Almost every mystery author dreams of creating a winning series—a string of stories featuring an unforgettable detective who never fails to catch the killer. Local businessman and writer Clay Stafford has gone one better, producing a successful series of conferences on mystery writing itself. The third annual edition of Killer Nashville, which kicks off this Friday in Franklin, offers three days of panels, discussions and book signings. For thriller fans, Killer Nashville is a welcome addition to Tennessee's literary scene.
Stafford, who recently optioned a TV thriller series of his own, is as surprised as anyone about the success of his creation. And for him, there's something magical in the number three: the knowledge that Killer Nashville is here to stay. As he writes in a recent email, "When I did the first one, I did it on a whim with only about four months of planning. I didn't know who would show up. The next thing I knew, Carol Higgins Clark said she would be happy to come down and be our guest of honor. The next year, Michael Connelly said, 'When the word gets out, everyone is going to be wanting to come.' "
This year's guest of honor is Bill Bass, M.D., world-renowned forensic anthropologist and co-author, with Jon Jefferson, of the Bill Brockton mystery series. Set in Tennessee and featuring a University of Tennessee forensic anthropologist modeled on Bass himself, the series also highlights the famous UT Body Farm. Bass credits Jefferson with being the fiction half of the team, noting, "I come to writing books from the scientific perspective. What I write is based on evidence compiled during my 50 years of forensic experience." This will be his first appearance at Killer Nashville, but he brings good news for fans: "Our next book, Bones of Betrayal, comes out next February."
Celebrities are, of course, only part of the formula for writing conference success; this year 28 volunteers will help to make the growing program—three full days with four or five tracks each day—run on schedule. And many of the volunteers, the backbone of the operation, are creative types themselves, including Phillip Lacy, who designed the Killer Nashville logo: a bloody dagger plunged into the heart of the city's skyline.
One sign that Killer Nashville is becoming a major event: Only about half the attendees are from Tennessee. This year, writers from 19 states are registered, with sponsors from as far away as Canada. Stafford is looking even farther afield: "Several publications in England have written about us," he notes; he expects to attract international registrants as soon as next year.
Conference workshops and seminars include "Things That Go Boom in the Night: A Writer's Guide to Explosives," "The Art of the Page Turner" and "Sleuthing Through Time: Writing the Historical Mystery." Once again, the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation will set up a mock crime scene to test the skills of amateur sleuths. Would-be Arthur Conan Doyles and Sue Graftons can have their manuscripts critiqued by published authors, learn how to query agents, and begin to understand one of the greatest mysteries of all—the book publishing business.
One of the biggest draws for aspiring authors is this opportunity to pitch their manuscripts to an agent or editor. Each 10-minute session with a literary agent or acquisitions editor is a high-pressure but potentially effective way to sell a best seller in waiting. Last year two local writers got a publishing contract from the pitch session. "To see authors succeed, in whatever form; that's why we're here," says Stafford. This year's featured agent is Adriann Ranta of Anderson Literary Agency in New York. Oceanview Publishing, on the lookout for new authors, is sending acquisitions editor Maryglenn McCombs.
Hundreds of writers are working in the genre, but no way is Stafford offering a list of personal favorites: "I know too many authors. If I failed to mention someone, he/she would kill me. And these guys can come up with too many plans to do it slowly, painfully, and get away with it."
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