Please contact E. B. Davis at for information on guest blogs and interviews. Interviews for July: (7/6) Jennifer J. Chow (7/13) Meri Allen/Shari Randall (Book 1--Ice Cream Shop Mystery), (7/20) Susan Van Kirk, (7/27) Meri Allen/Shari Randall (Book 2--Ice Cream Shop Mystery).

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

A Weekend Booked for Murder

Murder in the Magic City 2014
Because I have family in and nearby Birmingham, Alabama, I've attended Murder in the Magic City since 2005. MMC is a one-day mystery readers and writers' conference sponsored by the Southern Sisters Chapter of Sisters in Crime. Held the first Saturday in February and coordinated by the extraordinary Margaret Fenton, author of Little Lamb Lost, this event attracts one hundred plus audience members to hear from twenty or more mystery authors. It takes place at the Homewood, Alabama, public library, which has a large auditorium with a stage for speakers, and an adjoining room where books are sold and signed. In the morning, Krispy Kreme donuts and coffee are available. For lunch, everyone lines up in the signing room to get box meals, then sits down in the auditorium, authors and audience together, to eat and talk. Baskets of books and goodies, beautifully prepared by Margaret's mother-in-law, Lynda Fenton, are auctioned off to benefit a local or national cause. This year's recipient is the Shoals Animal Advocates.

This February, I was one of the MMC featured authors, my first occasion to serve as a panelist and sign books. I was tremendously excited about the opportunity. It was like coming home, yet I was nervous about making a good impression. I had the privilege of moderating the first panel of the day. Our topic was the "Long and Short of It" and we discussed how writing short stories influenced and shaped our writing careers. My panelists, distinguished authors of both short story and novel writing, were Kaye George, Bert Goolsby, James M. Jackson, Toni L.P. Kelner (aka Leigh Perry), and Denise Swanson.

Kaye George, Toni Kelner, me, Jim Jackson, Bert Goolsby, Denise Swanson
I struggled, wondering how to present such terrific authors and make the most of our limited time. My introductions came together when, like Cinderella, I discovered the pair of shoes I wanted to wear to the event -- black flats decorated with small silver skeleton heads that reminded me of Toni Kelner/Leigh Perry's character Sid, the ambulatory skeleton featured in A Skeleton in the Family. I looked at the outfit I had chosen and realized it reflected each of the panelists' work: (1) purple for Bert Goolsby's legal novels; (2) gray for the gray matter Jim Jackson's detective Seamus McCree uses to solve his financial investigations; (3) a casual jacket like Denise Swanson's school psychologist Skye Denison might have worn; and (4) a necklace in the shape of a treble clef for Kaye George's Cressa Carraway musical series.

Of course, our time went by quickly. We concluded with each panelist presenting a six word story, a la Hemingway's "For sale: baby shoes, never worn."

After we finished, we sat back and enjoyed the rest of the day, which was filled with wonderful presentations. Our guests of honor were Julia Spencer-Fleming, Agatha, Anthony, Macavity, Dilys, Barry, Nero Wolfe, and Gumshoe award winning author of the Clare Fergusson/Russ Van Alstyne mystery series, and Robert Dugoni, New York Times bestselling author of legal thrillers.

Julia Spencer-Fleming
Julia Spencer-Fleming's first novel, In the Bleak Midwinter, was published as the 2001 winner of the St. Martin Minotaur's "Best First Traditional Mystery" contest and received the Agatha award for Best First Novel. Born at Plattsburgh Air Force Base, Julia moved often with her military family, then studied acting and history at Ithaca College, and received her J.D. from the University of Maine School of Law. She has been an Edgar and Romantic Times RC Award finalist, and her most recent novel, the eighth in her series, Through the Evil Days, is nominated for an Agatha for Best Contemporary Novel this year.

Robert Dugoni is the author of The Jury Master, Damage Control, Wrongful Death, Bodily Harm, and The Conviction. For Murder One, he was selected as a finalist for the American Bar Association's 2012 Harper Lee Prize for Legal Fiction. With Joseph Hildorfer, he wrote The Cyanide Canary, a nonfiction account of how EPA agents and a government team prosecuted a case against an environmental polluter. Robert became a writer after working as a journalist, lawyer, and actor, and he is one of ten siblings. I met Robert at the S.C. Book Festival, and have had the privilege of collaborating with him on a short story. He is truly a good friend as well as a terrific writer.
Robert Dugoni

Other featured authors included: Kaye Wilkinson Barley, Brynn Bonner aka Brenda Witchger, Jennifer Brooks, Don Bruns, Karen Cunningham, Flo Fitzpatrick, Polly Iyer, Linda Lovely, Mike Orenduff, Dee Phelps, Neil Plakcy, Jaden Terrell, Jane Tesh, and Ellis Vidler. Some I met prior to MMC, but listening to all of them made me realize I had many more books to explore.

Following the program, we returned to our hotel where Margaret provided a barbeque dinner with all the fixings. A number of us stayed up late talking about writing and publishing.

The next day, we started out early, driving in caravan to Wetumpka, Alabama, best known as the location where the movie Big Fish was filmed. I was delighted to be traveling with Bert Goolsby and his wife Prue. Bert's family is from the area and he showed me some of the local landmarks.

At the Wetumpka Civic Center, we gathered for Murder on the Menu, sponsored by the Friends of the Wetumpka (Alabama) Library. Tammy Lynn, who organized the event, explained that Julia Spencer-Fleming, on a previous visit to MMC, suggested the Library partner with an existing conference in order to attract authors. We shared a wonderful meal with an audience of over a hundred and alternated by going from table to table and participating on panels. Mike Orenduff moderated the panel I served on, including Brenda Witchger, Kaye George, Robert Dugoni, and Jaden Terrell, about the importance of settings. Mike started us off with a great card trick. Again, it was a wonderful day with people who loved books and writing.
Murder on the Menu

I can't thank Margaret Fenton and Tammy Lynn enough for all the work they did in organizing and orchestrating these events. In addition, I'm grateful to Steve Herring, Margaret's brother, and Bob Witchger, Brenda's husband, who took and shared such great pictures. If you would like to read more about the weekend, please see Kaye Wilkinson Barley's and Kaye George's blogs.

Also, I'm so glad that the snow storms came the week before and the week after the events, so we were all able to make it to the meetings, then back home before inclement weather prevented travel!

Have you had the opportunity to attend a mystery conference? Which one would you recommend?


Jacqueline Seewald said...

Hi, Paula,

It sounds like a great conference. You had so many talented authors come together! Thanks for sharing some of the details with us.

Ellis Vidler said...

Paula, it was wonderful to see you again at MMC. You did a great job moderating--I had no idea it was your first.
Both events were so well organized and fun, the time sped by and it was over before I got to say goodbye to everyone. Good write up!

Jim Jackson said...

Paula, you forgot to say that all your panelists said that they enjoyed the panel you moderated. I’m sure pulling it all together with your sartorial decisions was the major factor – unfortunately for those of us trying to duplicate your success, I’m not sure I’m going to find those shoes in size 13s.

~ Jim

Ramona said...

Murder in the Magic City has been on my conference bucket list, ever since I read Anne George's Southern Sisters mysteries. I'm sure you were an excellent moderator, Paula.

I also hope you waved at the Vulcan!

Shari Randall said...

Sounds like you had a wonderful time, Paula! I've been to Malice Domestic, which is absolutely terrific. The only bad thing about Malice is that there is so much to do - and only one weekend to squeeze it into!

Warren Bull said...

That is an impressive list of authors. It sounds like you had a great time.

Linda Lovely said...

I agree with Ellis and Jim. You were a superb moderator. Your legal background prepared you well. This was my first Alabama "Booked for Murder" weekend, and I'm so glad I joined in the fun. Well organized and both the readers and authors proved to be delightful company.

Paula Gail Benson said...

Jacqueline, you're right. We had so many talented people together. It was a great conference.

Ellis, so good to see you there. I enjoyed all the panels and learned so much. Thank you for your kind words.

Jim, I completely credit my great panel members with our success. How could I go wrong with a lineup of such great authors? BTW, I'll keep an eye out for those shoes in size 13.

Ramona, please plan on it. You won't regret it. It's a great weekend. I didn't see Vulcan this time, but I understand he's still presiding over the park!

Shari, I love Malice, too. The wonderful thing about MMC is that it's a single panel track, so you don't have to select what to see and what to miss. Also, the smaller numbers allow for everyone to talk among themselves. It's great for both audience and authors. Very personal.

Warren, it was a wonderful group. You would love the event.

Linda, how kind. It was great being there with you and hearing about your adventures in the audio recording of your books.

Polly Iyer said...

Paula, you did a great job moderating your panel. Surely one of the best of the weekend. I enjoyed meeting you and Kaye again and Jim for the first time. All the writers were friendly and accessible, and the weekend's coordinators did an amazing job of moving the events along. The guest speakers were funny and informative. I was thrilled to be included.

Art Taylor said...

Sounds like such a fun time! Thanks for the recap here. :-)

John said...

Not only is Paula a good mystery writer, but she is an excellent script writer for stage plays. It has been my pleasure to Produce her plays over the last 7 years and also to write and collaborate on Musical numbers that we have written for the plays. She brings many of her life experiences in her writings of plays, novels or blogs. We are so fortunate to have her as the Director of our St. Paul's Players.

Gloria Alden said...

What a fantastic weekend. I wish I could attend something like that someday. I'm glad everyone had such a good time.

Shari, I agree with you about Malice. I love it, but there is so much to do and often it's hard to choose between different panels, and I get disappointed in not being able to be in two places at once.

Sarah Henning said...

I'm totally going to this sometime! *Texts Alabama-based parents*

Kara Cerise said...

What a great group of authors and moderators. It sounds like everyone had a wonderful time.

Kaye Wilkinson Barley - Meanderings and Muses said...

What a terrific piece, Paula, about a wonderful weekend.

I had the best time visiting with old friends and meeting new ones. I really do not think there's a better planned and organized con than this one. Hats off to Margaret!

Kaye George said...

What Paula failed to mention is that she, personally, is responsible for many of us being at the conference! She's practically an organizer of it herself. Thanks for getting me there, Paula!

Paula Gail Benson said...

Polly, it was wonderful to see you and hear about your experiences. It truly was a great weekend.

Art, we did have a lot of fun. You and Tara would enjoy it and make terrific panelists.

Gloria, you would have a blast. Think about it. Would you be interested in coming next year? I told Margaret Fenton I would start recruiting.

Sarah, you are definitely on the recruitment list. I know that I enjoyed some time with my family in the area as well as going to the meetings.

Kara, it was a great group. Are you available for travel to Alabama?

Kaye Wilkinson Barley, you are such a delight. I look forward to reading your novel, Whimsey. And, you're right, Margaret Fenton is the consummate host. She made the whole trip a wonderful party.

Kaye George, you give me too much credit. I just gave Margaret the names of my favorite authors and then got to spend a fabulous weekend with all of them. It was a real treat.

Anyone interested in appearing as an author next year, please feel free to contact me and I'll be glad to put you in touch with Margaret Fenton.

Debra H. Goldstein said...

It was great seeing you again - at both conferences. All the authors did an excellent job!

Paula Gail Benson said...

Thanks, Debra. Great seeing you, too. I think you're due to return as a panelist to the events!