Killer Nashville on Writing International Mystery and Crime Fiction

Killer Nashville on Writing International Mystery and Crime Fiction

Killer Nashville, the international mystery writers conference, is a gold mine of inspiration and resources for the mystery and thriller author, including those who write international mystery and crime fiction.

Held last month outside Nashville, TN, Killer Nashville is a 4-day event full of opportunities to connect polish your craft and engage with writers at all stages of their careers.

Most of all, it’s a hefty dose of inspiration, most of which comes from fellow writers who share their expertise and experiences on panels with such great themes as “Creating Characters Readers Can’t Forget” or “Writing Detective and Police Procedurals.”

Writing International Mystery and Crime Fiction

I was honored to chair the only panel dedicated to the challenges of writing about people and places around the world: “Beyond Our Borders: Writing International Mystery & Crime.”  I’m immersed in this genre day and night so it was a thrill to see how many others are, too.

“Beyond Our Borders” was one of the biggest panels of the conference, with 7 authors dedicated to writing suspense with an international flair:

Key questions

Here’s a (sort of) instant replay of the questions that sparked the most discussion between panelists and with the audience:

What are the top 3 things an author needs to get right about an international setting?

Culture was the top answer from all panel members. Authentic details about the culture are essential to ground the reader in the setting and make it believable. Savvy readers will know when you don’t get it right.

Other things an author needs to get right included a sense of the foreign language, the social strata of the foreign location, physical attributes like architecture/street signs/automobiles, etc. and conveying a deep sense of place using all five senses.

What resources do you use to research a setting?

The best research is actually being there and experiencing the place as a local, not a tourist. Get a reputable tour guide from your hotel, talk to people as if you plan to move there, and keep a detailed trip journal. Authentic details matter but are also the easiest things to get wrong, like a one-way street.

If you can’t travel everywhere, research like crazy, using Google Earth, YouTube videos, memoirs, and translations of local newspapers. Google Translate is your friend. Not everything is on Wikipedia.

How do you convey to your readers that your characters are speaking a foreign language?

Panelist agreed that the best way was to sprinkle in foreign language words in a way that their meaning is easily understood. It is common practice for foreign words to be written in italics. Foreign language words should be spelled as they exist in that language, not spelled phonetically in English.

Are your plots unique to the setting? Could they only take place there?

The answer was a resounding Yes.

Either elements of the culture drive plot and motive, true events create a framework, or the specific location contributes a unique twist or complication.

(Author note: Do all three and it’s a hat trick. You also have my undying admiration.)

Thank you, Killer Nashville

I tackle these questions with each Detective Emilia Cruz mystery set in Acapulco. Thanks to Killer Nashville, I got a boost from hearing how other authors deal with them, too.

More importantly, the panel tried to give our audience tips for adding authenticity and deepening the reader’s curiosity.

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Pinterest image Beyond our Borders

Killer Nashville 2019: An excellent bunch of murderers

Killer Nashville 2019: An excellent bunch of murderers

He put the cord over my head. It scratched against my neck, heavier than I expected. My heart was beating too fast. The noise buffeted me, my vision a blur . . . 

Nope, I wasn’t strangled, but won the Silver Falchion award for THE ARTIST/EL ARTISTA in the Short Story Collection/Anthology at the Killer Nashville mystery writer conference.  Competition included a story by R. L. Stine, author of the Goosebumps series. 

Novelist Joyce Carol Oates, who received a lifetime achievement award, and David Morrell, creator of Rambo, were both in the audience.

Carmen with award


As thrilling as winning an award is, the real reason for attending the Killer Nashville conference is the ability to network with other authors. I like Killer Nashville because it is a relatively small setting, as writing conferences go, and there is time to have sidebar conversations–although never enough! 

Related post: Lessons from Killer Nashville 2018

With Mike Faricy, author of the Dev Haskell series

Amato and Baron Birtcher

With Baron Birtcher, who won 3 awards including Best Overall Novel for “Fistful of Rain”

Killer Nashville

R.G. Belsky, Carmen Amato, and conference founder Clay Stafford

Souvenirs for all

Killer Nashville is also a good place to get a dose of inspiration. Panel presentations are specific to the mystery and thriller genre. Conflict, characters, setting, red herrings. Finding out how other authors twist their plots or plan their characters is like a dose of new insights and fresh ideas.

It’s the proverbial shot in the arm.

My solo presentation “Inside the CIA” was delivered to a standing-room-only audience. Everyone stayed, despite the wonky projector that muddied my slideshow. I’ll be replaying it in a webinar for the Atlanta chapter of Sisters in Crime. You can sign up for the webinar here:

Andrea Amherst, who came all the way from Vienna, Austria (!) for the conference, joined me in leading a workshop on “How to Make Your Website Work for You.” We used this PDF checklist, which you can download here:

Observations and a suggestion

Last year, I came away from Killer Nashville with the feeling that a storm between trad and indie publishing had brewed under the surface, led by indie publishing champion Joe Konrath. He did not attend the 2019 conference, so the buzz was quieter, albeit still there.

Most of the authors still working on their first novel want a trad deal rather than “being forced” to strike out into the wilds of indie publishing. Yet almost all the authors I spoke to who were traditionally published had a nightmare story of publishers closing, editors bailing on them, contracts left in limbo, etc. Indie authors were making a decent income and liked the sense of control.

I expect this will continue to be an ongoing debate.

This year, I ran into more would-be authors who were still in various stages of completing a novel and wondering how to get it published. All seemed to be looking for a mentor. Beyond the actual writing process, they were looking for someone who could explain the publishing industry and how to market books. Maybe next year’s Killer Nashville could have a mentor program.


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Mystery and thriller author. Retired Central Intelligence Agency intel officer. Dog mom to Hazel and Dutch. Recovering Italian handbag addict.


Carmen Amato at Spring Hill

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