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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

people."

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

Slopes."

"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

threatened."

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

God."

— Diana Wolf

Nancy Tesler, Sisters in Crime, Monmouth County

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,

11 a.m.

For informatioin on Sisters In Crime, visit www.members.aol.com/sinccj.

For dues, activities and directions, E-mail sinccjersey@yahoo.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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