Balimore Beckons

by Zoë Sharp

Next week it’s the Bouchercon World Mystery Convention in Baltimore, with the catchy title of Charmed To Death. Co-chaired by crime aficionado Judy Bobalik, and Jon and Ruth Jordan, the force behind Crimespree magazine, it looks like being one of the biggest and best yet.Bconlogo

It will certainly be one of the busiest. As I look at all the scrawled notes in my pocket diary – cell phone numbers of all the people I’ve promised to meet up with, appointments and get-togethers – I realise that there’s very little blank space left for actually going to panels. Even my own!

This year, I’m lucky enough to have been invited to participate in two-and-a-half. The first is 4:40pm on Thursday afternoon, entitled ‘Janie’s Got a Gun’ (Aerosmith) – do you need to kick ass to be kick ass? – with own JT Ellison in the moderating chair, plus Tasha Alexander, Robert Fate, Cornelia Read, and Greg Rucka. This should be a very interesting topic because of the amount of perception involved in whether people pick up a writer’s book or not. Does it help if the reader believes the author actually capable of the things they’ve written about? Does it matter?

The second is 8:30am Friday morning. This one’s called ‘Six Days on The Road’ (Dave Dudley) with me taking the hot seat this time, and Glynn Marsh Alam, Barry Eisler, NM Kelby, Jonathan Sandlofer, and Marcia Talley all bravely agreeing to rise at that hour of the morning. After some discussion we seem to have split this topic into two distinct subjects – using location in the writers’ work, and tales of touring. I’m sure everybody has horror stories of the Tour from Hell and I can’t wait to hear them.

I also asked all my panellists for a quirky fact about themselves just to add to the mix, and they’ve come up with some belters. I shall definitely be asking Jonathan about his experiences with egg yolks and gladioli in Spanish Harlem, and Barry about the book he owns on CONTINGENCY CANNIBALISM. So, if you want to know more, you’ll just have to be there …

But, moderating a panel at B’con is a big responsibility, and one I take seriously. I know people are happy just to wing it, but I know others are very uncomfortable to play it completely off the cuff, and I’ve tried to make sure I’ve done as much prep as I’m able to, reading as many of the panellists’ books as I can, and spending some time on their websites. What’s your preference? As either a panellist or audience member?

Selfdefence0032 And last – but not least – we come to the half a panel I mentioned, which is one of the half-hour slots – at 10am on Saturday morning. This is where Meg Chittenden and I will be reviving our semi-lighthearted talk and demonstration on the gentle art of self-defence. We haven’t given this one for a few years, but the last time we did, we called it ‘You Can’t Run in High Heels’. In deference to Baltimore B’con’s song-title-themed panels, we’ve changed this slightly to ‘In These Shoes? I Doubt You’d Survive!’ (Kirsty MacColl).

As Meg lives in the Northwest rain forest, and I live in the UK, we can’t exactly get together to rehearse much for this. On previous occasions, we’ve found a quiet spot somewhere at the convention and gone through some of the moves we’ll be demonstrating then. And you know the weirdest thing? As any of you who know Meg will testify, a wicked wit and serious mystery-writing skills are hidden behind a butter-wouldn’t-melt white-haired exterior. So, there’s this genteel-looking lady, apparently being strangled by some English ruffian, and does anybody gallantly offer to come to her aid? Do they even ask what it is we’re doing, exactly? Er, no, they don’t.

And if that’s as good a reason as any for learning to take care of yourself, I don’t know what is …

As is always the case when we cross the pond, our first instinct is to try and find a gun range to brush up on our skills. In fact, at ThrillerFest in July 2006, my other half, Andy arranged a big outing to the Scottsdale Gun Club as part of a belated birthday present. After all, what else do you buy a girl except three belts of ammunition to put through a Squad Assault Weapon?

Gun_range0001 And, if we find a range nearby in Baltimore that’s amenable – like we did with the excellent Deerfield Archery and Pistol Center in Deerfield, WI when we were at B’con Madison in 2006, I’ll be delighted to put another ‘Have Breakfast and Go To The Gun Range’ lot into the charity auction. Last time, the winning bidder was Judy Watford, who was determined to take the opportunity to go shoot holes in a target, as she’d never been allowed to do so in her home state of Texas. Now, I’d always thought things like that were fairly compulsory in Texas, but Judy has been blind from birth and could not find a range who would allow her to have a go. The guys at DP&AC were far more laid-back about the whole thing and we had a great time.

But nevertheless, going to a convention is a big outlay in time as well as money. We’ll be away the best part of ten days, including calling in to NYC on the way back to do my one post-Bouchercon event – at Partners & Crime in Greenwich Village, 7pm on October 14th, with Sean Chercover, who’s launching the already acclaimed TRIGGER CITY on the same day my THIRD STRIKE comes out. It was great of Sean to invite me to join his party, as it were, and I’m thrilled and honoured to be able to do so.

So, my question is, why do you go? Is it to meet fellow authors, to get out of that secluded little world we tend to sit in and write? Is it to revitalise your enthusiasm for the craft? Is it to make contacts and meet new readers? Do you have that vital ‘elevator pitch’ prepared for your latest WIP?

What do you hope to get out of attending a convention – and do you succeed?

This week’s Phrase of the Week is knuckle under, which means to submit. It comes from the drinking taverns of 17th century London, where arguments raged. A person admitting defeat would knock on the underside of the table with his knuckle. There’s also some suggestion that it comes from bare-knuckle boxing, where the fighters would keep their fists up in front of them if they still wanted to fight, and down, with their knuckles behind their hands, if they’d had enough. Also corrupted into buckle under.

This should not be confused with knuckle down, which means to concentrate or apply yourself to a task, and comes from the game of marbles. The rules state that a player’s knuckle must be placed in the exact spot where the player’s previous marble came to rest. Those not paying attention, and allowing their hand to come off the ground are told to put their ‘knuckle down’.

33 thoughts on “Balimore Beckons

  1. Joyce Tremel

    This will be my first Bouchercon and I’m really looking forward to it. I don’t know what to expect, so I’m just going to enjoy myself.

    I’ll definitely have to check out your Saturday panel. I taught taekwondo a long time ago, so it’ll be interesting to see if I remember any of the self-defense!

  2. Wilfred Bereswill

    Whew, I thought I was doomed for a moment. I’m preparing for my first panel, Dream Police, Law Enforcement in Novels, Fact vs. Fiction. I’m on Thursday at 3PM. So glad I’ll be able to swing by to your first one.

    This is my first Bouchercon and first conference as a published author. So, if you see me with my eyes wide open and frozen in fear, give me a shake and introduce yourself.

    Funny thing is, Zoe, I met Judy Bobalick while I was running the shooting range evening here in St. Louis at last Year’s Sisters in Crime Forensic University. It was me, a wonderful instructor and 50 ladies, many who had never shot before.

  3. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Joyce

    Hope you have a great time in Baltimore. I think it was ThrillerFest last year where they gave first-time attendees a special badge so people would know to make a special effort to make them feel welcome and included. I don’t know if they’re going to do that at B’con, but I thought it was a lovely idea.

    Please come and say “hi”, and I hope you enjoy my session with Meg. It’s supposed to be a bit of fun, but I see from your website that your ex-cop and martial arts instructor, Summer Evans, is pretty well capable of taking care of herself, so you probably don’t need any help!

  4. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Wilfred

    Having seen so many of your comments on ‘Rati, it will be great to see you at B’con. Likewise, if you spot me (most likely in the bar) please come and say “hi” We’ll soon get rid of that rabbit-in-the-headlights look ;-]

    Have you got your elevator pitch down pat?

  5. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Oh, I will DEFINITELY be there for your self defense panel, Z! How great!

    I’m having my “conference resistance” phase (picture small child beating heels on floor screaming “I don’t wanna go…” ) But I know the second I get there I will light up and never want to leave.

    I guess it’s like running a marathon – you resist until the endorphins kick in.

  6. j.t. ellison

    This is my first Bouchercon too, and the heady responsibility of moderating is weighing on me. As Zoe knows, I don’t want the panel to have the questions beforehand so we can engender a more lively debate, and knowing my crew, that’s not going to be a problem. But I’ve read the Moderator’s Manifesto a couple of times ; )

    I can’t wait to see everyone! And Z, if you do get to the range, grab me by the collar on your way out, wouldja?

  7. Zoë Sharp

    Alex, it will be great to see you there! But I’m intrigued – what is it that makes you not want to go to a convention until you get there? And you a stunt dresser ;-]

    I think everybody is aiming to be at the self-defence panel just so they can watch Meg beating me up …

  8. Zoë Sharp

    Hi JT – you’re on for the gun range!

    Really looking forward to our panel. It’s a cool subject and there’s plenty to talk about, so we’ll be fine ;-]

    One of my worries about my panel is that it’s 8:30am. I studied the Moderator’s Manifesto, but couldn’t find anything about it being the moderator’s job to go round and roust the panellists from their beds – thank goodness …

  9. Jake Nantz

    It sounds like a lot of fun. I’m a very outgoing person when I’m comfortable, but the whole I-don’t-know-anyone-and-I-have-no-idea-what-I-should-be-doing thing…yeah, I don’t do that very well. I imagine if it were me in Mr. Bereswill’s place, I’d not only have the deer in the headlights look, but would be plastered with my back firmly against a wall somewhere, afraid to move lest I stand out and look incredibly foolish (or interrupt something and annoy agents, publishers, authors and readers alike).

    But yep, it sounds like a blast.

  10. J.D. Rhoades

    I thought an early Sunday morning panel was going to be a drag at the first Thrillerfest. But the place was packed.

    I’ve learned that, unlike, say. SF cons, most of the mystery fans don’t stay up nearly as late, so I’d best be there, looking spiffy and ready to rock and roll (even if my voice sounds like I’ve been gargling razor blades).

  11. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Jake

    I was very lucky when I attended my first US convention – Stephen Booth emailed Meg Chittenden and asked her specially to keep an eye out for me and take me under her wing, which she did with her customary style and wit.

    My advice to first-timers would be – take the white name card out of its holder and, around your name, write “Help! I’m a newbie!” And then anyone sees it should come to your rescue ;-]

  12. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Dusty

    You should have been at Harrogate this year – we held the bar until the wee small hours. Well, certain among the crime writing fraternity did, anyway …

    And I would turn out early on a Sunday morning to hear you speak. But, doesn’t your voice *always* sound like you’ve been gargling with bourbon and razor blades?

  13. Wilfred Bereswill

    Well, Jake. My nervousness usually disappears 2 seconds after the intro. I speak as an environmental engineer to large groups. Last year was my biggest challeng, 300 Chinese in Beijing with simultaneous translators.

    But that’s when I’m prepared. If my moderator holds back all the questions like, say, ahem, JT, I may not be so confident.

  14. Louise Ure

    I’ve got a couple of panel assignments, too, Zoë: “Keeping books fast and fun” on Friday at 1:30 wth Lauren Henderson, Alison Gaylin, Vicki Hendricks and Karen Olson. Then, one I’m really looking forward to on Saturday at 8:30. For that one “Toys in the Attic,” I get to moderate a panel of the true Grande Dames of American Crime Fiction: Margaret Maron, Dorothy Cannell, Sue Dunlap and Gillian Roberts. I can’t wait.

    And to all our ‘Rati friends: Shall we try to meet in the bar at some time? Maybe Saturday at 6:00?

  15. Zoë Sharp

    It varies a lot from person to person. Some people don’t mind being dropped in at the deep end, and thrive on ad libs. Others hate not being prepared.

    After all, we originally signed up to this deal in order to sit and write, not necessarily as performers in front of a live audience. I know authors who literally either vibrate with nerves, or physically throw up before appearing in public.

  16. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Louise

    Sorry to not reply to your comment sooner. I must have arrived just as I hit ‘post’ to reply to Wilfred and then got called away from my computer! The result is it looks like I did a very strange reply to your comment! Sorry about that…

    Both your panels sound like great fun, and I’m all for meeting in the bar Sat at 6pm. Should we all wear a red carnation and carry a rolled up copy of The Times?

  17. Zoë Sharp

    And thank you to everyone so far who graciously have failed to point out my miss-typing of ‘Baltimore’ in the title to this post. I’m having problems with my hands at the moment, as you can probably tell!

    To get back to my original question, though. I know everybody’s looking forward to B’con, but why do you go to conventions? And what do you hope to get out of it?

  18. Brett Battles

    Can’t wait for Baltimore…but looks like we’re competing for time Zoë…My panel is Saturday at 10:00 a.m. also:

    SMOOTH CRIMINAL (Alien Ant Farm) Making the bad guys likable. Sandra Ruttan(M), Brett Battles, Blake Crouch, Craig McDonald, F. Paul Wilson

    Looking forward to seeing old friends and making a few new ones!

  19. B.G. Ritts

    This will be my third B’con. I go to see the people I’ve ‘talked’ with online, to hear panelists discussing interesting topics (or making the subject interesting), to see a city (even if only a little of it), to get some books signed (I’m driving this year so I can bring more than usual), but not to stay up to the wee hours drinking in the bar — I just can’t do that any more.

    Zoë, if your range trip doesn’t conflict with the panels I’m acting as room monitor for (one of which is Janie’s Got A Gun), I’d like to tag along too.

  20. Becky Hutchison

    This will be my first Bouchercon too. I’m looking forward to meeting great people, attending lots of panels and learning as much I can about writing.

    Zoe, I’ll put your self-defense demonstration on my list of things to see and do on Saturday. I just hope neither you nor Meg come away with a black eye or busted nose. (You did say gentle art, right?)

    Louise, Saturday at 6 pm, barside, sounds good. See you there!

  21. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Brett

    Damn, can’t believe we clash with you. Sounds like a great topic – but they all do ;-]

    And you certainly seem to make a character who should be a traditional bad guy, into a likeable hero. Have fun with it.

  22. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Alex

    Sorry to hear you’ve reached the limit of your travel – I’m sure there’s some kind of weak pun to be had out of that, but it’s late and my brain is not functioning at full speed ;-]

    Looking forward to seeing you and, as you say, you KNOW you’ll have a great time when you get there!

  23. Zoë Sharp

    Hi BG

    Thanks for the comments. The one thing I never manage to do much of is see much of whichever city the convention takes place in. Most of the time, I’m lucky to see daylight, I think, and Baltimore looks like being no exception. We usually try and sneak out on Sunday afternoon, after everything’s officially over. I remember in Chicago we took a boat trip and got to see the fabulous city skyline from Lake Michigan.

    Staying up late in the bar doesn’t mean you have to get very, very drunk, though ;-]

    And finding a decent gun range is always fun – er, I mean vital research, of course …

  24. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Becky

    I hope you have a terrific time in Baltimore and enjoy your first B’con. Looking forward to seeing you in the bar.

    And, hey – you’ve seen the picture. Meg can fight rough!

  25. j.t. ellison

    Will, I’ll let you in on a little secret. My first panel ever was at Thrillerfest in New York two summers ago. I was petrified. I prepped. Prepped and prepped and prepped, because the way I deal with the unknown is to try to cover all conceivable permutations. (I got razzed from all sides for having answered the questions from my panel beforehand, too…)

    Panels, I quickly learned, are fun. First, you’re sharing the stage, which in and of itself makes it easier. And you are the expert, even though it may not feel that way. You are the authority on you, and readers are interested. Don’t be a panel hog, always cede to your neighbor once you’ve made your point, don’t worry about trying to be funny, and BE YOURSELF. You’re going to be awesome.

    All that said, I’ve found that if the topic is general, it’s much better not to have the panelists pre-thinking their answers. Spontaneity and flexibility makes great panels. If it’s something more esoteric, absolutely. Plus, all my panelists are seasoned pros. I would never, ever expect a newbie to go in blind.

    Z, I’ll be there will bells on : )

  26. Zoë Sharp

    Hi JT

    I agree with you completely. But, it’s sometimes difficult to ask a fellow panellist if this is their first time without risking insulting them – especially if they’ve been coming to conventions for years and your paths have happened never to cross before.

    Sometimes, the most memorable answers are the short ones. I can still remember Laura Wilson answering a question at Harrogate two years ago on where she got the inspiration for some of the more bizarre or disturbed characters in her novels. She smiled sweetly and said, “My family.”

  27. pari

    Six pm on Saturday? I’ll be there!

    Zoe,I like going to cons but just can’t afford the time and cost anymore. Next year, I’m cutting waaaay back. I love seeing friends and meeting new ones, but am in a phase where I just want to write, write, write (Alex, I can relate to that kid you mentioned).

    Still I’m glad to be at the Bouchercon that is honoring Murderati this year. It’s an incredible thing that we were nominated for an Anthony and I hope we make a good showing.

  28. pari

    Oh, I forgot to mention my panel: Sunday at 10 am. At first, I wasn’t thrilled with the time slot, but since there are only two panels . . . it sounds a lot better than competing with five.

  29. B.G. Ritts

    Zoë, while it’s true my body doesn’t process EtOH like it did 35 years ago, I was more referring to not being able to stay awake into the early hours — I hit the nod-off-wall, and that’s all she wrote.

  30. Matt Iden

    Any other advice for newbies? For instance, is it considered bad form to slip your manuscript into an agent’s bag while she’s not looking?


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