Last weekend, I had the fantastic opportunity to attend Bouchercon 2017: Passport to Murder in Toronto, Canada!! This was my first-ever time attending Bouchercon (aka the World Mystery Convention), and it certainly won’t be my last. Bouchercon is a long weekend spent learning from and meeting crime fiction authors from around the world. The weekend was jam-packed with author appearances, panels, interviews, events, and a whole lot more - and I am beyond grateful to have had a chance to experience it!
In my Bouchercon Crime Festival Journal, you will find a day-by-day recap of my time in Toronto, including book and author recommendations from the weekend, recaps of author interviews and panels, and lots of photos! (Note: you can click on any of the photos in this post to see an enlarged version.)
BOOK RECOMMENDATIONS FROM BOUCHERCON 2017
Among all the fantastic books I learned about and authors I met this weekend, these particular titles stood out to me! A couple of these books I’ve already read, and a few were totally new to me - but all received a fantastic reception from Bouchercon attendees when their authors spoke on panels!
TORONTO, ONTARIO - Bouchercon 2017
Day 1: Wednesday, October 11
I arrived in Canada on Wednesday evening, after a quick flight from NYC! It was chilly and rainy when I landed in Toronto, and I went straight to my adorable little hotel to check in. I stayed at The Beverly Hotel, a teeny tiny and very cute little place tucked amongst shops and restaurants.
Once I checked in, I went for a little walk, grabbed some food, and headed over to the hotel where Bouchercon 2017 took place, the Sheraton Centre. After saying hi to a few friends, it was time for me to head back to my hotel and go to sleep before Bouchercon’s panels began on Thursday!
Day 2: Thursday, October 12
Bouchercon Day 1!! I was up bright and early and headed to the Sheraton to register for the weekend and attend a morning of panels. First up: I attended a panel called Duos: Two Lead Characters are Better than One. This panel featured D.D. Ayres/Laura A. Castoro, Thomas Enger, Heather Gudenkauf, James Hayman, Roger Johns (M), and Craig Robertson!
When writing series characters - how do you keep it fresh?
Craig: Writing a series works two ways. On the one hand, it’s great because it gives you characters to work with consistently. But at the same time, you have to keep changing it up. Having multiple characters helps with this - you can change their relationship over the course of the series and play with those dynamics, and with their backstories. But you also want to make readers able to pick up the series with a new book, so it’s all a balancing act.
James: The relationship between characters is so important - you want it to develop over the course of the series. It’s as much about how these characters work together, their relationship to one another as it is about solving the story’s central crime.
Thomas: The relationship between main characters Henning and Nora isn’t as much about a crime-solving duo. But in CURSED (the newest book in the series), these two have to interact with one another in a very direct way, so you can really see the tension between them.
Do you write in first or third person?
Thomas: When he started writing, he wrote in the first person because he wanted to get as close as possible to Henning, and that’s easier to achieve in first person. But he was very conscious that he didn’t want this to be just Henning’s story - he also wanted other characters to be able to give their own perspective on the main character, and contribute to the series. So ultimately he chose third person. He has many characters that take part in the story, and he wants them all to be woven into the narrative.
Who is your favorite character that you’ve written?
Thomas: Henning, because he so scarred and tormented but at the same time he has this deep motivation to find justice for his son. He’s a very likeable character as well - you want good things to happen for him. He has so much going against him (Thomas admitted that he torments his characters!), but Thomas ultimately roots for Henning and wants him to be happy.
Heather: She takes pieces from the world around her and pieces from the people she knows when crafting her characters, so it’s hard to pick just one! But if she had to, Amelia from NOT A SOUND feels very close to her heart. Amelia wants to reclaim her life - this is a quality Heather admires. She’s also both her own worst enemy and her best advocate. This novel is very personal for Heather, because it deals with hearing loss - Amelia has a profound hearing loss, and so does Heather - although Heather’s is not the same kind as Amelia’s. Because Heather’s hearing loss is different from the kind of hearing loss she chose to portray through Amelia, she wanted to make sure she got all the details exactly right. This was a very personal story for her to tell, and she wanted it to be represented correctly. Heather would love to continue writing about Amelia - she’s not sure if this is in the cards, but she hopes to have a chance to do so.
After watching this panel, it was time to do one of my favorite things at every crime conference: check out the conference book room!! The Bouchercon Book Room was absolutely packed with crime fiction - there were so many books, they were even stacked on the floor! I spotted a few favorites including Yrsa Sigurdardottir, Thomas Enger, JT Ellison, Ruth Ware, and more!
After exploring the book room, it was time for another panel: this one focusing on writers whose work has been adapted for movie or TV. Adapted For… : About Books Made into Movies or TV Shows featured Lou Berney, Ann Cleeves, Maureen Jennings, David Morrell, and Yrsa Sigurdardottir! This panel was so full I actually had to sit on the floor - that’s how popular it was!
Do adaptations influence the books you write?
Ann: Soon after her books were adapted, she started hearing the main actress’ voice while writing her main character, Vera Stanhope. It took her a while to see the connection between the actress and her character, but now she really sees it. Brenda (the actress) does a great job capturing Vera’s voice, and now Ann hears Brenda’s voice while she’s writing Vera’s books!
Yrsa: When you write a standalone, there’s so much freedom! Yrsa’s books are very dark and violent, and the adaptation of her book I REMEMBER YOU is violent as well. When you write a standalone like I REMEMBER YOU, those characters can be disposable - they don’t need to reappear in a subsequent series installment, so needless to say, a lot of them don’t make it through the book! Yrsa is now working on a series, so the adaptation of I REMEMBER YOU hasn’t affected this new project. The most common question she gets is: will the characters from I REMEMBER YOU reappear in a later book? But the answer is simple - how could they when so many of them died in the book!
Some people say the book was better than the movie, or vice versa. What are the authors’ thoughts on this? Do they compare book versus movie?
Ann: Said she’s “not at all precious” about things being cut out do the book. Film and book are two very different art forms. Things will naturally have to be cut out or adapted when you’re looking at bringing a book onto the screen. Ann emphasized that every time a book is sent out into the world, that book really stops belonging to her at that point - it then belongs to whoever is reading it. That reader will see themselves in that story, and interpret it their own way. Similarly, when a book is put into the hands of a director for film or TV, that story is theirs now to adapt. As long as the adaptation makes for great television or film, that’s what really matters.
How is the experience of screenwriting different from the experience of writing a novel?
Yrsa: Yrsa is working on a TV show now, and it has been her experience that screenwriting is much more of a collaborative effort, which she loved. Novel writing is very lonely, and Yrsa loved having the opportunity to work collaboratively. As she put it, it was often her role to sit there and say “kill more people, kill more people!” for each episode they were working on!
After this panel, I spent a bit more time just catching up with my friends at Bouchercon - this included saying hi to Yrsa, catching up with the Orenda Books authors, and seeing some friends from Penguin! Then it was time to go to dinner. I had such a kind invitation from one of Berkley’s thriller editors to attend dinner with him and some of his authors - it was a fantastic experience! I am genuinely so blown away by just how nice everyone in the thriller writing community is, and this bunch of authors was no exception. I particularly enjoyed getting to know author Mark Greaney and his wonderful wife! I don’t often write about military thrillers on CBTB, but if you’re a fan of this crime subgenre, you can learn more about Mark’s books here. Mark is best known for collaborating with Tom Clancy on his last three novels, and continuing the Jack Ryan character following Clancy’s passing. Mark also writes his own thrillers - the Gray Man Books - which you can learn about on his website!
After dinner, it was time for one of the highlights of Bouchercon - the Bouchercon bar! Whether or not you drink, the bar is such a fun place to hang out and mingle with authors and readers alike. I spent time with friends from Putnam (another imprint of Penguin), and ran into my friends from the UK and Scandinavia! Naturally, my friends Yrsa and Thomas and I had to take our usual photo for Sara Blaedel - we always take this photo when we’re all together, asking “where are you Sara?!” After the bar, it was time for me to head home and go to sleep, and get ready for another packed day!
Day 3: Friday, October 13
Unfortunately I woke up pretty under the weather on Friday (I was hit with a bad cold while in Toronto, sadly!), but that didn’t slow me down too much! I did take a bit longer to get going that morning, but I made my way to the Sheraton via a fantastic Toronto coffee spot, which I discovered on my walk. This coffee shop is called HotBlack Coffee, and it is absolutely adorable. If you’re in the Toronto area, I highly recommend checking it out! Not only is it super aesthetically pleasing, but (most importantly), the coffee is delicious. I spent a little while at this coffee shop reading and relaxing before heading to Bouchercon for the day!
Once I was fully caffeinated, I headed in for the first panel of my day - a panel which ended up being one of my favorites of the conference! This panel was called Sweet Revenge, and featured a stellar lineup of authors: Emelie Schepp, Stuart Neville, Elizabeth Heiter, Michael Wiley, and Victoria Helen Stone.
What is it about revenge that makes it such a compelling topic?
Victoria: At one point or another, it’s likely that most people have had some sort of revenge fantasy of their own - but (hopefully!) we don’t act those out in real life! Maybe reading revenge stories is a way we can work through those feelings through reading.
Stuart: Stuart doesn’t set out with the intention of writing a “revenge novel.” For him, character and plot are really the same thing; plot is driven by characters’ choices, and characters are driven by desire. So if a character desires revenge, the plot becomes kind of self-driving.
Elizabeth: One of the really interesting things about revenge stories is that you’re following a character who is seeking revenge against someone who has done something wrong, but actually there’s so much complexity in these stories because in doing so, your main character is doing something wrong, too, even while they’re perhaps seeking justice against a wrong.
Emelie: Emelie totally agreed with Elizabeth’s point. Emelie cheers for her main character Jana even while she is breaking all the rules and doing something very, very wrong in her search for truth about her past. (Side note: I’ve read Emelie’s first two books and I root for her main character, too!)
How aware are you of the motivations your character has?
Emelie: She didn’t want to explain her character by giving her a diagnosis of some sort. Instead, Emelie wanted to explain her by sharing with the reader what has happened to her, and what has made her such a strong and tough female character. It’s not about labeling her as a “sociopath” or something like that, it’s more about revealing to the reader piece by piece the background to Jana’s character.
Elizabeth: She doesn’t necessarily set out to write a “revenge” story either. Her storytelling is more about getting to know the character, and seeing how revenge fits into the story and the character’s motivations.
Stuart: Stuart agreed with Elizabeth, it’s not about setting out with the intention of writing a “revenge story.” But what revenge stories have in common is that the characters’ are almost always motivated by self-worth, or a lack of it. Revenge stories are almost always a selfish thing, because the story revolves around the characters’ attempt to recover that lost dignity and write that wrong, whatever that might be. It always comes down to a characters’ motivation.
Emelie: Beyond her main character’s quest for revenge, she fundamentally is looking and asking the question “who am I really?” - that’s her true motivation for revenge, trying to figure out who she really is, and who she wants to be.
Victoria: Revenge is going to be a temporary solution for characters. Once they get revenge, what do they do next? What are they left with? She wants to explore this in her books as well.
Emelie also shared her own “revenge story” with the audience, saying that in many instances revenge can take the form of never giving up. When Emelie was just starting out, she sent her book to the six major publishers in Sweden, and never heard back from them. She followed up with them many times, and eventually they told her that they hadn’t read her submission. She told them that she wished to withdraw her submission, and she published her books herself! Six months later, she was Sweden’s most successful self-published author, and her phone was ringing off the hook from publishers wishing to buy her series. She felt like this was the best possible “revenge” (if you can call it that) against those who ignored her before!
What are they working on next?
Elizabeth: The Betrayed anthology, and an anthology called The Night of the Flood. It’s basically a novel in stories, telling the story of a dam that blows in this town, and following what happens to individuals in the town when it’s flooding. Her story in the anthology follows this kid who is planning to kill his father, and his sister who is a cop.
Victoria: Just finished revisions for her new book JANE DOE, which will be out in May.
Emelie: Working out what her 5th book about Jana Berzelius will be about! Her 4th book in the series just released in Sweden, and she has 2 books out in the US now.
Next up on my agenda was a panel featuring international crime writers (which, as you guys know, are often my favorite!). This panel was called Across the Ponds, and featured Leonardo Wild, Christopher G. Moore, Yrsa Sigurdardottir, Timothy Williams, and Thomas Enger.
On writing credible crime novels, especially in Nordic countries where crime rates tend to be lower:
Yrsa: Even though there’s not much inspiration for a crime novel in Iceland (because Iceland doesn’t have high crime rates, and the crimes that are committed tend to be solved quite quickly), they have had two murder cases that were very interesting. One was a child serial killer - he was only 11 years old when he started killing. Another was a guy who wanted to kill the prime minister, but he actually went to the wrong house and ended up killing the prime minister’s neighbor instead! Yrsa felt that most crime novels don’t portray the crime that is actually happening in that country. Authors tend to write about more elaborate and interesting crimes than we might see on the streets.
Thomas: His main focus is in taking the reader on the greatest journey he possibly can. He doesn’t feel particularly tied to the Nordic tradition - Nordic crime novels often tackle social issues, and Thomas doesn’t incorporate as much of this into his books. For him, the focus is all about characters: his books begin with the idea for a character, and then they develop as he becomes curious and wants to learn more about him or her. Norway’s history doesn’t tie into his books much - his focus is on contemporary life in Oslo, and exploring the world of the characters who live there.
After the day’s panels, I was lucky enough to get invited to dinner with a few of my favorite people (and authors): Ragnar Jonasson and Yrsa Sigurdardottir! These two are beyond talented and kind, and I had such a wonderful time with them. For those of you who might be unfamiliar with their work: both Ragnar and Yrsa are from Iceland, and they write brilliant and atmospheric mysteries. Ragnar’s books are better suited for readers who love classic crime like Agatha Christie (Ragnar actually translated Agatha Christie novels into Icelandic!), and Yrsa’s books are on the darker, more gritty side. Check out SNOWBLIND by Ragnar Jonasson and THE UNDESIRED by Yrsa Sigurdardottir!
After dinner, it was time for me to call it a night!
Day 4: Saturday, October 14
Whenever I’m in a new city, one of my favorite things to do is to pick a few destinations out on a map, and just walk around until I arrive at that location! (Bonus points if I can take a roundabout route, so I make sure to see as much of the city as I can!) Saturday morning was my “let’s walk around Toronto” morning, and I had such a fun time! I walked to a few different coffee shops: FIKA (home of the absolutely gorgeous book wall pictured below!) and Fahrenheit Coffee. I also walked past the absolutely stunning old city hall in Toronto - I couldn’t get over how striking it is!!
After a morning of adventuring, it was time to get back to panels! First up on my agenda: a panel called Northern Crimes: About mysteries set in Scotland, Northern Canada, Finland, Iceland, and the North Sea. This panel featured Kelley Armstrong, Alex Gray, Rachel Greenaway (M), Ragnar Jónasson, Caro Ramsay, and Antti Tuomainen!
A bit of background information from the authors:
Antti: Describing his new book THE MAN WHO DIED - he wanted to write something that was more true to himself. His previous books were more dark and serious (THE MINE, for example), but in the new book he really wanted to inject it with some of his own personal humor.
Ragnar: When Ragnar was a teenager, he began translating Agatha Christie novels into Icelandic! The panel moderator asked if this has resulted in Ragnar being more particular when it comes to the translations of his own books, and Ragnar admitted yes, definitely, it does. When he first was translated into English, he actually would give critiques to the man translating his books - but then he realized that’s not his role!
Is Northern crime fiction really more bleak and spare? Or is that just a generalization?
Caro: I think Noir books from all over the world can be just as spare and dark as ours might be, so I don’t think I agree.
Antti: Yes and no. There is a certain darkness that’s particular to Nordic crime - Antti himself used darkness in his earlier books. But as he mentioned before, lately he has been incorporating more dark humor into his books! When he first published a dark humor book, he was worried that it might not come across well - but in fact the reception to it has been great.
Ragnar: It’s hard to generalize on this, but for Ragnar, the stories he writes have always ended up dark. Even when he was a kid writing stories, there was always a certain darkness to it. As Ragnar put it, he’s only had one joke in his five novels, and it wasn’t even really a good one!
Alex: Writing from the Scottish tradition, we all have a bit of a dual personality. When you’re writing about a city like Glasgow, for example, you could write about the really violent side of the city, but there’s also a real warmth and humanity to the city as well.
What are the crime rates like in your country?
Caro: Scotland has had 55 murders so far this year. Most are from stabbings!
Antti: Finland is one of the safest countries in the world, and yet they write crime fiction where people get killed all the time! It makes no sense. But, as Antti put it, “we are known for drunken stabbings, that’s our way to go!”
Ragnar: Iceland is actually even more peaceful than Finland! They have 1.5 murders per year (the .5 is like an unsuccessful one!).
Why do you think readers are drawn to Northern writing? Is it the exotic location?
Alex: Scotland has been recently designated the most beautiful country in the world! She expressed that she does like to be lyrical with the settings in her books. She likes to describe the beauty of the land.
Antti: As far as crime fiction goes, Antti started out reading the crime novels of James Lee Burke, which are novels based in New Orleans. This was very exotic to Antti - that was part of the attraction of the books.
Caro: One of the interesting things about using a Northern country as a backdrop is that these countries are so beautiful, but they are also dangerous. The landscape and wildlife in these countries can be really dangerous if you’re a tourist and you’re not prepared. There are so many possible dangers that people might not be aware of. This contrast, the danger of the landscape and the beauty of it, is really interesting.
After this panel, I went over to the Bouchercon signing room to see who I could see! The signing area for Bouchercon is in the same space as the book room, so readers can easily purchase a copy of an author's book, and then walk just a few steps to get their book signed! In the signing room, I ran into Ragnar (pictured below, signing away!) and Emelie Schepp!
After the day’s panels, I headed out for a coffee break with Steph Broadribb, the author of DEEP DOWN DEAD (an Orenda Books title)! DEEP DOWN DEAD is an awesome action thriller that follows a female bounty hunter in Florida. You can read my review here! Steph and I had such a wonderful conversation. I didn’t formally record our conversation, but I did want to just share a little paraphrasing of what I learned while out to coffee with Steph! We were chatting about her experience writing DEEP DOWN DEAD, and she shared with me how she actually went to California to train with a guy who professionally trains bounty hunters!! She got to go on ride alongs with him to watch how he would track down a target, and she learned all about the various tools of the trade. I was completely fascinated - talk about intense research for a book! Steph was so kind to spend this time with me, and I was so glad to have a chance to get to know her a bit better.
I then went back to my hotel to get ready for a cocktail party hosted by Minotaur, a fantastic crime fiction imprint of St. Martin’s! The cocktail party was so much fun, and after that I went back to the hotel to grab some food with friends and then hang out at the bar for the rest of the evening. I had a fantastic time!
Day 5: Sunday, October 15
By the time Sunday rolled around, I was pretty much exhausted - but in the best possible way! I went over to the Bouchercon hotel that morning to make sure and say goodbye to a bunch of my author friends who were heading out that morning. I spent a while working on my blog, and then went out to lunch with Yrsa! By this point, many people had started dispersing from the conference, so after lunch I decided it was time to make one last bookish trip: this one to Chapters Indigo. This was my first time being in one of these stores, and wow was I blown away. They had such a fantastic selection of mystery books, I couldn’t believe it! I spent quite a while getting lost among the stacks of books - but I practiced some self control, because I only bought one book while there: THE SCENT OF ALMONDS & OTHER STORIES by Camilla Lackberg!
After this bookstore excursion, it was time for me to hit the road. I packed up my stuff, said my goodbye’s to friends who were still at the conference hotel, and got on the way back to NYC. I was so sad to leave - as always, it is just so special to get to be around such a fantastic bunch of crime writers and friends. I’m so lucky to have had this experience, and already can’t wait for my next Bouchercon!
Plus: Mark your calendars for Bouchercon 2018! September 6-9, 2018.