Author Catriona McPherson leads a storytelling session at the Great Capitol Crimes Writers Workshop. (Photos by Joan Cusick)

Mystery Writers Unite

Aspiring writers converge in Rancho Cordova for Capital Crimes workshop

Back Web Only Apr 27, 2017 By Joan Cusick

Catriona McPherson has a lovely brogue from her native Scotland, a quick wit and the experience of publishing 20 mystery novels. That combination proved irresistible to about about 60 attendees at the Great Capitol Crimes Writers Workshop, held April 22 at Rancho Cordova City Hall.

Aspiring writers looked to McPherson for inspiration. The Davis resident has completed 20 manuscripts set in England and Scotland, including 11 historical mysteries featuring the recurring character Dandy Gilver. The award-winning mystery series has also been optioned by Scottish TV.

After receiving a Ph.D. in linguistics from Edinburgh University, McPherson starting writing mysteries in 2001. “It was a very, very different world then,” she says, referring to a time before e-books. But her story is familiar to many aspiring writers. “The first novel went in the drawer. I got 40 rejections.”

Mystery author Catriona McPherson.

McPherson kept writing. She eventually landed an agent and publisher, and her first published novel, After the Armistice Ball, was released in 2005. A new book in the Dandy Gilver series has been published every year since. McPherson has also written five standalone contemporary mysteries. Next year, she will release Scot Free, the first in a new series to be set in a college town in Northern California.

“It’s a very odd business,” McPherson says of the publishing industry. “I don’t think the love of books has changed, or the art and craft, but the business is bonkers now. It’s just my opinion, but I think the expectation that books should be cheap or even free is hurting everyone. The expectation that a book you read in electronic format shouldn’t cost more than a couple of dollars makes so much of what goes into a book unsustainable.”

For aspiring authors, there is also the temptation to self-publish.

“If you can do the design and marketing and promotion, then self-publishing can be marvelous,” McPherson says. “But I think sometimes people with 40 rejections like I had will self-publish that bad book. There’s a great temptation not to put the bad book in a drawer.”

Like McPherson, Roseville resident Rae James went through “30 or 40 rejections” before she landed an agent and publisher. “I was producing manuscripts but I knew they weren’t ready for publication,” James recalls. “You know if it’s there or it’s not.”

James persevered. Her first book was published in 2014, and Camel Press has released a book every year since. Her books are published under “R. Franklin James” in an effort to appeal to men as well as women. According to a 2015 study by Nielsen Market Research, 70 percent of mystery readers are female, and nearly half are 55 or older.

Author Rae James, who publishes her mystery novels under the name R. Franklin James.

“If you’re a writer, you are a sole proprietor,” James says. “You have taxes to file, marketing to do. You have to understand business, and I think that’s the side of it writers are uncomfortable with.”

Both James and McPherson are now full-time mystery writers who have found a support group in Capitol Crimes, the Sacramento affiliate of Sisters in Crime. McPherson is also a past president of the national board of Sisters in Crime, which has supported female mystery writers for 30 years.

Sacramento’s Capitol Crimes group includes about 50 members. James estimates about a third are published authors, another third are aspiring writers and the remainder are supportive fans.

“Mystery fiction is huge, of course,” says Allen Pierleoni, a senior writer for the Sacramento Bee. “We’ve run the Sacramento Bee Book Club here for 20 years, a program in which A-list authors appear before our audiences of mostly Bee readers. In that time, most our our consistently big draws have been mystery-thriller writers.”

Writer Laura Walker takes notes during the opening session on storytelling at the Great Capitol Crimes Writers Workshop

Pierleoni notes that 1,000 people came to the Scottish Rite Center to see Lee Child, author of the popular Jack Reacher series. Other Bee Book Club events at the Sacramento Public Library have drawn up to 750 people for best-selling authors including C.J. Box, Harlan Coben, Robert Crais, Tess Gerritsen, Marcia Muller and Sara Paretsky, a founder of Sisters in Crime. In the past month, best-selling author Catherine Coulter has appeared at both the Bee Book Club and as the luncheon speaker at the Capitol Crimes writers workshop.

“The question I have asked most of them during interviews is, ‘Why is mystery so popular?’” Pierleoni adds. “The consensus is: In a world filled with random acts and unpredictability, the mystery format presents a universe with a structure — a beginning, a middle and an end. In most cases, the mystery is resolved.”

Janet Rudolph, a Berkeley resident and editor of the Mystery Readers Journal, agrees.

“In our current national climate, I think people need a good mystery,” says Rudolph, who also serves on the board of Boucheron, an annual mystery convention that will be held in Sacramento in 2020. “In most mysteries, justice is served. As a reader, I like a good solution. I want the bad guys or the bad women to be caught.”