Last week I had great fun recapping my recent excursion to the 2017 Historical Novel Society Conference in Portland. It was my fourth conference, without a doubt the biggest and best yet—three days of fascinating panel discussions, industry chatter, historical geekery, and all the catching up that happens when you run into much-loved writer friends who you only see once a year at conferences. HNS ends on a Sunday, and normally I’d be packing to head home, flinging all my new conference books into the massive suitcase known as the Red Monster (I invariably have to sit on it and bounce a bit before the zipper wants to close—that’s how many books I buy at conferences). This year is different: with a book recently released (“The Alice Network”), I’ve got three author events in Canada set up post-conference.
If it were just me I’d be a basket of nerves, but I’m joining forces post-HNS with the wonderful Janie Chang (“Dragon Springs Road”) and Jennifer Robson (“Goodnight From London”). Our shared publisher saw us all in the same city for the conference, all with recent releases, and said “Why not?” (Bless them!) Jen and I have done presentations before–we can gab for hours about women in the world wars–and Janie and I met for the first time in Portland, but hit it off immediately. Janie is the one who hash-tagged our little triple-author tour the #HystericalFictionTour, a suggestion greeted by Jen and me with unabashed glee.
Let the good times roll…
8am: Janie is in Canada already, but Jennifer Robson and I are still in Portland tying up loose ends at the conference. Clutching coffee, we converge in the lobby to check out, Jen bright-eyed and cheery, me sporting my usual sleep-deprived post-conference look which could best be described as “Crawled Out From Under A Collapsed Building.”
1:10pm: Heading for Seattle and then a connecting flight into Victoria, Canada, we are hit with the opening salvo of what will be known as the Great Travel Jinx of 2017: we miss our connecting flight and now have six hours to kill in the Seattle airport before the next one. Stick two authors together in an airport, however, and we WILL find a way to kill time: we scout for our books in every single Hudson shop (“Goodnight From London” is spotted!), and over a seafood lunch we tackle the plotting problem Jen’s been having for her next book idea. By the time the check arrives, plotting problem is more or less solved.
12am: Staggering in at midnight, Jen and I grab a late, late, late dinner at a pub down the street, and realize we have still not run out of things to say about women in the two world wars.
9:45am: I wander around Victoria in a blissy haze; this city is beautiful…
Bumping into two lovely Ontario tourists under a statue of Queen Victoria, I end up telling them all about why her eldest son took the name Edward VII instead of Albert, and they tell me all about how the architect of the Victoria legistlature building was apparently poisoned by his mistress. #Travelbonding
11:10am: Heading into Munro’s (one of the most beautiful indie bookshops in Victoria) I do stock signing for their supply of Alice Networks….
…buy a biography of Guy Burgess of the Cambridge Five (possible hist-fic idea there? Hmm…) and afterward run into Bruce the Moose.
I text a pic to the Overseas Gladiator who promptly texts back “HOW MUCH?!?!” He seems disappointed by my reluctance to tote an eight foot plush moose home in the overhead luggage compartment.
7pm: Janie joins Jen and me for tonight’s event at Bolen Books, and the #HystericalFictionTour has officially begun! Moderator Moira Dann asks us great questions, and we all grab dinner afterward and talk craft and marketing nonstop. Jen is on the Globe & Mail Bestseller List (Canada’s NYT list) for 10 straight weeks now, and we all cheer. Janie tells us about Chinese fox spirits, and I could listen forever.
10:10pm: After a solid week on the road, the laundry situation inside the Red Monster has become dire: a snarl of clothes that has grown as many arms as an octopus. It makes a serious attempt to drag me inside and eat me before I force the zipper shut on the last thrashing, questing sock-tentacle.
2pm: After a necessary gelato stop, we’re headed out of Victoria in Janie’s car, and off to Vancouver via the car ferry. I’ve been promised a lot of beautiful scenery, and it doesn’t disappoint—I’ve never in my life seen so many shades of blue. My travel companions grin at my wide-eyed stare across the water at the scattered islands dotting the bay.
Sadly we don’t see the resident pod of orca whales, but we do get good pics of each other rocking the wind-swept look while discussing the sincere desire we all share for a private island for writer retreats.
3:31pm: The Great Travel Jinx of 2017 strikes again with a double-whammy: an overturned truck just off the car ferry keeps us locked in place outside the Vancouver tunnel for nearly an hour and a half in the burning-hot sun…and the air conditioning in Janie’s car has stopped working. We watch the clock tick down toward our event and trade jokes about how glamorous book tour traveling really is, as the driver in the car ahead gets out to sit on his trunk and give us an hour-long display of plumber’s butt. (The back of my head is blocking your view of this. You’re welcome.)
6pm: No time for the hotel; we floor it to Janie’s house (she lives nearby, providentially) and perform a fast change in the spare room as her phlegmatic and charming New Zealander husband Geoff wisely pours all the exhausted writers wine. We gulp a half glass while still shucking out of yoga pants and into authorly clothes that will hopefully convince the audience that we are serious and responsible adults, pay homage to Janie’s cat, thank Geoff fervently, and sprint for our event.
7:05pm: Fortunately it’s a great one! The Book Warehouse is packed, we answer some fabulous questions, chat to all kinds of awesome readers afterward, and somehow end up doing a triple Wonder Woman shot for the camera. Janie and I look fierce (possibly both still feeding off the frustration of the traffic jam and the plumber’s butt) but Jen cracks up hopelessly.
10pm: Heading back to the hotel, which is ultra-modern, chic, and….Vancouver, is this really A Thing?!
9am: Janie heads off to get the car’s AC fixed–she has a steely glint in her eye that makes me lay long odds against the mechanics, who actually asked her the question: “Well, did you turn it on?” Jen and I are more happily engaged in getting a quick look around the Granville Island craft center. I end up buying a morally-questionable hat with a broad brim and a devastating oversized rose; my Queen of Spies in “The Alice Network” with her penchant for outrageous toppers would be proud.
12pm: The Great Travel Jinx of 2017 strikes again—the car air conditioning is STILL not fixed by the time to leave. We roll down windows and head out of town for Whistler, but the gorgeous scenery makes grumpiness impossible. It’s a winding mountain road ending in a lovely little ski village, and I resolve to bring the Overseas Gladiator here at once. This is a landscape chock full of dangerous things an adrenaline junkie can climb, jump off, go too fast on, or sink to the bottom of. He’ll love it.
4:37pm: Fantastic news—Janie’s “Dragon Springs Road” is a Costco pick! We all cheer, and Jen predicts she will make the Canada Globe & Mail list. (One week later, Jen is proved right: Janie and DSR hit the #4 slot!)
5:15pm: Dinner at a nice outside cafe. Spot the non-Canadian (me) who is eyeing with trepidation the signs warning to look out for bears. We are joined by the lovely Roberta Rich (her latest novel “A Trial In Venice”) for a joint panel at the absolutely jaw-dropping Squamish and Lil’wat Cultural Centre. The art and artifacts are just beautiful…
…and the panel goes well as the four of us do brief readings and then toss questions back and forth. I read a bit from “The Alice Network” where my young 1915 heroine is recruited as a spy for British Intelligence, and am heartened by the chuckles from the audience.
8:40pm: Surreal—the three of us end up being eye-witnesses to a marriage proposal! Wandering back to the hotel via the Olympic Rings, a gorgeous young guy asks Janie if she will snap him and his girlfriend with his phone—and he proceeds to drop to one knee before the Olympic rings and propose. Janie clicks away madly as girl says yes, and we all offer our congratulations and admire the ring (Gorgeous Young Man has great taste in diamonds.) We all agree this would make a great scene for a book; practically have said book outlined by the time we get back to the hotel….
8:57pm: ….and then we see a black bear sauntering casually across the path in front of us. “That’s a bear,” I remark, somewhat inanely but I think quite calmly, and the three of us perform a rapid detour through a nearby parking lot. The bear looked skinny and young, not having picked up his winter insulation yet, and he wasn’t quite as big as my writing buddy Eliza Knight‘s Newfoundland pup Ladybelle.
1:30am: Last night of #HystericalFictionTour! The three of us stay up way too late planning to take the literary world by storm and laughing far too much. This is the part that stays in the cone of silence.
8:17am: #HystericalFictionTour may be over, but not the Great Travel Jinx of 2017. I walk out of the hotel, hauling the Red Monster and a vat-sized coffee, only to see Janie’s car up on a crank and a tire sitting on the ground. My response is 100% unprintable, but thank goodness for Stuart the Wonder Valet who cheerfully swaps the flat for the spare in 15 minutes. We’re off to the airport, where Janie has kindly agreed to drop off Jen and me to catch our flights. If asteroids don’t strike the planes, which at this point I would not at all discount.
10:50am: Goodbyes to Janie and Jen—how am I going to live without these ladies? Best travel companions ever; we traveled together for three days without so much as a single snappish word passing between us. Head for my flight, where I listen horror-stricken to TSA telling me that the Red Monster must be emptied by three pounds to meet weight limits. I do battle with the laundry octopus inside, wresting three pounds of books from its maw, stuffing them into my carry-on, then cramming all the sock tentacles back in before it can become the Laundry That Ate Vancouver. TSA seems unappreciative of the narrow escape they have just had.
11:25am: Oh my God. “The Alice Network” just got the nomination as one of three possibilities for Reese Witherspoon’s online book club! Voting is today only, and I have exactly four minutes to fling this up on Facebook and Twitter so readers know to vote, before getting on my plane and being without Wi-Fi for the next six hours. Manage with about fifteen seconds to spare; the cabin doors don’t QUITE close on my fingertips.
10:50pm: The Great Travel Jinx of 2017 isn’t done with me yet. My connecting flight to Baltimore is delayed. Four times.
Midnight: I was supposed to be landing in Baltimore right now. Still in Newark, haven’t eaten all day, all airport restaurant spots and food stands are closed, and there’s no wi-fi. ****, ****, ****.
3:30am: Plane takes off three hours late. And then the Great Travel Jinx of 2017 gives me a parting salute—the Red Monster has been lost. Maybe the laundry octopus got out in the cargo hold and made its escape somewhere over New Jersey. I stagger home resolving to see if anything tentacled hits Newark on the morning news.
4:42am: Too wired to sleep, I greet my rapturous sleepy dogs and watch “Logan” until the sun rises and then finally crawl off to bed. Damn, but Hugh Jackman has aged well. And is this trip really over?
There you have it: the #HystericalFictionTour recap (and Janie wrote one too, it’s hilarious!) All jokes and travel jinxes aside, it was a wonderful time. Confabbing at the conference with so many hist-fic writers leaves me awed and inspired every time, and it was such a wonderful privilege to hit the road afterward and meet readers in both Canada and the Pacific Northwest—huge thanks to HarperCollins and HarperCollins Canada for teaming up and making it happen. I can’t wait for HNS Conference 2019, and I’m already planning when I can see my travel mates Jen and Janie again—hopefully this time without a travel jinx.
I still have no idea what happened to the laundry octopus, thought. Watch out for sock-tentacles, Newark.
As is now traditional: my recap of the 2017 Historical Novel Society Conference! With three HNS conferences under my belt before jetting off to Portland, I knew two things going in: 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 2017…
This year’s travel plan is infinitely more complex than any of my previous HNS road trips. I have a recent book release complicating matters (“The Alice Network,” available on Amazon, iTunes, and B&N!) and a number of launch events both pre and post conference—the trip isn’t just a weekend this time, but a full 10 days long. And since the Overseas Gladiator came home from the Middle East at the start of June and departed cross-country for his new posting the day before I was set to head conference-ward, I didn’t start packing until 6pm the evening before. Normally this would be a cause for screaming, stressing, and otherwise lighting my hair on fire, but I end up blithely jamming things into the mammoth scarlet suitcase known as the Red Monster, sitting on it to get it closed and thinking, “Who knows what’s in there, but I guess I’ll find out when I hit the west coast.”
3:12pm: But before Portland and the conference, there’s Seattle. I’m teaming up there with Jennifer Robson (loved her recent release “Goodnight From London” so much) and the two of us are set for a joint author event at nearby Mill Creek. Good time to give our upcoming HNS scheduled Koffee Klatch “Battle Tested: Women In The World Wars” a practice run. Our plan for this presentation is pretty much “We both revere this subject, we’ve got over a combined decade of research on it under our belts, and our enthusiasm will undoubtedly run away with us. We’ve got this!”
4pm: Seattle hotel is lovely, but why do our beds have throw pillows with Ricky Gervais in full dress uniform?! Jen and I trade perturbed phone calls, avoiding Ricky’s embroidered stare. She saw a portrait downstairs of Frazier/Kelsey Grammer in Napoleonic kit. This is somewhat disturbing.
6pm: Two Ubers and two cabs fail to respond to our calls before we finally land a driver to Mill Creek, so we’re eyeing the clock and wondering if there will be any chance to put something in our rumbling bellies before the event. How fast can two hungry authors eat two sliders apiece at a sports bar counter next to a bookstore? Four minutes flat.
7pm: University Bookstore in Mill Creek! It’s a nice lively crowd with lots of questions and lots of smiles, and they quickly find out two things about Jen Robson and me: 1) That we can gab all night long about women in the world wars, and 2) No really, ALL night long. We close down the store.
8:42pm: Ugh, ugh, ugh. Uber driver treats us on the way home to his unsolicited opinion that strip clubs are overrated because it’s all look-don’t-touch and a guy really should be able to get more bang for his buck. Jen and I adopt identical frosty expressions that Maggie Smith/the Dowager Countess of Grantham/Professor McGonagall would be proud of, and Mr. Skeevy decides silence is wisest. Ugh, ugh, ugh, I need to shower. In bleach.
10:37pm: We grab a glass of wine and a heap of truffle fries at the hotel restaurant and embark on the kind of catching-up gab-fest all writers do when they only see each other once a year at conferences: new book ideas, current writing headaches, secret plans for future books, industry trends, and maybe, if we get through all that, spouses and kids.
10am: Bright-eyed and clutching our third cup of coffee apiece, Jen and I abandon Ricky Gervais with a certain relief and head for our rental car, carrying on the conversation of last night at a more or less unbroken clip for the next three hours, sometimes at 65 miles per hour (when Jen is driving) and sometimes at 85 miles per hours (when I’m driving). Jen has a plot headache for a future book that is giving her problems. We’re gonna have this solved by Portland.
12:10pm: HNS Conference! Oh, how I’ve missed my people here. Craning my neck through the hotel lobby, I get seen first by a reader who loved my last book, and we chat happily in the check-in line (I’m hoping reader doesn’t notice how awkward and garbled I sometimes get at these moments!) Barely up to my room in time to notice it is unhabited by Ricky Gervais (with or without Napoleonic uniform), I ditch the Red Monster, take a moment to wonder why on earth I packed a set of shower curtain rings, and skid downstairs for my first event. Which is…
1:30pm: Gordan Frye’s “Make Ready!” workshop on historical firearms. Three hours fly by as he gives a fantastic demonstration on the history, model, and loading procedure of everything from a matchlock rifle to a WWII Luger. I don’t quite get my chance to load a Napoleonic-era flintlock, but I still feel very Richard Sharpe as I scribble notes.
6:10pm: I strap on my red conference stilettos…..
….and head down for a fast meeting with my fabulous literary agent Kevan Lyon at the hotel lobby. We talk the recent launch for “The Alice Network,” for which we are both crossing fingers. Then I run into Janie Chang, and we fall on each other happily though we have never met before: Janie is due to join Jennifer and me on a couple of joint author events in Canada post-conference (our shared publisher saw us all in the same city with recent release dates, and said “Why not?” Bless them!) Janie and I have only chatted by email, but she won my heart sight unseen with her suggestion that we privately hashtag our triple-author events with #HystericalFictionTour, a suggestion greeted by Jen and me with unabashed glee. Janie and I are going to get along very well, I can tell. And having just finished her latest book “Dragon Springs Road,” I’m in awe of how well she writes. (Buy this book immediately.)
7pm: Opening reception! Libbie Hawker stalks through in Viking gear, carrying a drinking horn…Stephanie Thornton drops in with Alaska breezes still ruffling her hair, whispering the latest bit of Roosevelt-related humor she’s had to google for research (her forthcoming book is on Alice Roosevelt)…C.W. Gortner greets me with a hug, wittiest man alive and perennial conference favorite…Meghan Masterson is visibly walking on air, her debut centered around Marie Antoinette coming out this August…Leslie Carroll who as Program Chair has a faint mad gleam in her eye (a gleam familiar to those who have ever felt the frenzied pressure of planning a large important event) but she looks red-carpet-worthy as always in gold sequins. Costume contest happens tonight, and there are some stellar get-ups here: Margaret Porter‘s teal satin 18th century gown with panniers, a Victorian lady, and a Greek muse.
9pm: Dinner is all individual parties tonight, so I head out to eat with Heather Webb, Judith Starkston, Kris Waldherr, and everyone else we can round up. We eat at a deeply artisanal restaurant across the street, eyeing the beef-heart tartar and honey-drizzled grilled cheeses with a certain caution.
11pm: Back to the hotel bar to circulate! Sophie Perinot staggers in hollow-eyed after the flight from hell where she was practically booted out of the cargo hold and strapped on a wing; I order her a Cosmo the size of a bucket. She and Anne Easter Smith and I talk recent historical TV series—even if you’re no fan of “Vikings” or “The White Princess,” isn’t it good to see historic series being produced? And I meet the absolutely fabulous Kate Forsyth, with her enchanting Aussie lilt and her twinkling eyes and her stupendous literary talent (have you read “Bitter Greens”?! And her next is on the Pre-Raphaelites!) Kate and Christopher and I gossip happily.
8am: Who needs sleep? There are panels to go to and people to see. First up, star editor Lucia Macro from HarperCollins and star agent Irene Goodman with “Breaking In, Breaking Out, and Staying On top.” They have great points and harsh truths here, and for 8am they are also wryly funny.
9:16am: “Imagining the American Revolutionary Era” with Stephanie Dray & Laura Kamoie, Lars Hedbor and fellow Chesapeake Bay HNS Chapter member Matt Phillips. Matt has a great line about Tories, Loyalists, and native Americans: “They were Americans too; Revolutionary stories are also their stories.”
Afterwards I corral some of my favorite hist-fic ladies before I can lose them in the shuffle—conferences are all about the crowd-wriggle, the elbow grab, and the exclaimed “THERE you are…!”
10:30am: “Innovative Promotion: Big Book Campaign on a Not So Big Budget,” with the stellar Kristina McMorris. This should be required listening for any novelist who wants to build a career, and we’re all taking notes (the room is huge; don’t be fooled by the empty seats–she got a great crowd). Wow, wow, wow—Kristina is a revelation. And where does she get all that energy?!
12:36pm: Lunchtime speaker Geraldine Brooks is mesmerising. She talks about the “swordfish-silicone implant moment” that answers the age old question “how do you get your ideas?” I am at once filled with endless sorrow that I do not have a swordfish-silicone implant story. #lifegoals
1:14pm: My one event of the day: Koffee Klatch with Jen Robson on women of the two world wars. After the Mill Creek event and the subsequent hours of car-ride gabbing, we’ve got this. Our circle of attendees is packed, and there’s fabulous give-and-take as everybody chips in with their own research stories. We could have talked for hours.
2:38pm: Gab for a while with a lovely reader named Taylor about early monotheism and polytheism in ancient Rome, then finally have a chance to catch up with Lis from our local Chesapeake Bay chapter. Lis has me sign one copy of “The Alice Network” for her, and one for the friend house-sitting her cats, who has refused to return them unless a book is forthcoming. I sign the book to her with a plea of “Please release the cats!”
4pm: Weina Dai Randel—I’m a bit in awe because I loved loved loved her recent duology on a young Empress Wu. Chinese history is so fascinating, and we badly need more HF about it; “Moon In The Palace” and “Empress of the Bright Moon” are smashing reads. Weina is as wonderful as her writing.
5:48pm: I’m not signed up for Hooch For History, but apparently nobody who went liked the absinthe. Boo. How can anyone dislike a drink nicknamed the Green Fairy that requires a special silver-grated antique spoon to prepare?
6:12pm: Kevan Lyon of Marsal-Lyon Literary Agency takes all her clients out to dinner—and there are 8 or 9 of us here, so it’s a big fun-fest of historical geekery all at one table. I meet the lovely Chanel Cleeton whose Cuba-set novel comes out soon, and we bond over cherry crumble and weird reviews.
11:45pm: Another “let’s close down the lobby” night, this time with Stephanie Thornton. We talk her next project after Alice Roosevelt—VERY exciting. Trail up to bed with heels in hand, facing six hours of slumber before it all begins again.
9:11am: I sleep through the 8am round of panels despite my best intentions—there’s just enough time to apply the flat-iron I christened Excalibur to my hair, before sprinting off to the first of my morning panels: “Let’s Do The Time Warp: Controlling The Chaos When Writing Different Eras” with C.W. Gortner, Steph Thornton, and Heather Webb. This turns out to be a fun one as we all debate the various reasons we jumped time periods and Christopher brings down the house with his line about liking to dip into many eras “I’ve always been promiscuous!”
10:32am: No time to waste; next panel runs back to back as I run up to the table barely in time to join Libbie Hawker, Judith Starkston, Amalia Carosella, and the fabulous Margaret George in “Mythic Tradition & Legend vs. the Historical Record.” This one gets lively as Amalia and I have a mock-squareoff about whether the Iliad’s Paris was a coward (I’m pro, she’s con) and then we all debate the necessity of including the gods in modern narratives. Questions from the audience are great, and someone snaps a terrific pic where we all look deeply skeptical. Or maybe just Muppet-like.
11:48am: Lunch! David Ebershoff is our keynote speaker this time—I didn’t think anyone would be able to match Geraldine Brooks, but he gives a wry and moving speech about being inspired by Lili Elbe, one of the first recipients of gender reassignment surgery, and how she became his heroine in “The Danish Girl.” David’s absolutely delightful and of course we all want to get pics and find out more about the recent film adaptation with Eddie Redmayne (!) and Alicia Vikander.
1:15pm: Sitting down to “Race: Writing About the World’s Most Provocative Topic” with Elizabeth Kerri Mahon, Chanel Cleeton, Weina Dai Randel, Vanitha Sankaran, and Teralyn Pilgrim. Great questions, and they don’t shy away from discussing the hard ones. The issue of more diverse stories and how to get them out to the reading public has been a hot topic, and the more discussions like this, the better.
2:34pm: A lovely Q&A with both our guests of honor, David and Geraldine, who are funny and self-deprecating as they’re being interviewed by Ed Goldberg. Such effortless stars; I can see pretty much the entire room trying not to fangirl.
I head to the book-signing afterward, catching up with some of my favorite book bloggers (yay, Erin Davies!)…
…and fellow authors (Pat Bracewell, I’m dying for that third Emma book)…
…and then it’s off to the big dinner and final evening! I’m back in tall heels and striding along at a nice height of 5’6, enjoying all the unaccustomed oxygen at this altitude.
7:22pm: The HNS Chesapeake Bay Chapter rallies for a commemorative photo around our Chapter Queen & HF book blogger extraordinaire Meg Wessell.
Queen Meg, First of her Name, long may she reign, sends us back to take our seats for what turns out to be one of the most magical events of the conference: the lovely Kate Forsyth takes the stage to tell us all the fairy-tale of Tam-Lin, and with nothing more than her voice and a few gestures has everyone completely under her spell. Hundreds of people sit silent, unmoving, not checking their phones, not even BREATHING, as Kate tells us of the icy Faerie Queen and her whip, of the tormented mortal knight in her thrall, and the brave girl who saves him.
10:56pm: A lovely tribute to Edgar Doctorow comes from Leslie Carroll, Christopher G, Elizabeth Kerri Mahon, and Gillian Bagwell—then it’s time for the Hellfire Masquerade! I get a pic with Susanna Kearsley whose sumptuous Austenesque ballgown positively begs you to ask for a turn about the room, and then proceed to dance a gavotte with Sophie Perinot as the dance-caller patiently (so very patiently) teaches us the steps. Whist is played on the fringes, and the gossip flows…how can this conference possibly be almost over? I trail off to bed long after midnight.
1pm: The conference exhaustion haze is starting to hit, and a deeply foodie lunch doesn’t help. Portland, I know you’re artisanal and hip, but sweet zucchini waffles with tartar sauce is NOT a good idea.
4:22pm: HNS 2017 is officially over (boo!) and friends are departing in all directions. I’m back from the panel at the nearby Multnomah library where several fellow Morrow authors (Jennifer Robson, Stephanie Dray, Laura Kamoie, Heather Webb, Sofia Grant, and I) did a joint Q&A before we split in all different directions and left town. But I had possibly the biggest thrill ever walking into the hotel lobby and seeing a reader engrossed in her book in a lobby armchair. And it was “The Alice Network.” This has NEVER happened to me before.
8:17pm: I’m supposed to meet my agent for dinner later, but putting on yoga pants in the interim may have been a tactical error. Cannot…move…at…all…and I’ve got three author events post-conference to attend starting with tomorrow’s flight to Seattle…
10:10pm: Flinging all my new conference books into the Red Monster (I have to sit on it and bounce a bit before the zipper wants to close), I’m already missing all my friends who have departed. This is my fourth conference and I can without doubt say it’s the biggest and best so far. Interesting panels, great pre-conference workshops, and superb speeches from our guests of honor. Bravo to Jenny Toney Quinlan and Mary Tod for doing such a fantastic job coordinating the volunteers and to board members Vicky Oliver, Maryka Biaggio, Caren Wasserman, Vanitha Sankaran, Elizabeth Kerri Mahon, and Leslie Caroll–I hope they stagger home in a haze of exhaustion and sleep the sleep of the righteous.
Meanwhile, I’m off to meet Janie and Jennifer for our upcoming Canada events, where we are destined to run into a marriage proposal and then a black bear. But that’s another recap…
I’m preparing for this year’s Historical Novel Society Conference, and I’m going as a seasoned veteran, with three previous cons under my belt. Each one was fantastic and memorable in its own right. But as I pack my semi-famous red stilettos for this June, I’ve realized it’s kinda fun to look back at my last three conference recaps. Here’s a highlight reel from year to year: what has changed, what has stayed the same, and what always makes it worthwhile to go!
2011: Since it’s my first time at this rodeo, I spend hours agonizing what to wear. I pack approximately thirty outfits for two days, and nothing seems right. If I wear a suit, everyone is bound to be in jeans. If I wear jeans, I’ll be the rube in a power-suited bunch of professionals. Help!
2013: I’m speaking on panels this time around; cue the nerves. Having spent a week agonizing over my presentations and changing my mind yet again about which scene I would be trotting out for the Saturday Night Sex Scene Read-Aloud, I’m packing literally the last minute before my dawn airport shuttle arrives, flinging 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?”
2015: I’ve been to three conferences by now; why do I not have a nicer set of luggage?! My suitcase is missing a wheel, and my carry-on is a battered black backpack in which I could comfortably pack Dwayne Johnson complete with his helicopter from “San Andreas.”
2011: I take a deep breath and head down for the introductory cocktail hour. I don’t get two feet before Margaret George (!!!) recognizes me. She’s tiny, about up to my chin, and probably wouldn’t outweigh a stack of her own books. We talk shop about Emperor Nero, and I manage not to faint.
2013: 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!”
2015: My people, there you are! Donna Russo Morin in her spike-heels and Sophia Loren zest for life, Gillian Bagwell and Kris Waldherr, my “Day of Fire” mates Sophie Perinot and Vicky Alvear Shecter, Leslie Carroll and Anne Easter Smith . . . these are my tribe, and it’s delicious to be among them again. C.W. Gortner arrives and the party dials up to an 11.
CONFERENCE KEYNOTE SPEECHES
2011: Keynote speech by power literary agent Jennifer Weltz. Not only does she give a great speech on what exactly an agent does all day and what they’re looking for, she has fabulous black lace stockings.
2013: Anne Perry is our guest speaker, 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.
2015: Diana Gabaldon is guest speaker, and she wisely gives us exactly what we want: ALL the dirt on the new Outlander show, the television process, and of course Sam Heughan.
BEST PIECE OF ADVICE HEARD AT CONFERENCE
2011: I catch a morning bagel with Michelle Moran, who has about three feet of glossy dark hair, and would look sensational in one of those narrow Egyptian sheaths her heroines are always wearing. “What are you writing about after Rome?” she asks me. “You don’t want to keep doing the same historical era over and over in your books, do you?” It’s a light-bulb moment.
2013: C.W. Gortner during his lunchtime speech, saying “Historical fiction is often the punching bag of the industry, second only to romances . . . but remember–we celebrate a genre that is time-honored.”
2015: David Blixt during his sword workshop, complete with actual blades: “The groove down the middle of the blade is called a fuller, and it’s there strictly to lighten the blade. DO NOT EVER CALL IT A BLOOD CHANNEL.” We have all been warned.
FAVORITE CONFERENCE PANEL
2011: Four editors, talking about the selling and marketing of historical fiction. One admits she never wants to read another Pride and Prejudice spin-off; another says he’ll howl if he gets another manuscript about Anne Boleyn. I’m right there with him.
2013: “Depicting Religion in Historical Fiction.” Mary Sharratt calls Hildegard von Bingen a power frau, Kamran Pasha skewers fundamentalists of all religions with a pithy “Fundamentalism stems from insecurity,” and Stephanie Dray brings down the house when asked when it is appropriate to critique religion: “Always, but that doesn’t mean it’s wise.”
2015: “What Really Happens During A Historical Romance Cover Shoot?” Kim Killion of the Killion Group walks us through it with the help of her amiable 6’8 cover model who has a set of eight-pack abs on which you could grate cheese. We giggle helplessly as Kim explains how the models start fully dressed for the Inspirational/Sweet Romance covers (the female model gets a dictionary shoved in her hand and is told “Here’s a Bible; think of Jesus”) and once the clothes start coming off, the Sexy/Erotica covers get shot. Male cover model strips down cheerfully to a kilt and boots, gets sprayed with Pam (grapeseed oil for the holistic-living models!), and is a very good sport about all the authors laughing hysterically as he smolders on cue.
BEST RANDOM HILARIOUS MOMENT AT CONFERENCE
2011: Diana Gabaldon toting a broadsword through the entire opening cocktail reception. “I promised I’d lend it for the costume show,” she explains, and later observes that any girl looking to pick up guys should just walk into a bar with a massive sword. She’s right: every man at the conference bounces up exclaiming “Oooh, can I touch it?”
2013: The costume pagaent, narrated by Gillian Bagwell/Joan, Lady Rivers. First prize is awarded to a hilarious Teralyn Pilgrim in a pristine Vestal Virgin outfit . . . worn serenely over her eight months pregnant belly. Her Vestal-in-denial routine has us all in stitches.
2015: The horror on the faces of 200+ writers as they walk into breakfast the first morning and see a wall of decaf machines. This is a writers conference; nobody drinks decaf! Decaf coffee is like a hooker that only wants to cuddle.
2011: I anticipated the great panels, the useful discussions, the industry tips. What I didn’t expect was the strange and wonderful zaniness of the people who write, represent, sell, and read the books in this world of historical fiction. As a writer, I work alone–I spend my days in yoga pants, curled up on the couch with a laptop in my lap, engaged in the solitary process of stringing one word after another. What fun to meet so many people who do the same thing; people who all give the same knowing nods when someone exclaims, “Don’t you just HATE it when the girl on your book cover has the top of her head chopped off?”
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.
2015: The last few years have seen some sobering changes: the demise of brick-and-mortar stores; the Amazon-Hachette feud, and everything else that can have you convinced that writing is a tougher gig than ever. And it is–but what hasn’t changed is the weird and wonderful world of writers, readers, and friends in this business, nowhere more apparent than at the HNS Conference. This is a lonely job; my writer friends save my sanity on a regular basis. And as I unpack my red stilettos and my 16 new books, I already can’t wait for HNS 2017.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas.” One could say the same for the Historical Novel Society conference: a jam-packed two days in sunny San Diego where writers, editors, agents, and fans came together to learn, listen, and of course gossip. My very first conference, and I learned things I wouldn’t dream of divulging. But there’s plenty that’s printable, and here it is:
4:15 I check into my hotel and spend an hour agonizing what to wear. I’ve brought approximately thirty outfits for two days, and nothing seems right. If I wear a suit, everyone is bound to be in jeans. If I wear jeans, I’ll be the rube in a power-suited bunch of professionals. I settle for a black dress that skims ten pounds off my hips, and a pair of sky-high red stilettos that give me a Joan-Holloway-from-Mad-Men strut. I cannot possibly be anything but confident in those stilettos.
5:43 I take a deep breath and head down for the introductory cocktail hour. I don’t get two feet before Margaret George (!!!) recognizes me. She’s tiny, about up to my chin, and probably wouldn’t outweigh a stack of her own books. I’ve owed her a drink since two years ago, when she wrote my first book Mistress of Rome a wonderful blurb. I manage to stammer out a thank-you and we talk shop. Shop talk among two writers of the ancient world being what it is, we end up gabbing about Emperor Nero. Margaret finds him interesting; me not so much. We speculate whether he really stabbed his mother and then said “Free at last!”
6:12 Is that Diana Gabaldon??? Why, yes it is. I’m far too chicken to approach her.
6:33 Cash bar, which is smart. Offer unlimited free alcohol to 300 writers and San Diego would be burning like Rome.
6:37 I meet C.W. Gortner, and we hit it off right away. I’m blurbing his book on Isabella of Castile, and he’s a fan of my last book Daughters of Rome. Christopher adores my red stilettos, and complains that his next book heroine will for the love of God have some good sex, unlike the previous three. He is hard on his heroines: Juana the Mad, Catherine de Medici . . .
7pm Dinner and speeches. Harry Turtledove talks about alternate history, and he’s the one to do it–this is a man who spun a bestseller out of a single random image of Robert E. Lee firing off an Uzi.
7:31 I meet Heather and Allie, bloggers respectively of The Maiden’s Court and Hist-Fic Chick, both of whom have given me great reviews in the past. They’re both wonderful in person, girls with whom I would go out for martinis any night of the week to dish gossip.
8:10 I hear the rumor that a certain notorious internet troll is in attendance at the conference, possibly under an assumed name. Wise, because after all the authors she’s torn down here, we’d probably back her into a corner and pelt her with tomatoes if we found out who she was.
9pm Friday Night Fight Scene readings! Six authors get up to the mic and read aloud a fight scene from their books. Hands down my favorite is C.C. Humphries, reading off a ripping good battle scene from his book about Vlad the Impaler. People are impaled in thrilling fashion, and C.C. has one of those beautifully stage-trained British voices that make anything sound profound. I’d listen to him read the phone book. He wraps everything up by giving the St. Crispin’s Day speech, flourishing a huge sword borrowed from Diana Gabaldon. Sword, you say? It’s a room full of historical novelists; of course someone had a sword.
10:16 I stumble up to bed after far too much wine and excitement. The red stilettos are killing my feet, but I don’t care. I’m too wired to sleep, so I watch an episode of “True Blood” to wind down. Damn, but Alexander Skarsgaard is hot.
7:15 Agonize over clothes again. Sleek grey pinstriped pants and a red button-down. Head downstairs for coffee, injected directly into the vein if possible.
8:27 Eat a bagel with Michelle Moran (!!!) She has about three feet of glossy dark hair, and would look sensational in one of those narrow Egyptian sheaths her heroines are always wearing. She gives me some terrific career and marketing advice. Is it dorky that I took notes?
9:02 Christy English, Sandra Worth, Anne Easter Smith . . . they’ve all read my books??? Frankly, I feel like a high school science teacher suddenly invited to hang with Einstein, Oppenheimer, and Hawking. We talk covers, bitching about the recent trend to chop the girl’s head off at the top edge.
9:10 A panel on how to keep a series fresh, followed by a panel on writing gay characters. Diana Gabaldon reads a gay sex scene from her latest Lord John book, and brings down the house. She’s got a fabulous whiskey voice, raspy with a vein of perpetual amusement running through it. I manage to speak to her without stammering or passing out. She wrote Mistress of Rome a blurb, too–I made my hero a virgin as a tip of the hat to her Jamie Fraser.
1pm Lunch, with a keynote speech by Christopher’s agent Jennifer. Not only does she give a great speech on what exactly a literary agent does all day, she has fabulous black lace stockings.
2:31 A panel of four editors, talking about the selling and marketing of historical fiction. One admits she never wants to read another Pride and Prejudice spin-off; another says he’ll howl if he gets another manuscript about Anne Boleyn. I’m right there with him.
3:58 Elizabeth Loupas! I drop everything to gush about how much I adored her book The Second Duchess. Easily the best new writer I read all year. Her extremely-non-PC hero is sex on a stick.
4:15 Book signings! I’ve dropped way too much money on books already; an excellent reason to drop more. First hour I run around getting signatures; second hour I sign Mistress of Rome for other people. The red stilettos are back on. Who cares if my toes curl up and fall off? I love being tall.
6:20 Michelle Moran, Christopher Gortner and I grab our first glasses of wine and dish. Christopher knows the dirt on literally everything. I learn all about my literary hero the late Judith Merkle Riley, apparently an angel in person, and a certain other writer who is apparently NOT an angel in person. More like a bitch on wheels. No, I’m not naming names.
6:48 People in costume start appearing, ready for the historical fashion parade after dinner. I see a Tudor lady in a French hood, a Victorian gent in top hat and tails, and a Roman woman in a stola. There’s also a guy dressed up like a Union cavalry officer from the Civil War, but he’s been dressed up like that for two days straight. Don’t ask me why.
6:51 Diana Gabaldon is toting her broadsword again. “I promised I’d lend it for the costume show,” she explains, and later observes that any girl looking to pick up guys should just walk into a bar with a massive sword. She’s right: every man at the conference bounces up exclaiming “Oooh, can I touch it?”
7pm Dinner, sitting with Michelle, the two bloggers Heather and Allie, and Elizabeth Loupas who I’ve dragged along so I can grill her some more about her hunky Renaissance hero.
8:06 Fashion parade begins. I should have brought my wench costume from my Renaissance Faire days. That corset gave me great posture and even greater cleavage.
10pm What we’ve all been waiting for: Saturday Night Sex Scene Reading! Last night it was fights, this time sex. Diana Gabaldon acts as MC, kicking things off with a steamy scene starring her ever-hunky Jamie Fraser. Thank goodness it’s dark in this big banquet room, because a good many people are blushing and giggling.
10:18 I sit with Christopher, and he’s just the person to keep you in stitches while listening to someone read about masturbation. “Your shoes are as sexy as anything we’ve heard yet,” he decides. He speaks too soon, because at the end . . .
11:01 The climax, a word I use with a certain scientific precision: a scene from Gillian Bagwell’s Darling Strumpet. She enlists Diana and C.C. Humphries, reading Nell Gwyn’s lines as Diana narrates and C.C. takes the part of the Earl of Rochester. “I love this scene,” he tells us. “When I blurbed this book, the first line I sent them was `Best blow-job scene in fiction.’ Strangely they didn’t put that on the cover.” One would need truly steely British resolve to keep a straight face during the reading that follows, but thankfully C.C. has it. Afterward I tell him I meant to congratulate him on his Crispin’s Day speech of the night before, but now that seems a trifle (pardon the pun) anti-climactic.
11:15 Until 2:30 in the morning, I sit in the lobby with Michelle Moran, Sophie Perinot, and four new best friends as we dish on books, writing, life, ex-husbands, current husbands, and book covers. This is the part that very definitely stays in Vegas.
7:30 Wake up after only four hours of sleep. Look in the mirror; shriek at the sight of my bloodshot eyes. I slap on foundation until I look less like sodden roadkill, then stagger down to the breakfast room. Meet four of my new best friends from the previous night, also bloodshot, and we proceed to mainline coffee like crack addicts.
9:05 Two more great panels. Are marquee names really necessary–i.e., do you really have to write about Anne Boleyn to get published? And a panel on just how much one can afford to fudge historical fact for the story. Everybody agrees that an author’s note covers a multitude of sins. I drool upon learning that Donna Woolfolk Cross got to meet hunky actor David Wenham (Faramir from “Lord of the Rings”) when he starred in the movie of her book Pope Joan. Can this please happen to me?
11:17 Elizabeth Loupas confesses she was up too late as well, reading the first chapter of Mistress of Rome. Considering what’s in the first chapter of Mistress of Rome, I sincerely hope I didn’t give her nightmares.
Noon Is the conference really over? I pack and head downstairs, exchanging email addresses and vows of friendship with everyone I meet. The house seems strangely empty when I get home.
There you have it, in a nutshell: the Historical Novel Society Conference. I anticipated the great panels, the useful discussions, the industry tips. What I didn’t expect was the strange and wonderful zaniness of the people who write, represent, sell, and read the books in this world of historical fiction. As a writer, I work alone–I spend my days in yoga pants, curled up on the couch with a laptop in my lap, engaged in the solitary process of stringing one word after another. What fun to meet so many people who do the same thing; people who all give the same knowing nods when someone exclaims, “Don’t you just HATE it when the girl on your book cover has the top of her head chopped off?” It was a strange and wonderful weekend, never to be forgotten: Diana Gabaldon toting that huge sword around; the hatted-and-bustled Victorian lady lifting her lacy hem to sport a pair of sneakers; speculating with Christopher about whether Lucrezia Borgia really slept with her brother or not (he’s pro, I’m con).
What a wonderful two days. I’m soaking my stiletto-mutilated feet in a tub of ice water, and I already can’t wait for the next conference.