Monday, November 26, 2007

Casting the Net Wide

Where does a mystery author begin? Was it the Agatha Christie novels my mother read while pregnant with me? The Nancy Drew books I devoured as a young girl? The fact that Mom was a charter subscriber to Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine and kept stacks of them around the house? Or maybe it was the night Daddy made an inspired exception: even though I had school the next day, I could stay up to watch Alfred Hitchcock Presents on Sundays at 9:30, provided my homework was done.

The seed had been planted.

I wrote my first “novel” in eighth grade, a shameless Hardy Boy ripoff set in a ghost town out west. At the top of my “manuscript” Mr. Ramerez wrote, “Write what you know, Marcia. Have you ever been to a ghost town?”
If I was discouraged by his negative review, I don’t remember it. I continued to write stories with twisty Hitchcockian endings all the way through high school, until the rigors of college and the realities of being the full-time working mother of two young daughters gave me new priorities.

A dozen or so years ago, I had never heard of Sisters in Crime. Slogging away at my job in a windowless office in Washington, DC – where I had begun to fantasize about writing a novel in which I bumped off the woman who married my father after my mother died -- I often lunched with colleagues who, I soon learned, were also mystery fans. In the early 1990s Steve the Techie introduced me to the DorothyL listserv, which I promptly joined. Another colleague, Salle, told me about the Malice Domestic conference in Bethesda, Maryland which I first attended the year Nevada Barr won the Agatha for “Track of the Cat.”

At Malice I met Deborah Crombie, Kate Charles, Donna Andrews, Margaret Maron, and dozens of authors who are still my friends. It was one of these new friends, in fact, who made a suggestion over dinner that changed my life – “Why don’t you join Sisters in Crime?”

I walked into my first Chesapeake Chapter meeting at Bish Thompson’s Seafood House one Saturday knowing no one. I selected a table pretty much at random, and found myself chatting about mystery novels in progress with two other aspiring authors -- Laura Lippman and Sujata Massey. Sisters in Crime brought Sujata and me together in a writers critique group (ten years later, still offering tough love) where we browbeat one another into finishing a novel. After Sujata won the Malice Domestic grant that would launch her career, she encouraged me to enter my novel in progress, and amazingly, Sing It To Her Bones won the Malice grant, too, which led to an agent and a three-book deal with Bantam/Dell. Sujata, Laura and Margaret Maron graciously provided me with my first blurbs, and Sisters in Crime members have fed me, housed me and driven me to book signings from Maine to California, with stops in Ohio and Kansas along the way.

But support from SinC didn’t stop there. Publishers merge, editors get fired, imprints are dropped, proposals get rejected, contracts aren’t renewed, agents retire prematurely .. and through it all, SinC has been there offering resources, advice, ideas, support, and even shoulders to cry on. In the volatile and increasingly perplex world of publishing, SinC is more than a network, it’s a safety net. With help from my Sisters (and Brothers) in Crime, I have a new agent, a new two-book deal, and life is good.

Back in the 50s, sitting cross-legged in front of a flickering black and white tube on which a familiar profile took shape while Gunod’s Funeral March of a Marionette played in the background, I confided to my father that I wanted to write mysteries when I grew up. He simply smiled. The seed might have been planted that day, but it lay dormant for many years, until my Sisters in Crime helped the dream grow, blossom, and flower.

And I couldn’t be more grateful.

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Marcia Talley is the Agatha and Anthony award winning author of six Hannah Ives mysteries including Through the Darkness. Hannah’s seventh adventure, Dead Man Dancing, will be published in 2008. Marcia is Secretary of the national board of Sisters in Crime.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

SinC and the Nitty Gritty

By Margaret Coel

Twenty years ago, I happened on a newspaper article about a new organization formed to help women mystery writers promote and sell their novels and generally succeed in a mystery world long dominated by men. What a great idea, I thought. I wasn't writing mystery novels at the time, but I had been bouncing around publishing long enough—with five non-fiction books and countless magazine articles—that I knew men pretty much dominated the entire publishing world. Let me stop here: This is not a feminist rant. I love men, and I'm grateful to the many male publishing types who have helped me—and continue to help me—in my career. Still an organization dedicated to helping women mystery writers break through stereotypical barriers and change the perception that the only women capable of writing damn good mystery novels were Dorothy Sayers and Agatha Christie seemed inspired. I also liked the fact that membership was also open to men. I vowed to join this organization, even though I was still in the thinking-about-someday-writing-a-mystery-novel stage.

It took a while, but eventually I did join Sisters in Crime and wrote the first msytery novel in my Wind River series, The Eagle Catcher. I also started on a new publishing adventure for which none of my previous experiences were much help. But Sisters in Crime—bless you!—was there each step of the way with the kind of nitty-gritty advice that, after thirteen novels, is still helpful. How do real cops investigate crime scenes? How about all that forensics stuff? Autopsies anyone? Ride-with-a-cop? In what amounts to a graduate-level continuing education program for mystery writers, the local Colorado chapter has come up with these programs and a lot more.

But SinC's nitty-gritty information doesn't stop at the writing stage. It also covers the all important stage of: Okay, my book is published. Now what the heck do I do? Well, it turns out that you can do a lot to help your book jump off the shelves into buyers' hands, and SinC is there with practical advice. Is there a more practical book on marketing and promotion than Brazen Hussies? I don't think so. I still reread the book before I embark on each book tour. It was SinC that taught me to "partner "with the bookstores that give me signings and do everything possible to help the stores sell my books. Everything from sending postcards and e-blasts to readers on my lists notifying them of the stores where I'll be signing to supplying bookmarks, flyers or other promotional materials to the stores to help them notify customers of my upcoming appearances.

Isn't that obvious? (Head slap!) Sure, if you're a member of Sisters in Crime. But trust me, I know many novelists and non-fiction writers who have never heard of authors doing such promotions. Some even consider it beneath their authorial dignity. Usually they are the ones who complain the loudest about publishers not doing enough to promote their books. True, we all want publishers to do more. But here's the nitty-gritty: we have to be willing help. And SinC has been there with advice on even the smallest and simplest ways in which we can help ourselves.

I remember driving thirty-five miles to Denver one night for a book signing with a Very Important Author. This Very Important Author looked as if she had just rolled out of bed—wrinkled clothes, mussed hair, dirty nails. (Yes, she was on tour, but please!) She seemed bored, slightly irritated that she had to show up, and in a hurry to move on to a more important event. I remember thinking that she could learn a lot from Sisters in Crime. What a small, simple thing to show up for your book signing looking as if you want to be there, and yet how important. It shows respect for readers who could have been a thousand other places, but who chose to take the time to come to your signing. To paraphrase Brazen Hussies, people go out of their way to come to see you. You're a star. Shine a little.

Nitty-gritty advice that pays off. I know that I left the booksigning without buying the Very Important Author's book, and I wasn't the only one.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Making Mystery History…with Forensics University

On November 1, 2007, Sisters in Crime made mystery history with Forensics University of St. Louis. For the first time ever, writers were able to attend a conference solely focused on one purpose: education about crime. Not book promotion. Not schmoozing with fans. Not the art of writing.

No, Forensic U was different. Here in St. Louis, we put the CRIME back into crime fiction.
At this conference, multi-published writers, newbies, fans, and readers sat side-by-side to learn from law enforcement and forensic professionals. For two-and-a-half days, these experts shared a constant stream of knowledge. They spoke honestly and without censor knowing they weren't being recorded. As a result, we saw unspeakable and graphic images, heard horrifying tales of human cruelty, and reveled in uplifting stories of bravery.

But, the honesty of our experts was, in part, a testament to the professionalism of our attendees. Time after time, our experts stopped me to say they loved speaking to our group. They enjoyed our interest, our passion and our intelligent questions. To them we were a delight, a refreshing change—a group too fascinated by subject matter to get grossed out. Think about it: We scheduled lectures on Interpretation of Blood Spatter and Medicolegal Death Investigation right before lunch and no one complained!

Of course, part of the draw was our fabulous headliners, Jan Burke, Eileen Dreyer, Lee Lofland and Dr. D. P. Lyle. Dr. Lyle has since been named "Dean of Forensic U."

How successful was ForU? Let's consider a variety of indicators:

1. Publicity—The conference was widely touted in advance on List-Serves and industry publications, picked up by a blog run by forensic scientists in England, covered by a local magazine and by local television. Fliers were distributed at most major conferences the nine months before. And our post-event publicity buzz is astonishing. Meg Chittenden wrote a lovely piece about the conference that appeared on DorothyL. And the bloggers have been generous with their praise. Check out these links and comments:

http://www.theoutfitcollective.com/
http://femmesfatales.typepad.com/
http://murdermayhemandmore.blogspot.com/2007/11/in-praise-of-forensic-university.html
http://www.joleigh.com/wp/2007/11/08/im-backnov-8/
http://midnightwriters.blogspot.com
http://killerhobbies.blogspot.com

2. Budgetary concerns—Michelle Becker, my co-chair, and I worked with the fabulous Tony Hooper, a local member and former CEO. We were very conscious of being stewards of SinC's money. I'm pleased to say it looks like we came in under our budget for the event.
3. Membership—We have 35 new members as a direct result of the conference.
4. Number of attendees—114
5. Number of presenters--13
6. Outreach—A nice group of our local Romance Writers of America attended. Folks came from all across the nation. This was clearly a NATIONAL conference.
7. Evaluations—Still going through them, but overwhelmingly positive. Folks are asking, "When's the next Forensic U?"
8. Charity—We raised nearly $4000 for the Crime Lab Project Foundation9. Number of women who can now claim they shot a gun… Uh, priceless!

On behalf of my co-chair Michelle Becker, I want to thank the National Board of Sisters in Crime for having faith in us.

Posted by Joanna Slan