Posted by Sheila Connolly

A week ago I attended one of the bigger mystery-writers conferences, Malice Domestic. I'm not going to babble on about what a wonderful time I had (though I did), the authors I met (lots) after years of worshipping them from afar, and the informative and insightful panels I dutifully attended (and didn't take a single note).

Over the years, I have followed a wide and wonderful variety of career paths: art historian, investment banker, fundraiser, professional genealogist, and now, finally, writer. Guess what: all these groups hold conferences. These range in size from intimate to humongous, and in tone, from happy to frantic. At the frantic ones, people are usually hunting for jobs, stalking the higher-ups who might actually, maybe, someday be hiring people. You can usually identify the job-seekers by the way their eyes dart around while they're standing in front of you. They size you up in mere seconds: can this person do anything for me? No? Who's the next important person I can corner? That guy in the expensive-looking suit? Good-bye!

I think the low point for me came at a conference held at a resort in Michigan. It was a gathering of municipal treasurers and financial officials, and I was there to give a talk on the virtues of taxable bond issues. Yawn. As I stood in front of the crowd the morning of the second day, it quickly became clear that nobody cared a whit for taxable funding mechanisms. After a while, I brilliantly deduced that they were hung over. I could have read the phone book and they wouldn't have noticed. Obviously they came to these conferences to get away from their jobs and to party with each other–not to talk about business.

At fundraising conferences, the buzz is slightly different. Who's got money to give away? What are they looking for? If I submit a proposal to develop left-handed fly-swatters for emerging nations, will it get funded? I know someone who's a cousin of the board chair's wife–will that help? OMG, the government is cutting the (fill in the blank) program?

Genealogy conferences are a lot more fun, because everyone goes around collecting relatives. What are you working on? What have you looked at? Who's your brick wall? It's much more about sharing than about competing–after all, nobody is going to squirrel away an entire library or an on-line source, so if you pool your information, everyone wins. And it's nice to watch people make connections. You'd be surprised how often two complete strangers will meet and find they have one or more ancestors in common. I know, because it's happened to me more than once (in fact, I've found distant relatives at the last two writers conferences I've attended–and again just this weekend at a booksigning).

So are writers, as a herd, different? I've been to a handful of writers conferences, large and small. There were over two thousand people at the largest, mostly unpublished writers who want nothing more than to be published, and who hope that somewhere at the conference lurks a magic key that will open that door. Overall they're surprisingly cheerful, despite the overwhelming odds against them. Writers write for a wide variety of reasons; they succeed through hard work, willingness to learn, and, yes, a healthy dose of luck. Some–or more likely, most–of them will never see a book of their own print, but they keep trying because they love writing.

And they too share. Some writers climb onto the lowest rung of the publishing ladder and are grateful, and are willing to pay it back by helping others–critiquing, judging contests, mentoring. Some hit it big, and I'm happy to say that the majority of those talented and lucky people that I've met have been gracious and warm. It's a small community, and a lot of the people in it have fragile egos, so that small kindness matters. What other business can you name in which people regularly lay their heart and soul on the line and ask for rejection, over and over again? Even scraps of encouragement become very important.

I looked around at the people attending this latest conference: mostly women, mostly middle aged, mostly ordinary-looking–just like me. And I knew that each and every one of them was thinking about the best way to kill someone in their next book.

Mystery writers are fun people to hang out with. My kind of people.

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