On Planting Red Herrings

When I shared an early draft of A Season for Killing Blondes, a beta reader complimented me on my use of red herrings and suggested the title could also be considered a red herring.

Puzzled, I asked for clarification.

She explained, “A red herring is a literary device that leads readers toward a false conclusion. Glancing at the title, I expected to read a thriller about a serial killer who had designated a specific time period for the Rampage.” She winked. “That’s definitely not the case here.”

A bit worried, I wondered if I was misleading my readers. Would they expect a thriller and be disappointed when my novel turned out to be a cozy?

She assured me that the title was well-suited to a cozy mystery that featured a brunette lottery winner as the primary suspect and four dead blondes killed during a two-week period. And she doubted that anyone would be disappointed at the end.

After our conversation, I decided to do more research into red herrings.

Several theories exist regarding the origin of the expression. Some believe that it refers to the use of a kipper (strong-smelling smoked fish) to train hounds to follow a scent. Another theory points to escaping convicts who used red herrings to throw off hounds in pursuit.

Many of the plots in Agatha Christie’s novels contain red herrings. In And Then There Were None, we assume a character who goes missing is the killer. Later, when his body is washed up onshore, we realize that his absence was a red herring that misled the other characters and the readers.

In The Da Vinci Code, Dan Brown expertly uses the character of Bishop Aringarosa as a red herring throughout the novel. While reading, we can easily imagine him as the mastermind of the church conspiracy and are surprised when the real culprit is revealed. Intrigued by the bishop’s unusual surname, I probed further and learned that “Aringarosa” translates into English as “red herring.”

Another famous red herring example appears in The Final Problem by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. While walking through the Swiss mountains with Sherlock Holmes, Dr. Watson receives a message that an Englishwoman at their hotel is in urgent need of health care. He rushes back to the hotel and discovers there is no Englishwoman. The message was a red herring sent by the villain Professor James Moriarty as a ruse to isolate Sherlock Holmes at the edge of a cliff.

To keep my readers guessing while reading A Season for Killing Blondes, I introduced a gaggle of suspects, among them a yoga teacher with anger management issues, a lecherous photographer, two “50something” mean girls, and fourteen ex-boyfriends.

From the reviews, I gathered that I had succeeded in maintaining the readers’ interest until the final chapters. My favorite comes from The Romance Reviews: “A well-written, character-driven murder mystery that genuinely had me scratching my head until the very end wondering who dun’ it!?”

Do you have a favorite red herring to share?


Where to find Joanne Guidoccio…

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A Lucky Eight: Thoughts on the Book Trailer

love-1560817_1280Do you have a trailer for your latest book? And what’s your opinion of the medium, in general? Seems there’s some controversy as to whether book trailers have a place in the market at all. Some sources even suggest that the very notion of a book trailer is in direct opposition to a book’s innate function, that is, to force the reader to use their imagination.

When you turn black and white words on a page into images, combine them with more words and music, does this lessen the value of reading? Is it cheating?

I don’t believe so. Ever since designing my first book trailer, for my debut novel, Phantom Traces published by Soul Mate Publishing, I’ve been hooked. Statistically, my YouTube link has had almost four times as many hits as has the Amazon page. I definitely believe the one-minute, four-second video has helped generate interest in that book, as well as others I have written since. And it’s also a fact that Facebook and Twitter posts with images get many more hits than those without. Adding a video increases that number even more.

Because let’s face it: in today’s visually oriented world, it sometimes takes more than a back-cover blurb to catch a new reader’s attention.

As an author, I must share with you what designing a book trailer does for me. Truth be told? I completed two of my trailers before the book was even finished. And the process of converting a story concept into images, a chosen few words, and adding mood-inspiring music has actually helped me finish writing those books.

To start, I am a visual learner. I absorb and assimilate ideas much more quickly if I’m shown illustrations of the concepts. So when I was having difficulty wallowing through the “mushy middle” of my latest work-in-progress, I decided to take a break and start working on the book trailer instead.

collage-1323417_1280What an amazing writer’s block buster! The same way a storyboard might work, as soon as I began choosing images to illustrate my general storyline, a natural progression emerged. Once I had a sequence of images in place in my iMovie project timeline, the next scene—one that had refused to reveal itself in words on the page—jumped out at me. The process led me to write the ending scene of the book, and once I knew where I was headed, the path to get there revealed itself clearly.

But, what if the book is done, you have your back cover blurb written, and your cover is finished and ready to go? It should be easy to design a book trailer at this stage of the game, right? In designing the trailer for my upcoming release, The Phoenix Syndrome, I discovered it’s not nearly as easy as I’d once thought.

The average book trailer is between one and one and a half minutes long. Much of the clues about the story are revealed in film or images, and it’s true, a picture is worth . . . yadda yadda. But there has to be some sort of script to go along with those images. You thought condensing your 96,000 word novel into a 200-word back cover blurb was hard? Hah! Try distilling it down to less than thirty.chemistry-161575_1280

One thing for sure: I now not only have a book trailer, but I also have that one-sentence elevator pitch we all struggle so hard to develop.

If you do decide to create a trailer for your novel, or hire someone to do so, here are some rules of thumb I have gleaned from watching dozens of trailers, good and bad. And also from designing four of my own, and one for a dear friend:

  1. Don’t make it too long. I have found book trailers that last longer than 90 seconds lose my attention. And if I don’t make it to the end of the trailer, what makes one think I will want to read the book?
  2. Search until you find pictures of your hero and heroine. I know this sounds ludicrous, since they only exist in your mind. But either on a royalty-free site like Pixabay, or on paid licensing sites such as Depositphotos, spend some time searching for your main characters. You will be amazed at how they will be there. And you’ll know, from the first time you set your eyes on their face—he or she is the one.
  3. It’s helpful if, once you identify your hero or heroine (whomever will be the main “star” of the trailer), there are multiple pictures available of this particular person. I haven’t been lucky finding these on free sites, but on Depositphotos you can actually choose an option to see other photos with the same model. This gives you the flexibility to show your character in a few different stages of the story, i.e., varying states of mind.
  4. A word about music—there are several royalty-free sites, like www.bensound.com or www.leefitzsimmons.com, where you can download and use music for your trailer free of charge as long as you make sure to provide a live link in the YouTube description crediting the source. I also mention the source in the last frame of the trailer.
  5. Don’t tell the whole story! What we’re after is breadcrumbs here, Hansel. Lead the viewer up to the point where they’re wondering, “what’s going to happen next?” and end the trailer there.
  6. Ditto for subplots. There’s no way you can cover every nuance of the plot in thirty words or less. Stick to the main conflict.
  7. Begin the trailer with the title and author name, but don’t bother with links—they won’t be clickable within the trailer itself anyway. You can place links in YouTube’s description screen.
  8. End with an image of your book cover, not a reiteration of the title and author. Visually oriented society, remember? If the last image your viewer sees is your cover, they will automatically link it in their minds with the “story” your trailer told, and the cover image will imprint on their brain. Their eye will be drawn to it when it shows up as a thumbnail on Amazon or wherever it’s posted for sale.

So whether you decide to create your own trailer or hire it done, keep these eight tips in mind. If you are a Mac user, iMovie has premade trailer templates as well as a very versatile project program, relatively user-friendly once you get the hang of the software. Should you be hiring someone else, be sure you go into the agreement with your 25-30 word “story nugget,” a main conflict plotline with a list of key scenes. Also, have at least one photo of your hero and/or heroine to provide to the “cinematographer.”clapper-board-152088_1280

And have fun bringing your story to life in a cinematic way!


Claire Gem writes intensely emotional contemporary romance novels, sometimes with a ghostly twist. You can find out more about her work at www.emotionalcontemporaryromance.com, and view some of her trailers here:

Phantom Traces

Hearts Unloched

A Taming Season

Indigo Sky (by fellow author/great friend, Gail Ingis)