Friday, November 25, 2011

SinC's Review Monitoring Project Needs YOU!

By Barbara Fister

Let’s do the numbers:

Mystery reviews in The New York Times
• 1987: 6% female authors
• 2010: 35% female authors

Edgar best novel winners:
• Pre-1986: 17% female
• Since 1986: 31% female

Mystery authors published in the US:
• 1986: 38% female
• 2010: 50% female
(source: Edgar submissions)

Percentage of consumers in the U.S. who buy mysteries, 2010:
• 68% female
(source: SinC/Bowker study)

One of the first projects established by Sisters in Crime 25 years ago was the task of monitoring and reporting on the gender of the mystery authors whose books were reviewed in the media. At the time, The New York Times was paying scant attention to women authors. In 1987, the year that Sara Paretsky, Margaret Maron, Nancy Pickard and other SinC founders gathered at Sandra Scoppottone’s loft in New York to strategize, the Times reviewed 97 mysteries written by men and only seven authored by women. In those days, approximately 38% of the published mysteries were written by women.

Things have improved. In 2010, the Times reviewed 96 mysteries by men and 47 by women. (However, since about half of the mysteries published that year were written by women, the number of published reviews remained skewed toward male writers.) And, in recent years, pre-publication and mystery-focused review sources are more balanced in terms of gender than the mainstream media. One publication – Romantic Times – has consistently reviewed more mysteries by women than men.

Since 1985, we’ve seen enormous shifts in the publishing industry, including a steep decline in the number of book reviews appearing in the mainstream media – even as the number of published books has increased, particularly in the area of non-traditional publishing. According to Bowker, there were more than three million new books published in the U.S. last year, with non-traditional titles outnumbering traditional titles eight to one.

In 2012, we hope to shift gears with the monitoring project to create a dashboard of indicators that reflects changes in the publishing environment. We’re cutting back on monitoring print sources and will be adding online review sources to see how we’re doing over time as the mystery landscape changes.

Is the monitoring project still relevant? Well, to answer that, we need numbers. If we ever get to the point that the number of published reviews reflects the percentage of published books written by women, we might consider our work done. For now, though, that’s still not the case. In the shrinking hole for book reviews in newspapers and magazines, male authors are still twice as likely to get a review as female authors.

Sisters in Crime needs volunteers for the review monitoring project for 2012! If you would be willing and able to monitor reviews published by online sources or in one of the publications listed below, please contact me – bfister @ hickorytech[dot]net.

The Boston Globe
Deadly Pleasures
Entertainment Weekly
The Wall Street Journal

Questions? Comments? Feel free to weigh in.

Barbara Fister is the author of the Anni Koskinen mysteries. The most recent title in the series is Through the Cracks. She is an academic librarian and serves on the SinC board as Coordinator of the SinC Review Monitoring Project.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Scared to Death: The Authors' Viewpoint

by Sandra Parshall

Crime fiction authors put their characters through some horrifying ordeals for the reading pleasure of their fans. Have you ever wondered what scares the writers themselves – and whether they call on their own fears to ratchet up the tension in their stories?

We asked five outstanding writers which of their fictional scenarios sends shivers down their spines.

Tess Gerritsen, author of The Silent Girl, latest in the Rizzoli & Isles series:

“I tend to put my poor heroines through exactly the things that terrify me, whether it's being buried alive, or trapped in space or chased by serial killers. I would have to say that being buried alive is probably the worst of them, something that happened to one of my characters in Body Double. The pregnant woman in that book, Mattie Purvis, is kidnapped and held in a box underground until she goes into labor. She doesn’t know when -- or if -- the kidnapper will come back to get her. She doesn’t know if he's planning to kill her. All she knows is that she’s alone, in the dark, in a place where no one will ever find her. Eeek.”

Meg Gardiner, author of The Nightmare Thief, latest in the Jo Beckett series:

"The fictional scenario that most terrifies me takes place in my novel, China Lake. Heroine Evan Delaney is driving her six-year-old nephew to her brother's house when the cops stop her. Though she's the little boy's guardian, they arrest her for child abduction. They not only take him from her, but prepare to hand him over to his mother -- who has joined an apocalyptic religious sect. Desperate to get the boy back, she has lied and set Evan up for arrest. Handcuffed and locked in the back of a patrol car, Evan watches as the cops pass little Luke into the hands of violent lunatics. She has to find some way to stop it before her nephew is taken away forever.

"There's no secret why this idea terrifies me: I'm a mom. And if anybody tried to take one of my kids away, I hope I'd react with the do-or-die tenacity that Evan does."

Hallie Ephron, author of the new suspense novel, Come and Find Me:

“In Never Tell a Lie, I wrote about a woman, nine-months pregnant with her first child, and who has had multiple miscarriages. She's in danger of losing her unborn child. As I was writing, I followed advice I’d gotten: when you are writing extreme emotion, find a situation in your past that elicited that emotion and channel it into the writing. I revisited a truly terrifying moment (we were swimming) when I came this close to losing my baby girl. The detail of the situation wasn't the same at all, of course, but the emotion was.”

Simon Wood, author of Did Not Finish, first in the new Aidy Westlake series:

“Crash landing an aircraft that occurs in Accidents Waiting to Happen. It was based on something I had to do as a student pilot. I was involved in a near-miss in bad weather, and I had to set the plane down in a field, but I had time on my side to get my plane down. In the book, the plane is falling out of the sky and the pilot has to crash land. He has five minutes at best to find a safe spot to land and set the plane down before he runs out of elevation. The worst part of a scenario like this is that no one can help you and you can't pull over. You can only do your best. That's scary.”

Deborah Crombie, author of No Mark Upon Her, latest in the Duncan Kincaid & Gemma James series

“I have a fairly long line of dire deeds to pick from. Thinking about it, I seem to have been quite fond of the good old blunt instrument. But I have also drowned quite a few characters, and I think that terrifies me more than anything. Remember the scene in "The Abyss" where Ed Harris has to watch Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio let herself drown? Gave me nightmares for years. And Charlie in "Lost?"

“Maybe I should stay out of the water . . .”

Sandra Parshall is the award-winning author of the Rachel Goddard mystery series. Her latest book is Under the Dog Star, published this month by Poisoned Pen Press.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Writers Police Academy

By Dana Stabenow

[Published in a slightly longer version at]

The worst thing about the Writer’s Police Academy (WPA) is that you can’t split yourself into quadruplets so you can see and do everything on offer. Shallow grave burial site? or jail searches? or Krimesite Imager hands-on workshop? or search and rescue? or ambulance tour? And that’s just the first hour of the first day.

Event maestro Lee Lofland is unrepentant. “I want this to be just as intense an experience as if you were a recruit going through an actual police academy,” he said.

I attended the third WPA this year in September in Greensboro, North Carolina. He has succeeded beyond his wildest dreams.

Lee is a retired police detective whom you may know through his blog, The Graveyard Shift, where he has been known to profess his profound admiration of the television show, Castle, among other things. The Graveyard Shift is where I first saw mention of the Writer’s Police Academy.

“The Writers’ Police Academy was an idea that came to me while attending SinC’s Forensic University," Lee said. "That particular conference was spectacular, but it dawned on me that having an event where writers could actually attend a hands-on event in a real police academy setting would be extremely beneficial to bringing realism to their stories. So, ATF Agent Rick McMahan and I tossed a few ideas back and forth and what you saw this year was the result of those initial thoughts.”

What I saw this year was two full days and three nights of practicing law enforcement professionals taking the time to demonstrate and talk about their jobs with a bunch of writers who (speaking strictly for myself here) probably get it wrong in our books more than half the time. Almost every law enforcement discipline and organization you can name was represented on the faculty.

Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives? The aforementioned Agent Rick McMahan, who said that while most ATF work is gun-related, he loves cigarette smugglers. “They show up on time, their money’s good, and they do the deal.”

FBI? Meet Lt. Josh Moulin of the FBI Cyber Crimes Task Force, by way of the Southern Oregon High-Tech Crimes Task Force. “Eighty percent of what my unit does is child exploitation,” Josh said, and then gave us some statistics.

Thirteen percent of infants and toddlers are abused. Josh has seen photos and videos of infants under the age of one being penetrated by an adult male. Offenders average 13.5 victims each, and Josh’s unit apprehended one perpetrator with 180,000 unique porn images on his computer.

“I have 10 guys,” Josh said. “I could have 30 and we still couldn’t keep up with what’s going on.”

If that isn’t sufficiently traumatizing, Dr. Denene Lofland (also Lee’s wife) worked on several Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency projects she still can’t talk about, but she can talk all day about weaponizing smallpox.

“Smallpox is eradicated but we are no longer immunizing for it,” she said, adding, “A bioterrorism attack doesn’t necessarily have to kill you, it just has to make you sick or disfigure you. The threat alone will disrupt life.”

In the event of an airborne bioterrorism attack, Denene recommends respiratory mask N-95. Good to know.

Interested in arson investigation? Assistant Fire Marshal for Guildford County, Jerry Coble, said, “There are very few true pyros out there. They are generally younger people, generally men.”

Jerry caught one in 30 years, and it took 14 years to catch that one. He listed three causes of fire -- accidental, incendiary, and providential -- which I cite here just so I can quote his definition of accidental: “You can’t fix stupid.”

Friday afternoon Dr. Katherine Ramsland fascinated the 140 attendees and, I think, the faculty, too, with her lecture on psychological autopsies. Surprisingly, psychological autopsies are used not only in cases of murder, but to settle criminal cases, estate issues, malpractice suits, and insurance claims.

“Five to twenty percent of deaths in the U.S. are undetermined,” Ramsland said, and then she took us through a case analysis of the murder of Hugues de la Plaza in San Francisco in 2007. She did not agree with the findings of the local police. To put it mildly.

“This is not a science,” Ramsland said and she was adamant. “It is based on probabilities.”

I wrote a sniper into my next book, and Saturday morning, found out everything that I’d written was wrong when the faculty staged an unannounced hostage situation.

Sniper Randy Shepherd took down the suspect with a single shot to “the T-box — mouth, up the nose and across the eyes. "This blows out the control box in the brain, so he’s not going to pull the trigger of the gun he’s holding to the head of the hostage.” Okay.

This post is getting really long and I’ve left out so much, like Sergeant Catherine Netter’s mesmerizing talk on women in law enforcement.

“Your brain is your primary weapon. Ninety-nine-point-nine percent of what we do is communicate,” she said.

Halfway through her talk, Corporal D.A. Jackson of the Guilford County Sheriff’s Office showed up to join in. Dee taught a workshop on self-defense and another in handcuffing and arrest techniques, which is pretty much the only way anyone would ever get restraints on Dee.

I haven’t even mentioned the Murder Room guy and the jail tours and the ride-alongs with Guildford County deputy sheriffs and the hands-on workshops in fingerprinting and bloodstain patterns and the firearms training simulator, and oh the hell with it, just click here to look at the whole schedule of events.

And then, there was the Sunday morning debrief. The faculty lined up on stage and answered questions and told stories for two hours. In many ways, it was the best part of the entire weekend, especially Dee’s account of the first time she got hit on the job.

This event may be the best money I will ever spend as a crime fiction writer. The faculty members are the real deal, practicing professionals, people with serious time served, some retired after decades of service, some still on the job. They are funny, smart, patient, articulate, and incredibly generous, first with their time and later with their business cards.

I had lunch with Lee, Denene and Josh after the Sunday debrief, and asked Josh, “Why did you say 'yes' when Lee called?” He smiled and sort of shrugged, like it’s nothing. “I like to teach,” he said.

“I’ve never had a no,” Lee told me.

Preliminary plans are underway for a 2012 WPA, with Lee Child as keynote speaker. Lofland also plans to continue the tradition of bringing the very best police and forensics experts to the lineup.

“So far,” he said, “we have lots of new workshops and exciting surprises on the way for 2012. As always, there’ll be explosions, gunfire, sirens, flames, handcuffs, barking dogs, tons of action, and plenty of cops, firefighters, and EMS professionals on hand to answer your questions.”

You heard it here first: If you’re a writer of crime fiction, put this event on your calendar now. You will never in your life be in the presence of this many professional police officers and federal agents from so many different disciplines at the same time. It’s a first-class learning experience for wannabes, and an even better refresher course for the already-published.

Oh, and buy Lee’s book.

Big, fat footnote to all writers out there, male or female, published or un:

This year, Sisters in Crime subsidized its members’ attendance to the Writer’s Police Academy to the tune of $155. Yes, that’s right–if you were a dues-paying, card-carrying member of Sisters in Crime, you saved one hundred and fifty-five smackeroos just by showing up in Greensboro.

Right now, this minute, Sisters in Crime is the most forward-thinking, market-watching, member-supporting writer’s organization available to the professional author, whether you already have your name spelled correctly on the cover of a book or not.

If the monthly SinCLinks don’t convince you to join, if the Publishing Summit reports don’t (Who else talks to Google for you?), if the sheer joy of being part of a community of people who speak your language doesn’t, then let us whisper seductively to your wallet.

Click here to join SinC now.

Photos by Lee Lofland.

Dana Stabenow is the award-winning author of the 18-book Kate Shugak mystery series, the four-book Liam Campbell mystery series and the three-book Star Svensdotter science fiction series. The 19th Kate Shugak outing, Restless in the Grave (available on Feb. 14, 2012), follows Kate and Liam as they work together for the first time.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Secondary Characters: In First Place

By Sandra Parshall

The protagonist occupies center stage in a mystery novel, but a book also needs a cast of vivid supporting players. Whether secondary characters are funny or sad, irritating or lovable (or both at the same time), they claim their own special place in the writer’s heart.

Recently I asked several authors – who all happen to be Goddesses, former Sisters in Crime presidents – the question:

Of the many secondary characters you’ve created, which have you most enjoyed writing about?

Sara Paretsky, author of the V.I. Warshawski series:

“My regular secondary characters are all interesting and important to me. Lotty Herschel, the doctor who is V.I.’s important friend, critic and mentor, is the one whose life I’ve thought about most; she has her own story told in flashback chapters in my novel Total Recall, and those six chapters are among the writing of my own in which I’ve invested the most work and emotion. They detail Lotty’s history as a refugee in London during WW II, and her training as a young doctor in the bitter winter right after the war. Mr. Contreras, V.I.'s downstairs neighbor, is both annoying and lovable. He got on my nerves so much that at one point I was going to kill him off, but my husband protested mightily, and jumped in front of the gun, deflecting the bullet into Mr. Contreras’s shoulder.”

Nancy Pickard, author of the Jenny Cain series, the Marie Lightfoot series and several stand-alone novels:

“In my Jenny Cain series, it’s Jenny’s old teacher, Lucille Grant, whom I brought back because readers asked for her. In the Marie Lightfoot series, it's Marie's assistant, Deb Dancer. In The Scent of Rain and Lightning, it’s Red Bosch, a plain, good man. What those three have in common is that they love their protagonist, but that doesn’t stop them from telling her the truths she needs to hear. Each is a very genuine person. Because these nice people love their ‘star,’ they make her look better simply by virtue of their relationship with her.”

Judy Clemens, author of the Stella Crown series and the Grim Reaper series:

“In Embrace the Grim Reaper, the first of the Grim Reaper books, there is a character named Loretta. She is a middle-aged African American woman with deep religious ties who works at the soup kitchen where Casey and Death spend some time. She punctuates her language with exclamations (“Thank you, Jesus! Hallelujah!”), sometimes shocking or startling the people around her. She was really fun to write because she is pretty much based on a woman I know who answers her phone by saying, “Praise the Lord!” even if you wake her up from a deep sleep and her voice isn't quite working yet. I've never known anyone else like her, and it was fun to put her into print -- even if she doesn't know I did.”

Carolyn Hart, author of the Death on Demand series:

“Emma Clyde, the very rich mystery author on my island in the Death on Demand series. She's rich because I'm not, but who knows? Someday a miracle may occur and my books, like Emma's, may sell faster than ice melts in the Sahara. And I have great fun skewering us - writers - because Emma is totally self-centered and self-absorbed. Her main focus is always The Book. Sound familiar? I am very fond of Emma.”

Margaret Maron, author of the Deborah Knott series and the Sigrid Harald series:

“I adore Judge Deborah Knott's old reprobate of a father. Kezzie Knott is one of the fast-disappearing backcountry types that I grew up loving. Yes he was a bootlegger; yes, he may have killed someone; yes, he only has a 4th-grade education, but he's loving and loyal and wily as a fox.

“From the Lt. Sigrid Harald series, I love her housemate Roman Tramegra, who keeps trying to pick Sigrid's brain for murder mystery plots and who complains because most of her cases are too dull to make interesting reading.”

What question would you love to ask your favorite writers? Send it to me at along with a list of authors. If we use your question on the blog, we’ll give you credit.

Sandra Parshall is the author of the award-winning Rachel Goddard mysteries. The fourth book in the series, Under the Dog Star, has just been published.