In Philadelphia, a how-to on whodunits

Students of mystery writing listen up and take notes during the one-day "university." Six authors spokeat Saturday's workshop on topics such as character development and the art of description.
Students of mystery writing listen up and take notes during the one-day "university." Six authors spokeat Saturday's workshop on topics such as character development and the art of description.
Posted: June 30, 2014

The sun shone with the innocent radiance of late June. Shorts-wearing tourists strolled the sidewalks of Old City, intent on such wholesome pursuits as a frozen yogurt or a ride in a horse-drawn carriage.

But inside the darkened confines of a hotel ballroom, a crowd of 60 plotted murder and malfeasance.

The fictional kind, fortunately, but a visitor could be forgiven for getting a chill from a one-day "university" held by the Mystery Writers of America.

Six established crime authors held forth on the tricks of their trade at the Sheraton Philadelphia Society Hill, covering such topics as dramatic structure, character development, and the art of description. And along the way they sprinkled in a few don'ts: As in - cliché alert! - no cliff-hangers that involve a cellphone battery running out of juice.

The all-day workshop on novel-writing was billed as not specific to the crime genre, and indeed the speakers drew examples from such varied sources as The Wizard of Oz and Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca. Still, there was plenty of dark stuff.

Hallie Ephron, author of 2013's There Was an Old Woman, took attendees through a hypothetical scene: Guy drives home from dinner with his wife, picks up the mail, notices the door to their apartment is open. Inside, the furniture is gone, but he finds a single red shoe with a stiletto heel.

Where in the course of events should the writer start the scene? How should the action be slowed down at crucial moments? And how to end the scene? Cliff-hangers are good, Ephron said, but she urged writers to use them sparingly.

"It can feel like a tic if you keep using it," said Ephron, of the Boston area, who is a younger sister of Nora Ephron.

She was followed by Daniel Stashower, three-time winner of the Edgar Award for crime and suspense fiction, who reminded attendees of the old writers' adage of "show, don't tell." He cited passages such as one about Sherlock Holmes, by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. The author does not merely say that the master sleuth is a slob, but that he "keeps his cigars in the coal-scuttle" and "his tobacco in the toe end of a Persian slipper."

Members of the Mystery Writers of America paid $50 to attend; nonmembers were charged $75. Based in New York, the nonprofit has more than 3,000 members and holds several such workshops a year.

Asked how many had already written a book, more than one-third of attendees raised their hands. A smaller number said the book had been published.

Among those was Matty Dalrymple, of Downingtown, who in December self-published The Sense of Death, about the disappearance of a Philadelphia socialite.

Another woman at the workshop, receptionist Amber Love, from Warren County, N.J., tried her hand at novels and now favors writing short stories and comics.

Love, whose T-shirt bore the words STRONG FEMALE CHARACTER, said she needed tips on how to buckle down.

"It takes me a year and a half to write something," she said.

She was relieved to learn that even established writers struggle. During her talk, Ephron admitted that she blew one deadline by a year.

Philadelphia has no shortage of rising stars in the crime-fiction biz. Asked during a break between sessions to name a few, speakers at the event rattled off the names of Duane Swierczynski, Jon McGoran, and Dennis Tafoya.

Maybe a few more will emerge from Saturday's session. Just keep your door locked and shades drawn.


comments powered by Disqus