By Margaret Lucke
Do you sometimes feel as if you haven’t got a clue?
The Clue Consultant--that's me--is here to help.
I come by this title honestly. Like many writers, I earn part of my living as a pen for hire. One day I received a phone call from a psychologist who worked with children. She'd written a mystery intended to help kids develop their critical-thinking skills. Readers would be invited to match wits with the fictional detective. When they solved the mystery they'd send in a letter identifying the guilty party and explaining how they'd figured it out. If they came up with the correct solution, they'd receive a small prize.
"The story's all done," the psychologist told me. "But I need a Clue Consultant to help me figure out where to put in the clues."
How a mystery could be complete if the clues were missing? It turned out that the book wasn't as finished as she claimed. Putting in the clues involved a complete rewrite of the story, because the clues are so integral to a mystery's plot.
To plant them, I used a technique I devised when writing my first novel. Working backward from the solution, I made a list: “What the Detective Needs to Know to Solve the Crime.” Then I went through the scene outline and pinpointed where each clue was revealed or, if it wasn't there, where to place it.
For my next gigs as a Clue Consultant, I wrote scripts for mystery weekends and fundraising parties. Participants competed in teams to solve the mystery being staged in front of their eyes. Prizes were awarded for the most accurate solution--that is, the one that most closely resembled the scenario I had come up with--and for the solution that was the most wild and inventive while still taking the clues into account.
The guests were warned that anything they heard or saw during the event might be a clue. Some of them were actually actors playing parts in the story, but they pretended to be amateur sleuths like the others, keeping their roles a secret until they dropped dead in front of everyone, mysteriously poisoned.
The production team and I assembled items to be found on the victim's bodies or in their hotel rooms, crafted snatches of conversation for the actors to say in the hearing of the other guests, and manufactured fake documents that would tell bits of the story.
Before the event we hid clues around the hotel and at local points of interest. We might bury an appointment calendar under a rosebush at the bend of a path in a particular garden, or tape the financial statement of failing business beneath a park bench. A winery agreed to hand copies of Uncle Jasper's will to anyone who came into the tasting room during specified hours and asked for a certain (nonexistent) wine.
Clues led to clues--brochures and business cards found at the "crime scene" suggested where the detective teams might go on their treasure hunt to find the evidence they needed for solving the mystery. I kept a master list showing what each clue was, where it was to be found, and what aspect of the story it revealed.
So if you need to get a clue, call on the Clue Consultant. I have lots of experience in creating and concealing them. Need a fake love letter or a suspect's alibi for Friday night? I may have them in my inventory. As for writing the rest of the story--well, that's the hard part.