Murder, Mystery, and Mayhem at Killer Nashville International Writers’ Conference

Murder, Mystery & Mayhem at Killer Nashville
by Joseph W. Borden

You’ve just arrived in Nashville after a long and arduous flight. The night is dark, maybe it’s storming. Your feet are sore, eyes tired. You’re just about at your wits end. You hail a cab. “To Killer Nashville,” you yell, “and step on it!” After dragging, pushing, pulling all your luggage inside and checking in, you finally get to your hotel room. But when you open the door, you see furniture overturned, drawers opened, their contents strewn across the floor. But, worst of all, there’s a dead body occupying your bed!

This is scene you might’ve witnessed at Killer Nashville 2019—albeit something would have to go very wrong at check-in for you to wind up in the room that hosts the mock crime scene each year.

Nashville has long been known for its ties to country music, but what about its connection to murder, mystery, and mayhem? Since 2006, each August, Nashville has been home to The Killer Nashville International Writers’ Conference. The conference, a bastion of the dastardly, hosts about 350 mystery, thriller, and suspense writers each year. These miscreants and ne’er-do-wells are blackguards of the darkest kind—each of them well versed in the languages of espionage, foul play, and general malfeasance. The 2019 conference featured Guests of Honor Alexandra Ivy, David Morrell, and Joyce Carol Oates, all of whom are renowned storytellers and purveyors of the perilous.

Killer Nashville boasts over 60 educational sessions throughout the weekend, ranging from subjects as innocent as “Reviews & How to Get Them” to more nefarious ones such as “Evolution of the Cyber Threat Actor.” Aside from writers, the event brings agents, editors, and other industry professionals from all corners of the globe—and everyone is there for a shared purpose: to learn, connect, master the art of murder…of fictional characters, of course.

The mock crime scene that is featured at Killer Nashville each year is one of the most popular aspects of the conference, as one might expect at an event filled with current/former law enforcement officials and admirers of the macabre. Staged by forensic professionals, the crime scene is an adaptation of real crime scenes they have encountered. Throughout the weekend, attendees work to solve the murder of Ralph David Reed. They attempt to piece together the mystery by using the clues left on scene and by watching pre-recorded witness & suspect interviews. Whomever gets the closest to solving the murder is awarded the Dupin Detective award. This year, Amanda Feyerbend took home this honor, the only one of 100+ participants to deduce every single fact about the “murder” correctly.

“The Killer Nashville Mock Crime Scene was such a great experience!” said Feyerbend. “As I walked around the room, I tried to put on my investigator’s hat and soak up everything I could about the intricate scene. I’d hoped to win the Dupin Detective Award, and when Former Assistant Director [of the TBI] Dan Royse said all those kind words and called my name, I was ecstatic. It’s such an honor. The whole conference was amazing, and I can’t wait to come back next year.”

But it’s not all fun and murder games at the conference; there’s also glory to be earned at the Killer Nashville Awards Dinner. Villains and vagabonds alike come together to listen to speeches from Guests of Honor & scholarship winners, and to see who will go home with coveted Killer Nashville awards. Killer Nashville coordinates two large award competitions: the Silver Falchion Award & the Claymore Award.

The Silver Falchion Award honors the best books readily available to a North American audience in both fiction and nonfiction from the previous year. The competitions recognizes books in 10 different categories relating to mystery, thriller, suspense and all the fiendish iterations those genres can form. From those categories, only one can be honored as Book of the Year. The 2019 Book of the Year recipient was author Baron R. Birtcher for his title Fistful of Rain. Birtcher also won Best Action Adventure and Best Attending Author for the same title—one could say he’s a dangerous man, indeed.

(from left to right) Baron Birtcher, Bruce Robert Coffin, Charley Pearson

Of his award, Birtcher said, “I’m still trying to wrap my head around the honor of having won the Silver Falchion for Book of the Year! I’ve been attending Killer Nashville for 10 years now, and it still stands as my favorite. Drawing incredibly talented writers from all over the world, the programs, panels, networking, and above all, the camaraderie among the attendees is unparalleled. There is a reason that Killer Nashville is considered to be one of the preeminent writer’s conferences on the planet.  “

John Carenen

The Killer Nashville Claymore Award is one that is particularly special to the conference, as it recognizes the best 50 first pages of an unpublished manuscript. Most of the writers who enter the Claymore Award competition have never been published before (mischief-makers in training, if you will). In 2019, for the first time in its decade-long history, the Claymore Award had a tie for first place. Originally, it was suggested that a tiebreaker would be had by way of knife fight but, eventually, the contest judges concluded that less bloodshed would be preferable, from a PR perspective.

“Winning the 2019 Claymore Award was an enormous gift of confidence for me,” said John Carenen, who won for his title Breathtaking in the Blue Ridge. “I was delighted to be one of the 20 finalists and stunned when my name was announced at the Awards Dinner. And to have David Morrell present the award added to what was a surreal moment. I don’t think anything that follows in my writing career can top that event.”

Joseph Simurdiak (front left) and family

Joseph Simurdiak took home the Claymore for his historical fantasy A Red Autumn Wind. Of his experience, Simurdiak said, “Killer Nashville enthusiastically cultivate[s] new and rising voices. [M]any Claymore finalists go on to land book deals, and I felt like I’d crossed some kind of threshold. It [the night he won the Claymore] was truly one of the most amazing nights of my life, the realization of a childhood dream. But it was also a huge step in an even larger journey, one in which the following chapter is already underway.”

Although it may be a conference full of those who have one foot in the dirty underworld of society (strictly—well, mostly—in a fictional sense), the overall goal for Killer Nashville is to create a nurturing environment in which writers at all stages of their careers can come together to better their writing and make lasting connections with like minds. So come, all ye scoundrels, and see what all the buzz is about. It’s truly an experience to die for.