Malice Domestic 2010: A Post-Mortem

To say I enjoyed my first Malice Domestic seems a bit of an understatement. Hard to believe I can write it off on my taxes! Here are a few notes:

I enjoyed seeing the honored guests, Mary Higgins Clark and William Link, willingly and graciously interacting with fans and other authors. Despite many successful years in the business (it’s not as if they need to market themselves as unknown authors must do), they seem to still enjoy and appreciate the respect and affection with which they’re regarded, and they gave generously of their time. Both seemed to have a great sense of humor and an indefatigable zest for telling great stories.

Malice Go-Round: It’s Like Speed-Dating With Authors was a lot of fun. Audience members sat at tables, and as a moderator started the time, a pair of authors would come to the table and pitch their books (one at a time, about a minute each) and hand out goodies such as bookmarks, candy, and even a cupcake-shaped lipgloss. It was loud, crazy, and a great introduction to the newer authors. I made three piles of handouts– buy now, buy later, and maybe not. It was nice but dangerous that the dealer room was right around the corner so we could purchase books immediately.

From the Poison Lady, Luci Zahray, I learned that I have enough toxins growing wild in my yard to paralyze half the county. And enough in my medicine basket to kill most of the state. Fortunately, I’m pretty busy this month, so you’re probably safe. Great way to kill off a character, though.

In a panel discussing how tough topics can be addressed in cozy mysteries, I observed once again how “a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.” Not too many people have feedlots and bovine growth hormones, schoolyard bullying, or prescription drug abuse on their recreational reading list, but if they read cozies, they learn about them in a context and way that makes them understandable and real. The authors on this panel, Avery Aames-M, JoAnna Carl, Kate Collins, Katherine Hall Page, and Maggie Sefton, were passionate about their topic, and they’ve chosen an excellent way to share their concerns.

The Whydunit panel (Pat Remick-M, Joan Boswell, Ellen Hart, Louise Penny, and Cynthia Riggs) discussed motives. Unfortunately, I was standing in back as room monitor, so didn’t get notes. The idea that sticks with me from this session is that every character must have a “why.” Even the most despicable criminal has a reason for his/her behavior, and it’s up to the author to convey this convincingly.

The Red Herring panel (Jane K. Cleland-M, Peggy Ehrhart, Betty Hechtman, Tracy Kiely, and Joanna Campbell Slan) had a great list of possible red herrings that could misdirect a reader’s attention. The critical thing here was that red herrings must seem like clues until the end, and authors must play fair with the reader. It was interesting to hear what sort of misdirection each author used– there are a lot more available than just the classics!

In the Thrills and Chills panel (Debbi Mack-M, Austin S. Camacho, Barbara D’Amato, John F. Dobbyn, Thomas Kaufman) the panelists each read a bit from their book. I headed directly to the dealer’s room to buy two of the books (and no, I’m not telling which!). It was interesting to hear how each of the writers settled on The Idea That Must Be Written, and the way that each approached the writing process. One of the panelists (John Dobbyn, if I remember correctly) offered a very helpful definition: A cozy mystery or puzzle story keeps the mind racing; a thriller keeps your heart racing. It’s important to know which you’re writing!

The Town and Country panel (Clyde Linsley-M, Lila Dare, R.J. Harlick, Con Lehane, Ilene Schneider) focused on how setting affects what you write and how you write it. Each author strategically chose his or her setting to frame the characters in the story. There’s a lot of truth in “you are where you live,” and while human nature has common elements, plot twists are necessarily affected by setting. A small town provides different motives and opportunities for murder and sleuthing than does a big city. If you’re going to write a mystery, be sure you like your setting (and your characters)!

Agatha Awards

I tweeted these (with a couple of typos) as they were announced at the Agatha Banquet, so if you are one of my Twitter followers, you got it almost live. Being there was such fun, as the crowd was enthusiastic and supportive.
  • Best Children’s/Young Adult: The Hanging Hill by Chris Grabenstein
  • Best Short Story: “On the House” by Hank Phillippi Ryan
  • Best Nonfiction: Dame Agatha’s Shorts by Elena Santangelo
  • Best First Novel: The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley
  • Best Novel: The Brutal Telling by Louise Penny

The goodie bags we received upon arrival were delightful– 11 new books, copies of Ellery Queen and Alfred Hitchcock mystery magazines, a wonderful “Malice at-a-glance” mini-guide, and a nice program with good articles. I wondered why there was a second nice big tote bag included in the goodie bag, but I found out. Not only did we collect endless bookmarks and memorabilia from authors, there was the book swap at the end. People and publishers put out give-away books, and you could take what you wanted to read.

Contributors to the goodie bags were Felony & Mayhem Press, Simon & Schuster, Berkeley Prime Crime, Obsidian Mysteries, Crippen and Landru, American Girl Press, Harper Collins Publishers, Minotaur Books, Midnight Ink, Poisoned Pen Press, Soho Press, Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, and Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine. I’m grateful to each of them for supporting the conference and helping to make it a very special event.

One final note: Covers matter. During the Malice-Go-Round, I heard of several books that sounded great. I went to look at them in the dealer area, and bought a few. Others sounded great, but the cover was somehow unappealing, and when I saw it, I didn’t even feel like picking it up to read the back.

I did buy one book that sounded good in the pitch and had a horrible, self-published-looking cover. The author did a great job pitching and the storyline was unusual, so I bought it despite the hideous cover. The cover was so embarrassingly bad that when I was reading it over lunch, I made sure it wasn’t visible to other diners. I realize that I’m a very visual person, so it may not matter as much to someone else, but whatever you do, just hope that your publisher hires a great cover artist. If it hadn’t been for the author pitching it live, I’d have never picked it up.

Malice Domestic involves a lot of volunteer hours. Thanks to the dedication and hard work of board members and many others, it’s a delightful event and well worth the trip (the vendors are great too). Next year’s Malice will be April 29-May 1, and will be held in Bethesda, MD. Enjoy!