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DON’T Write What You Know!

“Write what you know” is probably some of the worst advice for writers ever. Even authors of modern-day fiction have their problems with that old chestnut. Tom Clancy may have set all his books in the same 20th century America in which he lived, but he didn’t write about writers, he wrote about spec-war operatives, even if he’d never been one. And historical novelists do a special kind of hair-tearing when we hear “Write what you know” because we really don’t know what we write about. No amount of research will make me know what it’s like to watch prisoners die in the Colosseum, and Margaret George will never know what it’s like to be Helen of Troy either, and that didn’t stop either of us from writing about it anyway.

I sometimes like to think “Write WHO you know” instead. As long as I can remember, I’ve indulged in an idle game called “When Should They Have Been Born?” Any serious fan of historical fiction harbors the conviction from time to time that we were really born in the wrong century. So whenever I was bored to tears in class, or weekly meetings, or family gatherings (which was most of the time), I’d go around the room deciding what century everybody really belonged in, according to their personality. And boy, did the book ideas start flowing.

My acerbic librarian mother who prefers dogs, books, and herbs to the company of people? A Benedictine nun in medieval England, brewing up herbal tinctures and illuminating manuscripts and breaking her vow of silence to coo at the dog she isn’t supposed to keep in her monastic cell. A great character for a Middle Ages novel.

My husband, a Navy sailor who’d have made a great Viking raider, swinging a sword over one shoulder and taking his longship out to the edge of the known world and never, ever getting seasick. A made-to-order hero for an epic battles-and-blood Norse tale.

My long-deceased feminist grandmother with her paisley scarves and her wry wit: a born reformer who should have been a 1912 suffragette. She’d be chaining herself to the railing of Number 10 Downing Street and going on hunger strike at Holloway Prison; a dowager in a fabulous hat and a Votes For Women banner who could have mentored Lady Sybil from Downton Abbey.

My much-tattooed kickboxing instructor has a streak of benign sadism that could definitely have belonged to a Roman centurion . . . my other grandmother is one of those Depression-era Steinbeck matriarchs in black and white who keeps her family together through disaster after disaster . . . my jazz musician father could have doubled for a handsome court musician under Empress Maria Theresa . . . how many book ideas have I gotten, just from looking around at a family gathering or a gym class?

Now, I may not end up writing all those books. I don’t really see myself writing a blood-and-battle Viking epic, largely because Bernard Cornwell with his Saxon Stories (among many others) has already covered it so well. But sometimes you do get a solid book idea out of a real person. Case in point, my husband’s grandmother: a fiery Sicilian whose cooking could make angels weep, and who would absolutely smack you on the head with a wooden spoon and threaten excommunication if you committed the crime of breaking the pasta into the pot instead of folding it. I had a eureka moment and transplanted her personality more or less intact to Renaissance Italy. My husband’s grandma ended up personal chef to the Borgia Pope in my last book–and she may be in her nineties now in the 21st century, but she’s absolutely tickled to think that in some alternate life she got to cook for a Pope, defraud a convent, and have a one-night stand with Cesare Borgia.

Don’t write what you know–write who you know. Look around you at the next boring board meeting or family gathering. What century do these people really belong in? Maybe you’ll find the hero of your next historical novel.

A Virtual Potluck!

I don’t know about you, but I adore food blogs. I’ve got an entire list that I drool over follow. And the fun part is how food and books are mixing these days: food bloggers are hitting the pages, cooking favorite recipes out of food-heavy books and blogging about it.

So when I wrote my own food-heavy book, I knew I had to at least try to set up a virtual pot-luck. I never dreamed the result would be so mouth-watering: six fabulous food-bloggers dove into “The Serpent and the Pearl” in search of recipes. Theresa from Outlander Kitchen and Island Vittles, who cooks from Diana Gabaldon’s fabulous Scottish saga; Chelsea from Inn At The Crossroads, who recently co-authored a fabulous cookbook based on “Game of Thrones” recipes; Christiane from Taking On Magazines, who cooks her way through the likes of “Better Homes and Gardens” and “Bon Appetit” utterly undaunted; Lori from Little White Apron who is a pro chef as well as a blogger extraordinaire; Deana from Lost Past Remembered who recreates food from myriad centuries gone by; and Heather Webb from Between The Sheets who took time off from her upcoming debut novel on Empress Josephine to indulge her foodie hobby.

And today, we’re all posting our results! Recipes included.

Inn At The Crossroads – The crostata of summer peaches that Carmelina is making when Juan Borgia decides to make a pass at her. (Big mistake: cooks always have cleavers on hand.)

Island Vittles – The tourte of sweet cheese and Genovese onions that Carmelina cooks for Giulia’s wedding feast.

Little White Apron – The baked apples that Carmelina serves Giulia the morning after her wedding, and the capon with garlic, coriander and white wine that is her favorite chicken recipe.

Lost Past Remembered – The shoulder of wild boar that Carmelina ponders serving a visiting archbishop.

Taking On Magazines – The sugared biscotti that form a staple munchie throughout the book, and the elderflower fritters Giulia tries to make (and ends up nearly destroying Carmelina’s kitchen)

Between The Sheets – The asparagus zuppa and the zabaglione which Carmelina’s apprentice Bartolomeo whips up on a country trip to impress her.

As for me, I donned my sous chef apron and did a lot of “Oui, chef” fetching and carrying from the fridge as my husband (he’s the culinary genius of the family) tackled a recipe from Chapter 2 of The Serpent and the Pearl:

Hot Sops With Cherries

From the book:
It’s a bit tricky, knowing what to send up to the bride’s chamber the morning after her wedding . . . If you hear giggling and whispering through the door, you send up something light than can be eaten by two, preferably fed to each other with the fingers while making a great deal of mess that can be kissed away with more giggles. A hot sop with morello cherries works well–strips of butter-fried bread and a dipping sauce of cherries and sugared wine always goes down a treat with hungry young lovers.

This is a recipe I got direct from that classic Renaissance cookbook “L’Opera di Bartolomeo Scappi.” Hot sops are a dish that has gone out of fashion in the modern era: toasted bread with some kind of dipping sauce that could be meat-based or fruit-based; sweet or savory. It was a popular Renaissance snack, and a staple food for those who had trouble eating (the old, the ill, the very young). Happily, this dish is just as delicious in the 21st century for gourmets of any age. The cherries are both sweet and spicy, and the bread fries up crisp and mouth-watering. Carmelina is right: this is a dish to be shared between two, with kisses in between bites.

Serves 2 — Prep: 15 minutes

1 can cherries in water (NOT cherry pie filling)
4 slices good fresh-baked artisan bread
1 cup red wine
Butter
4 tsp sugar
1 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp nutmeg

1. Butter the bread slices on both sides, and fry in a skillet over medium heat, flipping once. Set aside.

2. Reduce heat to medium. Drain the cherries and add to a medium saucepan (we improvised with a wok) and add the wine plus 4 tsp sugar, and 1 tsp each cinnamon and nutmeg.

3. Cook over medium heat, stirring frequently until liquid reduces down to thick syrupy texture, adding more sugar or spices to taste.

4. Serve in a bowl with fried bread for dipping. Messy in the best possible way!

**********************

Be sure to check in on the others for some more great recipes! And as for the food bloggers who kicked in on this project – Lori, Heather, Christiane, Chelsea, Deana, and especially Theresa who was chief in helping put the whole thing together – thank you all so much!

6 Rules For Surviving Release Day Jitters

For the fourth time in my life, I can type the words “I have a book coming out today!”

You’d think it would get easier. But no, I’m a mass of nerves. For over a year, you see, my book baby has led a sheltered existence: much like a real baby, it was tended by a doting mother, sheltered and cosseted in a loving environment, shown off only to a few close friends and family who could be relied upon to croon praise. But books grow up faster than real babies, and I’m once again standing in the doorway watching that book head out into the world like a kid heading off to college. My job is done, and I did the best I could–and I’m still nervous that it wasn’t enough.

I’m also thrilled, because I have the best job on earth, and I know how lucky I am. And hey, it’s my fourth rodeo, so at least I know how to combat the Release Day Jitters by now. All you need to do to survive your release day is follow these six simple guidelines.

1. Drink champagne. Drink lots and lots of champagne.

2. Enlist friends. Ideally writer friends who have suffered release day jitters of their own. Go out for lunch, get pedicures, do anything you like–but these friends must be given carte blanche to use any force up to and including handcuffs to keep you from obsessively clicking Refresh on your Amazon Sales Ranking. Stephanie Dray and Sophie Perinot are my jailers pals today, bless you both.

3. This one is for the spouses of writers in question: flowers are nice. Also, repeated spontaneous reassurances that the book is not in fact complete crapola destined for the remainder table. My spouse excels at this.

4. Read somebody ELSE’S book. Nothing like a fascinating trip to somebody else’s fictional world to keep your mind off your own. I was lucky enough last year to share a release day with Elizabeth Loupas–her The Flower Reader saved my sanity. Elizabeth let me down this year (I’m counting days till her The Red Lily Crown releases) so perhaps a Harry Dresden reread is in order. Like all fourteen books.

5. Don’t check Amazon. I’m serious. Friends and spouses may want to consider disconnecting the internet for the day.

6. Did I mention champagne? Drink more.

So I guess that’s really only four rules, but you get my point. In any case, The Serpent and the Pearl is off to the hands of its readers–for a teaser promo, watch here. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to pop a cork.

Meet The Heroine II: Trying To Interview A Busy Chef

My secondary heroine from The Serpent and the Pearl proved to be a bit hard to track down . . . in fact, I had to run her to earth in her kitchens, where she’s up to her elbows in a bowl of flour.

Her: Look, I don’t know about this interview business. I have a dinner for twenty to get on the table.

Me: Just a few lines for the readers? Your name, what it is that you do?

Her: My name is Carmelina Mangano, and I’m the best cook in Rome.

Me: You are?

Carmelina: Yes. They say a woman can’t be maestro di cucina, not professionally, but I was hired to cook for the household of Giulia Farnese, the Pope’s mistress. I’ve fed the Pope Himself, and half the illustrious people of Rome–I’ve carved my own place in the world with nothing more than the skill in my hands, and I’m proud of it. Hand me that bowl, will you?

Me: What are you making?

Carmelina: Elderflower fritters. Giulia Farnese eats them by the basketful; she’s a cook’s dream to feed. Loves food, eats everything, pays on time.

Me: Any bad parts about working for the Borgias?

Carmelina: That little bodyguard Cesare Borgia hired for Madonna Giulia. Leonello. He’s a devil.

Me: Because he’s a dwarf?

Carmelina: No, because he’s dangerous. And because he asks too many questions.

Me: Questions about what?

Carmelina (glowers): Hand me the butter, will you? These fritters need to go into the frying pan.

Me: Of course. Now, I have to ask–maybe it’s one of those things you don’t want to talk about, but what is that horrible shriveled up thing on the spice rack?

Carmelina: It’s a holy relic. The hand of my patron saint, the most blessed Santa Marta.

Me: You keep a mummified hand in your kitchen?

Carmelina: Of course. Santa Marta is the patron saint of all cooks. She prepared a meal for Our Lord while Mary and all the apostles were busy sitting at the feet of Christ.

Me: And for that she got made the patron saint of cooks?

Carmelina: Why not? Maybe Our Lord was happy to get a home-cooked meal for once, rather than everybody just looking at Him to provide all the food by transforming loaves and fishes. Besides, somebody had to get dinner going while everybody else sat around worshipping at His feet. I’ll bet not one of those apostles helped Santa Marta with the dishes, either.

Me: You know, I think you’re probably right.

Carmelina: Of course I’m right, I’m the best cook in Rome. Now, not to throw you out of my kitchen, but I’ve got to pay attention while these fritters fry. And if I burn them up because I’m answering questions, I’ll fry up your gizzard in white wine and coriander, and serve that to Madonna Giulia instead.

Me: I’m going, I’m going!

Meet The Hero: A Dangerous Dwarf Gets Interviewed

My her from The Serpent and the Pearl is a reclusive sort, but I dragged him to my blog today for an interview. 😀

Me: Why don’t you introduce yourself for the readers?

Him: My name is Leonello. (Props his boots up on my desk unasked)

Me: Leonello what?

Leonello: I’m distinctive enough that I don’t need a last name.

Me: You are distinctive, I must say. Dark hair, hazel eyes, about thirty years old, a sarcastic expression–

Leonello: Are we going to ignore the elephant in the room? I’m a dwarf.

Me: True, you are. How has your stature affected your life?

Leonello: I’ve managed so far not to get stomped to death by drunks, or have to take a job as a jester for layabout Renaissance lords. I count myself a success.

Me: What is it you do for a living?

Leonello: I used to be a card-sharp. Sit down at a game of primiera with me, and I will be very happy to relieve you of your money. But I don’t have to play cards for a living anymore.

Me: What is it you do now?

Leonello: The Pope’s son Cesare Borgia hired me. I’m to be a bodyguard for his father’s mistress.

Me: Aren’t you–wait, the Pope has a mistress?

Leonello: Why, doesn’t your current pope have one?

Me: Definitely not. Um, aren’t you a little atypical, as a choice for a bodyguard?

Leonello: Because I’m short? You can go ahead and say it.

Me: Ok, because you’re short.

Leonello: I may be short, but I’m dangerous. I throw knives.

Me: How well can you throw knives?

Leonello: I could put a blade through each of your eyes at ten paces, before you could blink your lids shut.

Me: Don’t demonstrate, please.

Leonello: Wouldn’t dream of it. I love being underestimated. Everybody underestimates a dwarf.

Me: I think Tyrion Lannister said something very similar on “Game of Thrones.”

Leonello: Now you’re being lazy. Just because we’re both dwarves doesn’t mean I have anything else in common with Tyrion Lannister.

Me: What’s the principal difference between the two of you, then?

Leonello: He wants to be liked, and he tries to make people laugh. That’s fine; it works for him. I don’t care if I’m liked, and I’m nobody’s jester, and that works for me.

Me: Are you always this sarcastic?

Leonello: You know I am. You invented me.

Me: Yes, but you’re not allowed to be sarcastic to me. I created you; you’re supposed to be nice to me.

Leonello: Dio. Am I done now?

Meet The Heroine: Giulia Farnese Gets Interviewed

The Serpent and the Pearl: a novel of the Borgias releases in just five days! (I’d bite my fingernails, but I don’t have any left.) I’ve been lucky enough to get some wonderful early reviews–the Historical Novel Society reviewers had this to say about my narrators: “Three compelling characters weave a tangled trajectory through the life and politics of 15th-century Rome. Carmelina’s sharp tongue, Leonello’s caustic wit, and Giulia’s unconditional good humor in the face of danger play off each other beautifully to create another riveting novel from Kate Quinn.”

Want to meet these three very-compelling but very-different folks? Over the next few days I’ll be interviewing each of my characters here on my blog as a promo. Today let’s welcome Giulia Farnese, who was more than happy to drop by and tell you a little about herself!

Me: Lovely to have you here, Giulia.

Giulia: Thank you for inviting me. Do you have anything to nibble? I’ve never been interviewed before and it’s making me nervous, and I always eat when I’m nervous.

Me: You don’t know about chocolate, do you? That’s a little after your time. Here, try this.

Giulia: Reese’s Pieces, what’s that? Holy Virgin, they taste heavenly. Can I have the recipe for my cook? Her name’s Carmelina, and she’s an absolute gem.

Me: She’s not going to be able to do much if chocolate isn’t invented yet. Let’s have your full name, for the readers.

Giulia: Right, sorry. I’m Giulia Farnese, but nobody calls me that anymore. I’m either “Giulia La Bella,” which is very nice; or “the Venus of the Vatican,” which is sort of nice; or “The Bride of Christ” which isn’t nice at all. I have a sneaking suspicion my bodyguard Leonello came up with that one, since he finds it so side-splittingly funny.

Me: Why do they call you that?

Giulia: Well, Giulia la Bella comes from the fact that I have floor-length hair. I don’t really think I’m much prettier than anybody else, but I do have this hair that comes down to the floor, and everybody seems to think it’s terribly romantic. I don’t know why; it takes forever to wash and even longer to dry, and it’s always getting tangled around everything. I don’t know about you, but I don’t call that very romantic.

Me: What I meant was, readers might like to know why you’re called the Bride of Christ.

Giulia: It might be a reference to the Holy Father.

Me: You mean the Pope? The former Cardinal Borgia? Who is he to you?

Giulia: (demurely) He’s my mother-in-law’s cousin.

Me: So you’re married?

Giulia: It’s complicated.

Me: How complicated?

Giulia: How long do you have? We’ll be here all day before I’ve even finished telling you how strange the wedding night was.

Me: Just tell me about the Pope then. People say he’s paying court to you . . .

Giulia: Do you have any more of those Piece of Reese things?

Me: Reeses Pieces. Now, about the Pope–

Giulia: You know, you have hair the same color as mine. And two feet of hair is much more sensible than five feet. I’ll bet yours doesn’t choke you when you sleep.

Me: All right, keep your secrets!

Giulia: All will be revealed August 6. Are you sure chocolate hasn’t been invented yet in my time?

Me: Sorry. I wrote about you, but I can’t change history for you.

Giulia: That’s too bad. Do come visit again. And bring more chocolate! I always eat when I’m visiting.

2013 Historical Novel Society Conference: The Recap

With only two writer conferences under my belt (Historical Novel Society Conference 2011, and Romantic Times Convention 2013), I am far from a veteran. But when I packed my bags for the 2013 Historical Novel Society Conference in St. Petersburg, Florida, I knew enough to anticipate a few things: 1) There would be much fun and very little sleep, and 2) What happens at the conference, stays at the conference.

Even with that last caveat, there was plenty of fun that’s printable. So here it is: HNS 2013, The Recap.

Just like Vegas, what happens at the conference stays at the conference. Mostly.

FRIDAY

4:11 a.m. Having spent the previous week fussing over the two panels on which I’m speaking, and changing my mind yet again about which scene I would be trotting out for Diana Gabaldon’s ever-popular Saturday Night Sex Scene event, I’m packing LITERALLY at the last minute before my dawn airport shuttle arrives. I am not an efficient packer. I throw things into my suitcase with such random logic that my first thought on unpacking is always something along the lines of “Why did I pack a set of wind-chimes and an abacus, but no pants?” Hubby and Facebook friends proceed to mock me mercilessly.

7:31 a.m. For Romantic Times I had Stephanie Dray as a traveling companion; this time around, Sophie Perinot. We mainline coffee and spend the flight yakking it up about our respective books-in-progress. The guy in our row keeps giving us weary glances: maybe he didn’t really feel like overhearing a complete run-down on the Divorce Satyrique and Suetonius’s Twelve Caesars before he’d even gotten his airline peanuts.

11:39 a.m. St. Petersburg, Florida! Good god, the humidity is even worse than Maryland; it’s like walking into a warm wet sponge. The hotel shuttle turns out to be picking up not just Sophie and myself, but Stephanie Dray, Kris Waldherr, and a number of other conference-goers. We debate proper classical names for Stephanie’s stuffed hippo, a gift from me. Don’t ask.

1:12 p.m. Rooms aren’t ready yet, so we plop down to lunch, and are promptly joined by Adelaida Lucena-Lower, Hope Stewart, Barbara Beck (all fellow HNS Chesapeake Bay chapter members), and Stephanie Cowell. Stephanie and I find out that we are both former opera singers, and promptly get into the musical weeds. (“What fach are you?” “Isn’t that E natural in Blonde’s aria a bitch?”) We’ve managed to be nerds at a nerd-fest.

2:46 p.m. Unpacking. Can anyone tell me why I packed sixteen pairs of earrings, but no toothpaste?

5pm Reception! I run around shrieking greetings to people I haven’t seen, in some cases, since the 2011 conference in San Diego. I wear my red patent-leather stilettos; the 4-inch ones that turn my toes numb, but give me a Joan-from-Mad-Men strut. They’re my good luck charm from the last conference, which I attended as a tongue-tied fan-girl–they were by far the most memorable thing about me. Even more than my name-tag, people at the reception glance at my feet and exclaim, “I remember you!”

5:58 p.m. In San Diego, I bonded with five or six other ladies in one of those late-night spill-your-secrets gab-fests that welds people together for life. We christened ourselves the Lobby Posse, and haven’t lost touch since. We’re missing some members–Michelle Moran is settling into a new house in Texas–but Marci Jefferson, DeAnn Smith, Teralyn Pilgrim, Sophie, and myself all drink a toast to happy reunions.

6:02 p.m. And more additions to the posse: C.W. Gortner of the Oscar Wilde one-liners, Christy English of the sweet southernisms, and Donna Russo Morin of the stilettos even more sky-high than mine. They were Athos, Porthos, and Aramis to my star-struck D’Artagnan when we all congregated at RT last month.

6:16 p.m. When Christopher hears that Stephanie’s writing idol is Margaret George, he promptly hauls her off for a face-to-face meeting. Stephanie’s eyes are the size of Cleopatra’s pearls, the ones she dissolved in vinegar and drank down to impress Mark Antony.

6:32 p.m. Sophie gives Stephanie a mini smiling hippo toy. Don’t ask.

6:49 p.m. Finally get a chance to meet some of these people I’ve only known online, like Amy Phillips Bruno of book blog “Passages To The Past.” As somebody comments, it’s easy to recognize people in this room as long as you picture their faces as little thumbnail jpegs.

7 p.m. Dinnertime. Announcements from the saintly Vanitha Sankaran, who heroically chaired this year’s conference, and then we head for the buffet line. Several tables are sternly scolded for getting up out of order; we return meekly to our seats. All except for Margaret George who calmly declines to be scolded, and moves to the line like an empress. Over veggies in pastry, she and Stephanie Dray gabble happily about Emperor Nero, the end of Cleopatra’s dynasty in Mauretania, and whether Agrippina the Younger really swam out of a collapsing boat.

8:04 p.m. Anne Perry is our guest speaker tonight, and she’s got the voice of a born story-teller: low, lulling, spooky; absolute mistress of the dramatic pause. She paints such a vivid picture of Robespierre in his tumbril on the way to the guillotine, I can practically smell the blood between the cobblestones of the Place de la Greve.

9:21 p.m. Out on the veranda with Eliza Knight, Teralyn Pilgrim, and Richard Scott. Eliza and I talk highland warriors (she’s the queen of hunky Scottish heroes, excepting maybe Diana Gabaldon), Teralyn and I muse about Vestal Virgins, and Richard scolds me sternly for moving away from San Diego. Given that it’s 85 degrees and 85% humidity at 9:21 at night, I’m missing the San Diego weather right about now.

11:13 p.m. I hit the dance floor briefly with Heather Webb, Amanda Orr, and DeAnn. As we boogie, I grill Heather about her upcoming book on Empress Josephine, and Amanda asks for the latest bon mot from my mom, who is known on my blog by the sobriquet of the Dowager Librarian. (Because my mother is basically the Dowager Countess from “Downton Abbey,” if the D.C. worked at your local library. A typical bon mot: “You want to know why librarians are always cranky? Because they do nothing anymore but put holds for people on 50 Shades of Grey.”)

11:32 p.m. DeAnn has a hospitality suite on the top floor with room for a party. I long to head up and continue gabbing, but I’m exhausted from my 5am packing session, and opt for a reluctant early bedtime. I’m speaking on two panels tomorrow, and I need my beauty sleep.

SATURDAY

7am Breakfast. The hotel has wisely set up about 16 massive coffee dispensers taking up the entirety of one long wall. Good move. Run out of coffee at a writers convention, and the hotel will be burning like Rome.

8:15 a.m. First panel: “Depicting Religion in Historical Fiction,” with Stephanie, Teralyn, Mary Sharratt, and the fascinating Kamran Pasha who speaks in rapid-fire staccato bursts like a particularly erudite automatic rifle. “It’s too early to be this scholarly,” Stephanie moans, but this turns out to be one of the most fascinating panels of the conference. Mary calls Hildegard von Bingen a power frau, Kamran skewers fundamentalists of all religions with a pithy “Fundamentalism stems from insecurity,” and Stephanie brings down the house when asked when it is appropriate to critique religion: “Always, but that doesn’t mean it’s wise.”

9:30 a.m. Second panel–“Is `Genre’ A Dirty Word? Commercial vs. Literary HF.” Anybody else notice that as soon as historical novels start winning prizes/accolades, they are quickly adopted as “literary” by high-brow critics who don’t want to admit that they like historical fiction? See “Wolf Hall.”

10:15 a.m. I’m torn between “To Trump Or Trumpet The History Police” and “Cliches in Historical Fiction: the Feisty Heroine Sold Into Marriage Who Hates Bear-Baiting.” So I hit both, half an hour each. For the former, a resounding “NO!” sounds when the moderator asks if writers should respond to critics accusing them of historical inaccuracy.

12:01 p.m. Lunchtime. Can somebody explain to me why the glass sculpture hanging from the ballroom ceiling looks like Medusa’s head?

12:48 p.m. We finish up our pasta salad and sandwiches as keynote speaker C.W. Gortner speaks warmly, wittily, and with self-deprecation about his experiences as a writer of historical fiction, from the many many many rejection slips to the importance of the writer community. “Historical fiction is often the punching bag of the industry, second only to romances . . . but we celebrate a genre that is time-honored.” Standing ovation, well earned.

1:30 p.m. And GULP: the first of my two panels. Fortunately “Sex In Historical Fiction: How To Make It Hot” is a repeat performance, since Christopher, Donna, Christy, and I did this one for RT. We add Sherry Jones this time, who brings down the house with a well-timed joke about a cod-piece.

2:45 p.m. No rest for the wicked; my second panel comes right away. “HF Set in the Ancient World: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.” All the bawdy sex talk has loosened my nerves, however, so the panel with Stephanie, Margaret George, and Vicky Alvear Shecter goes easy-peasy. I’m the odd man out on this panel: the only one at the table who didn’t write some version of Cleopatra’s suicide.

4 p.m. Book signing! I stake out a spot with T.K. Thorne, whose biblical epic Noah’s Wife I enjoyed immensely. I’ve got two spare ARC’s of my forthcoming Serpent and the Pearl, and I keep an eye peeled for readers I can give them away to. Audra Friend walks away happily with the first one–and if you want more hilarious conference recaps via Twitter, read Audra’s compilation here.

5:13 p.m. Finally get a break to run to the book-selling room. I remind myself sternly that I have very little room in my suitcase for new purchases. Very proud that I only walk away with 13 new books.

5:42 p.m. Stephanie Dray receives an angry-hippo mug from a mutual friend. Don’t ask.

6:33 p.m. One of the joys of having writer friends: receiving grammatically correct text messages.

7 p.m. Dinner and festivities. A table full of friends both old and new–I’m delighted to meet David Blixt and his fiery ginger wife Jan, Shakespearean actors both. David ran a seminar on swordplay this morning which I was sincerely disappointed to miss, and Jan keeps me in stitches with one-liners that could come straight from Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing.

8:11 p.m. Costume pageant, hosted by our very own Gillian Bagwell, rigged out in outrageous English accent and salmon-pink 18th century finery as “Joan, Lady Rivers.” Given that this crowd is more likely to watch “The White Queen” than the Oscars, I’m surprised people aren’t turning to each other with comments of “Is that a relative of Elizabeth Woodville’s brother Lord Rivers?”

8:38 p.m. Grr. First my phone dies, then I realize my shuttle arrangements to catch my flight tomorrow fell through–during the costume pageant, I’m hopping up and down between my room and the table like a jack-rabbit on meth. Thank God I don’t miss Teralyn Pilgrim, who steals the show in a demure Vestal Virgin outfit–worn serenely over a noticeably pregnant belly. Her Vestal-in-denial routine has us all in stitches. Teralyn, if you ever for some reason decide to give up writing, you’ve got a future in stand-up comedy.

8:52 p.m. HF fans all wear great jewelry, I’ve noticed. Chandelier earrings, BC gold bracelets, Greek coins fashioned into necklaces, antique cocktail rings . . . there’s enough bling in this room to deck out a dozen Roman emperors.

9:10 p.m. Steve Berry, keynote speaker straight out of a John Grisham novel: former trial lawyer with southern charm and southern accent. He’s got some great lines – “I’m not a historian, I’m just a guy who read 400 books on the subject” and “Don’t write what you know, that’s bad advice! Write what you love.” But his pet project right now is the current theory that Elizabeth I died at thirteen and was replaced by a male impostor who was also somehow the illegitimate grandson of Henry VIII, and I have to wonder if it was the best topic for this particular audience. On the other hand, it says something about the level of awesome at HNS that here is a roomful of people who will leap to defend the reputation of a woman 400 years dead.

9:21 p.m. Diana Gabaldon’s sex scene readings come right after this–I’m reading this year, and I realize I’ve left my scene upstairs. Hightail it back up to my room in a panic, missing the Q&A after Berry’s speech, and skid back into the banquet hall just in time to see Teralyn the Vestal Virgin graciously accepting her prize as winner of the costume pageant. Well-deserved.

10 p.m. Saturday Night Sex Scene readings kick off with Diana Gabaldon reading a hilarious essay on the do’s and don’ts of writing sex. I’m not nervous at all.

10:08 p.m. Margaret George in a fabulous Titanic-inspired gown reads a Henry VIII scene, noting that Henry is considerably less accomplished with women than Jonathan Rhys Meyers would have us think–as Henry trysts with Bessie Blount, he reflects that his friend Henry Cavill Charles Brandon would at least have had a bed prepped.

10:32 p.m. Anne Easter Smith makes us all sigh with a tender scene between Richard of York and his Proud Cis . . . Bruce MacBain has a Viking sauna scene that steams everybody up . . . and holy **** it’s my turn. I’m not nervous at all.

10:58 p.m. Ok, my knees are knocking. Maybe the 4-inch stilettos weren’t such a good idea. My sex scene is from my upcoming Serpent and the Pearl. Let’s just say there’s aphrodisiac food, and Cesare Borgia pins somebody to a table.

11:09 p.m. Jan Blixt leans over as I collapse into a chair: “Now that you’re done reading, would you like a drink?” Straight scotch, please, and bless you.

11:48 p.m. Suzy Witten narrates an eerie Salem witchcraft erotic dream, Leslie Carroll gives us Axel von Fersen and Marie Antoinette spooning in the Tuileries . . . but the night’s honors have to go to Erika Mailman, who has us all choking with laughter at her Irish-accented diatribe of a prostitute on a job that goes epically, comically wrong. Bloody brilliant.

The wee hours: It’s after midnight by the time Diana Gabaldon wraps everything with a sigh-worthy Jamie Fraser scene in her trademark smoky voice. I get up to my room to find that my darling spouse has sent two bottles of champagne so I can celebrate. I round up every friend I can find to share–my phone is still dead so I can’t locate Deann or those others of the Lobby Posse who have gone up to bed, and Stephanie is off with her own white knight hubby, so I end up drinking my bubbly with Christopher, Donna, Christy, Sophie, and the Blixts. My husband is toasted many times in absentia, and everybody adores the story of how he dressed up as a gladiator for my appearance at the Baltimore Book Festival last year. (“ARE YOU NOT ENTERTAINED?!”) This is the part of the conference that stays at the conference–but as a final note, I will say that you should never pass up the opportunity to swing-dance with David Blixt around a coffee table at 2:30 a.m.

3:10 a.m. Too wired to sleep as I finally drift back to my room. I open up Christy English’s The Queen’s Pawn to read myself to sleep, and end up reading wide-eyed for another hour about the adventures of Princess Alais and Eleanor of Aquitaine. God damn you, Christy, I’m on four hours of sleep already.

SUNDAY

8:30 a.m. I sleep through my wake-up call. It’s all Christy English’s fault.

9:10 a.m. I pack frantically, but still end up missing Marci Jefferson’s panel on “Author-Agent Talk: the Inside Scoop.” I adore Marci, whose novel The Girl on the Golden Coin: a novel of Frances Stuart comes out 2014–it’s Marci’s debut novel and I know she’s nervous, but she has no cause to be. Girl on the Golden Coin is a sensational Restoration romp about a gutsy young duchess who turns down three different kings, and I encourage everybody to pre-order it here.

10:58 a.m. One final lunch with Stephanie and Vicky Alvear Shecter before the plane. Stephanie gets yet another little hippo figurine. Don’t ask.

12:41 p.m. I trail through the lobby trading good-byes and vows of friendship with everybody I meet, suddenly in a panic that there’s a friend, colleague, or reader I’ve overlooked in this whirlwind two days. If I missed you somehow in St. Petersburg, I swear I’ll catch up with you at the next conference.

4:23 p.m. Home at last. Dog greets me rapturously, with yips and tail wags. Husband greets me rapturously, with flowers and pasta. But it feels oddly . . . quiet.

There it is in a nutshell: HNS 2013. HNS 2011 was my first conference, and it was an eye-opener: I’d been a professional author for less than two years, and I was going it entirely alone. It was in San Diego two years ago that I first found out what a wonderful community there is of writers, readers, and friends in this business. I don’t think I realized how lonely this job could be, when you don’t have that community. Two years later, and I couldn’t imagine being without it. Christopher said it best in his keynote lunch address: “Conferences are about community, not book promotion.” Amen–and as I unpack my red stilettos and my 13 new books, I already can’t wait for HNS 2015.

Guest Blogger: A Navy Man Talks About Memorial Day

*originally written Memorial Day 2013; updated Memorial Day 2019*

Regular followers of my wife’s blog have noticed that she has a soft spot for military men. This works out pretty well for me, being a proud US Navy Petty Officer First Class; we tend to define ourselves as fairly bad-ass, so that when we wake up in the morning and our feet hit the floor, the Devil himself winces. We think rather highly of ourselves, and it’s not entirely unearned.

My wife’s soft spot for military men usually results in a Memorial Day blog post that jerks tears from your eyes and turns your heart inside out. Kate’s understanding of the demands, of the sometimes overwhelming burden of military service is, truly, beyond compare. She understands the Cost, capital C.

I’m not as eloquent as she is. I never have been, and frankly don’t expect to ever be. I don’t have the tools or the vocabulary or the experience to lay out words in such heart-rending fashion. That skill, I am afraid, is beyond me. However, what I can do is speak about Memorial Day, and why I would submit that people should take a contemplative moment or two themselves; to remember those who have served, those who have lost and been lost, those who have stood at the front. Those rough souls have a unique perspective lacking in much of the populace, and it is that perspective I wish to provide. For what is Memorial Day if not a day of remembrance? Granted, it’s a day for family, a day for friends, for BBQ, for relaxation, for celebrating the start of summer.

However, the blunt fact is that the origin of Memorial Day is sacrifice.

Sacrifice of life, sacrifice of limb, sacrifice of peace and tranquility and sanity. It’s the sacrifice of everyone who has gone before, everyone who has stood nearest to that deep line in the sand (either literally or metaphorically) and calmly uttered, “This far, no further.”

So here I am with my soapbox. Not out of intent to shame, nor intent to incite guilt, nor attempts to tug at heart-strings, but with simple intent to provide perspective. It is the view from the Other Side.

I, as many hundreds of thousands of others, have lost. My father. A best friend. Shipmates. Partners. Strangers without names, and sometimes people I’ve only met once or twice.

My grandfather served in the U.S. Army Air Force, flying for multiple years over The Hump in WWII. He served honorably for his term, married late grandmother via letter (essentially), lived a full life, and he died of natural causes when I was a teenager. For him and his honorable service, I lift my glass.

My father served in the U.S. Army 82nd Airborne Division. He was drafted into Vietnam, and served his time in that quietly freezing Hell known as Alaska. He served honorably for his term, and then was honorably discharged. My brother and I lost him almost nine years ago to natural causes. For him and his honorable service, I lift my glass.

Many years ago, while serving on a destroyer, my best friend hanged himself during the night. The reasons were asked. Hands were wrung. Everyone had an idea. I was one of the last people to speak with him – and the simple truth, from what I knew and without assigning blame, was that stress of his particular situation proved too much. The service can ask everything of you. Absolutely everything, and some can’t flex accordingly; and those, they tend to fall through the cracks waiting for help that never comes and the cost can be, in horrific fashion, fatal. For him and all the others lost in such a way, for their honorable service I lift my glass.

Like thousands of others, I’ve had friends die in service. It’s tough. Always. Not all of them were because of the service, I’ll admit. But a lot were. My shipmates and I have tried to save dying men, and unfortunately most of the time we failed. But therein lies the fundamental axiom of military service that all who take the oath must understand and accept; you give your all. Flat out. No brakes. Even if it appears hopeless, even if you’re so tired you can’t even breathe, you Give. Your. All. And for many, that includes their lives.

So……..here’s my point. If you know someone who’s serving, look them in the eyes, don’t say a word, and (symbolically, if you need to), raise a glass for their still being around. Because Memorial Day is a day to remember the honorable sacrifices of those who have died in service, and to grateful those those still with us. Yes, there is BBQ, a celebration of summer, and games and joy and delighted screams from children jumping into freezing pools. But the quiet truth behind the celebrations we enjoy on this long weekend is the fact that this day would not exist if not for sacrifices of those gone before. We stand, this Country stands, on the honor of those souls standing watch, near and far, who, when asked the cost they would be willing to pay, calmly replied, “Any and all.” I would not have them forgotten, and neither should you. I leave you with the immortal words of William Henley, as I see describing Those In Service:

 

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.

 

And as my beloved wife has mentioned in previous years, we will both take a moment on Memorial Day to raise a glass, and offer the toast: “To the fallen. Our Honored Dead.”

Romantic Times Convention: The Recap

What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas. One could say the same for the Romantic Times Convention: a jam-packed five days in Kansas City where thousands of the writers, editors, agents, and readers of romance came together to learn, listen, and of course gossip. I’ve attended the Historical Novel Society Conference before, but this was my very first RT, and (gulp) I was also a speaker. There were shenanigans galore, and for some of the scandals, I’m sworn to silence–but there’s plenty that’s printable, and here it is!

WEDNESDAY

6:10 a.m. There are some people who manage to travel chic, but I am not one of them. Forget chic Louis Vuitton carry-ons or even matching Samsonites; I’m hauling a tattered faux-Coach tote from my college days, a neon floral gym bag circa 1987, and a massive black and yellow sports bag that could hold every hockey stick the Boston Bruins own. Given the fact that said black-and-yellow bag is missing both wheels, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to learn it was used to bash a goalie’s head in during the last Bruins-Maple Leafs scrum.

8:23 a.m. My deep ingrained displeasure at having to rise at What The **** O’Clock is off-set by the fact that my pal and fellow author-of-the-ancient-world Stephanie Dray has agreed to fly out to RT with me in adjoining airplane seats. Stephanie is a marvelous traveling companion; even with a massive tote over one arm and a boarding pass clutched in hand she has the air of one being borne along on her journeys by slave-borne barge.

10:48 a.m. Get two authors together on an airplane with nothing to do but talk shop, and the facts start to fly–after an hour’s breathless natter over the airline peanuts about the building of Monticello, the guerilla tactics of Tacfarinas, and the common poisons and antidotes used in Imperial Rome, the man in the seat ahead finally turns around and fixes us with a certain wary interest. “Just what is it that you ladies do?” After assuaging his fears that we are not in fact planning real murders, only fictional ones, we manage to brainstorm and plot a book each. If we’re this productive on the return journey, we’ll probably have sample chapters and a full outline prepped for our respective agents.

1:05 p.m. The hotel is massive, connected to the world outside with glass walkways, and the conference is already in full swing. I barely have a chance to dump my bags before I’m subsumed into a mass of new friends. Over quick burgers at the hotel pub, I commiserate with Jeannie Lin, who writes T’ang dynasty romance. “Concubinage is underestimated as a happily-ever-after,” she says thoughtfully. Where else in the world would you hear that and not be fazed?

3:47 p.m. I’m late for my very first workshop: “How To Work With Your Publisher on Publicity and Marketing.” Sourcebooks puts on a marvelous talk, but everything is overshadowed by meeting yet two more new friends, fellow HF authors Christy English and Donna Russo Morin. We’ve bonded through Facebook and have been dying to meet face to face–and Christy turns out to be a southern-born charmer with a curtain of brunette hair and a beaming oft-repeated exclamation of “You’re so sweet!” while Donna is a vibrant Italian hugger-and-kisser in leopard pumps. I’m somewhat proud of my own ability to walk in 4-inch heels but Donna has me beat by a Florentine mile: the woman wasn’t just born in stilettos; I think she was born with spike-heeled feet like Angelina Jolie in “Beowulf.”

5 p.m. “Using Theme To Strengthen Your Brand.” Stephanie’s speaking at this one, and I haul Donna and Christy along for the fun. It’s one of the best talks of the conference: Stephanie is joined by Norah-Roberts-To-Be Laura Kaye, and Queen-of-the-Highland-Warriors Eliza Knight for a thought-provoking talk on theme that produces its share of Eureka! moments in the audience. “Everything I write has the same theme!” Christy exclaims midway through. “How did I not realize that?” I’m stuck on what my overall theme could possibly be; Stephanie offers a suggestion of Karma’s a bitch. I think she may be onto something there.

6:31 p.m. Dinner at an Italian restaurant with Donna, Christy, and Stephanie. Prosecco flows. Secrets are exchanged. Also much swearing over recent trends in historical book covers.

8:37 p.m. E.L. James is supposedly here, but under an assumed name. Resolve to keep my eyes peeled.

9:14 p.m. Christopher Gortner and I meet up and fall on each other with happy cries of joy–we hit it off at the San Diego HNS conference, but haven’t met face-to-face since. Not only is he the best dinner companion on earth–he’s got more one-liners than Rupert Everett in an Oscar Wilde play–but we’re both writing Borgia books. We trade plot details happily: his Vatican Princess focuses on Lucrezia, and my The Serpent and the Pearl takes a wider angle on the Borgia Pope’s mistress Giulia Farnese, so we’ve managed to cover the same era without stepping on each other’s hems. Excellent.

10:02 p.m. Do I really want to go to the Ellora’s Cave Disco-Themed Cocktail Party bash? Is Christopher giving me an imperious stare? Looks like I’m going to the Ellora’s Cave Disco-Themed Cocktail Party.

10:36 p.m. Oh dear God. Six male dancers get up for a bump-and-grind routine to “Stayin’ Alive,” wearing unbuttoned sequin shirts and white spandex bell-bottoms so tight that, in the words of Robin Williams, you can tell what religion the men are. Brain bleach, brain bleach!

10:41 p.m. “Stayin’ Alive” gives way to something else from “Saturday Night Fever,” as the gyrating continues. “Clearly the only thing to do,” Christopher counsels between fits of laughter, “is to take pictures and send to your husband with the caption `Missing you, honey!'” Two flutes of Prosecco later, this seems like an excellent idea.

12:09 a.m. Slide into bed with a sore stomach from laughing so much. Am wakened an hour later by a text from the hubby: a pic of him and the Navy cadre from his division, all dressed in drag and holding skirts up to show hairy legs. “Missing you, too.” Well played, sir.

THURSDAY

8:30 a.m. I notice that the only event scheduled before eleven is the breakfast for inspirational romance authors. I think inspirational clean-living sort are going to be the ONLY ones at this conference up that early.

2 p.m. Lobby Posse reunion! At the Historical Novel Society in San Diego, the stars aligned to throw six or seven women together in the lobby for shop-talk and insta-bonding. I was lucky enough to be one of those ladies (along with Sophie Perinot, Michelle Moran, Teralyn Pilgrim, DeAnn Smith, and Marci Jefferson) and we’ve none of us lost touch since. This is a rare opportunity to catch up with DeAnn, a KC native, and bless her, she was even able to set up a quick interview for me on KCTV. As Christy English would say, “You’re so sweet!” I even manage to sound reasonably coherent. Thanks again, DeAnn!

http://www.kctv5.com/story/22124550/more-tthan-2000-book-lovers
(I’m in the video on the lower left)

2:45 p.m. Christopher and his agent present a sensational panel on self-marketing. Twitter; blog ads; Goodreads; Facebook; nothing is overlooked. I take copious notes. Let it be known: C.W. Gortner is not only the king of insightful fictional portraits of historical bad girls; he is the king of marketing.

4 p.m. I’m signed up for the e-book Expo signing. As one of my Goodreads blog followers once wondered, exactly how does one sign an e-book? I’m not exactly sure, and I’m not sure anyone else is either. But I sit here gamely, and hey, somebody does ask me to sign their Kindle.

6:10 p.m. Fast dinner with the new posse. More swearing about covers, more dark secrets–and we plan to invade the 30th anniversary RT Formal Ball this evening en masse. We all try to persuade Donna to unearth her Three Musketeers costume, the one with the tabard and the thigh boots.

8:42 p.m. An evening of mad primping, followed by a dash to the ball. I’m going va-va-voom with something strapless, scarlet, and very Liz Taylor. Christopher has fabulous Italian leather shoes, Stephanie sports a 20’s feathered headdress and a long Audrey Hepburn cigarette holder, and Donna may have decided against wearing her Musketeer tabard, but she flashes an Angelina “leg” pose when we stop for pix. We are one fabulous bunch, if I do say so myself.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

9:39 p.m. Why is it that so many parties decide that the moment of greatest merriment among the guests is EXACTLY the time to stop for a 90 minute speech? Jay Gatsby would not approve. Fortunately, we’re all at a table in the back where we continue to drink champagne, eat chocolate, and dish. We argue about whether Plantagenet history is more of a minefield for the fans or the writers, and whether anyone reads American-set HF anymore at all. Christopher withstands all my blandishments, blackmails, and bribery for a hint on his next project, damn him.

10:46 p.m. Trail upstairs at last to watch TV in my pj’s and pearls. Donna has raved about the show “Vikings,” in particular its hero – “eyes like blue lasers!” – so I give it a try. Donna’s right about the lasers; Travis Fimmel is one tasty Viking, even with his hair strapped into a tight ponytail braid that could easily make him look like a really muscular prep-school girl.

11:59 p.m. When you get a midnight text imploring you to head out for an emergency group bitch session on the Worst Publisher Ever, as well as the real story on whether E.L. James is at the conference or not–you pack up and go. This part stays in the Cone of Silence.

FRIDAY

Noon I take a long morning to prep for my one speaking gig: a panel with Donna, Christy, and Christopher titled “The Hottest Sex In History.” Are those butterflies? Why yes, they are.

1:15 p.m. Piteous pic sent from the spouse: him and the dog, both looking sad. Aww, my boys are missing me.

3:45 p.m. “The Hottest Sex in History” is scheduled opposite a vampire meet-and-greet, so attendance is light, but we ham it up and have a great time. “What’s the raciest tidbit you’ve ever found in your research?” asks Christopher’s agent Jennifer Weltz, who is moderating. I relate a bit of real-life banter where a medieval courtier teased a lady when she asserted that women like herself did not have hair upon their bodies like men did, even in intimate places: “Certainly not; grass would never grow on such a well-beaten path.” Ouch.

5:13 p.m. Third time back at that Italian restaurant. The waiters know us all by name by now; they have Donna’s prosecco ready to go, and the waiter is writing “chicken marsala” before I can form the words.

7:42 p.m. Ok, the real story on E.L. James? She came to the conference under an assumed name to support a writer friend, but blew her cover almost immediately by standing up at a panel in which her books were mentioned, and getting huffy with the moderator because she didn’t like what they were saying. I don’t know about you, but if I could buy an island in the Caymans with my last royalty check, I wouldn’t be getting huffy about anything.

9:51 p.m. Have resolved that I am going to make this an early night: pj’s, hotel room, maybe a little more “Vikings.” So naturally I’m up till 1:15 a.m talking shop with Christopher and Stephanie, who are meeting for the first time and hitting it off famously. Screw it; I’ll sleep later.

SATURDAY

9:15 a.m. Wake up looking like I spent the night under a collapsed building. Shriek at reflection in mirror; reach for concealer. It’s the giant book fair this morning: three hours of signing and selling. Knowing me I will walk out with an armload of new books, even though I’m the one who’s supposed to be selling them.

10 a.m. Is that Mary Jo Putney sitting right next to me? Why, yes it is. She could not be nicer; signing for her legions of fans, she steers them gently my direction–and in between the fans, we gab. “I like a book hero with real problems,” she says, and points to two of her latest. “This one’s an alcoholic and this one’s nearly feral from solitary confinement.” I point at two of mine. “This one’s an inarticulate killing machine, and, well, this one’s just kind of a jerk.” We trade books: her feral ex-prisoner for my inarticulate killing machine.

2:13 p.m. And yes, I am walking out with a stack of books. Text the husband: “Need another bookshelf.” Get a text back: “Running out of walls.”

2:17 p.m. Meet a darling teenage girl in the line who has brought a suitcase full of books to be signed by all her favorite authors, and is mourning the fact that three hours wasn’t enough to get to them all. I ask who she missed; she takes a gander at my name tag and says, “Well, for one, you!” I end up signing for her in the checkout line.

3:45 p.m. Eliza Knight, a friend from the local Maryland writers group. She looks cheerful but a trifle haggard–as well she might, considering she is the mother of three who can turn out six books a year. “I don’t know how she does it” doesn’t even begin to cover this woman’s work ethic. She ends up dragging me, and Donna as well, to a Hunky Highlanders panel where we listen to Scottish ghost stories while sipping Scotch whiskey and sampling haggis. Not bad (the haggis).

9pm Harlequin Dance Party! Donna can not only walk around all day in those fabulous leopard-skin stilettos of hers; she can dance all night in them. She has all the cover models salivating. When I’m too tired to dance, I flop down with Christy and we talk Princess Alais of France, one of Christy’s book heroines and historical co-star in the epic Katharine Hepburn movie “Lion in Winter.” Was Alais seduced by Henry II, or vice versa? Christy thinks Alais went for him. “He’s charming! He’s handsome! He was the king! And,” Christy adds, “we know he didn’t wear riding gloves. Who could resist a king who has working-man calluses?” Good point.

12:09 a.m. And it’s another late night for me! Laura Kaye dishes details on the Cinema Craptastique event; where an epically bad movie is picked for viewing with hilarious voiceover. Stephanie volunteers a howler of a horror movie called “Bad Sheep” for next year’s event, and Christopher contributes a campy old vampire flick. Who knew he could do such a dead-on parody of Marlene Dietrich? “Are you hungry, daaaaahlings?”

SUNDAY

3:55 The conference is done; Stephanie and I fly out in the evening. But we squeeze in one last farewell coffee with Christopher, and an epic barbecue lunch with Lobby Posse pal DeAnn. I’m 90% convinced this is the same barbecue joint where Kevin Spacey plots world domination in “House of Cards.” And how can Kevin Spacey make such an ominous prop out of a bottle of barbecue sauce?

6:15 Stephanie and I board our plane over-caffeinated and exhausted, finely tuned to a state somewhere between Zen and stoned. I say something vague about our flight connection in Atlanta and she stares at me for a moment. “Was that English?” Me: (thinking seriously): “Possibly not. In my sleep I speak French, and currently I’m three-quarters asleep.” (True story about the French.)

10:55 p.m. Both Zen and exhaustion are replaced with fury as airline screw-ups causes us to miss our connecting flight. Neither of us will be arriving home until at least one-thirty in the morning. It’s not wise to upset historical fiction authors. Know this, you apathetic, chinless, pimpled cretins in the Customer Service Department of AirTran, and know it well: you will all turn up in Stephanie’s and my next books, and you will be crucified along the Appian Way.

1:47 a.m. And I’m home. The hubby is asleep. The dog is asleep. The conference is over.

There you have it, in a nutshell: the 2013 Romantic Times Convention. I anticipated the fun panels, the useful discussions, the industry tips–but what gets me every time about these writer conventions is the strange and wonderful zaniness of the people who write for a living. We work alone, curled up on our couches or at our desks, engaged in the solitary process of stringing one word after another. Put us all together in one room for a change–people who all give the same knowing nods when somebody exclaims, “Don’t you just hate it when you get a historically inaccurate dress on your cover?”– and we party like nobody’s business. A few more days of this, and Kansas City might have been burning like Rome.

Next year’s RT is already set for New Orleans. I confidently predict shenanigans, madness, and fun.

In Memoriam: A Great Friend and Mentor

I lost a friend earlier this year. Conrad, a mainstay of my childhood, who I saw only intermittently after growing up and moving cross-country, but who was often in my thoughts. He’s one of the reasons I became a writer of historical fiction in the first place.

Conrad was a firm friend to my grandparents–an odd buddy for a little girl, generationally, but kindred spirits are found in the most unlikely places. His life was one of those colorful Jack London strings of unlikely adventures (degree in Biochemistry, worked for NASA, degree in geology, worked for teamster’s union, ran for Congress, lost due to over-honesty and tattoos). He was a lanky, raspy-voiced genius with eyes permanently crinkled in amusement at the foibles of mankind, and the hands of a concert pianist (often holding a cigarette; I’d have breathed in any amount of second-hand smoke to hear Conrad’s witticisms). He had a massive, arrogant intellect and a biting tongue; he was interested in everything, and had no patience with hypocrites and fools. He valued intelligence, and he didn’t care what package it came in. He was one of those rare adults who could talk to children without talking down to them–if he thought you were smart, he didn’t care if you were eight. Smart was smart.

That was the trait that endeared Conrad to me. When you’re in elementary school and your passion is the Tudors rather than My Little Pony, you don’t have too many people your own age to talk to. The other kids call you a weirdo because instead of joining the kickball game, you march off with the kickball under your arm pretending to be Margaret Roper retrieving Sir Thomas More’s head from the Tower of London. And adults aren’t that disposed to listen to you, either. Sure, they think it’s cute at first when a nine-year-old starts reeling off the key diplomacy points between Elizabeth I and Ambassador Mendoza, but after that? Sad to say, many adults get uncomfortable when a kid is knowledgeable. They think you’re showing off, or they just wish you’d go away and bore somebody else.

My parents were better than that: they got me “Kings and Queens of England” paper dolls instead of Barbies, and they listened to me yatter on about Greek mythology and Tudor history all I wanted. (And I did yatter; I was a dreadful little pedant.) But a kid always has the suspicion that their parents are predisposed to listen–they indulge you because they love you. Conrad was different. He looked down at me through a haze of cigarette smoke, listening to me chatter about the Field of the Cloth of Gold, and then he corrected calmly, “No, I think you’ll find in the Weir biography that that’s wrong. I’ll lend it to you.”

An adult who would listen to me–who would talk to me–who wouldn’t condescend to me! I bee-lined for Conrad every chance I could get, and the result was a string of memorable conversations. When he and my grandparents took me to the Greek Festival, I missed the folk dancing because Conrad and I were debating the pros and cons of the First versus the Second Triumvirates of Rome. On a camping trip in the mountains, everybody else toasted marshmallows and sang Kum Ba Yah around the fire, but we were too busy dissecting the various marriages of Henry VIII. (Oh, the bemused stares!) My interest in history exploded, and Conrad fostered it. For my eleventh birthday he gave me a college-level treatise on Tudor economics–I still have it, worn to tatters. When I told him my latest passion was the Hundred Years War, he pulled his hardback copy of Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror off the shelf at once and tossed it into my hands. We made an odd pair: a lanky middle-aged atheist covered in teamster tattoos, and a little blond girl who barely came up to his elbow, but our minds ran on the same track.

Conrad never bothered telling you he liked you–if he was talking to you at all, it was proof that he thought you were worth talking to. He never told you he was proud of you, either–he bragged you up to everybody else, instead. He never had to tell me that he thought of me as a kind of honorary great-niece, or that he was immensely proud when I ended up becoming a historical novelist. I knew he was proud. By encouraging my interest in history, talking with me instead of telling me I was weird or even worse, patting me on the head and telling me I was cute, he let me know it was ok to be a brain, to have arcane interests, to pursue those same interests into a career. Without that, I might never have ended up a historical novelist.

Conrad died suddenly at the beginning of this year: nearly eighty, acerbic as ever. At his funeral, as per his request, the congregation toasted his memory with shots of brandy. I shall miss him always. I wouldn’t put up a statue or a memorial for Conrad, even if I could–he’d hoot at the idea. Here’s a better legacy: Find those bright kids out there, the ones who can babble bright-eyed about the properties of black holes, or confess that they read Yeats instead of US Weekly. Encourage those kids. Tell them to ignore their classmates who call them weird, and to ignore their teachers who think they’re showing off. Just talk to them. Believe me, they’ll remember it.

Don’t rest in peace, Conrad. You’d find peace very boring. But I do hope you were wrong in your belief that there is no afterlife, because I’d love to sit next to you at another campfire, and have ourselves another long chat about the wives of Henry VIII.

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