Yesterday, I returned home from New Orleans and my first time to attend Bouchercon, an annual convention dedicated to authors and fans of mystery, suspense, crime fiction. Bouchercon is named for Anthony Boucher, who with a group of volunteers established the first Bouchercon in 1969. It has since grown into a conference attended by hundreds of people; this year the attendance is estimated to be 1800. I am part of the committee organizing Bouchercon 2019 in Dallas, when the convention celebrates its 50th anniversary.
I started on Wednesday by attending a preconference afternoon session on diversity sponsored by Sisters in Crime (SinC), an organization founded by author Sara Paretsky in order to, originally, promote women mystery writers. With much discussion of the need for diverse books and protagonists, as well as supporting characters, I found this and a separate conference session the next morning to be very valuable. Since one session went on for five hours and the other about an hour, both with multiple presenters, there’s too much that was shared to be able to describe it all in only one blog post. What I will do is list a few highlights.
The afternoon session began with a brief talk and extended Q&A with author Walter Moseley. His remarks were wide ranging and it hardly does justice to summarize them. He started with a rousing call to action on issues of social justice and described the importance of diversity as part of that call. He let us know that we are all people of at least some color. The critical issue is expanding in our writing the inclusion of voices that are too often unheard.
Here are the main points I took from each of the other presenters:
Greg Herren, author of the Chanse MacLeod and Scotty Bradley mysteries: Throughout a humorous presentation, Greg’s best advice was ‘drop the gay male friend,’ especially if he’s your only gay character. Include gay, lesbian, transgendered characters, just don’t make them stereotypes or sidekicks.
Cindy Brown, Agatha-nominated author of the Ivy Meadows mysteries: Cindy was part of the afternoon session and another session the following day that addressed the challenge of creating characters with disabilities. She talked language—use a person with a disability and avoid the use of disabled and ‘handicapped’ (especially) as descriptors. The disability is something the person has, not the totality of the person. She also advised against terms like ‘other abled’ and especially cautioned about how we describe people who use wheelchairs for mobility; e.g., wheelchair bound.
Also important, Cindy educated us on how we should think of disability. It’s not just physical but also mental. Depression and other psychiatric disorders can also be disabling.
Linda Rodriguez, award winning author of the Skeet Bannon mysteries: Linda stressed the importance of really doing our homework when we want to include a character who comes from a different experience from our own. She used author Tony Hillerman as an example; the Navajo thought he ‘got it right’ with his Navajo characters, and even embraced him as an honorary member of their nation. Some were upset by the secrets about the Navajo that a few members shared with him, an outsider. Linda joined the chorus that we diversify our characters; we just need to do our research and expect that there will often be criticism. Do it anyway.
Frankie Bailey, PhD, author of the Lizzie Stuart and Hannah McCabe mysteries, criminal justice professor, and director of Justice and Multiculturalism in the 21st century at the University of Albany: Dr. Bailey covered several topics on dialogue, but two of the most important points she made were (1) be careful of walk-on characters who can be easiest to stereotype, and (2) while women and persons of color have been hired in significant numbers in many police and fire departments, they can be subject to feeling like “insiders within” these organizations.
To recap the overarching theme: We need to incorporated diverse characters in our writing, know more about the people we write about and where they come from, create fully fleshed out characters, and get feedback from people living within the skin and cultures similar to these characters.