Return to the Scene of the Crime

Return to the Scene of the Crime
I'd like to say it all started over a shared bottle of cheap Scotch. Yes, it was just Joyce Lavene and me, down on our luck, knocking back the shots in a deserted dive bar on the wrong side of town, and one of us said, "Let's bring the Cape Fear Crime Festival back to Wilmington." In reality it was through a rather ordinary exchange of e-mails. But I still like the idea of the dive bar on the wrong side of town.

I was more than happy to reinstate the festival after its demise in 2007. I've been to every CFCF conference since the first one at the New Hanover County Public Library in October, 2001. I still remember the thrill of being among Real Published Authors who acted as if they were regular people like me. It was an even greater thrill when I realized it wasn't an act. They really were regular people just like me.

I came away thinking that hey, if those folks can get published so can I. Two years later, I was one of the authors on the panels, signing books and having a great time. And that's what attendees loved most about CFCF. It was a chance for published authors to get together with fellow mystery writers to talk about the business, and a golden opportunity for the unpublished ones to learn from the professionals.Plus it was a hell of a lot of fun.

I was crushed when the library decided not to hold the conference any more. True, it barely broke even most years, and the logistics of bringing in famous authors to be the guests of honor and keynote speakers took a definite toll on librarian Phyllis Smith. So Joyce and I set out to recreate CFCF, minus the stress inducing dog and pony show. CFCF would be "no-frills" conference. No big name authors (unless they ponied up the $35 registration fee and paid their own expenses). No fancy banquets. No catered lunches.

Our mantra was "Keep it simple." And we did. It helped that we already had a following from previous years. It also helped that we had a wonderfully recognizable logo in "Gun Guy," created by Dorothy Gallagher. She graciously gave us permission to use Gun Guy in our promotion, for which we are eternally grateful. We reserved the meeting rooms at the Northwestern Branch of the New Hanover County Public Library for February 5, 2011, and then set up a website and a Facebook page.

Time passed. Lots of time when we didn't do much of anything except post quotes on the Facebook page, like "When in doubt, have a man come through the door with a gun in his hand" (Raymond Chandler) or "In South Carolina, 'He just needed killin'' is a valid defense for murder." (Cathy Pickens). Gun Guy was given free rein to post his own comments. Unencumbered by 21st century political correctness, Gun Guy often referred to females as "doll face" and talked about how much he enjoyed smoking, drinking and keeping company with beautiful blonds.

Before we knew it, January had rolled around and it was crunch time. We'd started off worried that we'd end with half dozen or so attendees, where there would be more people on the panel than in the audience. Fortunately, that was not the case, as 50 people had signed up. There were 70 before it was over.

Joyce's scheduling was brilliant-panels were 90 minutes long; all held in the same room and everyone was on just one panel each. As the Wilmington resident, it was my job to deal with the library. And there were issues to be dealt with. The library administration were concerned about our charging admission, but were very pleased with our promise to donate everything we made after covering expenses to the Friends of the Library. That was truly a win-win situation and something we were more than happy to do, especially when the Friends announced they would use our donation to buy books for the Carolina Beach Mystery Book Club.

I also had another very important job-picking up the coffee and doughnuts. In putting on any event, you have to expect a few glitches and we had them. We'd set up coffee and doughnuts in one of the meeting rooms inside the library, but the librarians told us no one could be in the library before it opened. So I had to herd attendees back to the main meeting room. I got no arguments. All I had to say was, "Because the librarian said so." Authors have a great deal of respect for librarians.

The book seller was late (childcare issues) and we had more than a few anxious authors wanting to know how their books would be sold. Jim Lavene volunteered to sell the books as a backup, but our bookseller arrived and the book shop was up and running by the time the first panel started. In the end our goal was to have fun. It was like throwing a party for a large group of friends. You just want to hang out together--to have coffee and talk about the things we're interested and share our experiences in the business. There's no need to put on a show so everyone will walk away impressed. If you have the right mix of people, they'll entertain and enlighten each other.

And that's exactly what happened. Sure we received a few critiques and suggestions for next year. But on the whole, those who attended said they had a good time and wanted to come back. So once again, if you've got $35 and are willing to pay your own way to Wilmington and back, you're welcome to attend. Join the party. We'll see you February 3rd and 4th, 2012 at the Northwest Branch of the New Hanover County Library. Doughnuts and coffee are on us.

Judy Nichols is a Wilmington, NC mystery author -
Joyce Lavene is a Charlotte-based NC mystery author
Cape Fear Crime Festival -

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