Writing Southern Mysteries
Posted by Nancy J. Cohen on May 5, 2012
Malice Domestic Conference: Writing Southern Mysteries
Saturday morning at the Malice Domestic conference in Bethesda began with a New Authors Breakfast wherein two dozen newly published authors spoke briefly about their works. It was a great way to get to know these newbies and to discover interesting reads.
Writers’ conferences are often more about networking than attending workshops, but I did manage to attend three sessions. One of them was for writers by “The Poison Lady” on how to kill people using alcohol. I won’t be repeating that information here, but I’ll tell you about the other two panels for fans.
Early in the day, I greeted Dana Cameron, Charlaine Harris, Ellen Byerrum, Joanna Campbell Slan, and Neil Plakcy, among other writer friends. Besides Neil, Joanna and myself, Elaine Viets and Deborah Sharp were present from Florida MWA. We discussed marketing ideas and met new readers. I was able to display my promo materials in the hospitality suite, peruse the silent auction items, and greet booksellers in the dealers’ room.
The first workshop I attended was on Southern Mysteries. Panelists were Sandra Parshall, moderator, whose mysteries are set in Virginia. Lisa Wysocky sets her series around horses. Erika Chase’s books are set in Alabama. Leann Sweeney’s cat mysteries take place in South Carolina. Christy Fifield’s haunted shop series is located in Florida. And Miranda James (aka Dean James) writes about a male librarian in Mississippi. Following are the questions posed by the moderator. Disclaimer: These interpretations are based on my notes and the paraphrasing is accurate to the best of my ability.
What is your personal connection to the South?
Miranda grew up in Mississippi in generations of farmers. He moved to Houston and went to grad school and became a librarian. Christy married a Southerner whose family comes from Alabama. Leann went to where her husband’s job took them to Texas and hopes to move to South Carolina someday. Erika loves horses and was captivated by Southern culture. Lisa moved to the South and also loves horses. “Characters in the South are wonderful fodder for mysteries.”
What is special about the South?
Leann: “What’s so wonderful about the South is there are all these secrets.” People are very polite and courteous, and they use indirect routes of speech as opposed to Northerners who say what they mean. Miranda: People in the South beat around the bush when speaking. “How many of you know the two meanings of ‘Bless your heart’?” It’s all in how you say it. Lisa: “History in the South is so much more fascinating than in the North.” Erika: “The word southern conjures the imagination, as in southern lady or southern gentleman.”
Tell us about your settings.
Lisa’s books are set in Tennessee where “many eccentric people live.” Christy’s stories are set in a small Florida town dependent on tourism. She loves the Florida Panhandle. Sandra’s mysteries take place in Virginia, while Miranda’s are set in Mississippi. Leann favors South Carolina, and Erika’s stories are centered in Alabama. Quite a variety!
How do you deal with darker issues?
Lisa approached the theme of child neglect with humor so that the humor balances the darkness. Erika doesn’t deal with any Gothic themes beyond murder. She says secrets from the past affect her characters, who help each other through them. Leann says her editor helps her balance the light and the dark. “Secrets are dangerous, and I want the reader to feel that tension throughout the book.” She often deals with dysfunctional family issues.
Christy has a main character who is a ghost. Another character is the ghost’s acquaintance, and their relationship goes back to a more turbulent time in history. She indicates how racial relationships in the South are still a fact of life there. It’s tough to balance those elements with the lightness of a cozy. Miranda likes to make the reader forget about their problems when reading his books. So he aims for a balance between real southern issues and a lighter mystery.
How do you include accents?
Miranda offers colloquial expressions and rhythm of speech instead of heavily accented speech which can be distracting to the reader. She says to be aware that certain words may be used differently. For example, do the people in a locale say cellar or basement? Erika says the flavor of interactions is more important than the words themselves.
Later that afternoon, I was on a panel called Living with the Seven Deadly Sins: Mysteries as Modern Morality Plays. Moderated by Art Taylor, our panel included R. J. Hartlick, Carolyn Hart, Tracy Kiely, Margaret Maron, and myself. I discussed the value of relationships among the characters in a mystery and how that’s the focus of my stories. We joined other afternoon panelists at a booksigning later.
Saturday night, we attended the Agatha Awards Banquet. I didn’t take pix here, too many people, and it was a long evening.
Coming Next: The New Nick and Noras: Mixing Romance and Murder