Confessions of a Noir Virgin

By Wendy Tyson

Last week I attended my first Noir at the Bar as a featured author. As anything, really—writer, aspiring author or spectator. In fact, before September, I had only heard of Noir at the Bar, and all I knew about the noir genre was that it was dark, hardboiled, and generally placed doomed tough guys and femmes fatales in morally-ambiguous situations. But Jon McGoran, a fellow Philadelphia crime writer and a Noir at the Bar veteran, was setting up an event downtown and invited me to attend. I gratefully accepted. I’d figure it out—right?

Confession One: I almost didn’t go.

When I said yes, I’d been thinking I could read from one of my novels. Although I love edgier crime fiction, most of my work could be characterized as traditional mystery, cozy or maybe thriller—certainly not noir. After a group of crime writers and N@TB regulars set me straight during the recent Bouchercon convention in Raleigh (write something original for the event, they said; write about sex, they said—and only partially in jest) I panicked.  What could I possibly contribute? Besides, the week it was scheduled to occur, revisions for my next novel were due. Suddenly I felt a tickle in my throat. <Cough, cough.>

Only I had given my word that I’d be there. And those same Bouchercon authors had been so supportive. And my name was on that really cool poster that Jon McGoran designed. I couldn’t very well display the poster if I didn’t attend. As with so many things in my writing career, I’d show up and hope for the best.

Confession Two: I went back to the beginning.

After I decided that hoping for the best was probably not my best course of action, I went old school and did my research. I read some noir short fiction and watched a few noir film clips. I read everything I could get my hands on about Noir at the Bar—especially how and where it started (in Philly!) and what to expect. It dawned on me halfway through the process that I had been reading and loving noir all along—at least elements of noir. I could do this.

In the end, I decided the authors at Bouchercon were right. Rather than sweat my way through my existing body of work in the hopes of finding something noir-ish, I would write a fresh piece. I’d take the upcoming N@TB as a challenge and pen a short story, one that fit the time frame I had to read (5 minutes), that captured at least some of the elements of the genre, and flowed when read aloud (not everything does). The result was a 1,000-word short story titled “Submission.”

Confession Three: The night was a highlight of my writing journey thus far.

Despite my initial angst, the Philly Noir at the Bar was an incredible event. We met at Misconduct Tavern in Philadelphia with a rock star line-up. The readings varied greatly, as did authors’ approaches on stage. I was relieved to find that not everyone read work that fit squarely in the noir box. Some authors read from works-in-progress, some read short stories, and one author even integrated music into his reading. I learned a lot from my fellow attendees.

It was an intimidating cast of characters (and there were some characters!), but ultimately it was a perfect opportunity to network and meet new readers. I left feeling inspired and reenergized. As always, I was struck by the warmth and generosity of the crime fiction community—authors and readers alike. I was a newby to the N@TB scene, but I felt accepted as one of their own.

Confession Four: I could have read from my novels.

But I’m glad I didn’t.

Choosing to write a new story for the event forced me outside of my comfort zone. Many of us begin writing because we have something to say, and we crave that creative outlet that lets us play with form and content in order to find the best way of expressing ourselves. Once you’re published, it’s easy to fall into a routine. There are manuscript deadlines, reader expectations, publisher demands and, as a busy author, you may have to carve out the time to experiment.  Noir at the Bar afforded me the opportunity to break out of my daily grind and try on something completely unfamiliar. While I’ll happily continue writing mysteries, I’m a better author for the experience. 

Interested in attending or hosting a Noir at the Bar event? I found these links particularly helpful:

Noir at the Bar: An Oral History

Noir at the Bar 101

N@TB Philly WAT


WENDY TYSON has written four published crime novels, including Dying Brand, the third novel in the Allison Campbell Mystery Series, which was released on May 5, 2015.  The first in the Campbell series, Killer Image, was named a best mystery for book clubs in 2014 by  Wendy is also the author of the Greenhouse Mystery Series, the first of which, A Muddied Murder, is due to be released in spring 2016.  Wendy is a member of Sisters in Crime and International Thriller Writers, and she is a contributing editor for The Big Thrill, the International Thriller Writers’ online magazine.