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This article by Diana Wolf was prepared for the June 25, 2003 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Killing Them Off Softly
Mystery writers commit many crimes, but it’s hard to
make a killing in the publishing industry, especially if you’re female.
Most of the mystery writers making headlines are male.
A recent article in the New York Times ("Murder, They Wrote, and
Wrote" by Janet Maslin, April 17, 2003) proclaims, "We are
in the midst of a reader’s dream, a publicist’s nightmare, and a best-seller
logjam. In the realm of high-profile mystery writing, an amazing convergence
happens to be underway. Virtually all of that genre’s big guns —
which is to say its most celebrated and popular male practitioners
— have managed to bring out new crime novels in the same season."
This "high-profile" review — penned by a woman — discusses
works by Dennis Lehane, Michael Connelly, Stuart Woods, but passes
over the gender that includes writers like Mary Higgins Clark, Janet
Evanovich, and Sue Grafton.
"Even though there are probably as many female writers as there
are male writers, male writers get the predominance of the reviews,"
says author Nancy Tesler. "That prejudice exists and organizations
like Sisters In Crime work to combat that."
Tesler speaks at the monthly meeting of Sisters In Crime on Saturday,
June 28, at 11 a.m. at the Monmouth County Library in Manalapan.
Sisters In Crime (SInC) is an international organization of more than
3,000 members. Members write and also educate the public and the publishing
industry about the discrimination that exists in the minds of many
mystery enthusiasts. They do this while supporting women authors.
The mystery genre is a broad field, covering everything from crime
to paranormal, and publicizing those works below Publishers Weekly’s
Top 10 is not what you might think. Enter SInC, equipping women with
how-to booklets such as "Shameless Promotion for Brazen Hussies,"
"Breaking and Entering" (tips on selling your manuscript and
finding an agent), and "So You’re Going to Do an Author Signing."
SInC informs authors about upcoming mystery conferences, alerts them
to the many devoted local mystery bookstores, and educates them as
to the meaning of the little red editorial marks on manuscripts. Organized
events put members in touch with experts in the field. Awareness is
raised of women’s contributions by distributing over 14,000 copies
of its annual Books in Print list to members, libraries, bookstores,
and within the publishing industry.
Tesler, author of the "Other Deadly Things" series, values
the support. She was born in Worcester, Massachusetts, where her mother
was a housewife and her father was an advertising copywriter. "He
would have been a novelist if he didn’t have to support a family,"
says Tesler, "so I guess I come by it naturally." He often
drove eight hours to see her while she attended college in Pittsburgh,
Pennsylvania. She graduated a drama major from Carnegie Mellon University,
but soon realized that "Merryl Streep had nothing to fear"
and screenwriting was better suited to those who were "young,
male, and living in L.A."
After her father’s death, she and her mother moved to New York where
Tesler met her future husband. Married in New York, Tesler and her
husband moved to Tenafly, after their second child was born.
Tesler’s writing was born out of passion and necessity when, after
more than 25 years and a third child, she and her husband divorced.
"After my divorce, when I wanted to kill a few people off, I decided
that writing mysteries was the way to go," she says. "And
it was a catharsis. In my books there’s definitely some sex, definitely
violence — I’m killing people, well, of course we’re all killing
people. In the past five books, I think I’ve knocked off about 13
None of her victims have been her ex-husband, she says, but they are
based on real experiences and real people. Using what you know and
experience is the subject of Tesler’s talk at the Sisters in Crime
Meeting. Tesler is paired with author Lee Harris, who will speak about
writing what you don’t know and how to research.
Tesler’s "Other Deadly Things" series is crammed
with her experiences. Tesler’s interest in the mind-body-spirit connection
found in biofeedback is also the career choice of her main character,
Carrie. Overheard at a recent book signing was a man arguing with
the cashier. He only read books longer than 600 pages, and since he
was purchasing a book with less than 600 pages, he expected a discount.
"I looked at my fellow authors and said, `I am going to kill that
guy in my next book.’ But I didn’t because in the book that I’m working
on now, he has turned out to be such a quirky, wonderful character
that I think I’m going to use him to help solve the mystery."
Tesler is happy to give back to the organization that has helped her.
That open, friendly spirit is found everywhere from the many devoted
mystery bookstores to big name personalities. Best-seller Janet Evanovich
remembered Tesler from a prior book signing and gave a rare quote
to her for her recent book cover: "Wow! Don’t miss this standout-from-the-crowd
cliffhanger with its slightly-frazzled, commitment-phobic, in-your-face
heroine who will tickle your funny bone as she steals your heart.
I loved every fun-filled moment of Carrie’s wild slide down the Slippery
"See how the support is there?" says Tesler. "That’s what
I want to emphasize — successful writers will go out of their
way to help promote writers coming up in the field. They don’t feel
That’s the strength of local chapters: bringing in speakers to share
knowledge. Elaine Togneri was involved in New Jersey Romance Writers
and Garden State Horror Writers when she felt that women mystery writers
needed an organization to cater to their unique needs. Shortly after
the National SInC organization donated their archives to the Douglass
College Library at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, she contacted
them about establishing the state’s first chapter. The Central Jersey
chapter was founded in November 1998. The current membership has over
60 members, roughly a third each of authors, readers, and would-be-writers.
"Anybody can join," says Pat Marinelli, president and one
of the chapter’s founding members. "Anybody who’s willing to promote
women mystery writers. And we do have a couple of men in the chapter…an
agent and a writer. We can’t promote one over the other. We have to
treat everyone equal."
Marinelli’s hometown roots began growing up in Avonel.
Her father was a truck driver and her mother raised the family. "As
a kid, I read Nancy Drew. I guess that was the start of it," she
recalls. "I went from Nancy Drew to the Hardy Boys to James Bond."
At 58, she has successfully published six short stories and won several
contests. She supplements those opportunities by teaching fiction
writing part time at Middlesex Community College. Woodbridge, is home
now, where her decision to write full-time since 2002 is supported
by her husband and three children.
Presiding over this local group of women is a natural extension of
her interest. The meetings begin at 10:30 a.m. on the last saturday
of the month at Monmouth County Library in Manalapan. After some brief
business, there is a program delivered on some area of interest in
the mystery field. The vast array of speakers have included a psychic,
forensics expert, numerologist, homicide detective, 911 operator,
hospital ER director, forensic dentist, court stenographer, court
room artist, and a nutritionist who provided "a fabulous program
on how to poison somebody."
This seemingly small group engages in enough activities to fill anyone’s
social calendar. Field trips are scheduled throughout the year to
such locations as correctional facilities, the state police museum,
and trial reenactments. Several members have books soon to come out,
and some are in published anthologies. A local anthology by members
is in production where each mystery is set in a New Jersey tourist
or historical area. They sponsor an Agatha Christie party every September
in honor of her birthday.
The group welcomes both authors and readers, featuring on alternate
months a writer’s group or a novel discussion group. Everyone gets
something different from the programs or trips, but the theme of support
infuses everything they do. They assist authors arrange signings and
readings, and attend them so that there’s always a friendly face in
the crowd. Nothing is too vast or insignificant to promote their members.
"We appreciate challenges," sums up Marinelli. "There’s
a camaraderie of the women who all work towards helping each other.
We share markets. It makes the competition rough, but that makes you
a better writer."
She sees the discrimination reflected in The New York Times article,
noting changes which contribute to that. "[The industry] is getting
away from the mystery and turning to the suspense," she says.
"A lot of it has to do with our fast-paced society. Mysteries
tend to be slower and suspense is faster. You have to remember those
books are competing with TV and movies. Part of the problem is the
fact that women write things women want to read. And the publishing
industry’s made up mostly of men."
Women’s writing styles differ from men’s. Male mysteries tend to be
gritty "hard-boiled" stories that involve gruesome, bloody
crimes. Women traditionally write a "cozy," any mystery with
no overt sex and violence, the type of story that made Agatha Christie
famous and Jessica Fletcher, from television’s "Murder She Wrote"
series, a household name. Women authors like Patricia Cornwall, Lynda
Fairstein, and Lisa Scottline are just a few who break the mold, but
the soft-boiled presumption remains an aspect to embrace and overcome.
"[Women] want the more cozy. They’re more interested in the characters,"
says Marinelli. "They do like a good mystery — but they like
to have a character they can follow. If you think about it, most women’s
mysteries are series. There’s a few standalones, but the publishing
market looks for some series character that people are going to read
and stay with and wait for their books to come out."
Also consider female mystery authors L.B. Cobb, S.A. Austin, J.A.
Jance, and P.J. Parrish (the pen-name of two collaborating sisters).
Do these and other women use only initials as a matter of privacy
or so they are looked at without prejudice? Whatever the reason, SInC
continues to make sure their voice is heard and read. Women struggle
against these odds because despite what reviewers and the industry
reports, they have a lot to offer readers.
"Part of it is, for me, an outlet for creativity," says Tesler.
"I don’t act anymore but this gives me an opportunity to create
characters and actually to go beyond what I did in acting and to play
— Diana Wolf
Library, 125 Symmes Drive, Manalapan, 732-750-4762. Authors Nancy
Tesler and Lee Harris are guest speakers. Harris won the Romantic
Times Career Achievement Award in 2000 and is a member of the Authors
Guild and Mystery Writers of America. Free. Saturday, June 28,
For informatioin on Sisters In Crime, visit www.members.aol.com/sinccj.
For dues, activities and directions, E-mail email@example.com
or call 732-750-4762. Sisters In Crime national website: www.sistersincrime.org.
To contact author Nancy Tesler: www.nancytesler.com
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