Lately I seem to be in a nostalgic mood, thinking about sources of inspiration and other things that have had an influence on my writing. This may be because I’m at the beginning of a new book, one that will be my fiftieth published by a traditional publisher. To clarify, that means in print format and the publisher pays me royalties, as opposed to an ebook original produced at my own expense.
Anyway, getting back to inspirations, there is one of my Liss MacCrimmon mysteries, Scotched, that has a very specific source. I’m hardly the only writer ever to use a conference or convention as the setting for a murder. How can you beat having so many potential victims and likely suspects all gathered in one place? But there’s also a place for “local color” in a mystery novel, the little details and short scenes included in order to create a realistic background or show something about the characters, even though these bits aren’t essential to solving the crime. In Scotched, which takes place at the fictional First Annual Maine-ly Cozy Con, the inspiration for a few specific scenes came straight from real life conventions I’ve attended.
I’ve been to most of the small mystery fan gatherings at least once . . . unless they take place in the dead of winter, when I don’t attempt any travel farther from my rural Maine home than the post office and the grocery store. I’ve also been a fairly regular attendee at the somewhat larger Malice Domestic. I’ve gone to that one often enough to have heard the rumor that one of the names originally considered for this annual gathering included the words cozy con. I can understand why it was voted down, since cozies are only one branch of the “traditional mystery” genre honored at Malice (as opposed to hard boiled detective stories), but for my purposes, it was perfect.
Fiction is made up. Everybody knows that. But fiction has to be based on reality if it is to be at all believable, and that means that many of the incidents that take place in a novel have their origins in something that really happened. Sometimes the writer can put his or her finger on exactly what that inspriration was . . . although admitting it may be another matter!! At other times, the source isn’t so obvious, even to the writer, or the fictional scene comes into being by combining a host of similar incidents that took place at different times and places. The end result, of course, almost always has significant differences from “what really happened.”
When I was writing Scotched, I couldn’t help myself. I had to try to recapture one of my favorite moments from Malice Domestic. It was at Malice III, when three authors of humorous mysteries (Dorothy Cannell, Joan Hess, and Sharyn McCrumb) took over the podium at the awards banquet to announce the presentation of a new award called the Whimsey. It was to be awarded for best humorous novel and the nominees were Dorothy Cannell, Joan Hess, and Sharyn McCrumb. That got a good laugh. What got a bigger one was announcing that the winner was Sarah Caudwell. The “award” was . . . well see for yourself. The picture is a little blurry, but yes that is a stuffed woodchuck in a dress. This photo is from the Whimsey Calendar (1995), a collectible I treasure.
Truthfully, I don’t think the takeover of the podium by several mystery writers in Scotched is anywhere near as funny as the real event that inspired it, but there was no way I could leave out a tribute, if you will, to that fond memory.
Scotched also contains another “real” incident, this one from what turned out to be the last Mayhem in the Midlands, held in 2010 in Omaha, Nebraska. Sally Fellows, Dina Wilner, Doris Ann Norris and I were in the bar. I can hear folks who have attended Malice, Mayhem, or various Bouchercons saying “where else?” Anyway, there were these little kids who kept racing in and out, making a horrendous racket. Their father didn’t seem inclined to tell them to sit down and shut up. Nor did the bartender. So Doris Ann, who calls herself “the 2000 year old librarian” stood up, blocked the children’s path, and put on what she calls her “librarian face.” Sadly, this did not terrify the little devils for very long, but it sure quieted them down for a bit. Eventually, they got tired of making a nuisance of themselves and disappeared. A little later, their mother turned up and was overheard saying to their father: “What do you mean, you lost the children!”
Obviously I couldn’t let a line like that go to waste, so you’ll find it, in slightly different circumstances, in Scotched. Is the way I used it in my mystery novel as funny as the real thing? I’ve no idea, since humor is always subjective and depends upon the reader. But I know that I will always get a chuckle out of the memory.