How I Fell in with the Criminal Element
Making Mystery Friends:
How I Fell in with the Criminal Element
By Lori Rader-Day,
author of The Black Hour and Little Pretty Things
In the fall of 2011, when I walked into Bouchercon St. Louis, I was the loneliest mystery writer in the world.
Inside that conference hotel were nearly 1,800 people who all lived and breathed mysteries. I knew precisely one of them.
Terry Faherty (The Quiet Woman) and I had met at an earlier writing event, where he had the occasion to suggest to me that the novel I was trying to write might be a mystery. This was news to me. It shouldn’t have been. I’d been a Lois Duncan and Agatha Christie fan from way back and had turned all my junior high friends onto Mary Higgins Clark. But I’d fallen away from mysteries as a reader and had undertaken a writing program that led me toward what I cavalierly called at the time “literary” fiction. But when I tried to write something longer than twenty pages, what came out was crime.
And lucky for me it did. By the end of that conference, I had made two new friends from that sea of Bouchercon humanity: Clare O’Donohue (Life Without Parole), who answered my questions about how to meet other mystery authors by pointing to the Mystery Writers of America table across the room—and Margery Flax, who helped me fill out my application to join.
I didn’t have a book deal or an agent. I didn’t have a complete manuscript. I had everything in the world to learn about the mystery community.
As I write this in January 2016, only five years later, I am the new president of the Midwest Chapter of Mystery Writers of America. I’m off to New York in a couple of days to meet the rest of the national board, to hang out in New York’s Mysterious Bookshop with my two books for sale nearby, to spend a weekend dedicated to the issues that bring all American crime writers together.
MWA changed my life, and I don’t mean only in that over-the-last-five-years sense. I mean immediately. I hadn’t known that I could go to a monthly meeting with like-minded weirdos, that I could get two newsletters of mystery content delivered to my inbox every month, that I could meet up at conferences throughout the year to hang out with mystery writers of all stripes. I hadn’t known how valuable—personally as well as professionally—it would be to know other crime fiction writers, or how quickly I could be of service and also benefit from new friendships and connections. By the time I attended Bouchercon Cleveland the year after St. Louis, there were familiar faces among the Bcon thousands. I also had an MWA assignment: along with Clare and Margery, I helped plan and host a breakfast for librarians featuring guest of honor Mary Higgins Clark. I sat next to her.
Mary. Freaking. Higgins. Clark.
I’ve had the chance to sit next to some amazing people since I joined MWA—from other published authors and those working hard to join them to guest speakers from all areas of the crime and crime-adjacent career paths. I’ve met mystery writers from all over our thirteen-state (!) chapter area and have learned so much from just being in the same room as them.
When I asked other MWA Midwest members to articulate what they found valuable, that’s what they said again and again: the chance to learn from peers. Bo Thunboe said he enjoyed “the generosity of the more experienced members in sharing what they’ve learned,” while Matthew V. Clemens (Fate of the Union, written with fellow MWA Midwest member Max Allan Collins) reminded us that published writers still had things to learn. “Those of us who have been at this for a while can always learn things from others,” he said. “It’s not simply writing tips. There are also lessons to be learned about navigating an industry in flux.”
It’s not always school hours—camaraderie is what the group offers to writers at all stages of their career. “Even when you live far away and can’t make it to the monthly meetings, the other members go out of their way to make you feel welcome when we meet up at conferences for happy hour,” said Anna Lee Huber (A Study in Death). “And I love the cheering section in our emailed newsletter.”
The group is “full of mystery writers at all levels, and free of pretension,” said Heather E. Ash (a TV writer of Stargate SG-1 now working on her first novel). “That’s so valuable for building a professional community.”
So if MWA is about being in the same room with some fantastic writers, well, I just want to bring a few of them into this room. Allow me to name-drop just a few of our 400 amazing Midwest Chapter members…
Our members include legendary criminal masterminds like Sara Paretsky (Brush Back), Barbara d’Amato (the Cat Marsala mysteries) and Scott Turow (Identical), and repeat-offender award winners like William Kent Krueger (Ordinary Grace) and Michael Koryta (Last Words). They write the gamut of the subgenres, from the coziest cozies of Julie Hyzy (Foreign Éclairs), Sally Goldenbaum (Trimmed with Murder), and Molly MacRae (Knot the Usual Suspects) to the high-octane thrillers of Andrew Grant (False Positive), Patrick Lee (Signal), Elizabeth Heiter (Seized), and Jamie Freveletti (Robert Ludlam’s The Geneva Strategy). Our settings vary from the shadowed streets of Chicago (Michael Harvey, The Governor’s Wife) and the stormy fields of Kansas (Nancy Pickard, The Scent of Rain and Lightning) to the dusty and the battered landscapes of Afghanistan (Susan Froetschel, Allure of Deceit) and Botswana (Michael Stanley, A Death in the Family).
Some of our authors, like Tasha Alexander (The Adventuress), Susanna Calkins (The Masque of a Murderer), D.E. Johnson (Detroit Breakdown), and Alex Grecian (The Harvest Man), write intricately detailed historicals or, like Lynne Raimondo (Dante’s Dilemma) and Ben H. Winters (World of Trouble), take the traditional mystery to non-traditional places. We have members, such as Ridley Pearson (The Kingdom Keepers), Joelle Charbonneau (Need), and Kate Hannigan (The Detective’s Assistant), who inspire young readers to discover the genre. We have a bookstore owner (August Aleksy, of Centuries and Sleuths), literary agents (Danielle Egan-Miller of Browne & Miller in Chicago), and the self-proclaimed 2000-year-old librarian herself, Doris Ann Norris. In 2015, three of the five nominees for the Best First Novel Anthony Award were members of MWA Midwest: Kristi Belcamino (Blessed Are the Dead), Allen Eskens (The Life We Bury), and yours truly (The Black Hour).
Not even a humble brag, there, because I’m proud of how far I’ve come and of what our merry band of mystery lovers achieves every year. I’m also proud to know the many members of MWA Midwest who are still working toward getting their first novels finished and polished. It’s a hard, lonely job, writing a book. But not as lonely, by far, as it might have been.
More info on joining Mystery Writers of America can be found at mysterywriters.org/.
New and forthcoming titles from MWA Midwest authors
1/5/16: Larry D. Sweazy, A Thousand Falling Crows (Seventh Street Books)
2/2/16: Lynn Cahoon, Murder on Wheels (Lyrical Underground)
3/8/16: Robert Goldsborough, Stop the Presses! (Mysterious Press)
3/16: Sparkle Abbey, Raiders of the Lost Bark (Bell Bridge Books)
4/1/16: Jeffrey B. Burton, The Chessman (Harlequin Worldwide Mystery)
4/12/16: Nancy Allen, The Wages of Sin (HarperCollins/Witness)
4/12/16: Susanna Calkins, A Death Along the River Fleet (Minotaur)
5/10/16: Larry D. Sweazy, See Also Deception (Seventh Street Books)
5/17/16: Anna Lee Huber, A Pressing Engagement: A Novella (Berkley)
6/21/16: Michael Harvey, Brighton (HarperCollins)
6/28/16: Jessie Chandler, Blood Money Murder (Bella Books)
7/5/16: Anna Lee Huber, As Death Draws Near (Berkley)
7/5/16: Laura McHugh, Arrowood (Spiegel & Grau)
7/5/16: Ben H. Winters, Underground Airlines (Mulholland Books)
7/16: Julia Buckley, A Dark and Stormy Murder (Berkley)
9/16: Jess Lourey, Salem’s Cipher (Midnight Ink)
10/16: Laura Benedict, The Abandoned Heart (Pegasus Crime)
10/16: Anna Loan-Wilsey, A March to Remember (Kensington)
11/16/16: Susan Van Kirk, Marry in Haste (Five Star/Cengage)
Fall, TBA: Patricia Skalka, Death in Cold Water (Terrace Books)