Mystery conference: things learned

On my first day at Bouchercon, the huge conference for mystery writers and readers, I was taken by the fact that everyone was talking about books, which I thought was strange.

By “book” we now mean a codex rather than a scroll or an oral tradition. Since medieval times, reading silently to oneself has become the norm for experiencing a book.

                                           Photo by Matias North on Unsplash

From the 18th century at least, this has meant that reading is often a private activity requiring concentration and a less distracted environment. When one reads, the mind of the author feels closest to one’s own, even if someone else is sitting nearby. This puts reading alongside other usually private or semi-private activities, such as putting on clothes, kneading bread, or deadheading roses. They can be done in a group, but typically are solitary activities.

To hear others talk about books felt like being admitted into everyone’s boudoir to discuss private thoughts. [It struck me that this is why it’s so hard to get good readers to leave reviews: we are asking them to share in a public forum something that would normally be more private. To share impressions of a book means using a whisper, not a bull-horn.]

Among these thoughts, I gleaned a number of tips and perspectives:

  1. Ambient story: this is the story behind the plot or experience that’s up front and obvious. Examples might be an immersive ride like the Haunted Mansion, a video game, or a Lady Gaga dress — all of these have an ambient narrative that you know is there even if it isn’t explicit. When you set a novel in a creaky old house, or a lunatic asylum, or a manicured suburb, the ambience is obvious.
  2. Dialogue is key. Writers tend to be listening learners. This is why getting dialogue right is so important. Each character must have their own way of speaking, and their unique ways mustn’t slow down the reader. Dialogue also should be realistic — not everyone speaks formally or finishes their sentences, and a character’s inner dialogue may contradict what they say aloud. 
  3. Head-hopping is not forbidden. In the only short course I ever took on mystery writing, my assignment was dinged for first considering one character’s thoughts from their point of view, then the other’s. This was “head-hopping”, writing from two points of view. I tried learning the rules (it’s ok in the same book, but not the same scene or chapter), and yet I had read so many good books that did this. At the conference, J.D. Robb, Louise Penney, and Scott Turow were lauded for being especially good at it. Sneakers poster
  4. Crime or mystery novels are about community; thrillers are about the individual. This was the most helpful thing I’ve heard distinguishing the two genres. Midsomer Murders? Mystery. The Bourne Identity? Thriller.That doesn’t mean there aren’t thrillers about groups (I’m thinking Sneakers, one of my favorite films), but that the individuals in the group are spotlighted as much as the mystery. The few “thriller-like” scenes in my books all focus on what an individual is experiencing.
  5. It’s about secrets. In mystery, usually someone wants to discover someone else’s secrets. As a reader, I love figuring out what the character is hiding. I realized my books should have more secrets.
  6. It’s easy to lose your own voice. One of the panelists (it may have been Jacqueline Winspear) said the worst school exercise she ever had was an assignment to read a page of a famous author, then close the book and write. The tendency was to adopt the cadence and style of the author one had just read. That, she said, is how easy it is to lose your own voice.

No, that isn’t all I learned at the conference. But these points were the most significant to me, the ones I intend to do something about. I noticed awhile back, for example, that my nightly writing was getting worse. The language was too simple, with little metaphor or color. Every sentence later needed editing. At the conference, I realized this was because I had been reading, very quickly, lighter-side books rather than literary fiction during those weeks.

This may be why many of us haven’t read, or don’t read while writing, a lot of the works in our preferred writing genre. No one wants to sound like someone else.

Despite the large number of attendees (1700 people, by one count) I still felt like I was at the campfire listening to the gossip and the wisdom. Now, back to writing!