The Energizing Power of the Writers’ Conference

by Kaitlyn Dunnett

I enjoy going to writers’ conferences and fan conventions. I attend Malice Domestic almost every year and go to Bouchercon, the largest mystery fan convention, fairly regularly. I’ve always been particularly fond of the smaller mystery gatherings. Sadly, many of them have been discontinued during in the last few years.

A couple of months ago, In my other persona, Kate Emerson, I attended the Historical Novel Society North American Conference in San Diego (henceforth to be shortened to HNS). The experience was energizing and inspiring and also resulted in my taking home a huge stack of books and a list of others to acquire. One personal highlight was being recognized as the author of How to Write Killer Historical Mysteries, especially since I wasn’t registered as Kathy Lynn Emerson and wasn’t doing a panel or any other presentation. It turned out that another attendee, Susan McDuffie, took an online course from me almost a decade ago on writing historical mysteries. Afterward, she successfully launched her own historical mystery series, featuring a 14th century Scot as a detective. A Mass for the Dead was published by Five Star, a mystery imprint based right here in Maine. News like that always leaves me with a nice warm feeling and a strong urge to show off show off pictures of my “grandchild.”

I always learn things at writers’ conferences. I’m a virtual hermit at home, with my focus on writing books, my family, my cats, and not much else. You could say I really do live under a rock. Anyway, I learned two new words at HNS, although they were probably not new to anyone but me. One was “content.” That’s apparently what ebooks contain instead of text or writing. The other was “marquee name.” I wasn’t sure what that meant at first but I gather it’s the character in a historical novel that allows agent and editor to convince the marketing department that the book will sell to the general public because readers will buy books about that person. Henry VIII, then, is my marquee name, although he is actually onstage very little in my novels, which focus on little known women whose names were linked to his romantically, usually without much basis in fact. The achievements of sixteenth-century women, other than the queens everyone knows about, have always interested me.

Everyone at HNS received numerous free novels, as is common at conferences and conventions that involve writers. There was also, of course, lots of promotional material given out—bookmarks, postcards and the like. And partly as a result of that, I also bought books while I was there. I always leave space in my suitcase so I have room to bring stuff back with me. Some people ship their books home. I’ve been known to ship my laundry home and lug the new book acquistions onto the plane in my carry-on bag.

Freebies vary greatly. They are donated by publishers and may be the latest titles or several years old. Usually there are a few in each bag that the recipient has no interest in reading. Those go in the “donate to the library” pile when I get home. Sometimes there are books I already own. Ditto. I lucked out at HNS, scoring among the dozen or so titles, two from Poisoned Pen Press, Beverle Graves Myers’s Her Deadly MIschief and Hollywood Buzz by Margit Liesche, a mystery set during World War II. Poisoned Pen Press publishes many historical mysteries and I’ve yet to read one of their titles that I didn’t like.

I also bought books. On the plane ride home I started reading one of my new acquisitions, The Second Duchess by Elizabeth Loupas. The illustration on the front cover grabbed my attention first, since it depicts a woman in 16th century costume. The description on the back cover further intrigued me, but when I read the first page of the text, I was hooked. I was caught up in the story right from the start. The book is beautifully written and pulled me right into the time and place. The author also uses a device that I found both unique and captivating. The story is told in first person from the point of view of Barbara of Austria, second wife of Alfonso d’Este, 16th century duke of Ferrara. But at the end of each chapter there is a brief scene in the point of view of Alfonso’s first wife, Lucrezia, who may, or may not, have been murdered. The dead woman has not yet passed on. Her spirit is able to observe and comment, watching and listening while her successor asks questions that eventually lead to the solution of the mystery. The book is being marketed as general historical fiction, but it truly belongs in the mystery section of the bookstore.

I was drawn to another of my purchases by the cover art, too. For The Belly Dancer by Deanna Cameron, the belly dancer in question is pictured is wearing a long-sleeved shirt under her costume, so that she doesn’t show either skin or belly-button. On closer inspection, I discovered that the setting is the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893 and the heroine is one of the ladies assigned to “enforce proper conduct” at the belly dancing exhibition. How could I pass up that premise? Not only did I set a series of mysteries close to that era (my Diana Spaulding 1888 Quartet) but I had recently read and enjoyed Steve Hockensmith’s World’s Greatest Sleuth, which is also set at this World’s Fair. The Belly Dancer isn’t a mystery, but it was a good read, and a good reading experience, like a good writers’ conference, generates energy.

I mentioned in one of our group blogs that I try not to read the same kind of novel I’m writing, at least not while I’m writing it. That means that all the energy from HNS and these historical novels went directly into producing next year’s Liss MacCrimmon mystery. As soon as I got back to Maine, I put the finishing touches on “Liss #6,” the one that will be out next after this October’s new entry in the series, Scotched.

 I’ll be writing more about Scotched soon. For now I’ll just give you this teaser: it takes place at a small mystery fan convention.

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2 Responses to The Energizing Power of the Writers’ Conference

  1. Pj Schott says:

    I love CrimeBake. It’s where I learned I didn’t know s@#t about writing a book. Where I learned that maybe if I studied my big ass off I might figure it out one day. And it’s where I hang out with other people who feel my pain. LOVE THEM!!

  2. Coco Ihle says:

    Kaitlyn, thanks for introducing me to Susan McDuffie’s new book. Looks great. And The Second Duchess looks intriguing, as well. As for The Belly Dancer, that’s a must since I used to be one. Goodie, I love learning of “new to me” authors. Can’t wait for Scotched!!!

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