With both arms stretched out in the classic gun-holding stance, Garden Grove mystery writer Patricia McFall calmly aimed the Smith & Wesson revolver at the center of the target.
"That's good," said weapons instructor Larry Morrison. "Hold it. Squeeze."
After firing off several rounds, McFall admitted she didn't much care for shooting a handgun for the first time: "I'd rather the target look like a bush than a person."
McFall and three other members of the Orange County chapter of Sisters in Crime--writers Maxine O'Callaghan, Jean Femling and Marisa Babjak-Wiggins--gathered at the Long Beach Pistol Range last week for a preview of a weapons-training class Morrison would be offering to members of their group, which is made up of mystery writers and readers.
Although she has no intention of buying a handgun or even "having one within 100 yards of me," McFall said she planned to sign up for Morrison's class. Like other members of the group who are writers, she figures it can only help the authenticity of her writing.
"My brother is a volunteer Los Angeles County deputy sheriff, and he said when he reads a mystery he's always looking for mistakes, so I know there are people out there who want you to be accurate," she said. "I heard about one case in a mystery where the protagonist flips off the safety on a gun that doesn't have one, or shoots eight bullets in a gun that holds six."
An opportunity to listen to such experts as Morrison is one of the incentives for joining Sisters in Crime, an international organization founded in 1986 by Sara Paretsky, the best-selling author of the V.I. Warshawski murder mysteries, and a handful of other female writers, editors and readers.
Guest speakers at the Los Angeles chapter have included a female private eye, a woman FBI agent, a crime-lab specialist and someone from the Victims-Witness Assistance program--not to mention literary agents and Hollywood screenwriters.
But it was a nuisance for members living in Orange County to drive all the way to the Beverly Hills Library for meetings, so they formed their own chapter last fall.
The Orange County Sisters in Crime is one of 16 chapters of the organization, which now boasts 2,200 members worldwide. (Although men are not excluded from membership, there are only a couple of dozen of them.)
The group's purpose, according to its bylaws, is "to combat discrimination against women in the mystery field and raise awareness of women's contribution to the field."
"I think initially there was a very strong feeling--and I shared this--that most reviews were being written about male authors," said Kevin Moore, manager of the Anaheim Central Library and a charter member of the national organization.
As a scholar of the contemporary mystery who reads several hundred a year, Moore said she was aware of many women authors' books "and yet when I'd try to find reviews, they were nonexistent."
Indeed, a 1988 tabulation of book reviews by Sisters in Crime found that, while women wrote more than a third of mystery fiction, they received less than 20% of the genre's reviews. As of 1991, women were getting about 35% of mystery review space.
As a result of the success of Sara Paretsky, Sue Grafton and dozens of other female mystery writers over the past decade, Moore said, "they're no longer ignored."
But although "great strides" have been made," Moore said, there's still room for improvement: "Women will have more reviews in Library Journal or Publishers Weekly, but with major daily newspapers there's still not quite the equity you'd expect."
The higher profile of women mystery writers is due in no small part to Sisters in Crime, according to Moore.
"I think Sisters in Crime had a very galvanizing effect," she said, "because it unified the women writers, and it also unified the fans. You have as many fans who have joined Sisters in Crime as writers--probably more than writers. And fans buy books, and publishers and reviewers respond to what the market says."
Mission Viejo mystery writer Maxine O'Callaghan, the Orange County chapter's interim president, has reaped the benefits of the group's promotional efforts.
O'Callaghan said she has been a member of several organizations, including Mystery Writers of America, Horror Writers of America and Private Eye Writers of America, but no group does as much for writers as Sisters in Crime.
"It's like suddenly being plugged into a bunch of live wires," she said. "When I get the national newsletter, I sit down and read it with a highlighter pen, there's so much information and so many things going on that benefits writers and that you can be a part of."