Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Guest Blogger--Barbara Carpenter

Barbara Elliott Carpenter

Barbara Carpenter was a Guest Blogger several weeks ago. She has more to share with us today.                                               


I didn’t see it coming.

So engrossed in what unfolded right before my eyes, I failed to see all the clues, the foreshadowing, in the movie The Sixth Sense. The writer did his part. As the movie ended, there were flashbacks showing us exactly what we should have noticed, but did not.

I watch for all those telltale signs now. The camera pans slowly across an ancient rifle above a rugged mantelpiece. A character is deeply engrossed in a book that is then carelessly tossed aside. It can be anything, but a careful observer notices and allows the clue to sink into his subconscious mind.

It’s the same with a book. I enjoy clever foreshadowing. Once I discover a writer who uses it well, I tend to read everything written by him/her. Perhaps that’s the main reason my book shelves (and bedside tables, dressers, counters and corners) boast stacks of mysteries.

In younger days, I devoured books by Daphne du Maurier. “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderly again.” Her book, Rebecca, will remain a classic. In my twenties when I read it, I subsequently found an aged copy of it at a library “old books” sale. I gave twenty-five cents for it, and it holds a place of honor among my favorites. I think I have read all of her books, and I reread them. Superb writer and a great storyteller.

Robert Ludlum is another example of a good mystery writer. When he died, I felt as if I had lost a friend! The Bourne books introduced me to Ludlum, but it was The Road to Gondolfo that made me love him. I literally chortled through that book! I can think of no better word to describe the half snort/half giggle that burst from my lips as I read.

My quest these days is to find a writer who can throw me completely off track. I don’t want to know “whodunit” in the first two chapters. There are some successful writers who tell us right away who is guilty. Some, such as Mary Higgins Clark, are good at their craft; and we must struggle along with the other characters to bring the guilty to justice.

I prefer not to be told. I want to suspect the butler, the maid, the driver, the gardener, the husband, the wife, right up to the end, when it turns out to be the lawyer! Well, of course it was the lawyer! The subtle foreshadowing did not register, which was delightful!

When I decide to write a mystery, I use a simple question; What if? At times I’ll be writing along so fast that my fingers cannot keep up with my thoughts; and that question will stop me in my, well, computer keys.  What if the good guy really isn’t? What if the bad guy really isn’t? How can I throw the reader off without lying or misrepresenting? It must be believable, not some far-out character who just stumbles onto the scene on the last page.

Throw out little tidbits, not beams. Show us mismatched earrings or a pillow out of place, not a bloody knife. While I was working on the second Starlight book, I could not decide which man would be the villain. I had several choices. Eventually, he just kind of decided for me: a glint in his eyes, a subtle turn of his upper lip, a nearly out-of-character solicitousness that didn’t seem quite right. Although I could not quite put my finger on why, I knew who it was going to be. It worked! Some readers were almost angry with me, but it was all there for them to see; so they couldn’t really quarrel about it.

Give the question a try next time you want to fool your readers, or yourself. What if? You might be surprised how good your story’s ending will be.
 Barbara Elliott Carpenter is an award winning writer whose work has appeared in anthologies, magazines and books. Three novels comprise her Starlight Series, and she has written and/or edited two memoirs. Without A Quarter In My Pocket and A Nickel Can of Pork and Beans. Currently, she is a Co-Creator for the Special Occasion book in the new NOT YOUR MOTHER’S BOOK anthology series, published by Ken and Dahlynn McKowen. She is an avid reader, paints, quilts and gardens while still giving attention to her husband, children and grandchildren.


  1. Coincidentally, I've been thinking along these same lines. I've recently finished a mystery/thriller, which I thoroughly enjoyed, but the final resolution came in a bit of information only revealed near the ending. When I get the book back in my hands -- it's on loan to a friend -- I think I'll read it again to see if there were any possible clues that I missed.
    That may be, in truth, the way in which real crimes are solved -- the detective finally gets an anonymous tip that leads directly to the criminal, but don't traditionally-written mysteries have all sorts of clues, liberally sprinkled along the way?

    1. You're right about reading for clues. I think writers often read with a different eye than non-writers, but all readers need those clues along the way, and not those totally obvious ones.

  2. Coincidentally, I've been thinking along these same lines. I recently finished, and vastly enjoyed, a thriller/mystery in which the bit of information that solved the crime was revealed only in the final pages.
    That may be, in truth, the way most crimes get solved -- the detective receives an anonymous tip that leads directly to the criminal.
    But aren't mysteries expected to have little clues sprinkled all along the way?
    When I get it back -- it's loaned to a friend -- I'm going to read it again to see if I possibly missed some earlier clues.