Bouchercon Day Two: Strong Women, Capering Men, and Monkey Brains

Another huge post, and I’m sorry.

As mentioned before, I had breakfast with Charlaine Harris and about seventy-five of my fellow librarians and other authors from the Midwest chapter of the Mystery Writers of America.

I met the gorgeous Jeri Westerson, who has the style I wish I had, Rick Reed, whose experience I covet, and Raymond Benson, who has just released The Black Stilletto, which isn’t as noir as it sounds. I also met a couple of great librarians and may be filling in at a pub contest tomorrow.

The breakfast was good, too.

I had lunch with a writer from St. Louis, Kelly Cochran Hackel, who will be releasing a book in eFormat soon, so more about that later.

On to the panels:

“All about Eve: Creating believable female characters”
(Sandra Brannan, Vicki Hendricks, Nora McFarland, Cathi Stoler, Sara Henry, and moderated by Steve Steinbeck)

It appears to be a truism that the more embarrassed a moderator becomes, the better the panel is. Mr. Steinbeck was tomato red by the end of the hour.*

As he said, when he could, this panel was “an exercise in powerful contradictions,” most of them concerning what is expected from a female character.

It’s expected that strong female characters share everything with the reader, both mentally and emotionally—men don’t have to. Women aren’t supposed to be gritty or sexually assertive. They are supposed to draw strength from family and relationships—female characters are often surrounded by family, and when they aren’t, it’s usually important to the character arcs or the plot.

But—but—“feminine doesn’t mean weak.”** And many of these writers break the rules.

As either Ms. Brennan or Ms. McFarland (because I can’t read my own handwriting) said, “Making it believable is part of our jobs and making it unbelievable is part of our jobs.”

Cathi Stoler told a great story about how different elements came together for her post-9/11 art mystery. Ms. Brennan, on the other hand, said that she forms ‘pearls’ from things that irritate the heck out of her.

Assorted misquotes:

Nora McFarland: “ [My character] is all of my good and bad qualities, magnified.”

Sara Henry: “Every character is you . . . [Mine is] younger, thinner, and she can eat things I can no longer eat . . . which is why my last book had a loving description of waffles . . .”

Guess Who: “My characters are perpetrators . . . a crazy person in an sane world. They don’t always know what’s good for them.”

Nora McFarland: “The first book takes as long as you wish—“
Someone: “Decades!”
Nora McFarland: “—But if you get a contract, the second book is due in a year. And it’s a very busy year.”

Sarah Henry: “What got me through the middle of the book was the contract . . .”

Someone (probably Nora McFarland?): “Just because you know it doesn’t mean the reader needs to know it.”

“Strange Love: Why do we love murder?”
(Lauren Willig, Kelli Stanley, Lynne Sheene, Tracy Kiely, and Tasha Alexander, moderated by Brett Battles)

Mr. Battles wasn’t too embarrassed during this panel—he preferred preemptive strikes—but I still enjoyed it thoroughly.

Kelli Stanley: “San Francisco is a separate country—it belongs to Berkeley. It seceded in the 1960s.”

Lauren Willig: “Even an enlightened Victorian husband is a Victorian husband, so I thought he’d better die.”

Tracy Kiely (speaking the simple truth): “The people in my books deserve to die.”

Lauren Willig:  “ . . . They were annoying me.”

“Murder is the ultimate testing ground—how characters react to a murder.”

Lynne Sheene:  “I think we all have someone we’d like to see brutally murdered, but I like to think about who’s doing the killing.”

Kelli Stanley: “Reading crime fiction helps us deal with the eventuality of our own mortality.”

Tasha Alexander, on why she sets her books in the past: “The clothes were better.”

“Hot Ice: Caper novels”
(Keith Thompson, Eoin Colfer, Peter Spiegelmann, Sean Doolittle, Chris Ewan, with Benjamin Whitmer, moderating)

You all know why I attended this panel. The moderator, Mr. Whitmer, was red in the face, but only because he had a cold, poor man.

It was decided rather early on that the only actual writer of caper novels on the panel was Peter Spiegelmann,*** but I didn’t care, because I ended up buying one book from each of these authors, even though locating Mr. Ewan’s Good Thief’s Guide to Amsterdam required me to crawl under a display for the last copy.

Keith Thompson (I think): “Caper novels are the evil twin of the police procedural.”

Eoin Colfer, who is the author of the Artemis Fowl books, recently released an adult crime novel. He told his wife, “I’m writing for the grownup big people!” His wife replied, “Yeah. That’s just called a novel.”

Sean Doolittle: “Figure out what your character wants and then figure out how he can’t get it.”

Benjamin Whittmer: “I can’t plot, so I write noir.”

Sean Doolittle: “Capers are a ready-made plot you can jam in.”

Eoin Colfer: “Irish men will never read The Princess Bride, because it has the words Princess and Bride in it. Title something Lifeguard Explosion Motorbike, and they’ll read it.”

Peter Spielmann: “Inevitably, I go back to character.”

Near the end, Mr. Colfer brought down the house with a story about a reader complaining about getting the details wrong. This hasn’t happened with Plugged, but apparently, he was at a reading of an Artemis Fowl novel, when a medical doctor stood, pointed, and said, “If you gave that amount of sedative to a leprechaun, you would KILL him!” After we all stopped laughing, Mr. Colfer was asked how he replied. “I didn’t have to,” he said. “The audience’s reaction was the same as yours.”

“There is a Tiger in the Town”

Picture this: Laurie R. King, Laura Lippman, Val McDermid, and S.J. Rozan on one panel, moderated by a woefully outnumbered, but still game, Joseph Finder.

Within the first three minutes, Laurie R. King swiped his beer.

Within the first ten, Laura Lippman sang “Everyone can Whistle.” On key.

It sort of . . . evolved from there.

Once again, I can’t possibly reproduce the whole thing, only that it was a wild, wonderful discussion with some very good points, I thought, on gender and genre issues in writing and publishing. But here are a few misquotes, taken out of context:

“Good writing is good writing, wherever you find it.”

Val McDermid: “They aren’t going to shelve things under Good Books . . . Okay Books . . . Total Crap you shouldn’t waste your money on.”

Laura Lippman: I’m trying to be dainty here.”
S.J. Rozan: “Wrong panel.”

During a discussion of competitiveness, Ms. Rozan stated that when men writers were jealous, they wanted to beat up the other writer. When women writers are jealous, they beat themselves up:

Val McDermid: “You say that, but you are the woman who tried to poison me.”
S.J. Rozen: “But not because of your books, Val.”

Joseph Finder: I’m complimented on writing good women characters: How do you do that? And I’m like, I’ve written assassins, terrorists . . . and that’s okay?

S. J. Rozan: “I’m not an author. I don’t auth.”

Val McDermid: “I’m not going to stop being a smartass.”

I was going to end this there, but as I was writing this up near the bar, I met the most marvelous woman from Chicago, who comes to Bouchercon every year because she’s such a fan. She also goes to the Turner movie festival and a few other conferences around the country—and this fall, she’s going to Europe.

She told me not to wait if I wanted to do something. “Finish that novel now,” she said. “Don’t put it off.”

Yes, Ma’am.

Not five minutes later, I saw Zoë Sharp walking by with Chris Ewan and snagged them. He signed the book I crawled for, and Ms. Sharp signed Fox Five on my Sony, as promised! She actually did pull out a sharpie, originally, but was willing to use the notes function instead.

I promised not to record the entire conversation, but both Mr. Ewan and Ms. Sharp are very nice people who didn’t mind talking to me at all. And I was able to eavesdrop on an interesting conversation about monkey brains and sashimi, which I’m doing my best to forget, as I’m about to go find some dinner.

Terrific end to a wonderful day!

* I’m not pointing fingers, because this isn’t any one person’s fault, but if it were, Vicki Hendricks—or more specifically, the inspiration behind the dolphin story in her new collection—might be named. I’m just sayin’.

**This is where Ms. Hendricks said that she’d written a female character who was as physically strong as a man, through the use of steroids. “But she also grew a three-inch penis . . .”

***Who was asked by Mr. Doolittle halfway through, “Why are you writing these books? Why don’t you just pull the jobs?”