Despite reading romance and other genre fiction for decades, I’ve never been to a writer or reader convention. I don’t have aspirations to write genre fiction, and I travel enough to meetings and conference for the day job. But when a convention comes right to my front doorstep, it’s hard to resist. Bouchercon is a readers and writers convention for the mystery genre. It’s a fairly big event, lasting three and a half days. The panels are set up differently than I’m used to, although this may be the norm for this type of convention. Each panel time slot is an hour, and then a half-hour is set aside for the all the participants in that time slot to make themselves available in the Book Room to sign books and chat with fans.
At 7:45 yesterday morning, I took the Metrolink down to the Renaissance Grand, registered for the convention and was handed a lanyard with a hand-written name tag and a big tote bag full of books.
I had downloaded the daily program before I went and scoped out the panels I was interested in. I slipped into one in the 8:30 time slot a couple of minutes late. It was titled: “Woman trouble: Crime fiction is rife with ‘bad girl’ characters.” The participants were Christa Faust, Lori Armstrong, Karen Olson, Judy Clemens, and Lauren Henderson, with Russel MacLean moderating.
I like the format of the panels. The moderator poses some questions and then the panelist answer. It’s relatively informal, so you get some back and forth chat. In the last part of the hour, the moderator takes questions from the audience.
I wasn’t familiar with any of the authors but Lori Armstrong looked familiar. That’s because I knew her by her romance name: Lorelei James. As Armstrong she writes crime fiction set in South Dakota. Her Mercy Gunderson series is popular and her books have been nominated for the Shamus Award, the mystery equivalent of the Ritas.
It was interesting to listen to the panelists’ discussion from a romance reader’s perspective. The way they talked about kick-ass characters (their term) was similar to the way that we talk about them in romance, except that here their behavior involves killing people (although I guess that’s not so different from PNR and UF heroines). The author sub-genres ranged from noir to cozy, but all of them were emphatic about how important it was to create strong characters who could take care of themselves. As one panelist put it, they wanted men, but they didn’t need them to solve the crimes.
When the conversation turned to sex in mysteries, the conversation became a little surreal to me. One panelist stated flat out that she didn’t like to have any sex scenes in her mysteries because it took her out of the mystery. She writes “bonkbusters” (if you’re lucky enough not to have heard that term before, here you go) with lots of sex and adult and YA mysteries with no sex. It’s one strategy, I guess. I wondered if she realized that Romantic Suspense was a best-selling category. Lori Armstrong related that she had written a short but explicit sex scene in one of her books and her publisher made her take it out. Christa Faust’s main character is a porn star who solves crimes (must get one of these books) so sex was essential because it was the character’s day job, but it was still an issue.
The funniest and most infuriating anecdote came from Karen Olson, who writes cozy mysteries. She said that her publisher made her remove the word “nipple” from a scene, and it didn’t even involve sex. The character was wearing a towel after a shower, and the towel slipped, with predictable results. No matter, “nipple” had to go. Cozy characters must be nipple-free.
Lest you think it’s just about sex, though, be advised that women characters must also refrain from swearing. As Lori Armstrong put it, “we can kill people but we can’t let them swear.” Lauren Henderson said that she had to take the word “bitch” out of a YA series aimed at teenagers. And of course, cozy characters must never never swear. Karen Olson was reminded by a reader that she has a young daughter.
While there were a few references to reader preferences, it seemed to me that most of the prohibitions on sex, language, and the like came from editors and publishers, based on their perceptions of what readers wanted. The authors were frustrated by it, and as a reader so was I. I enjoyed the panel so much, and I found most of the authors so interesting and intelligent, that right afterward I bought print books by Lori Armstrong and Karen Olson. And I never buy print books anymore!
I got a chance to introduce myself and talk to Lori Armstrong after the panel. I felt like a bit of an idiot, since I don’t read her Lorelei James books and had no idea of her mystery backlist, but she was extremely gracious and warm. She recognized my name from Dear Author. I congratulated her on her Shamus nomination and asked her if she had written Romantic Suspense, since it was a clear intersection. She said her one Romantic Suspense book was her lowest-selling title, which saddened me.
I went to parts of three more panels yesterday (including one with Tasha Alexander) but then had to return to the day job. But I’ll be back to the convention today and tomorrow, and I will report again with more updates and some pictures.