How the Killer Nashville Conference Changed My Life as an Author by Saralyn Richard

The benefits of professional conferences are unquestionable. I attended dozens as an educator, and I even participated in hosting some when I was a school improvement consultant. I know what goes into planning them, and I consider myself an authority when evaluating them.

That said, I had high expectations when I attended my first-ever writing conference, Killer Nashville, in 2019. I had heard good things about Killer Nashville. I was expecting to learn a lot from the assemblage of diverse and qualified speakers—authors, agents, and others in the publishing industry. I knew I would meet people and participate on panels and have a good time. My first mystery novel, Murder in the One Percent, was up for a Silver Falchion for police procedurals and in the Readers’ Choice Awards competition. So I packed my suitcase and hopped on an airplane, full of anticipation.

What I didn’t expect was that this conference would change my life as an author. I know that’s high praise, but it’s not hyperbole. What did Killer Nashville do to ignite my professional growth? I’m bursting with examples, and they all have to do with people.

In 2019, the guest authors were Joyce Carol Oates, David Morrell, and Alexandra Ivy. As a conference participant, I had the opportunity to observe and interact with each of these authors numerous times. The quality of content in their interviews and workshops was high, and the environment was cozy enough to allow for meaningful dialogue. I had admired Joyce Carol Oates’s writing for many years. I’d even taught many of her short stories. It was a special thrill to learn that so many big ideas had emanated from such a petite person, a writer focused not on her past works, but on her future ones. “Write about what matters,” she expounded. Her utter lack of timidity was inspirational. David Morrell continued to inspire. He pointed out that “reading is the only way to develop empathy,” and it is the writer’s obligation to evoke the best human emotions from readers. Alexandra Ivy spoke about the fear many authors struggle with, but she said, “Writing from your heart is the only way to find your voice.”

Here I am, two years later, still quoting these acclaimed authors, but, more importantly, I’ve taken to heart their advice. My subsequent mystery novels march boldly into areas and topics that have relevance to society—PTSD, LGBT, me too, race relations—to name a few. The guest authors’ remarks showed me how important it is to write from the soul.

The guest authors weren’t the only people who had a positive effect on my writing. Also on board were five friendly and helpful literary agents. I chatted informally with several of them at the Friday night “’Shine ‘n’ Wine” event, and I attended a session in which they explained how they work and what they look for in submissions. I also attended a pitch session where I received a personalized critique from two agents. Although these sessions didn’t result in my snagging an agent, they provided me with something more important—a critical view of the process of moving a story to publication in a highly competitive market. Now I’m much more conscious of voice and deep point of view than I was before, and I have a broader view of my audience.

Next, I participated in scores of special sessions and panel discussions. Most of these were in small group settings, so I was able to get to know the presenters and ask questions. I presented at several sessions, as well, and was the group leader for one. Through these sessions I met a lot of fellow authors. We exchanged cards and contact information, shared common experiences, and formed networks. My social media platform exploded, and when the time came to seek authors to read my next books with an eye toward writing review blurbs, these were my go-to people. I have done a lot of cross-promoting with authors I met at Killer Nashville, and we have continued to encourage each other and celebrate victories together.

Speaking of victories, the awards ceremony at Killer Nashville was thrilling. So many contending books were represented as finalists in various categories, and so many authors received warm attention for their writing. That moment when my name and my book title were called out in two categories—it felt like the culmination of a lifelong dream. That Murder in the One Percent won the Readers’ Choice Silver Falchion for 2019 was the ultimate acknowledgment that I’d achieved something meaningful as an author. The honors went a long way toward motivating me to work harder to improve my craft, to connect with readers again and again.

One special feature of Killer Nashville was the mock crime scene set up by Dan Royce, formerly of the Tennessee Bureau of Investigations. Throughout the conference, participants were invited to examine clues laid out in a hotel suite. The murder scene represented a real case, and it was my job to identify which items were pertinent to solving the case, decide which tests needed to be performed on these items, and form a conclusion as to who killed the victim, how the killing occurred, and what the motive was. It was a real-live game of Clue. It was fun to compete with other mystery authors to solve the murder correctly, but I also learned a lot about forensics, the precision required during investigations, and the costs of the crime-solving methodology. I was able to transfer this knowledge to my writing, as well.

All these experiences combined to make my time at Killer Nashville one of the most worthwhile weekends of my writing career. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the glue that held all of the components of the conference together, the Killer Nashville staff. Each staff member was friendly and helpful, throughout the conference, but Liz Gatterer did so many things to make my experience go smoothly from start to finish. Her organizational skills and people skills really shone. Finally, huge accolades went to Clay Stafford. His vision and commitment to Killer Nashville have made everything else work together like a perfectly performed play. Clay’s energy and enthusiasm were contagious, and he made every one of us feel like family.

What was the secret recipe for a life-changing writers’ conference? Equal parts of class, spirit, inspiration, support, and Southern hospitality. Stirred until smooth. Gently baked with caring hands. Rendered super cool, and served repeatedly over time. I can’t wait to go back!

Award-winning mystery and children’s book author, Saralyn Richard was born with a pen in her hand and ink in her veins. A former urban high school educator, she’s living the dream, connecting with readers through her books: A Murder of Principal, Naughty Nana, Murder in the One Percent, and A Palette for Love and Murder. Saralyn participates in International Thriller Writers and Mystery Writers of America, and she teaches creative writing. Website: http://saralynrichard.com.