A Merry Little Murder. For those who haven't read the book (shame on you!), I kill off seven people in that chapter when a bomb packed inside the trunk of an artificial Christmas tree explodes turning the metal-tipped branches into lethal projectiles.
The ‘hook’ in A Merry Little Murder is the exploding Christmas tree. After reading that first chapter, I hope readers will want to know not only whodunit, but also how was it done, why was it done, and which of the seven people the bomb was meant to kill.
Only if that happens will I know that I've been successful in ‘setting the hook’.