Magna cum Murder

I’m hoping to earn a summa cum murder one of these days, so naturally I’m working my way up. Last weekend, I attended the 21st annual Magna cum Murder conference in Indianapolis. My pocket notebook is bursting with wise tips, potential contacts and off-the-cuff sketches of typical attendees of murder conferences. Face it, people. We’re weird.

We’re also smart and funny and very good company.

On the “smart” front, I call in evidence Cheryl Hollon, formerly an engineer who constructed flight simulators all over the world, now full-time writer of the Webb’s Glass Shop mystery series. Sarah Wisseman was there, too. She’s a former archaeologist, who’s just started her second series of archaeological mysteries, this one starring an art conservator in Siena (Burnt Siena.) My table mates at lunches and dinners included more archaeologists, an anthropologist, a lawyer….

And funny! International guest of honor Simon Brett gave an after-dinner speech that was even better than the chocolatey dessert.

Simon Brett, Michael Dymmoch (hidden by Simon), Monica Ferris, M.E. May and Andrew Welsh-Huggins debate amateur sleuths vs. P.I.s vs. police detectives

Simon Brett, Michael Dymmoch (hidden by Simon), Monica Ferris, M.E. May and Andrew Welsh-Huggins debate amateur sleuths vs. P.I.s vs. police detectives

I won’t steal too many of his jokes, but here’s a taste:

In a British accent even plummier than his own, he read excerpts from Jane Austen’s only attempt to write a pornographic novel, Sense and Sensuality. (It began, “It is a truth universally acknowledged…” I leave the rest to the reader as an exercise.)

He plundered T. S. Eliot’s business correspondence and came up with a letter to an overdrawn bank customer, beginning, “Dear Mr. Prufrock….”

Dylan Thomas’s Welsh accent sounded from the grave in an excerpt from Under Murder Wood.

We heard some of the latest Scandinavian Noir, The Girl with the Unpronounceable Name, apparently read by the Muppets’ Swedish chef: “The inspector brooded…  …. … Then he brooded some more.”

Brett had a few sharp words for the clichés of our genre, too. My favorite: “Writing about serial killers is a lot easier than making up a proper plot.” The hard-as-nails, gorgeous female pathologist came in for heavy criticism, accompanied by Brett-produced sound effects: a liver squishing and a bone saw.

Monica Ferris, hatted by Angie's Hats of Minneapolis

Monica Ferris, hatted by Angie’s Hats of Minneapolis

What is it about mystery writers and hats? I’ve written here before, with pictures, about the hats worn at Malice Domestic’s closing tea party. At Magna cum Murder, Monica Ferris, author of 18 fabric-arts mysteries, stood out for her millinery. Here she is at the cocktail reception, in the blue confection made especially for her by Angie’s Hats of Minneapolis. Check the lower left corner of the mirror behind her to get the full effect of the white feathers. And below, by permission, is one of Angie’s Kentucky Derby hats.

"Ruby" -- a Kentucky Derby hat by Angie (already sold, sadly)

Ruby” — a Kentucky Derby hat by Angie (already sold, sadly)


And here’s Monica again in the hat (not one of Angie’s) that she wore at the final panel. With her is Michael Dymmoch, author of the John Thinnes/Jack Caleb mystery series, and wearer of dragons.

Michael Dymmoch with dragon and Monica Ferris with hat.

Michael Dymmoch with dragon and Monica Ferris with hat.

All right, I suppose we should do some work here. Some of the writing and publishing tips I collected at Magna included:

Now that publishers do so little and ask so much of writers, a small publisher with a smaller list may put more resources into getting your book known.

Small-town gossip is always a good way to convey information to a reader, but to judge from audience response at one panel, people enjoy reading it for its own sake. Similarly, most of one Q&A was taken up with anecdotes of interesting overheard remarks.

The last impression made by your final scene is what determines whether the reader will buy the next book in your series.

Sally Wright, author of both the Ben Wright and the Jo Grant series, outlines before she writes…and outlines, and outlines…. Sometimes, she goes on for fifty pages before writing the first sentence of the text.

From Sarah Wisseman: have your protagonist miss a clue because of a crisis in her personal life.

And now I suppose, as Willem Lange says, “I gotta get back to work.”




About Heidi Wilson

I'm currently writing a mystery that takes place in New Hampshire and a novel about an artist who's working in Ireland and Hell. Former incarnations: stock market economist and professor of Greek. Go figure.

Posted on November 6, 2015, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. What a wonderful time you must have had! You are so close to being one of those published authors, sitting on the dais, telling us wannabes how you did it! A summa cum murder–love it!! Thanks for sharing the tips.


  2. Eleanor Ingbretson

    I’m exhausted reading about your weekend. What an adventure you had.
    I know I’d read cozies by Simon Brett way, way back, so I googled him. It was the Mrs. Pargeter series from the ’80’s and ’90’s. To my surprise, he wrote another one this year. His protagonist returns in “Mrs. Pargeter’s Principle. I hope he hasn’t lost his cozy touch after all these years and all his hard-boiled mysteries. Thanks for bringing his name up.

    Liked by 1 person

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