Writers refer to them as devices. They are things you use for various reasons in a story, depending on what you need them to do. In my middle-grade mystery, I’m plucking them from here and there, inserting them into my story, and giving them a job to do.
My devices fulfill more than one purpose. The pumpkin patch is there to grow pumpkins, provide the raw ingredients for pies and toasted seeds, and it’s most important job, to reveal a clue to the eventual solving of the mystery. The apples in the orchard and the blueberry bushes have similar tasks, but I won’t divulge them here.
There’s a dumb waiter, a hidden staircase, and a lost key that even though it’s lost, keeps popping up in the story and reminding Emma that it needs to be found before the story can end.
My story is set in northern Minnesota, so I deemed it fitting that a moose should play a significant role. There’s a huge, equestrian-size statue of a moose that acts as a sentry, staring down anyone coming up the drive and a living, breathing version that messes with our characters and the landscape in general. He’s there to help establish a sense of place, add drama/danger to the story, and contribute his bit to the solving of the mystery. One of the words in the title of my story, “Moz” is the Algonquin word for moose. In “The Mystery at Moz Hollow” he gets top billing.
Certain characters in my story function as devices. They are placeholders, decoys, and red herrings. I use them like puppets – drop them in, call the reader’s attention to them, and then lead them out of sight until I need them again. I want the reader to wonder why a particular person came and went, if they are important enough to be remembered, and how significant of a part they will play in bringing the story to its conclusion. My main characters are in it for the long haul. Emma, her mom Gina, her best friend Laura, their new friend Raza, and the elderly Isabel will be the reader’s constant companions.
The huge, Gothic mansion is a device full of devices. It’s a movie set, which is what brought Emma, Laura, and Gina there in the first place. It holds all of the characters (except the moose), gives them space to interact, and provides a place for the story to be told. It’s a dollhouse in my mind. I can move people and things around and set the stage for fun and adventure.
As a writer, I have free reign to choose whatever devices I want, invent some if I choose, and decide where and when to insert or remove them from the story. One caution I need to remind myself of: If you use a device, it must have a purpose in moving the story forward. You can’t just plop in/jerk out a device before it has completed the mission. You’ll end up with frustrated and unhappy readers. Which reminds me – I need to figure out if Laura can fit into the dumbwaiter.