After my first mystery novel was published in 1993 (Murder in Mellingham), I had to confront my fear of facing an audience of readers and talking about writing. A row of three people in chairs facing me could feel like an audience of a thousand, and all of them critics. But I swallowed my fear and learned to speak no matter what.
Like many other writers, I developed a set of presentations that seemed to work and stuck to them. People in the audience listened, most stayed awake for the entire event, and a few even bought books.
The more I spoke to audiences, however, the more varied I knew my presentations had to be. Audiences are different, and I try to get a sense of their interests before I proceed. I usually have a good idea what the audience will be like based on the venue, but not always. As a result, I have a few options that I test out on the people sitting in front of me, to make sure they're interested. If not, I move on to the next option. This is true for panels as well as individual talks. These are the options I consider the most important.
Reading a passage from my most recent book. Some readers in the audience love to hear the writer read a few pages, and will even ask for this. Others will get up and walk out if anyone starts reading to them. I recently read a few pages on my recent book, For the Love of Parvati, and since then I have heard from people who bought the book because of the reading.
Talking about process. A friend approached me recently to tell me about a reading she'd attended where the writer talked about the story in her book and then read from it, several pages. She said nothing about how she wrote it. My friend was not happy.
Talking about research. Writers can't always explain where story ideas come from, though we try hard. But we know exactly how research feeds into the story. People are fascinated by how we learned something and the details in a story. In Friends and Enemies I write about the paper manufacturing industry in Massachusetts, and readers are fascinated by an industry they've taken for granted and knew little about.
Talking about publishing. Some people find this topic endlessly fascinating (mostly other writers) and they don't mind sidetracking the entire evening into this area. If the audience is agreeable, the speaker or panelists can accommodate this.
Talking about the academic world of crime fiction. Mystery novels and crime fiction have entered the academy and are now the subject of scholarly study. Once in a while I will mention an interpretation from a scholarly paper and someone in the audience will want to know more. A discussion around the idea of the Great Detective can be fun for everyone but not always.
Talking about different types of mysteries. Many readers come to panels to learn about other writers they might like. The results can be haphazard, so I sometimes move the panel into a discussion of the range of mysteries and the various categories. This is when I see people taking notes.
Talking about the world of the writer. Writing is a job, a desk job without the benefit of co-workers (other than our characters) to interrupt us and ease the stress of a scene not going well. We hear no applause when we finish a story or get a promising note from an agent or editor. We work alone. The glamorous world of conferences is still a world of work. Conferences are expensive and few writers can afford to go to more than one or two a year, particularly if they are far from home. Writers have to live like other people--we do the dishes, vacuum up the dog hair, wonder if we forgot to pay the electric bill, and pray it doesn't snow on the night we have to drive an hour for a talk. In short, people often like to hear about the glamorous world of the writer and are secretly relieved that we're ordinary people like them.
Whenever I set out to do a panel or give a talk, I'm always a little anxious but I'm as curious about members of the audience as they are about me. We explore each other's interests and find common ground, and there we have the most fun talking about mysteries.