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  • Writer's pictureAlyssa Maxwell

SleuthFest 2014 - Part 3

Ready for my third and last recap of SleuthFest? Let's jump right in...

In the Taboos workshop, the consensus seemed to be that, especially in cozy mysteries, readers don't like extreme violence, foul language, or descriptive sex scenes. But if an author has the ability to handle sensitive subject matter gracefully and can make them work in her story without jarring or otherwise offending the reader, then there are no real taboos. However, they issued this caution: the writer must have a special talent to pull this off. Not everyone can, so pushing the envelope on taboos can be risky, and can ultimately backfire on the author. Oh, and while you can pretty much kill off any number of people, do not hurt or kill any cats or dogs. Or other cute, helpless animals. Or any animals. Just. Don't. Do it.

Next came the panel on settings. I've always been a fan of "setting as character," meaning setting is never arbitrary, but carefully selected for its own particular atmosphere and traits in order to enhance the themes of the story—the idea that setting can affect the action of the plot just as much as a character can. The panel discussed urban vs. rural settings, and stressed that setting must always be seen from the point of view of the main characters. Do they have a history in that place, and what kinds of memories do they attach to it? Or are they new to an area, and how do they react to new sights and sounds? How does the way in which they perceive their environment reflect and or affect their current state of mind?

When writing setting details, the author should always take into account the emotions of the main character. Those emotions should help "color" the setting details the author puts on the page. All the panelists agreed that portraying setting through their characters' eyes was more important that being 100% accurate. They recommended knowing as much about your setting as possible. For example, you don't want to show downtown Detroit after 6pm as a bustling place, because it simply isn't. The trick is to know enough so that you sound convincing, and run with it. One thing they advised against was too much accuracy when it comes to directions—you don't want to sound like a travel log, or like an author who did a heck of a lot of research and wanted to include it all in the book. As far as choosing an urban or rural setting, it really depends on the tone and action of the story.

I've been thinking about writing a short story/novella, so after lunch I attended the Short Story panel. The best advice I came away with was write your story and don't worry too much about length in the first draft. Later, go back and cut all unnecessary words and story elements that don't directly impact the plot. Every words counts – there can be no extras. For me, the advice to trim later removes some of the pressure of writing short.

However, the authors had other wisdom to share. Libby Fischer Hellman called a short story an "affair," whereas a novel is more like a marriage. It can allow you to expand on a subplot or secondary character from a novel, or as Michael Haskins pointed out, it's a good way to stay in your characters' head between full-length novels and keep them fresh in your mind. Short stories are also great for author name recognition. Twist Phalen and Stacy Allen begin with a premise first, and Twist says she then develops contrary characters she can drive crazy with the plot. Stacy Allen has an excel spreadsheet set up with lists of character traits, settings, and plot element choices, and apparently hitting F9 sets up her scenario for her. I need to look into that further. J All agreed that short stories are much more popular and easier to sell than previously, thanks to ereaders, flexible pricing, and shorter attention spans. Finally, writing a short story is a great exercise in writing tight, a skill that can be transferred over to novel writing for fast pacing.

My last panel of the day was It's Their Job, Staying on Top of Your Sleuth's Career. No one lives in a void. Your sleuth should have a well-rounded life with family, friends, and yes, a career of some kind. What your sleuth does for a living is often exactly the thing that puts them in the right place at the right time (or wrong time, when you consider we're dealing with murder), or has given them the skills to get the job done. Depending on the career, it may influence what the sleuth observes, how they process the information, and what opportunities they have to track evidence. Your sleuth's career will be an ongoing thread throughout the book and throughout the series, so it's important to research it well and make it believable.

Along with this, the panel reminded us to also give our sleuth a flaw, something they need to deal with and that gives them an opportunity to learn and grow over time. Incidentally, the other night I started reading The Other Woman by Hank Phillippi Ryan (which I picked up at the conference bookstore), and in it her sleuth has just been fired from a high-powered job in TV news, and is having to start over as a small-time newspaper reporter, the only job she was able to get. I'll be interested to follow both the career and character arcs as Jane Ryland tries to get her life back together.

In my posts covering this conference, I've discussed history, what editors want, the traditional vs. self-publishing debate, taboos, setting, short stories, and story content in the form of a sleuth's career. That's enough information to at least get someone started on a book, in less than two days' time. But there was so much more to be learned about the future of publishing, promotions and discoverability, self-publishing, forensics, name it, SleuthFest had a workshop on it. The conference organizers did an amazing job of putting it all together, and making SleuthFest productive and fun. They have my hearty thanks!! For me, SleuthFest started and ended all too soon. Next year I plan to attend the full conference, and hopefully sit on another panel or two as well. This year, Murder at the Breakers wasn't out in time to sign at the conference. Next year, I'll two books to sign! SleuthFest 2015, here I come!

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