In first grade I found my calling: Show and Tell. It was my best subject. And while my career goals morphed over the years from spy to teacher to curator to historian to writer, my fondness for Show and Tell never wavered. Today, whenever I give talks at libraries or museums, visit with book clubs, or attend author conferences, I bring along Stuff to augment my presentations.
Stuff helps me connect to readers. It draws them to my table at a book fair or brings them up to the podium for a closer look after my lecture. Stuff sparks conversations and leads to unexpected interactions. Stuff helps paint a picture of my subject or characters or era.
Because I’m a historian and my mysteries are set in the past, most of my Stuff is historical. To illustrate my Roaring Twenties series, I've collected inexpensive items that relate to both period and plot: a dozen vaudeville programs, two 1925 beaded flapper dresses, several silent movie magazines and advertisements, a blown-glass fisherman's float, a Prohibition-era prescription for “medicinal” alcohol, and most recently, an antique bottle of mercury bichloride (empty!), the poison that figures in my second book. Every time I prepare for a presentation, I choose two or three items that seem most relevant to the occasion.
Last weekend, I drove 500 miles to attend two events in Pennsylvania: a book club and a mystery author conference. The book club ladies loved my two beaded flapper gowns and vaudeville programs; mystery fans at the conference got a kick out of the 1924 bottle of poison and the prescription for alcohol (which happened to be issued by a Pennsylvania physician in 1929).
Can Stuff help you reach more readers? Are there items that relate to your plot or time period that you can carry along to your next bookstore signing? Admittedly, this is easier for authors of historicals but even if your tale is set in the present or the future, consider what sort of Stuff you might bring to illustrate it. A paperweight? A wine glass? A piece of jewelry? A reproduction of the Rembrandt that the thieves stole? What about a model of a particular car, boat, or airplane that figures importantly in your story? Anything that would launch a conversation will help you connect. Many authors set a bowl of candy on the table to encourage people to pause . . . is there a particular consumable—candy, gum, teabags—that relates to one of your characters? I usually bring individually wrapped Charleston Chews because the name evokes the iconic dance fad and they were introduced in 1922.
It won’t work for every mystery author, but if Showand Tell works for you, it can set you apart from the others at the book fair and give you a smooth way to interact with potential readers.