Notes on the Virtual Bloody Scotland Festival and the Differences Between SFF and Crime Fiction Cons

Bloody Scotland: Stirling, 18-20 September 2020

Bloody Scotland is a crime fiction festival that normally takes place in Stirling, Scotland. But like pretty much every other con or literary festival this year, Bloody Scotland has gone virtual for obvious reasons.

Now Bloody Scotland is somewhat more accessible to me than most US science fiction conventions, though it still requires flying and a train ride. Nonetheless, I’ve never gone, mostly because I only learned about the festival’s existence in 2018 and in 2019, my con travel budget was eaten up by Worldcon.

However, cons and literary festivals going virtual allows me to attend events I might never otherwise have attended. And indeed, The AV-Club hosts a roundtable, in which Katie Rife, Annie Zaleski and Shannon Miller discuss how the fact that so many events had to go virtual due to the pandemic has allowed disabled and marginalised fans as well as fans living in locations far away to attend events they could never attend before.

Crime fiction and mystery are my other main genres next to SFF (though I read and write all of them), so I decided to check out the virtual Bloody Scotland. Except for some writing masterclasses, all events were free to watch for everybody.

The panels were done in Zoom as with most virtual cons and the streaming was done via Vimeo. There was a chat function next to the streaming panels, allowing viewers to ask questions and chat amongst themselves. However, the Discord chats which have become such an important element of virtual SFF conventions were completely absent. There were no kaffeeklatsches and no virtual dealers room either, though there was a link to Waterstone’s online store where you could buy the books of the participating authors. Bloody Scotland does have an award, the MacIlvanny Prize and Scottish Crime Debut of the Year Prize, both of which were handed out in a virtual ceremony, which I missed. There is normally also quite a lot of non-panel programming such as music performances (some of which they managed to transfer online), theatre plays (they showed a recording of last year’s) as well as a football match featuring a team of crime fiction writers (cancelled obviously) and a procession by torchlight through the city of Stirling, which obviously didn’t take place either this year. I’ve seen pictures of the torch procession BTW. It looks like a mob of angry crime fiction writers with torches and pitchforks about to burn down Dr. Frankenstein’s castle.

Part of the reason for the lack of Discord chats, kaffeeklatsches and a dealers room may be that crime fiction festivals seem to be more focussed on listening to well-known writers speak and read than on interacting with fellow members. And indeed, there were fewer themed panels and a lot more of “See these cool authors talking about their writing and life”. It reminds more of literary festivals than SFF cons. Crime fiction cons also seem to be geared towards writers – the various British ones are often called “crime writing festivals”, hence the masterclasses. It’s simply a different con culture.

I also have to admit that my experience with crime fiction festivals is limited to some German festivals in my region, mainly Prime Time Crime Time in Bremen (which was cancelled this year) and the Ostfriesische Krimitage in Leer (which is biannual and would have skipped 2020 anyway), both of which take place over a longer period of time, but only have one or two events per day and in different locations scattered around the respective city. It’s yet another different literary festival culture.

The first Bloody Scotland panel I watched on Friday evening was moderated by Craig Robertson and featured a stellar line-up of Val McDermid, Mark Billingham, Chris Brookmyre, Doug Johnstone, Stuart Neville and Luca Veste, all of whom are not only great crime fiction and thriller authors, but also members of a band called the Fun Lovin’ Crime Writers. They mostly appear at crime fiction and literary festivals, but even played at the Glastonbury Festival. The panel consisted of the band members reminiscing about the gigs they played and how they miss live performances. There were a lot of fun anecdotes, such as Val McDermid recounting how she and her fellow band members walked through Aberdeen after appearing at the local crime festival Granite Noir, only to suddenly have a fellow who was peeing against the wall recognise her and tell her how much he loved her books – all while peeing. They also showed some clips of the band performing. They do mostly covers of songs related to crime and murder and they’re pretty good.

This is a panel I probably wouldn’t have attended at a physical con. But as it had just started, when I opened the Bloody Scotland website, I tuned in and wound up enjoying it a whole lot. That’s one of the big advantages of virtual festivals. Because the barrier to attendance is so low (you can just switch off the stream or go to a different one, if the panel isn’t to your taste), you end up watching panels you probably wouldn’t have watched at a physical con and come across things you didn’t know you’d enjoy.

The next panel I watched was a double interview with Ann Cleeves and Peter May. Unfortunately, I didn’t catch the name of the moderator, though it wasn’t the moderator listed in the program – the gender was wrong. There were nice insights into the writing process. For example, Ann Cleeves is a discovery writer (or “pantser”, though I don’t like that term) and doesn’t know what will happen before hand. Peter May is more of a plotter. Ann Cleeves also revealed that her most famous character Vera Stanhope was an accidental creation introduced to get Ann Cleeves out of a corner into which she had written herself. And the only reason there is a Vera Stanhope series at all is because a young editor who decided that traditional mystery series were over and that she definitely wouldn’t buy a mystery series from Ann Cleeves married a journalist and moved to Australia. Sadly, the last quarter hour of the panel was marred by sound issues and weird echoes (in the chat, people called them ghost voices), so that it sometimes became difficult to understand the panelists.

Between the panels, there were brief author readings and so I caught two readings by Helen Sedgwick and Russ Thomas. I think the readings interspersed between the panels are a great idea for a single track festival like Bloody Scotland.

The next panel I watched was a panel on high concept thrillers featuring Steve Cavanagh, Adrian McKinty and Simon Mayo. The moderator was Catriona Reynolds. The beginning of the panel was again marred by sound issues, but they were fairly quickly fixed. Again, there were many interesting insights into the writing process of the authors. Simon Mayo, who’s apparently a radio personality in the UK, explained how he came to writing a contemporary thriller after writing a YA series and a historical mystery. Steve Cavanagh doesn’t have a mental picture of his character Eddie Flynn, which was a big surprise for me, because I always see my characters in my head and no exactly what they look like. His characters don’t talk to him either. Interestingly, Adrian McKinty and Steve Cavanagh are also discovery writers. So much for “discovery writing doesn’t work with crime novels and mysteries”.

Steve Cavanagh also explained that he sets many/most of his thrillers in the US, even though he’s from Northern Ireland, because he fell in love with crime fiction via American writers and because some stories simply require a certain setting. Here the book in question was a legal thriller and Cavanagh felt that it simply wouldn’t work with the British legal system.  Adrian McKinty, who’s from Northern Ireland as well, also said that his Sean Duffy crime novels set in Northern Ireland just didn’t sell, because readers associate crime fiction set in Northern Ireland (or indeed any fiction set in Northern Ireland) with the so-called “troubles” and don’t want to read it. And of course Adrian McKinty’s breakout novel, The Chain, is also set in the US. Indeed, this is a huge dilemma for many authors from beyond the US/UK – and even from some regions in those countries. There is a pressure to write “authentic” stories set in your home region/country, whereby “authentic” means conforming to whatever stereotypes the US/UK audience has about the country/region in question. And indeed, Adrian McKinty said that most books get Belfast in the 1980s wrong, but fit all the clichés people have in their heads. At the same time, novels set in lesser known locales often don’t sell very well. And crime fiction is actually more open to varied settings than many other genres, especially with the regional crime fiction trend and influx of translated crime fiction.

Eventually, the panel turned to the writers discussing their favourite Jack Reacher novels. I was certainly taking notes, because I want to try the Jack Reacher series, but there are so many of them. I’m not going to read the one set in Hamburg, though, because I’m pretty sure that it’s going to get things wrong. And of course, Lee Child is another British thriller writer who found success with a series set (mostly) in America, featuring a very American character. This is almost an inversion from early 20th century when American (and German and French, etc…) mystery writers all had to pretend to be British and writer British set mysteries. In the US, this trend towards faux British mysteries ended with the rise of the hardboiled crime novel (one of whose most famous practitioners, Raymond Chandler, was a Brit living and writing in the US). In Germany, it held on well into the postwar era, until the regional crime fiction movement of the 1980s swept away the faux British mysteries.

The next panel I watched was entitled Ian Rankin and Lawrence Block in coversation, which was exactly what it said on the tin. Topics discussed included how to deal with aging series characters (the Inspector Rebus, Matt Scudder and Bernie Rhodenbarr series have all been going on for a long time) and with aging in general, and why both authors continue setting their novels in Edinburgh/New York, even though they live elsewhere by now. Ian Rankin also talked about how much he likes contributing short stories to themed anthologies and Lawrence Block talked about his decision to self-publish his later books. Both authors shared their memories of Evan Hunter a.k.a. Ed McBain and Ian Rankin shared some memories of Iain Banks as well.

On Sunday afternoon, I caught part of what was billed as “The Neverending Panel”, which was a rolling Zoom conversation featuring several authors. When one author dropped out, another came in. The bits I caught featured Scottish crime fiction authors Alan Parks, Theresa Talbot, Jackie Baldwin, Alex Green, Ben McPherson and Abir Mukherjee talking about research and their favourite murder methods (in their books), including murder by harp string, by trampoline and by elephant. The authors were charming and obviously had a lot of fun. Abir Mukherjee shared an anecdote about wearing a kilt to a wedding in South Africa, where they had a glass dancefloor. Theresa Talbot shared some anecdotes from running a writing workshop in a prison, including a story about someone who supposedly shagged a fish. I also learned that the last Magdalene Laundry in Glasgow closed in 1958.

The final panel I watched was a conversation between Val McDermid and Lee Child. They both discussed how much they missed in person festivals and conventions, not just for the interaction with readers and fans, but also for the chance to hang out with other writers and talk shop. They both also said that they find the interaction at cons and festivals inspiring, which is also very much my experience. After an in-person con, particularly a big one like Worldcon, I’m exhausted for maybe two weeks and then everything has settled and I’m bursting with ideas.

Lee Child also talked about handing over the Jack Reacher series to his younger brother, while Val McDermid expects to keep writing until she drops dead. There was a bit of a debate whether women keep writing until the end, while male writers retire earlier. Lee Child at any rate couldn’t come up with any example of a male author who kept writing right up to the end, though there are a few in SFF, e.g. Ray Bradbury. Though Lee Child’s wife is currently reading The Doomsday Book by Connie Willis – not that he could remember the title or the name of the author, but we supplied it in the chat.

Val McDermid and Lee Child also discussed their experiences about having their works adapted to TV or movies. Val McDermid was mostly happy with the Wire in the Blood TV series, Lee Child was much less happy with the Jack Reacher movies starring Tom Cruise (who was “egregriously wrong” for the role according to Val McDermid), though he did like Tom Cruise as a person.

So what’s the takeaway from the virtual Bloody Scotland? Well, I got to listen to lots of interesting writers talking about their life, their work and their writing process. But otherwise, the experience was more passive than the various virtual SFF cons, because the Discord chats were missing, though I did participate in the Vimeo chat function a little. Another thing I noticed is that the panels were almost entirely authors as well as the occasional forensic expert or literary agents runnning an online pitch session, whereas the panels at Worldcons have plenty of fans, scientists, academics, etc… as well as writers. Bloody Scotland also had several all-male panels and a lot of all-white panels (though there were several authors of colour on programming, e.g. Abir Mukherjee, Attica Locke, Oyinkan Braithwaite, J.P. Pomare, etc…), which is much rarer at SFF cons these days.

The main difference between SFF cons and crime fiction festivals like Bloody Scotland seems to be that at crime fiction festivals, the barrier between pros and fans is much more pronounced than at SFF cons, at least the fan-run ones (commercials media cons like San Diego Comic Con are something else altogether). Because at Worldcon and other fan-run SFF cons, the idea is that everybody is a fan first and a writer, podcaster, editor, scientist, academic, astronaut, etc… second. I suspect that the reason for this difference might be that SFF cons developed as fan gatherings, whereas crime fiction festivals grew out of literary festivals. And in fact, the Bloody Scotland panels frequently felt like all crime writer version of the “Blue Sofa” interviews from the Leipzig and Franfurt book fairs, which I’ve always eagerly consumed when there still were book fairs, since the Leipzig book fair was pretty much the first thing cancelled because of the pandemic.

So in short, it’s a different con culture, but I nonetheless had a lot of fun. And if Bloody Scotland hadn’t gone virtual, I likely would never have attended the event.

ETA: More Bloody Scotland con reports are coming in, which you can find below.

At the Tartan Noir Show podcast, Theresa Talbot  who was also a program participant, interviews festival director Bob McDevitt about the opportunities and challenges of an all virtual festival.

At Shotmag Confidential, Ayo Onatade reports about the virtual Bloody Scotland festival. Interesting tidbits from the report include that due to the festival going virtual, not only were the organisers able to have crime fiction writers from all over the world on programming, many of whom probably wouldn’t have been able to attend a physical festival, they also had an audience from all over the world which was actually bigger than the regular attendance of the festival. And indeed the viewer numbers for the panels were always several hundred. For the Val McDermid and Lee Child panel, the viewer number was more than a thousand.

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1 Response to Notes on the Virtual Bloody Scotland Festival and the Differences Between SFF and Crime Fiction Cons

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