Nine years ago today I made my first visit to Chicago for Love is Murder. Actually, it was my first visit to Love is Murder, not my first visit to Chicago. My first visit to Chicago was August 8, 1974. I remember the date because, as it happens, that was the day that Richard Nixon resigned the Presidency. Anyway, nine years ago today I made my first visit to Love is Murder, a wonderful mystery writers conference held annually in Chicago.
I wasn’t sure whether it made sense for me to go, to pay the airfare, the hotel room, the conference registration, but a friend of mine offered the following advice. “If you want to be a real writer,” he said, “you have to start going to the places that the real writers go.”
So what did I learn on that visit to Love is Murder in February, 2005.
1. 94% of all books sold are sold by 6% of all authors.
2. What good writers share is a passion for the written word and a commitment to quality (of course, it helps if your story has a clever premise and an engaging character facing a difficult challenge, told in a way that’s fresh).
3. Even well-established authors have moms who are put off by the sex, or the violence, or the language in their books.
4. Most writers have day jobs. Smart writers have day jobs as editors, publishers and booksellers. Apparently, I’m not a smart writer.
But the most important thing I learned was that my friend was correct. It was at Love is Murder in 2005 that I met the acquisitions editor for Five Star mystery. That meeting led to my first traditional book contract, my first advance against royalties, the 2006 hardcover release of A Minor Case of Murder and the subsequent release of the hardcover edition of It’s Beginning to Look a Lot like Murder in 2009.
I have gone back perhaps five or six times in the last nine years. I have gone back even when things didn’t turn out quite so well. I posted this after my visit in 2010 –
“Are you killing time?” she asked.
“Yes,” I said, “and I’ve got the bar tab to prove it.”
“Would you like some company?” She sat down on the stool to my right without waiting for an answer.
She was not what you would call a pretty woman, but sitting in the bar at O’Hare, two hours to kill until boarding, she was pretty enough. “What are you drinking?’ I asked.
I don’t normally drink martinis, but what the hell, I figured, how often does a middle-aged man, balding and slightly overweight, get a chance to sip martinis at an airport bar with a strange woman. So I ordered two.
And then two more.
And then.. well, to be honest, at that point, things start to get a little fuzzy. At some point, I do remember excusing myself to use the men’s room and then staggering through the terminal, making my way to the gate. I was relieved, finally, to board the plane and sink into my window seat. It had been a long day.
Not twelve hours earlier I had been sitting at another window seat, on another plane, making the flight in the other direction, from my home in New Jersey, to Chicago. My workshop on developing characters that readers care about had gone well. I sold a few books and made a few new friends. It had been a good day. But I was tired and grateful to be on my way home.
The crew was preparing the plane for departure when the Air Marshals came on board. In this day and age, that’s not a good sign. Still, I was kind of curious; I think we all were. Was our flight about to become the lead in tomorrow’s news? Who were they looking for? I felt a vicarious thrill when they came up the aisle. Apparently, I was sitting next to the woman they were after.
No. Evidently she was sitting next to the man they were after. I would not make it home that night. Without an explanation, the Air Marshals led me off the plane. Did you know there’s a jail, of sorts, in the bowels of O’Hare International Airport? I didn’t, either. But there is. And it was only after we’d entered the secure facility that the reason for my detention became clear.
“A woman has been found dead in the men’s room,” the Air Marshal said. In her hand, she clutched a bookmark promoting one of my books. It’s Beginning to Look a Lot like Murder, it said. And it was. A helluva lot like murder. My name, of course, was printed on the bookmark. And my phone number, in lipstick, was scribbled on the back.
It had been a long day. It promised to get a lot longer.
I will be back in Chicago this week-end for Love is Murder. It will be a quick visit; I have dinner plans on Saturday in Washington D.C. But even a quick visit can yield remarkable results. Perhaps I will have something more to tell you when I get home.