Mavens of mystery

New England authors gather at Crime Bake Mystery Conference

By Pamela H. Sacks

If you were thinking that mystery writers are probably a secretive bunch, think again. It appears that they are a convivial sort.

New England authors who specialize in the genre convene today for the sixth annual Crime Bake Mystery Conference, a three-day gathering in Dedham filled with pitch sessions, master classes and manuscript critiques by published authors, among other activities.

The idea behind the conference is that everyone benefits by sharing information on all aspects of the business, from plot development to finding an agent. After all, who knows where the next Agatha Christie, Rex Stout or Arthur Conan Doyle may lurk?

“We keep learning from each other,” said Dana Cameron, an award-winning mystery writer from Beverly. “It’s people who want to talk about writing. If I can tell people farther down the line something from my experience that helps them, that’s great. I find that in teaching people, you end up learning, as well.”

The conference is co-sponsored by the New England chapters of Mystery Writers of America and Sisters in Crime. The distaff group was formed in 1986 by three well-known authors – Carolyn Hart, Sarah Peretsky and Nancy Pickard – who realized that women were getting a raw deal when it came to reviews and support from the publishing industry. They set out to do something about it. There are now 3,400 members in 48 chapters worldwide. Even men have joined.

“We understand that a reader of mysteries doesn’t buy just one book in a year. If things are good for one mystery writer, then it lifts everybody up,” said Roberta Isleib, a clinical psychologist from Connecticut who has two series in print. Ms. Isleib is the newly elected president of International Sisters in Crime.

Cathy Cairns, who lives in Northboro, is winding up a term as president of the New England chapter of SinC, and Leominster resident Ruth M. McCarty will now take the helm. The chapter has 170 members, some published and others working toward that goal.

Cairns got started on mysteries after taking an adult education course in which Ms. McCarty was a fellow student. That was half a dozen years ago. Cairns’ stories have been published in Woman’s World magazine and two anthologies of New England crime writers, “Riptide” and “Seasmoke.” An agent in New York has one of her manuscripts under consideration, she said.

Cairns, who also is a columnist for a weekly publication and does freelance Web design, has enjoyed writing since she was a student at St. Peter High School – now St. Peter-Marian Central Catholic High School – in Worcester. She writes early in the morning, but keeps a pad of paper nearby all day so that she can jot notes if something speaks to her.

“I’m fascinated with people and their relationships – what makes somebody do something or choose not to,” said Cairns, who earned a bachelor’s degree in English literature from Clark University this year. “I love a really good mystery with a twist ending.”

McCarty was inspired to write mysteries as a youngster when she read the antics of that famous sleuth Nancy Drew. “I thought, `I can do that,’ McCarty said, laughing. “I just didn’t realize how much work there was to it.”

McCarty has been writing mysteries for 12 years and has been published in several anthologies, among them “Undertow,” “Windchill” and “Seasmoke.” She is working on a series about a mother who has no luck finding her missing daughter, but in her search tracks down other missing children. The plot has sparked the interest of an agent, McCarty said.

Both women have found SinC stimulating and supportive in a variety of ways. The New England chapter draws about 50 members to each of its quarterly meetings. Successful authors are guest speakers. Joanne Ferguson talked about blending mystery and romance. Pickard, the author of “The Virgin of Small Plains,” offered her thoughts on editing. Lee Lofland, a crime scene investigator, provided instruction on forensics.

“You have to get the facts right when you are writing about mystery,” Cairns noted. “People know more now.”

Cairns is working on a historical mystery set in the 18th century. D. P. Lyle, a physician and author of “Murder and Mayhem: A Doctor Answers Medical and Forensic Questions for Mystery Writers,” has helped her with scientific accuracy.

The group has its lighter moments. Last year, McCarty came up with the idea of a calendar featuring SinC members. Kate’s Mystery Books in Cambridge is the scene for a tea party at which poison is part of the liquid fare; the library in the home of TV investigative reporter and mystery writer Hank Philippi Ryan is the setting for writers engaged in a game of “Clue.”

“The New England chapter is unusually active and successful, partly because we retain our published authors because they want to give back,” Isleib said. “It’s such a hard business, the publishing industry. The competition is so hard. People who have been published are finding themselves without contracts.”

The crime bake is expected to draw 250 participants. The keynote speaker is Lee Child, the author of the Jack Reacher thriller series. Child’s story is inspirational. He had been fired and was facing financial ruin when he wrote his best-selling novel “Killing Floor.”

“I’ve made some incredibly wonderful friends in this organization,” Cairns said of SinC. “When you are writing and submitting, you have to develop a thick skin. Rejection is inevitable. Sometimes it’s nice to have someone understand what you’re going through and offer encouragement.”