Who Do You Believe?

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Distrust and caution are the parents of security. –Benjamin Franklin

The trust of the innocent is the liar’s most useful tool. –Stephen King

* * *

I left the kitchen and was strolling down the long hall toward my office, sipping a cup of coffee as I considered what new disasters I could throw at my characters, when something happened that I had never experienced before.

Picture this: the door at the end of the hall that leads into a utility room was open. Suddenly, an animal leaped out of the utility room into the hall and ran furiously. TOWARD ME! It was a chipmunk.

Now I’m not one to panic in a situation like that, and I know little critters are afraid of big humans, so I waved my arm (the one not holding the coffee—I didn’t want to spill on the carpet), and I shouted, “STOP! GO BACK!” as if Mr. Cutie could understand me. He didn’t play his part in the drama, though. He just kept coming.

At this point, I was afraid I might be in danger of getting bitten by the rodent, so I used that tried-and-true defense mechanism: I screamed for my husband to come quick.

When the chipmunk got within a foot or two from me, he made an incredible right-hand turn at full speed into an adjacent hall. Any tight end would have appreciated that maneuver. Then he turned again and ran straight into MY OFFICE. Not good.

While I was standing there looking dumbfounded and considering the next steps in the chipmunk eviction process, my husband sauntered in from another part of the house. “Did you call me?” he asked.

“Yes!” I said. “A chipmunk came running down the hall. I thought he was going to attack me!”

Now you have to visualize his reaction. Eyebrows slightly raised, a disbelieving tilt of the head, and body language that shouted, “I don’t think so.” What he actually said was “A chipmunk?.”

Now my husband knows I wouldn’t make something like that up, but he still didn’t believe me. We live in a suburban neighborhood. We rarely even see a squirrel around here, so he assumed I was mistaken, and it must have been a mouse or a baby squirrel or something else. After a suitably sarcastic remark, I described the cute little face and the stripe down the back of our unexpected visitor, and that convinced Frank that I had indeed been accosted by real, live chipmunk. So we barricaded Mr. Chips in my office, drove to the hardware store, bought a cage, and finally trapped our unwanted guest without harming a single hair on his cute little head.

After we dropped Chippie off at a park many miles away from our home, I reflected on our experience, and how useful the concept of disbelief or distrust is to authors, especially writers of mystery.

In any murder mystery, there are characters who mislead the authorities, and other characters who are trying to find the truth amidst all the noise. But even more important are the readers who are trying to figure out who’s telling the truth and who’s lying. If the author can mislead the reader artfully enough, it will result in a surprising climax that readers love.

* * *

In my second novel, Dead Man’s Watch, a man has been accused of murder and everybody thinks he’s guilty. He had motive (his wife died of a drug overdose from drugs bought from the murder victim) and opportunity. He admitted that he had met the drug dealer on the night of the murder with the intent to kill him. But he claims he didn’t go through with his plan.

However, the main character was a childhood friend of the accused and doesn’t want to think he could be guilty. She doesn’t believe he would lie to her, so she visits him in prison. Here’s a snippet of their conversation:

He smiled sadly and turned back. “Kathryn, I know you’re a real nice person, but you don’t owe me anything. Let it go.”

“I can’t let it go, Brad. I have to do this.” She paused and waited for him to focus back on her. “But first I have to know. Did you kill him, Brad?”

He jerked his head up so fast, she sat back in her chair. His eyes burned into hers. “Do you think I could be a killer?”

“No.”

“Good. That makes one person in the world who thinks I’m innocent. Maybe you can convince the jury.”

“Did you kill him, Brad?” She had to hear him say it.

Did you notice Brad avoided answering the question the first time? But Kathryn persists. She needs to hear him say he didn’t kill the man. Different readers might come away with different opinions on whether Brad is innocent, or just willing to use his friend to help him.

* * *

While the character Kathryn in the Watch series is a determined but naïve young woman, the main character in my new novel, Lacey’s Star, is different. Cassie Deakin is just as determined as Kathryn, but her outlook on life is far more skeptical. She is reminded frequently in the course of the book to be careful who she puts her trust in.

At one point in the book, Cassie and Detective Frank White are searching for Sinclair, a man who claims to have evidence that his young sister was murdered. Unable to track down Sinclair, they meet with law enforcement officers who had talked to him recently. When Cassie hears that Sinclair had trusted a group of strangers enough to share some important information with them, this is her reaction:

“Sinclair sounds like an idiot. If he convinced those bikers there was something of real value in Uncle Charlie’s barn, the only explanation is that some of those bikers decided to steal it. If that’s what happened, then Sinclair is the reason Uncle Charlie got injured.” I could feel the heat rising in my face. I wanted to get my hands on Sinclair and shake him until his teeth fell out.

* * *

In both books cited above, the matter of trust is an important theme. Characters have to decide who they can trust, and the reader has to decide who’s telling the truth. My job is to tilt the playing field without the reader noticing.

So TKZers: How do you handle issues of believability and trust in your books? Do you incorporate an unreliable narrator? Do you try to mislead your readers?

* * *

GET IN, SIT DOWN, BUCKLE UP, AND HANG ON!

Come along for the ride as private pilot Cassie Deakin lands in the middle of an unwanted adventure and discovers her beloved Uncle Charlie has been attacked and seriously injured by thieves.

But Cassie has a problem. She doesn’t know who she can trust. Still, she reluctantly agrees to team up with Deputy Frank White, a man she definitely does not trust, to solve the mystery behind the attack on her uncle.

But as Cassie and Frank peel back the layers of one mystery, they uncover a deeper and more sinister crime: the murder of an eight-year-old girl decades earlier. Armed with only a single, cryptic clue to the death of young Lacey Alderson, Cassie makes a crucial discovery that lands her in the crosshairs of a murderer.

Lacey’s Star is now available for pre-order for $1.99. Click here.

 

35 thoughts on “Who Do You Believe?

  1. The only question I’m leaving up in the air is: When does each character find out (and how) what each of the others has done – and how will they prove it?

    Because the story comes to the reader through the deep third pov of each of the three main characters, the reader knows what each is up to – and why – and is watching closely to see when it will all blow up.

    No narrator, no misleading, and straight from inside of each character’s mind. Oh, and two of them are actors, used to believably portraying someone else entirely on the big screen, up close and pores counted. The third knows she can’t match them at it, won’t even try until forced to for the final end. When the lives of children are at stake.

    You don’t have to lie to readers, and I suppose you could say it’s misdirection by sum total: which scene gets played from whose pov to put information into the storyline is MY choice, and I use it to the hilt. I choose the pov of the character most affected by what happens in the scene, as closely as I can, but once or twice the choice does hide something for just a little bit longer.

    I figure if I’m truthful and accurate and fair about 98% of the time, readers won’t even notice when I take a little tweak – I think there’s once per book in the trilogy.

    I know if I did it more often I’d be sinking into unreliable narrator-like behavior, and the reader might NOTICE. But I want the reader to trust me so I can get those oh-so-convenient little fibs in.

    • Good morning, Alicia.

      “which scene gets played from whose pov to put information into the storyline is MY choice,” Well put. This is what I mean by “tilting the playing field.” Lacey’s Star is written in first person from Cassie’s point of view. Since Cassie is smart and honest, the reader sees everything that happens just like Cassie does, and the reader can make his/her own judgment about the secondary characters.

      I love that two of your characters are actors. I have an actor in my Watch series, and it opens up so many options for storytelling.

      Have a great week.

      • ‘Tilting the playing field’ is a perfect description of what we do!

        For the READER’S benefit, of course.

        They’re outclassed, we’re in control, BUT it’s for their sake, to give them the best possible STORY.

        Magic tricks only work if you don’t see how.

  2. Hi Kay! Your chipmunk is an excellent example of misdirection and trust, which I’m intending to use in my slip-time WWII era novel in France during the occupation. So thank you for your story. Very well drawn! By the way, I missed you this year at the ACFW conference. Hope to see you next year!

    • Good morning, Donna, and thank you for stopping by and commenting.

      A WWII novel set in France during the occupation sounds like an ideal setting for misdirection and mistrust! I just joined your mailing list, and I’ll be keeping an eye out for the book.

      We didn’t make it to ACFW this year, but we’re hoping to be there in 2024.

      Have a great week.

  3. My cop characters don’t believe anyone until they’ve verified the facts. 🙂

    As for unreliable narrators … nope. Don’t like them. Not one bit.

    • Good morning, Terry.

      I’ve never written an unreliable narrator. Although my main characters can sometimes be misled, they could never mislead someone else.

      The best example I know of an unreliable narrator is in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. Agatha Christie pulled it off so well that it’s considered to be one of her best novels. A masterpiece of “tilting the playing field.”

  4. I rarely name my villain, and he’s always one of the characters the protagonist(s) interacts with so would he be an unreliable narrator? No. I just answered my question. He or she usually has a POV although unidentified and it’s clear it’s the murderer…I guess I used misdirection.
    Does that answer your question? I have deadline brain…

    • Good morning, Patricia!

      I love that term “deadline brain.” As you know, I’m a great admirer of your work ethic and your ability to hit deadlines.

      Like most of your stories, my villain is not known until the climax. I think mystery readers like to match wits with the main characters to see if they can put the puzzle together.

  5. My books veer back and forth between suspense/thriller and mystery. In suspense, the villain is known to the reader but not to the main characters. In mystery, the villain isn’t known to anyone (sometimes including the author!) until a big reveal.

    Misdirection is a useful tool. While the sleuths and reader are chasing the chipmunk down the hall, the bad guy is offscreen climbing through the laundry room window.

    Secrets also work really well. The male lead has major trust issues, causing him to sometimes keep secrets from the female lead. That causes trouble between them and sometimes complicates the investigation b/c he’s withheld important info.

    I was fortunate to beta read Lacey’s Star. TKZers, trust me, it’s a terrific story.

  6. Great topic! Writing mysteries to me is like being a stage magician, which means misdirection. It can also mean creating a misperception in the sleuth (and thus the reader) about a particular event, which causes them to draw a wrong conclusion about a person or event.

    Mistrust is an effective point of conflict in a mystery—the sleuth might suspect someone based on furtive behavior, and thus not trust them, though that behavior might be the result trying to keep a secret, which could even be something criminal or unethical but not murderous. The hero doesn’t know that. The police are likely not to trust anyone until they have all the facts.

    BTW, we don’t have chipmunks here, but we do have a family of tree squirrels that live in the pine in our backyard —I can well imagine the adrenalin rush of encountering one inside our house rather than out in the yard. Glad it had a happen ending for all concerned.

    Congratulations on Lacey’s Star’s impending publication! I’ve preordered it and look forward to reading it.

    • Good morning, Dale.

      “Writing mysteries to me is like being a stage magician, which means misdirection.” This is why I love writing mysteries. It’s like creating an elaborate puzzle and having the reader participate in putting the pieces together. (A lot like life. 🙂 )

      Talk about an adrenaline rush. That little chipmunk didn’t peek around the corner of the door or walk calmly out of the laundry room. He came out full speed ahead. It had to be a juvenile.

      Thank you for pre-ordering the book. I hope you like it.

  7. Great topic and post, Kay.

    I write more on the thriller end of the spectrum. I don’t use unreliable narrators, but like to make use of shape shifters to mislead the reader.

    Have a great week!

    • I’m a huge fan of shapeshifters, too, Steve. In my Empowered series, I had one villain who was a shapeshifter (something believed impossible) and who used that to play off people’s trust.

    • Good morning, Steve.

      I like the idea of shape shifters. (I had to look up the term.) Since you write fantasy books, your characters can literally shape shift, right? Could an actor in disguise be considered a shape shifter?

      You have a great week too!

  8. You drove the chipmunk many miles away? What about his family? What if SHE had babies in the burrow? Sorry, I don’t mean to make you feel bad, but animals have full lives with social circles and family who love them.

    As for your question, of course I try to mislead readers. LOL We need to play fair, but misdirection is part of our job. 😉

    • Good morning, Sue.

      I thought about you when we were taking pains to treat Chippie carefully and respectfully! Somebody told me (after we had dropped him off at a park) that chipmunks can find their way back home. I just hope he doesn’t find his way back into my laundry room.

      You’re so right. Play fair, but misdirect.

      Have a good week.

      • If it makes you feel better, it’s highly unusual for a chippie to enter a home (unless a cat drags them inside). Unlike mice, they prefer their burrows. So, fear not! Your laundry room should remain safe. 😀 Thank you for handling him with care. <3

  9. Chipmunks can have rabies, and rabid animals can come toward you, so good news on the turn into the office. I can top the story, I usually can because of where I live. I was sitting at my computer, looked down, and saw a copperhead. The best reason for writer’s block I’ve ever had.

    • Good morning, Marilynn.

      Oh no. No, no, no. Not a copperhead! I’m terrified of snakes. When we lived in NC, our home was next to a wooded area, and we caught sight of copperheads now and then. We had a friend who was bitten by one.

      Now you’ve got us all wondering. How did you get rid of it?

      Have a good, safe week.

      • It was a young one so it was small. (The smaller ones have more powerful venom so it was less safe than an adult.) Anyway, I was barefooted so I yelled for my mom who lived with me. She brought me a fireplace tool to kill it, but it escaped into the large closet with a bit of damage. The closet had folding doors so it wasn’t trapped. My office was also my bedroom so I left, closed the door, then put a towel under the door to keep the snake from escaping. The next morning, I looked for it and didn’t find it. We discovered that exterminators do not catch or spray for snakes so it was up to me. I intended to use the fireplace tool and a garbage can to capture it and release it, but I found it dead. I spent the next few weeks wearing snake boots inside, but no more got in. I’ve since dealt with another copperhead and a five-foot black snake. Both were freed unharmed since I’ve improved my techniques. (Log tongs work well with large snakes.)

        • Shoving towels under the door was exactly the method we used to barricade the chipmunk in my office. We also pushed large books against the towels so the little guy couldn’t wiggle them aside. (I finally found a good use for The Chicago Manual of Style. 🙂

    • Yikes! About two weeks ago, I’m sitting in my office, typing away with headphones on, music cranked, and a bat swoops my head! Scared me half to death. After chasing him around the house, I managed to coax him into the mudroom. He wouldn’t leave because of the sunlight cascading through the windowed door. Instead, he crawled into a small hole in the ceiling and eventually found his way back outside. With the exception of the initial swoop, I caught the whole thing on video. LOL

  10. My post on the shadow story and murderer’s ladder is all about how to create misdirection which (as a former performing close up magician) is near and dear to my heart.

    As far as the reveal, I’d put it this way. In a trad mystery, the reveal is at the end. That’s the fun of Perry Mason. Several people with motive and opportunity (including the defendant) until Perry’s surgical cross-examination induces someone IN THE GALLERY to stand up and admit to the crime!

    In suspense, the reveal can be at the end, too. But I also like the reveal coming at the end of Act 2 (the second doorway) leading up to an action sequence where the villain is defeated. That’s what happens in one of my favorite thriller movies, The Fugitive (which I’m going to write about soon).

    An unrealiable narrator can be a powerful device IF the author knows how to carry it off, e.g. Presumed Innocent, Gone Girl.

    • Yes, I agree totally regarding the two movies (The Fugitive and Presumed Innocent). The end of PI, in my opinion, is one of the best of the best movie endings. When I can say, “I did NOT see that coming”, it’s a winner winner chicken dinner for sure.

    • Good morning, Jim.

      The Fugitive is one of my favorite films also. I remember hearing you talk about the film, especially the midpoint, in your Great Courses lectures on “How to Write Best-Selling Fiction.” I’m looking forward to your upcoming post on the subject.

      I truly love those Perry Mason episodes where the guilty person just says, “Yeah I did it.”

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