by Erin Mitchell
It’s been quite a week! It started a week ago Thursday, when I arrived at Sleuthfest in Orlando.
Sleuthfest is the annual writers’ conference hosted by the Florida Chapter of Mystery Writers of America. It always draws a fantastic group, because the organizers do a terrific job and it’s held in Florida in February, which makes it even more appealing for writers who live in cooler climes.
This year was no exception. The Guests of Honor were Laura Lippman, Ace Atkins, and Hank Phillippi Ryan. Oline Cogdill did an incredible job with the programming. Sandy Parks and Chris Jackson wrangled panelists and moderators with finesse. Vicki Landis coordinated fantastic raffle baskets. And Sharon Potts and Linda Hengerer oversaw things as the conference co-chairs with admirable efficiency, grace, and humor.
Thursday’s events comprise writing workshops. I heard nothing but good things about them! I wasn’t directly involved in these, though, which gave me time to get the lay of the land, find the panel rooms and bookstore, locate the quickest route to and from the coffee shop, and say hello to folks who were also settling in. I always suggest that arriving at a conference a half-day early is a good idea, because it provides a moment to get acclimatized and take a breath before the festivities begin.
On Friday morning, panels started at 9:00. The first one I attended was “The Traditional Mystery” with Sandra Balzo, Gail Oust, Hank Phillippi Ryan, and Reba White Williams, moderated by Elaine Viets. The discussion of how different authors define “traditional” and how this definition is changing was intriguing!
The keynote speech on Friday was delivered by Ace Atkins, who was in fine form. I also attended the panel on locations/settings, with Greg Herren, Laura Lippman, Jamie Mason, and Rick Mofina, moderated by Twist Phelan. Among other fascinating points, it turns out that if you’re ever going to set a story in New Orleans, you damn sure better get the city right. You’ve been warned!
Friday afternoon I moderated by first panel, about thrillers with Ace Atkins, Terry Lewis, Alison Gaylin, Susan Klaus, and Alex Berenson. I always find it a bit of a challenge to moderate panels when the audience is writers because I fret over helping the panelists deliver useful information, but these guys made it easy.
Saturday was also full of panels. I moderated two, one on taboos (with Alison Gaylin, Greg Herren, Laura Lippman, and Sharon Potts) and the other on social media (with Ace Atkins, Sandra Balzo, Lesley Diehl, and Reed Farrel Coleman). Both were fun and fascinating. The biggest takeaway from taboos was that there are few—if any—taboos, as long as you, dear author, treat your topics (and readers) with the respect they deserve. The social media panel demonstrated that there are indeed approximately a million different ways to use social media, but, as Reed reminded everyone, they’re all pointless unless you write the very best book you possibly can. Because I spend most days knee-deep in social media, I found this perspective especially important.
And speaking of social media…
On Wednesday morning, in the wake of the reaction to Kim Novak’s Oscar appearance, Laura Lippman posted a photo of herself on Twitter and Facebook sans makeup, kind lighting, or filters of any kind. She suggested that we join her in doing the same, to illustrate that beauty comes in all shapes, sizes, and ages, and so we can see what real people look like.
I thought it was a nice idea, an admirable one, but I was unprepared for the impact the response has had on me.
I didn’t really want to post my picture. I’m 43, and when the photogenic genes were being handed out, I was in the bookworm line. But I did it. And others did, too. Lots of others. As I watched the pictures roll in, mostly on Facebook, I felt…empowered. Like it’s OK for me to let go of my appearance phobia a little more. Like I’m not alone because people are beautiful. We wear our lives in our wrinkles, our smiles, our scowls, and our eyes. And it’s amazing.
I suspect people will continue to talk about what has become a real phenomenon for some time. At least I hope they do. If you’re not on Facebook, I grabbed a bunch of the images and put them into a video slideshow; click here to see it. Many, many more photos have been posted than what are included there, but it will give you an idea of how powerful this has been—and continues to be.
So this week’s conclusion? The crime writing community is a remarkable group of people. I’m honored to call myself a small part of it.