How to hide a unicorn in plain sight

How the heck do you hide a unicorn anyway?

It has that pointy ice cream cone for a horn and a glorious, flowing mane.  A horse with sparkles.

Hardly something that would be easy to hide.

So you’d do it with a fish.  A red herring, to be precise.

What is a red herring?

A red herring is a false trail in a book, designed to distract the reader from the actual clues.

It’s like being a magician when you write!  While you are showing the trick to the audience, you’re also slipping in the actual trick under the radar.  Pretty cool, huh?

The real clues are actually right in front of the reader, but the red herring is really shiny.  It screams: “Look at me. I’m important!”

Might only be a squeaky voice, since fish don’t really talk.

Clue hide-and-seek

  1. Take the clue out of its frame of reference.  Makes it hard to realize the clue is important without the context.
  2. Make something else the obvious choice–that really shiny thing.  You can play up on the reader’s expectations here…like the guy with the violent criminal background has to be the killer and then–BANG!  He’s the victim.
  3. Bury it in a list.  Human brains can only take in three things at once.  If you give them four, they’ll probably forget the second or third items.

But always play fair with the reader.  It’s no fun to have the detective know something and the reader doesn’t.  That’s the fastest way to get a book thrown across the room.  We like being given information and not seeing it.  We don’t like being tricked.

What’s fish got to do with it?

Nerd me had to ask where the term “red herring” actually came from.  Was it a popular mystery story now lost to time?

Dons my black belt in Google Fu.  Ee-yah!

Turns out a journalist in the 1800s wrote a story about a boy using red herrings to mislead the hounds.

More reading about red herrings

International Thriller Writers on Hiding Clues from the Reader

Gillian Roberts on Playing Fair with the Reader

Let me hear from you about a red herring you spotted in your travels!

Granny Logic

A woman on a pier, holding an umbrella over her face
SHORT STORY: I broke my right foot. Terribly inconvenient. But it inspired this story.

Nothing like having Granny on stakeout.

Sidelined by a broken foot, private investigator Erin King must go on surveillance.  Her body-building granny plays chauffeur.

Add a thorny case of fraud and an impatient insurance company.  And the bill collectors.

With time running out, Erin needs answers, fast.  But sometimes granny knows best.

Set in Pismo Beach California, this heart-warming mystery is a page turner.

A Granny PI mystery short story available from your favorite booksellers.

Writing and Furloughs

I’m not on furlough.  Yet.

I’m in the working capital crowd, so my work’s money is generated by us. But that’s going to run out, possibly at the end of next week (because the people who buy things from us are on furlough, so no new money will be coming in).  It’s bad because we don’t know, so it’s like it’s this ticking bomb that we can’t see.  We know the timer is counting down, and we don’t know exactly when it will go off.

Then we’ve had an interesting week with the high speed chase near the White House that ended up at the Capitol, with lots of shooting.  That was followed up the next day by the self-immolation.

So the mood here is … well, disillusioned and hopeless.  This is the reason I want to write full time.  The politicians get into a hissing fit and suddenly I have no control over getting my paycheck — and it’s nothing I’ve done!  It’s the like the politicians are completely disconnected from reality.  They think everyone is making tons of money like the senior management and can stand for a few days of no paychecks.  How would you react if your employer said “I can’t pay you for two weeks?”   Even if you have enough to survive, there’s still the impact of knowing that there is no money coming in.


I finished my science fiction short story and sent it.

But this story almost didn’t get written.  When I first saw the anthology, I did have an idea for it.  But the deadline at the time was very short, and I was really intimidated by the thought of doing a science fiction story.  I kept looking at the idea and thinking, “But I don’t know what I’m going to do with the story, or how it ends.”  So I kept shooting down the idea and didn’t write it.

Then the anthology got extended, and I looked at it again and asked why wasn’t I writing it?  I had to turn off that voice (and occasionally beat it away) that kept trying to tell me either that it was a problem I didn’t know what I was going to do with the story or that I should know how it ends.  I just picked character names and started writing, really one sentence at a time.  Listening to that inner voice, I would have decided on the ending and written to that — and wrecked the story.  Instead, when I was done, I was amazed at what it ended up being.

Now I’m working on two more stories, also for anthologies, one science fiction and one fantasy. I’m thinking right now on focusing just on short stories because I can do a bunch of those and get them out to pro-rate magazines.  I’m looking at this more of getting my name seen in as many places as possible because that, in turn, will eventually help me make money.

My flash fiction short story “The Library Patron” will be out this week, so watch for a post with more information.


I just finished Amee and David Thurlo’s The Enemy Way, a mystery about Ella Clah, a Navajo police officer.  It’s one of the few series that I’m continuing to enjoy even though it’s well past book seven (yeah, and I know this is book 4, but I hadn’t read it.).  Most seem to self destruct at around book seven. They change the character’s life in such a way that the core conflict changes, so I end up losing why I came to the series.  Whereas, with the Clah series, the authors keep the character’s conflict consistent (her job is at war with her culture), but change her life.  The result is she has a conflict that is consistent and at the heart of the series, but her life can change around it.

I also have Sue Grafton’s Kinsey and Me.  The hardback version is available.  The book is mostly short stories from early in the popular mystery series’ time.  I remember when this series first came out.  It was a really big deal because it was one of the first forays for women into being private detectives in fiction.  At that point, I spent my time in bookstores struggling to find books with any women in it that wasn’t a romance novel because the default was male characters.  Things have changed a lot since then, and people today don’t realize that authors like Sue Grafton broke the ground that led to other types of books.

I have my eye on Year of the Demon, by Steve Bein.  I read the first book, Daughter of the Sword, and it was awesome, so I want to get the next book.  That one has to wait until the furlough settles, since I have to buy it.

What are you reading?

When I Decided to Become A Writer

Over at Kill Zone, James Scott Bell asks the above question.   I like James Scott Bell because his writing advice tries to accommodate all writers, not just ones who write a particular way.  Here’s what he asks:

So when did you decide to become a writer? Was it a specific moment? A particular influence? And what did it feel like when you started on your quest?

I was eight and it was fourth grade.  My best friend Rebekah was writing a class play, and I wanted to do it because she was doing it.  So I decided I wanted to write a novel.  My parents suggested I do short stories, so I started writing mystery stories with a girl detective like Nancy Drew.  I even illustrated them, and part of the fun of them was socializing with the other kids over them. Some of the other kids also drew pictures for them.  I remember one story had its own story behind it — a series of disasters like getting dropped into a puddle.  That one had three different kids illustrate it!

When did you decide to become a writer?  Tell me in the comments.

How Star Trek Got Me into Writing Fantasy

It looks like I might not have a writer’s conference to attend next year, or coordinate, for that matter.  The organization appears to have folded — web site is gone, and no one is answering emails.  I was coordinating the conference itself, but it doesn’t appear good.  Since I still want to get out and network, hopefully with agents, I’m thinking of trying a science fiction convention.  I used to go to them a lot but stopped going when I didn’t want to collect photos any more.  Now I have a different reason.  That’s got me thinking about how Star Trek got me into Science Fiction and then Fantasy in the first place.

In 1976, it was a big time of transition for women.  The first women went to West Point that year, and it was exciting.  As a big reader of fiction, I wanted to see books that were for me — about girls having adventures.  These women got into the military, and were doing something more than getting married or becoming a stewardess, teacher, or nurse.  But there really wasn’t anything in fiction, and it would be quite some time before there was.

Along comes Star Trek.  This was right about the time the fandom started to snowball.  Star Trek went into syndication on local channels, including KTLA.  Somehow, I ran across, and one thing really drew my attention.  No, it wasn’t Mr. Spock.  It was Lieutenant Uhura (played by Nichelle Nichols).  She was a woman officer in the military in a major leadership role.  She even got a bit of action now and then.  That was a whole lot more than I was finding in any book.

So I started reading science fiction.  The adult books were not really for me — they were more cerebral than about action-adventure, and most didn’t even have women.  I tried the books for kids.  Those were about action-adventure, but the same problem still existed.  Nothing for girls.  It was purely a men’s domain.

In comes the 1980s and an anthology called Sword and Sorceress, by Marion Zimmer Bradley.  MZB created it for the very reasons I was frustrated about —  no women protagonists.  Suddenly I had a book for me, and it had women + action-adventure.  Mystery would appear with a women protagonist about the same — Sue Grafton‘s Kinsey Milhone.  But mystery didn’t have a lot of action like what I was looking for.  Heck, I would have settled for a male protagonist and a female sidekick if she got action-adventure.

Urban fantasy was introduced in the 1990s, and has continued the evolution of the role of women in action-adventure roles in books.