Wednesday, November 17, 2010

New England Crime Bake

Have you ever been to a traditional New England clam bake? A bunch of friends get together on a beach, talk about things they all enjoy, play a little on the sand or in the water, and enjoy good food and fellowship. It's a great way to spend a day, and when it's over, everyone looks forward to the next time.

Well, last weekend I discovered another New England tradition that I look forward to repeating in the future. It is the joint meeting of the New England Mystery Writers Association (MWA) and Sisters in Crime (SinC), dubbed the "New England Crime Bake." There, a bunch of mystery writers get together in a hotel in Dedham, MA, talk about writing mysteries, play a little at a banquet and ball, and enjoy good food and fellowship. It's a great way to spend a weekend.

This was my first Crime Bake, and my first writers conference, but I felt welcome among the veterans there. I have attended several writers' workshops over the years, but this was different. It was not designed to help me make great progress with developing my characters or designing my plot. It was, instead, an opportunity for networking, learning some tricks of the trade, and making new friends.

The conference was extremely well-run, packing in several days' worth of activities into just 45 hours. The 300+ participants enjoyed panels on many aspects of mystery writing, including those with such interesting titles as "Miss Marple, How You've Changed!" and "What's Written in Blood," as well as discussions of setting, using humor, how to write a page turner, and many  more.

I had an opportunity to meet the Query Shark herself, Janet Reid of FinePrint Literary Management, and her wonderful assistant, Meredith. Janet is one of the agents everyone wanted to meet. She worked with my group in the "Practice Your Manuscript Pitch" seminar. I told her I had written a cozy mystery (i.e. no "on screen" violence or sex, set in a small town, non-professional sleuth, etc.). She listened to my initial pitch and told me I had written a suspense novel. It became a running joke between us throughout the conference. Later, when I met her for a five-minute pitch session, we talked about it again. She gave me a book to read and suggested another title. I look forward to reading them both and looking at my manuscript through her lens.

The Guest of Honor for the event was Charlaine Harris, the author of the Aurora Teagarden, Lily Bard, Sookie Stackhouse, and most recently the Harper Connelly mystery series. She is best known for the Sookie Stackhouse books upon which the HBO vampire series True Blood is based. She told us that people are often surprised to hear that she is also married, the mother of three children, and active in her church. But she admits that many of her novels come from a very dark place. She was extremely generous with her time, answered countless questions, posed for photos, and signed hundreds of books for conferees. For one coming from a "dark place," she was extremely friendly, open, and funny.

The Red and Black Ball on Saturday night was probably the most fun event of the weekend. Conferees and their guests filled the ballroom--many dressed in red and black, but many others dressed as their favorite "creatures of the night." There was a costume contest with prizes in the categories of "Most Spook-tacular," "Most Boo-tiful," and "Most Hell-arious." A man who sat next to me won for most "Hell-arious." He was dressed as a lobster and wore a black cape. But he suffered for his art. By the time the night was over, I think he felt like he had been in the lobster pot himself because his costume was so warm.

All in all, it was a weekend to remember . . . and I look forward to the next time.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

A Jane Austen Celebration

For the past year, I have been a life-member of the Jane Austen Society of North America (JASNA). I have attended exactly three meetings: one chapter meeting in New York, and two Annual General Meetings (Philadelphia in 2009 and Portland, OR last month).

With so few meetings, you might wonder why I decided to become a life member. The answer is simple. JASNA is such fun!

Jane Austen fans from all over the continent, and some other countries from around the globe, gather at the Annual General Meetings to dress, quote, and think about Jane Austen and her six novels (Emma, Mansfield Park, Northanger Abbey, Persuasion, Pride and Prejudice, and Sense and Sensibility) and her other writings. There were six hundred of us in Portland. As you might expect, there are plenty of English professors and Austen scholars among us, but there are also lots of just plain fans. Many of us dress in Regency-style gowns and waistcoats for a ball of English country dancing to live music on Saturday night. Those dances might look genteel on screen, but some are a real workout. No wonder Regency women carried fans.

Most "Janeites," as Austen aficionados are known, have read all the novels more than once. Some have dissected them for every nuance Jane might have dropped into a scene unnoticed by the casual reader. It is an amazing experience to be among so many who share a passion for the same thing--like being a Trekker at a Star Trek convention, or a nerd at Comic-con.

Some fans came to Austen as youngsters reading their first novel, while others came to it through one of the many movie or television interpretations of the novels. The 1995 A&E/BBC six-episode adaptation of Pride and Prejudice did a lot to inspire 21st-century fans (and enhance Colin Firth's career!). 

Also in 1995, Emma Thompson's film of Sense and Sensibility gained box office (and home video) popularity. It was followed by Emma, starring Gwyneth Paltrow in 1996. But these are far from the only recent iterations of Jane Austen novels. PBS did new television versions of Mansfield Park, Northanger Abbey, Emma, Sense and Sensibility, and Persuasion in 2007-2009 despite the fact that Mansfield Park had been done in 1983 and 1999, Northanger Abbey in 1987, Persuasion in 1960, 1971, and 1995, and Sense and Sensibility in 1971, 1981, in addition to the 1995 film.  Emma has been produced for film or television more than a dozen times since 1932, including the 1995 movie Clueless. PBS did not redo Pride and Prejudice, however. To many Austen fans, the 1995 adaptation has become iconic.

Not to be outdone by Emma, Pride and Prejudice has its own long list of adaptations, including a 1940 Pride and Prejudice with Greer Garson and Laurence Olivier, another BBC version in 1980, a Mormon version of Pride and Prejudice from 2003, Bride and Prejudice: The Bollywood Musical (2004), and a film starring Keira Knightly (2005). And these are just some of those done in English. There have been many more. 

With all of the remakes of Pride and Prejudice and Emma, one could assume they are every Janeite's favorite novels. I was surprised to learn last week that, in fact, in a poll of JASNA members, Persuasion was listed as the favorite of more than any other. Northanger Abbey, Austen's parody of the Gothic novels popular during her lifetime, finished last.

What other novels can we come up with that are made and remade so frequently? It is too bad that Austen died so young--age 41--and left behind only six novels. If she had written more, there would be more good movies being made.

Why are they so popular? The time in which she wrote is so different from today, and roles of women have changed so much over the past two centuries. But the novels are timeless stories about love, wealth, and power. Austen's female protagonists (or antagonists, for that matter) were not docile lambs who would happily be told what to do or how to think by the men around them. They seem as real as the people who are her fans today--thinking, reading women and men who enjoy wit and social commentary, and suffer from all too human foibles. The books give us a window into the society of another time through characters to whom we can realte. And Austen's use of language is nearly musical. Is it a fantasy that everyone once spoke so well?

Next year will mark the 200th anniversary of her first publication, Sense and Sensibility, and we JASNA folks will be celebrating it in Fort Worth, Texas. There will be scholarly papers, interesting workshops, and screenings of the Emma Thompson movie. But we're not all staid and proper. The planning committee tells us that there will also be mechanical bull riding, dancing the two-step,  and Texas Hold 'Em instead of whist in the cards room. It looks like it will be another great time for fans of Jane Austen--or those who want to have a good time among excellent company.

Maybe I'll see you there! For more information, see