Lacey Smithsonian, the heroine of Ellen Byerrum’s mystery novels, lives in a building very similar to Hunting Towers. She eats in Alexandria restaurants such as Hard Times, Taqueria Poblano and the now-defunct Portner’s. Her very existence is the by-product of Byerrum’s 20-year history in Alexandria, one in which she has created her Crime of Fashion series starring a crime-fighting fashion reporter who has, as Byerrum puts it, “a nose for nuance, a knack for unraveling mysteries and a wardrobe full of fabulous 1940s suits.”
“In a way, mystery writers are lucky,” Byerrum said during a recent forum at the Beatley Library. “Mystery readers love to read mysteries.”
Byerrum is not the only local female mystery writer to enjoy the support of an adoring fan base, nor is she the only one to seek solace in the professional opinion of her colleagues. She is a member of a little-known sorority known as “Sisters in Crime,” a networking support group for female mystery writers. Created in 1986, the organization has 3,400 members in 48 chapters across the globe with a common passion and morbid taste for crime.
“It’s a very welcoming group,” said Byerrum. “We’re all very different, but there’s also a sense of commonality.”
Maria Lima, one of the four authors that participated in the Sisters in Crime forum at the Beatley Library last week, explained that the group can offer significant advice — like the time she had a dynamite idea for a plot involving a funeral home that sold blood on an underground market. But when Lima explained the idea to a fellow Sister in Crime, whose father happened to be a veteran of the funeral industry, she realized that the plot could never work in the real world.
“Thank God for Sisters in Crime,” Lima exclaimed. “They saved me.”
IN A LIVELY DISCUSSION about their fictional works, the four authors discussed their influences and offered advice to aspiring writers. They talked about their own careers and speculated on the therapeutic nature of imagining the fictional murders of real-life pests. And they offered inspiration to those who have been considering taking a stab at the world of crime fiction.
“Publishers are always looking for someone with a new writing style,” said Sandra Parshall, author of “Disturbing the Dead.” “But you have to knock their socks off right away. So don’t be pedestrian.”
The writers agreed that finding the right agent is critical, and that writers should never pay an agent to read their work. One bit of practical advice, they said, was to visit the mystery section of a bookstore and read all the acknowledgments. Prominent names in the industry will be frequently cited, and authors can match their styles to the kind of work published by different agents. Another bit of advice was that writers should be willing to let the characters develop outside of their expectations.
“Sometimes the characters can take over,” said Laura Durham, author of the Annabelle Archer mystery series. “I once had to change the entire plot of a novel because a different person ended up being the killer.”
“I’ve never had a character take over,” responded Parshall. “But they will do things that surprise you because they sort of become their own people.”
After the forum was over, the authors signed books and mingled with their fans over crackers and cheese. Nancy Vogel, who described herself as an avid mystery reader, said that the event was a great way to get inside the heads of the genre she has spent years exploring.
“I was most interested in what they said about the characters becoming their own people,” said Vogel. “I guess that just goes to show that life can be unpredictable.”