Archive for November, 2009

Fireball leaders = Successful Conferences

November 12, 2009

In the archives of this weblog you’ll notice I have written at some length about small writers’ conventions/conferences that, sadly,  failed to make during this past year.   Well now I’m about to contrast that with two that succeeded big time, and I say that in spite of the fact I don’t think either of them pulled in as many as 100 registrants this year.

First example:  The Great Manhattan Mystery Conclave in Manhattan, KS.

This big little conclave celebrated its sixth yearly event  from October 3o to Nov. 1.  All the regular conclave features were in place:  Special forensic and law enforcement workshops from two until 5:30 on Friday, gala reception and buffet from 6:30 until 8:00, a program about quilts (this year’s theme item) from eight until ten.  (The community was invited to this.)

Saturday’s events opened with an 8:30-9:30 conversation between guest speaker Earlene Fowler, (who’s Benni Harper mystery series features quilting),  and Radine Trees Nehring.  (This was voted the most popular event at the conclave, by the way…and the format was Earlene’s idea, bless her!)  Following this, the conclave split into two tracks, one intended for writers and one for readers.  (Which makes it difficult for me to identify it as either a convention or conference, so thank goodness for the conclave title.)  Author Mike Hayes spoke at a formal luncheon, double-track programs continued through the afternoon, and a special Kansas banquet (roast buffalo, sunflower seed cookies, and much more) with speaker Earlene Fowler finished the day.

Sunday offered a light breakfast buffet and a writers’ training session taught by Nancy Pickard, followed by “Harry Potter:  novel to movie;” presented by Philip Nel, Director, Children’s Lit Program at K-State.

So what made it work so well?  Why did everyone who registered come away feeling happy, knowing they had received more than their money’s worth?

My opinion?   Fireball leaders, led by the conclave’s “Mom,” Marolyn Caldwell, backed by a small group of gracious and friendly volunteers. Another plus, Claflin Books with owner Stormy Kennedy, plus book manager for the conclave Dan Hochman, and other staff members who welcome authors, present books beautifully, and can outdo any bookstore at any con I have attended in sales.  Also, the conclave always involves community members and invites outsiders to buy banquet and other meal tickets.  (These folks are also book buyers!)

Marolyn Caldwell was a volunteer at Malice in the DC area when she worked in government, and founded GMMC when she retired home to Manhattan.  Her friendliness, ability to organize, and fireball enthusiasm push the entire engine in the opinion of this outside observer.  She knows where to get grants, how to add ancillary presentations for the community (like the  several on quilts this year), and how to attract a team of terrific volunteers  Plus she leads it all by busy example.

However even the brightest fireball can burn out.  Great Manhattan Mystery Conclave will skip 2010.  The main reason, I am told, is because the small pool of workers is, indeed, burned out.


Criminal Pursuits is an intermittent conference held every year or so in Texas, Arkansas, or Oklahoma.  No set schedule.   Two organizers,  Book publicist PJ Nunn and invalided law enforcement/military officer Mike Witzgall are the fireball principals, backed up by, again, a friendly and willing staff.  The most recent Criminal Pursuits was November 6-8 in Duncanville, TX (Dallas area.)

This event is peculiar and unique.  Mike, who lost a leg in combat,  is currently SWAT instructor for law enforcement agencies, and knows how to teach!   The conference focuses on law enforcement training for writers.  Crime scene analysis begins on Friday with a “real” crime scene.  Attendees are to study and analyze the evidence.  Actors take the part of suspects in the case and hold conversations attendees can overhear.  The victim in the realistic crime scene set-up is a dummy so “life”…ur, “dead like” that unaware hotel employees the management forgot to notify got quite a jolt when they came in to set up the convention room on Saturday morning.

Saturday is full of more instruction from the real experiences of many law enforcement professionals including Mike and those who come to Criminal Pursuits to assist him.  There are slide presentations, explanations, and several fully acted out criminal cases and confrontation scenes with Mike and other law officers taking part as actors.  (The lights are sometimes turned off and illumination comes from the whirling car-top police car lights and officers’ flashlights.)  Sometimes it’s so real it’s scary, but boy, do we get law enforcement realities we could never forget stuck in our heads.  What a wealth of material  to call upon when writing crime scenes.

Shucks, CP attendees even eat the same food SWAT officers in training eat!  (Including the best all-beef hot dogs I’ve ever put in my mouth, courtesy “The Dog Pound” in Dallas.)

Again, fireball organizers PJ Nunn and Mike Witzgall, plus their assistants, make this event happen.  Authors do not present at this con and book sales aren’t great, but the fun and “real life” learning experience must surely be the best offered to mystery writers anywhere in the United States.  (Actually, one conference attendee came from Canada, so scratch that bit about the United States.)

Criminal Pursuits attendance, plus probably taking part in  a civilian police academy and officer ride-along are certainly top research opportunities if you want real law enforcement procedure burned into your brain.  (Plus, at Criminal Pursuits, sterling entertainment.  Guys, this convention is FUN, especially  if you are a  mystery writer and fan.)

So, what has made these conventions so successful?  Well now, sounds trite, but here’s what I notice about both of them:  Fireball organizer(s) as I have said, unusual ideas for programs, enthusiastic and friendly back-up staff, a knowledge of how to find and  manage funding, access to the right volunteers.  (For example: People involved with quilting and those who work with children in the case of this year’s GMMC; willing law enforcement officers at Criminal Pursuits.)

Are these two events highly recommended by this attendee?  You betcha!

Radine Trees Nehring  (Mysteries starring Carrie McCrite and retired law officer Henry King.  Coming soon:  A JOURNEY TO DIE FOR, including, at last:  facing the trauma from Henry’s law-enforcement past…known today as PTSD)