Murder in the Grove
A mystery conference to thrill writers and fans alike
The genre may have begun with "a dark and stormy night," but the majority of modern-day mystery writing has long since surpassed the traditional clichés embedded in the archetypical mysteries of the 1950s. Authors specializing in the field today, whether prescribing to traditional or non-traditional plot formulas, constantly venture into new territory to keep the spontaneity in mystery fiction alive. Arguably one of the most influential and popular literary genres-as household names like Janet Evanovich and even Dan Brown might attest-it seems that every other American loves a good mystery.
Like any art form, writers are aided in their craft by conversing and working with fellow writers to maintain their edge, garner inspiration and improve their technique. The only ongoing mystery conference in the Pacific Northwest takes place this weekend at the Boise Centre on the Grove, and local writers will have the rare opportunity to network with each other and numerous established editors, writers, publishers and agents from around the country in attendance. Murder in the Grove presents a series of workshops, panels and lectures in a three-part setup for writers, readers and those curious about crime-related research.
Established by a group of local mystery fans and writers in the late '90s, Murder in the Grove will be an annual event held in early June from this year on. In recognition of outstanding work in mystery writing, one writer is awarded the Ridley at each conference. (The Ridley was named by event originators Maureen Harty and Kathy McIntosh in honor of esteemed crime writer and former Idahoan, Ridley Pearson, who has been actively involved in Murder in the Grove since its inception and who presents the award.) Past recipients include Sue Grafton, Michael Connelly and Martha Grimes; this year's Ridley goes to Carolyn Hart for her Death on Demand and Henrie O mystery series.
Hart attributes her success to hard work, having an agent familiar with editors who like her style and especially to the determined women of the 1980s, who proved that there is a market for women mystery writers. "I was at the point where I really thought this was truly foolish," Hart says. "There may as well have been a sign in New York that said, 'American women need not apply,' because publishing in the 1970s had no interest in traditional mysteries written by American women." When the entire landscape of publishing changed, Hart decided to try again with one more book, though this time with the kind of book she loved to read.
When that book went on to become the first of the popular Death on Demand series, Hart learned that the trick of the trade lies not in catering to what one thinks will sell, "as you never really know," but in writing what she personally cares about-without worrying whether it will sell. Disillusioned by the rejection of seven books in seven years, she speaks from experience.
"If I had one word of advice to give to a writer, it would be to care passionately about what they write about," Hart says, citing John Grisham's fascination with the law as an example. "I happen to truly love mysteries. I think mysteries are important intellectually and socially." She believes people who read suspense fiction "are more consumed with justice. And they like puzzles-seeing something they don't understand and putting their wits together to try and work it out."
Hart is a fan of mystery to the bitter end; if stranded on a desert island, she would choose to be with mystery writers and readers, people who would "follow the rules and be smart enough to get us off the island." While she feels greatly honored to be receiving the Ridley, Hart has also won three Agatha awards and was nominated for a Pulitzer by the Oklahoma Center for Poets and Writers. For the Oklahoma native, "It was my neighbors saying, 'well done,' and I truly do treasure that," she says.
Similarly, Ridley Pearson achieved success when he began writing the kind of books he loves and credits "getting words behind you" as equally important. "I believed when I started that I needed half a million to a million words to be published, then another half million to a million words for a bestseller," he says. It was a fairly accurate prediction for Pearson, who adamantly adheres to the philosophy of moving quickly through the writing process. "People come up to me and say they spent eight years on one book-they think it's a badge of honor. And I say, 'Get a life," he recalls. "I think the secret to getting published is staying in your chair." For a celebrated author who still puts in 60 to 70 hours a week and turns out a book a year-"a publisher's miracle" he says.
"The rule of fiction is that you're supposed to suspend readers' disbelief, Pearson says. "I've felt that if I populate my crime fiction with fact, I should be able to suspend disbelief so readers think, 'Man, this could really happen.'" He acknowledges that events in his novels eerily do tend to happen, usually within months after publication. "I sort of comb the back of newspapers and tackle big social issues that stay in the news. By the time I've written about it, law enforcement agencies have caught up."
Joanne Pence, a local writer of the Angie Amalfi mystery series and Murder in the Grove conference organizer, believes, like Pearson, that the most important aspect of writing exists in the rewrite. "You don't know the story until you've written the end," she says. "My style is to write a first draft quickly and then I'll do a number of rewrites."
"A lot of my best work is done in the rewrite," echoes Pearson. "You're much more familiar with the novel because you've written it." It's sensible advice from both authors who will impart their knowledge alongside Hart at the upcoming conference.
Also among notables scheduled to speak at Murder in the Grove are Bob Mecoy, New York literary agent and former vice president of Simon and Schuster; Carrie Stuart-Parks, a forensic art expert who has helped the FBI and Secret Service; there will also be a presentation on understanding the CIA by a CIA analyst-turned-author.
Thanks to the Popular Fiction Association of Idaho (which brings Murder in the Grove to Boise) and the approval of Governor Kempthorne, June 11 is Carolyn Hart Day in Idaho. "It may be news to her," Pence says. Even if it is, there will be enough suspense and mystery throughout the conference to warrant letting this little cat out of the bag early.
Murder in the Grove, June 11, $125, Boise Center on the Grove, 850 Front Street, www.murderinthegrove.com.