Whew! I hadn't attended a conference in a long while, so even the one full day I attended SleuthFest felt slightly overwhelming. But in a good way. I always say my number one reason for attending any conference is to come away inspired and recharged, and SleuthFest didn't disappoint. I'm a new mystery writer, a new member of the Mystery Writers of America - Florida Chapter, and this was my first SleuthFest. I was amazed at how friendly everyone was and how welcome and comfortable I felt. But even more amazing was how savvy these writers are, while at the same time being incredibly down to earth. So...how did I spend my time, and what did I learn?
The weekend started almost immediately upon my arrival (after a 3-hour drive), with my own panel, History Lesson: Bringing the Past Alive. I was throwing myself into a new situation with authors I'd never met before - Susan Elia MacNeal, Joyce Moore, Joanna Campbell Slan, and moderator Bob Williamson. But I relaxed the moment I sat down, and Bob kept the discussion going with questions like, how much truth must there be in a historical mystery? The answer for most of us, as Joanna aptly phrased it, is that history is our scaffolding, the facts that we build upon as we plot our stories. If we use historical figures, we learn as much as we can about them through contemporary accounts and original sources (like diaries), and remain as true to their characters as we possibly can. We might put fictional words in their mouths, but those words must ring true to that individual as history has painted them.
Two areas where we all agreed were 1) it's difficult to ever be 100% accurate because sometimes we just don't know what questions to ask. Which leads to 2) if the opportunity arises to travel to your setting, do it! Because it's often through that firsthand experience that we discover what those elusive questions are. Travel came up again when Bob asked us why we chose our particular setings and time periods. The main answer seemed to be that we had traveled to our settings, fell in love with the area, and became fascinated with its history. We became personally connected. My own reason for loving and writing historicals, and for being interested in history in general, is because our society didn't suddenly spring out of thin air to be the fast-paced, high-tech, modern world we know. Everyone who came before us has shaped us into what we are now, just as we're helping to shape the future. It was the strength and ingenuity and simple chutzpah of our ancestors that took us off horses and into cars, got women voting, sent us hurtling into space, and has me tapping at a keyboard right now so I can speak to all of you. For me, I don't have to "bring" the past alive. It's already alive in each and every one of us. I just like to acknowledge it.
Do I sound enthusiastic? That's because those 50 minutes of sitting on that panel with those wonderful authors inspired me and made me really think about my craft. But my weekend didn't end there. In my next post I'll talk about what I learned the next day...