As is now traditional: my recap of the 2019 Historical Novel Society Conference! With four HNS conferences under my belt before jetting off to Washington, D.C., 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 2019…
I careen into Maryland early thanks to a Monday stop-off through northern California for a bookstore event with the lovely Pam Jenoff. We spend the previous night gabbing about THE HUNTRESS and THE LOST GIRLS OF PARIS respectively…
…and I skate directly cross-country after that. I am swaggering like Captain Marvel because I managed to pack for one week, one conference, three states, four panels, one Koffee Klatch, and an ALA appearance in a single carry-on suitcase–I may not have superpowers, but by God I know how to pack light. The secret is 1) Lots of mix-and-match separates, and 2) Having spent ten years watching your Navy sailor spouse pack for deployments. I’m not as good as the Overseas Gladiator–he could pack an 18th century robe a l’anglaise complete with panniers into a roll the size of a sleeve of dimes–but everything fit in one carry-on, I didn’t repeat a single outfit, and I got out of all checked bag fees. If you aren’t married to a Navy sailor who can give you the tutorial, I suggest picking one up in a bar and offering to buy him or her a six-pack if they’ll show you how to pack a sea-bag. As the OG says, the average Navy sailor will happily work for beer, and you will get a better packing story than if you look it up on Youtube.
I crash the night in the spare room of my beloved writing partner and historical fiction star Stephanie Dray, and since we have a day to kill before heading to the conference hotel, we enact a cherished tradition: head to the nearest Panera with our laptops and put in a day’s work. Future joint projects are discussed, iced coffee is swilled, word-counts are met, and problems thrashed out–Stephanie helps clarify some character decisions I’ve been mulling for my Bletchley Park codebreaker heroines in the upcoming THE ROSE CODE, and I help her debate ending arcs for her WWI heroine in the upcoming WOMEN OF CHAVANIAC. Man, I’ve missed this.
10pm: Thanks to a sudden downpour and a gas stop, it’s nearly 10 by the time we manage to check into the massive, beautiful Gaylord Hotel. I’m bunking with Steph since it’s another day till my room is ready, but we manage to rope in Stephanie Thornton from the lobby and get caught up in our PJs over cans of wine. (Cans. Of wine. This is a thing, apparently? Cabernet with nuances of nickel and overtones of aluminum?) The words are spoken: “Are we going anywhere?” “No. I’m not putting pants back on.” We discuss Stephanie T’s upcoming novel of Jackie Kennedy, AND THEY CALLED IT CAMELOT. I got a sneak peek at this in rough draft form, and I confidently predict that soon I will be pointing at the TV saying “See that gorgeous gal on The Today Show? I drank wine out of a can with her!”
12noon: I check into my room, and realize just how enormous this hotel is. It’s gorgeous…
…but my room is so geographically far from the nearest guest elevator, it’s practically located back in San Diego. Fortunately the service elevator is right across the hall, and I ride down with a basket of sheets for lunch with my Scarlet Sisters. We’ve written a book together–RIBBONS OF SCARLET, out October 1, available for pre-order!–but this is the first time we’ve all been together face to face! We toast our book baby with fizzy pink drinks, and before the opening cocktail reception in the evening, we all get gussied up in scarlet for photo ops. I won’t stop singing “The Scarlet Sister” to the tune of Hamilton‘s “The Schuyler Sisters.” Half me teammates smack me and half sing along.
6pm: opening cocktail reception and cocktail party! I manage to spot Libbie Hawker in Viking gear, Elizabeth Huhn in Civil War hoopskirts, David Ebershoff who was the delightful keynote speaker at a past HNS conference, my wonderful fellow Chesapeake Bay chapter members Matt Phillips and Chris Murray and Elizabeth Bell, my darling friend Anna Ferrell who is dolled up in Tudor garb and having a ball at her first HNS con…and best of all, the fabulous Margaret George who has come as Boudica, complete with red hair and woad!
8pm: Dinner down the street with my agent-sisters–the wonderful Kevan Lyon has probably 20 clients in one place at the same time, and with her in the lead (a string of racehorses following our trainer–she seriously needs to get racing silks for us) we take over an entire room at a local restaurant. I meet the terrific debut authors Bryn Turnbull, Kristin Beck, and Kaia Alderson, greet Renee Rosen for the first time IRL and not just online, and we all decide we should take the collective name “the Lyonesses.” Forget racing silks, we need a House sigil like in Game of Thrones. It’s thundering again, and we all find ourselves relying on Erika Robuck’s rain app to find a gap in the clouds. As far as innovations go, the rain app is much more successful than canned wine.
We snap a pic (this one’s for my favorite book blogger Erin Davies, who isn’t here but made me promise to try to get as many authors as possible into one photo!) and then I’m back to the hotel room where I help my friend Anna practice for her pitch tomorrow. I send her back to her room with firm instructions to sleep and not panic–and the next day I learn she’s had not one but two requests for a look at her novel!
7 am: I’ve got three panels back to back in the morning, and 45 minutes to pull off “polished and professional.” “Vertical and caffeinated” is probably a more realistic goal. Battering my hair into submission with a flat-iron hot enough to forge swords, I observe that the red streaks newly touched up in my hair have bled over onto the blond, and I am looking somewhat…pink. “No time, Strawberry Shortcake,” I mutter, and realize there is no way I can zip up my dress on my own. I put out an emergency call to Heather Webb, and end up sprinting through the Gaylord’s endless halls in search of her, shoes in hand and dress flapping open, wondering if I can convince my panel audience that naked backs are the latest trend. Heather puts up road flares and I manage to locate her for a zip-up, riding the service elevator down with the buckets and mops to make my panel with three minutes to spare.
8am panel: First panel! “Silk Stocking Rebels–Writing STEAM-Powered Women” with Nicky Penttila, Mary Sharratt, and Margaret Porter. We’re up against the industry panel with all the agents and editors which is taking place down the hall, but we have fun with our discussion. Someone in the audience tweets my observation about women of the past usually having to choose between marriage and career, and the bitterness that must have caused considering historical men in the same fields usually managed to have both. I love Mary Sharratt’s observations on the fascinating Alma Mahler, and later someone fills me in on the industry panel: WWI and WWII eras remain popular even with the current market saturation, and so do dual-timeline narratives. This is good news for my future slate of planned projects.
9:15: ” You Mean It Didn’t Rain That Day? Perils and Pitfalls of Writing Modern History” with Stephanie Thornton, Chanel Cleeton, and Camille de Maio. I moderate this one; everyone’s coffee has hit and the group is dynamite. We all agree there’s a lot more to fact-check in the 20th century when so much more documentation survives, so cue the hair-tearing.
— 10:30 panel: I catch up with some lovely readers, then head for my third panel, “Writing The Historical Female in the #MeToo Era” with Laura Kamoie, Eliza Knight, and Heather Webb moderating. Heavy subjects here, all things we discussed nonstop as we wrote RIBBONS OF SCARLET. I talk about writing Manon Roland, a victim of childhood sexual abuse who wrote bluntly about her assault, and we discuss the importance of not taking a victim’s voice away when we so rarely have surviving accounts from historical women in their own words.
–11:30am: Lunchtime, and our first keynote speaker Dr. Dolen Perkins-Valdez. I have been a huge fan of Dolen’s since reading her heartbreaking novel WENCH, and she holds us all spellbound with her speech, which is wry, warm, funny, and inspiring. I lose my heart to this woman the minute she gives us all a humorous look and says “Ya’ll, feel free to make sh*t up.”
1:15 pm: Sit in on “Beyond Rosie the Riveter: WWII Heroines” with Jennifer Robson, Kerri Maher, Sherri Smith, and Kip Wilson, with Greer McCallister moderating. Sherri is hilarious and I mark her new book down immediately for my TBR. Greer gets a big laugh with “The past is not just now, but with hats.” Afterward I meet my former editor Amanda Bergeron for the very first time–we worked together on THE ALICE NETWORK at Morrow before she became executive editor over at Berkley, but have never met in person. We gab happily about books; more titles for the TBR.
3:45 pm: My last panel of the day, “Papal Daughters: women of the Italian Renaissance” with Donna Russo, Alyssa Palombo, and Laura Morelli. This turns into a geek-fest with three ladies whose love for the Renaissance is as great as mine. We debate the Lucrezia Borgia incest rumors and all come down in the “rumor and lies” camp.
6pm: Everyone is at loose ends for dinner tonight, but Berkley is hosting a cocktail party meet-and-greet for any Berkley authors present, and they have my backlist so I head off for canapes. Meet Lauren Willig for the first time–she’s as delightful as I expected–and catch up with the elusive, funny, and fabulous Deanna Raybourn. After that it’s a sushi dinner with my beloved Janie Chang and Jennifer Robson, with whom I first bonded on a book tour cursed with the travel jinx from hell. It’s heaven to see these ladies again, and we end up back in my hotel gossiping over a bag of Reeses Peanut Butter Cups.
11 am: I have coffee in a pool of sunshine with the lovely Beatriz Williams–together with Lauren Willig and Karen White (whom I also have a chance to meet at this con) she helps form the Team W triangle behind my recent fave read THE GLASS OCEAN–and then chat in the lunch line with Rachel Kahan. We talk the #ownvoices movement in histfic; she has a wishlist of things she’d love to see come across her desk. If you aren’t already doing it, follow major editors and agents on Twitter/Instagram/social media–they post their wishlists, and you just might find your WIP on it! I know at least one debut author who got a contract this way.
1:15 pm: After lunch, it’s time for “Double Trouble: Crafting the Dual Narrative Historical Novel” with Beatriz Williams! I’m absolutely tickled to see the room is full-to-overspilling, and veer off to beg the hotel staff if they can pull back the divider and open up to the room next door. They do, and we fill both rooms to capacity (yes!) No one’s quieting down anytime soon, so I pick up the mic and sing a ringing F sharp until everyone spins around–first time I’ve had the opportunity to use my opera-singer training at a writer’s con. After that, Beatriz and I are off and running, and we have a blast, passing the conversation back and forth as we discuss types of dual narratives, the sales pros and cons, and the creative pitfalls of crafting dual and triple timelines. If you missed our session and are looking for the breakdown, here it is.
Afterward, I get a chance to catch up with the lovely Greer McCallister–conferences are all about the sideways wiggle through the crowd as you grab an elbow exclaiming There you are!–and we chat deadline woes. I laugh way too hard when she deadpans “I can write fast when I’m writing badly.”
3:45: Bookstore signing! The alphabet is kind to me; I’m sitting with Margaret Porter, Alix Rickloff, Jen Robson, and Aimie Runyan. A group photo together…
…and then it’s time for a Sestra Selfie as two authors who both wrote books about Night Witches. (Have you read DAUGHTERS OF THE NIGHT SKY? It’s amazing!)
5:45 pm: Cocktail hour–I’m on my way to meet up with my Chesapeake Bay chapter when I run into my stellar editor Tessa Woodward, and before I know it, we’re gabbing away as the Scarlet Sisters get roped in one by one, and we share tales from the trenches of writing a collaborative novel. Tessa, whom I’ve only ever seen in her book-stacked office at Morrow, is absolutely hilarious in a group chat text session. Also wedged into our table are lovely Brits Hazel Gaynor and Gill Paul–finally meeting these ladies in person!
6:30 pm: Evening Banquet. Leslie Carroll leads the entertainment with a series of historic play excerpts by notable historical women (Mae West was a playwright?!) and afterward I’m up waaaay too late in the lobby, watching silent disco, drinking prosecco, and trading gossip with fellow Chessie member Allison Thurman in cutting-edge white menswear, Zenobia Neil in Greek finery (I can’t wait for her book with the Spartan heroine!), and Donna Russo and Sophie Perinot who put us all to fashion shame in cutting edge jumpsuits.
Sartorially I can’t match them, except in the shoe department. I left my red conference stilettos at home, but I’ve got triple-strapped pumps that I like to think Peggy Carter would wear out dancing when she wasn’t chasing bad guys for SHIELD.
8 am: I crawl out of bed looking like I’ve spent the night under a bridge. Spackle on concealer, catch a brief nap in a basket of clean sheets as I ride down the service elevator one last time, and head for ALA with Stephanie Dray and Laura Kamoie. I see Robin Hoklotubbe who I’ve met many times before in California at library events, and she asks if she can add me last-minute to a book club panel. “I can panel at five minutes’ notice,” I assure her, and they wedge me in between Steph and Laura to talk about book clubs and how to promote them. I share my favorite book club story, a call-in to a group of nonagenerians who started the conversation off with a brisk “Let’s discuss the sex…” as they expertly flipped their copies of THE ALICE NETWORK open to all the bedroom bits.
1pm: Signing copies of RIBBONS OF SCARLET, THE HUNTRESS, and THE ALICE NETWORK at the ALA HarperCollins booth. After this I’m done, cooked, stick a fork in me, and my lovely colleagues are in the same boat, all of us so tired we’d eat frog spawn if someone would just give us permission to climb into PJs and stare at a wall. I’m crashing in Steph’s spare room again, so we drive back to the Baltimore area singing along with Act I of Hamilton–nothing like barreling down the 295 howling “I’m looking for a mind at WORK, WORK!” with your bestie. That evening is nothing but pajamas, an obscene amount of takeout Chinese, and binge-watching the entire first season of “Fleabag” (excellent!) But we also talk about the conference, which is glowing gently in the memory already. It was a great con: I didn’t have a chance to hit very many panels this time around because I had so many to speak on, but the keynote speeches were inspiring, the chance to meet readers was thrilling (Kerri Kerce, I’m so glad you made it!), and reconnecting with colleagues and friends I only see every other year–and some I’ve only known online up until now–was marvelously rejuvenating. HNS 2019 is over, and already I can’t wait for HNS 2021!
As is now traditional: my recap of the 2015 Historical Novel Society Conference! With two HNS conferences under my belt before jetting off to Denver, 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 2015 . . .
9:58am: Packing for the conference literally at the last minute, I realize I am sadly lacking when it comes to adult clothes. I live my life in yoga pants and Old Navy tank tops; there aren’t a lot of button-downs and responsible slacks in this closet. But I do have my ace in the hole: the infamous fire-engine-red patent leather stilettos that I dust off every conference because they give me a Joan-from-Mad-Men swagger and the lofty height of 5’7. The question is, can I pair them with yoga pants?
10:14am: Why, why, why do I not have a nice set of luggage by now? My suitcase is missing a wheel, and my carry-on is a battered black backpack in which I could comfortably pack Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson complete with his helicopter from “San Andreas.”
12:02pm: Checking in with Spirit Airlines behind a pair of obnoxious suburban families who keep whacking everyone else in line with their snuggies, their sulky toddlers, and their Ford Taurus sized strollers. Idly consider swapping out the babies in the strollers to see if any of the parents notice.
3:30pm: I made a vow to myself that I would finish Part II of the current top-secret WIP before I disembarked in Denver. I’m literally typing the last sentence as the plane taxies in. 65,000 words and half done! Now it’s time to party.
5:42pm: Run into David Blixt, Stephanie Dray, Eliza Knight, and Heather Webb the minute I step into the lobby. David immediately envelops me in a bear hug, expressing his general approval that I am alive after February’s house fire, and gives me another bear hug for good measure from his absent wife, legendary Shakespearean ginger Jan Blixt. I berate him for her absence, because I adore Jan and frankly I couldn’t care less if she has to work. David, you should have blackbagged her and slung her into the trunk of your car, Henry V rehearsals be hanged.
6:32pm: Get dressed for group dinner tonight, surrendering to a brief craven wish for a long-sleeved cocktail dress. I have a burn scar on my right forearm now, remnant of the Great Conflagration, and while it’s not too noticeable, I’m still horribly sensitive about it. But I refused to re-wardrobe myself in wrist-length sleeves for the the rest of my life, so I sling some pearls around my burned wrist and tell insecurity to go fuck itself.
7:01pm: My people, there you are! Donna Russo Morin in her spike-heels and Sophia Loren zest for life, her absolutely delicious English partner who worships the ground she walks on, Gillian Bagwell and Kris Waldherr, my Day of Fire mates Sophie Perinot and Vicky Alvear Shecter, Leslie Carroll and her silver fox husband . . . these are my tribe, and it’s delicious to be among them again. I rhapsodize to Vicky about her upcoming ancient Rome YA novel (I’m beta reading; it’s delicious) and tease Donna’s Englishman about his insistence on well-done steak (so English: “cook until gray.”)
10pm: The Lobby Posse reunites when Deann Smith and Marci Jefferson join the party! This is from the San Diego conference, when a group of us closed down the hotel lobby gabbing about everything under the sun. We’re missing Michelle Moran and Teralyn Pilgrim this time around, but it’s heaven to see the others.
11:08: Cocktails, yes, keep them coming. Christopher Gortner arrives, and the party dials up to an eleven. He’s just gotten a film option for The Last Queen; toasts are drunk as I speculate who could play Juana.
12am: Return to my room to discover I have locked myself out. Trail back down to lobby for new room key. Seven hours of sleep . . .
8:05am: Why are there so many decaf machines alongside the ordinary coffee? This is a writers conference; nobody drinks decaf! Decaf coffee is like a hooker that only wants to cuddle.
9am: David Blixt’s sword workshop! He opens up with stage-combat buddy Brandon with a fight from Macbeth, in which David loses his head to a scarily-real-looking axe stroke, and Brandon immediately becomes Brandon The Decapitator in my mind before everybody resurrects and gets to the nitty-gritty of sword history. Fascinating stuff–did you know that the dances of the time mimic the fight styles? Did you know that the loop on the back of a man’s shirt was originally there to keep his baldric from slipping down and trapping his sword arm during a fight? I didn’t.
11:19am: The hands-on stuff begins. I beeline straight for a crusader broadsword, while Eliza Knight channels her Highland romance side and heads for the claymore. Feel very proud that I successfully master a sort of cross-lunge move whose name I’ve forgotten–it’s the move Inigo Montoya uses to take down three enemies in the castle hallway during “The Princess Bride.” You know the one I mean.
12noon: Lunchtime. Return to my room for my phone, realize I have locked myself out. Trail back down to lobby for new room key.
1:31: The afternoon sword workshop, on rapier/dagger/short sword–Gillian Bagwell is my sparring partner. And for everyone’s information, the groove down the middle of the blade is NOT a blood channel; it has nothing to do with blood. It’s called a fuller, and it’s there strictly to lighten the blade. We have all been warned.
6pm: Cocktail reception, and the conference officially begins! I strap on The Shoes and race around shrieking greetings to people who, in some cases, I haven’t seen since the last conference. Favorite topics include the recent Outlander smash hit on Starz, the recent shake-up at Berkley/NAL, and are headless-lady covers really finally out? (Yes, thank God.)
7:41pm: C.C. Humphreys is our first speaker and guest of honor. He’s got one of those mellifluous stage-trained English voices you can eat with a spoon–I still remember him giving the Crispin’s Day speech at my first HNS conference in San Diego. His speech is bang on (I’m absolutely with him that we are storytellers first, not historians), and he closes with a joke about a Roman centurion ordering a martinus at a bar which makes us all groan.
9:37pm: Everyone adjourns to the bar to keep gabbing. Arm in arm with Stephanie Dray in a fabulous peacock necklace, I run into an old friend–the delightful Stephanie Cowell, and take a moment to bliss out about her wonderful Marrying Mozart which was my favorite re-read of the year–and then bump into a new friend, Stephanie Thornton of the kickass ancient queens–I got to beta-read her epic upcoming novel on the women of Alexander the Great, The Conqueror’s Wife. All these Stephanies; I love every one of them.
10:32pm: The Day of Fire authors all take a picture together–we are minus Ben Kane, but otherwise a full contingent. Happily gab with Alison Morton of the splendid Roma Nova series, who gave ADoF a great review, and wants to know if the gang is doing a reprise. More on that later.
11:11pm: End up down by the fire-pit outside the pool area with Christopher, Donna + Englishman, Heather, and Anne Easter Smith. We dish dirt happily under the stars. I get strict instructions not to get too near the firepit, because I’ve already nearly burned up once this year.
12:01am: Trail upstairs only to find I have locked myself out of my room. Trail back down to lobby, barefoot, red stilettos dangling from hand, for new room key. Six hours of sleep . . .
7:04am: Prepping for the day, I unleash my secret weapon–a flat-iron that heats to a temperature at which you could forge swords, and which is the only thing to reliably smooth my waist-length mass of curls. It has a steely blue glow like it’s being thrust out of a lake for incipient kings, so I dub it Excalibur. Excalibur beats my curls into submission and out I sally.
9:15am: I’m going to miss Stephanie Dray and Christopher Gortner’s panel on “The Gender Divide,” dammit. My own panel is at the same time: “Trends In Historical Fiction” with Eliza Knight, blogger Meg Wessell, and my agent Kevan Lyon. We have a blast, and our audience is packed to standing room. Analyzing trends in publishing is like trying to analyze patterns in a goldfish bowl, but we all agree that 20th century topics are hot right now, so are love-in-a-time-of-war stories, and so are dual narratives that twine a contemporary with a historical timeline.
10:30am: I am dragged off with Heather Webb and the “Day of Fire” ladies to what turns out to be the best laugh riot of the entire conference: “What Really Happens During A Historical Romance Cover Shoot?” Kim Killion of the Killion Group walks us through it with the help of Jesse, 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 for a western shoot and is told “Here’s a Bible; think of Jesus”) and once the clothes start coming off, the Sexy/Edgy/Erotica covers get shot. Jesse 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 goes through his paces and smolders on cue.
10:59am: Oh dear Lord, this just got funnier. Jesse and his female counterpart demonstrate various clinch poses. “Cover his nipple, for the nipple haters on Amazon!” Kim calls to the female model, who obediently shifts her hand on Jesse’s Pammed-up chest. “See that space between them? That’s where I photoshop in the castle, or the flying hair. Or maybe I cut his head off.” Heather Webb and I can barely stand, we’re laughing so hard. For the record, Heather has an absolutely filthy laugh that promises all kinds of wickedness; her Empress Josephine would approve. We all line up for pics later with the amiable Jesse. I text mine at once to the Overseas Gladiator.
12:15pm: Lunch, and keynote speaker Karen Cushman, author of Catherine, Called Birdy. She has a particularly lovely phrase that catches me: Words are a net to catch the wind.
1pm: I sit down with the “Day of Fire” ladies, all of us armed with notepads, and discussion continues for over an hour. Let’s just say something’s a-brewing.
2:15pm: Coffee with my agent, the fabulous Kevan Lyon of Marsal-Lyon Literary Agency. We discuss my WIP, all 65,000 words of it, and she’s in full cheerleader mode. Tremendously relieving, because this project has had me scared at times–it’s so different from anything I’ve ever done, it feels like I’m striking out into the open ocean on a cardboard raft.
5:01pm: Change for the book signing and dinner, wielding Excalibur on the frizzies popping up around my hairline. On my way to the signing, I stop for a moment of mutual shoe admiration with Donna (in leopard spikes), Christopher (in Prada loafers), and me in my 5-inch stilettos. Who cares if my toes curl up and drop off? I love being 5’7.
6:38pm: The Day of Fire crew all sits together, so those buying our Pompeii tale can go down the line if they want it signed. We gab happily with bloggers and readers galore: Stephanie Moore Hopkins, Erin of the fabulous Flashlight Commentary, Jenny Q, Darlene Williams . . . I love these ladies, and I owe them for many, many fabulous reviews. Most of all Amy Phillips Bruno of Passages to the Past, for whom I would happily donate a kidney after she saved my bacon and ran my Lady of the Eternal City blog tour for me less than three weeks after the Great Conflagration.
6:59pm: Book signing done–and it was fun, but a mess. Half the books weren’t ordered properly, and some authors had no books at all in store for the readers to buy. Leslie Carroll lets her Bronx show about that, and she’s absolutely right.
7:36pm: Dinnertime! 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.
8:12pm: The HNS Indie Prize is announced. A Day of Fire is one of the four finalists but none of us think we have a shot of–wait, we won second place?! Go careening onstage with Vicky, Stephanie, Sophie, and Eliza, congratulating Anna Belfrage on her well-deserved first place win, and taking more pictures. Later, Stephanie’s white knight husband photo-shops Ben Kane into the picture with the rest of the Pompeii crew. The Overseas Gladiator does one better and photo-shops in Tony Stark from Ironman.
9:12pm: The Costume Pageant, narrated hilariously by
Gillian Bagwell Joan, Lady Rivers. Stephanie Dray fan-girls all over a George Washington, a Viking housewife brings down the house detailing all the bits of her costume that have been stolen by her husband on a raid, and Carmen Miranda makes an appearance with a fruit-tastic headdress.
10:10pm: David Blixt comes to waltz me randomly around the dinner tables before heading off to emcee the sex scene readings. Last time I was up to read (Cesare Borgia pinned my heroine to a table, lucky girl) and I’m happy just to watch this time around, parked next to C.C. Humphreys who has terrific sotto-voce comments throughout. Stephanie Dray’s romance alter-ego puts in a guest appearance, reading a sultry movie-palace threesome from her 20s erotica collection It Stings So Sweet that has us all reaching for our fans. Judith Starkston reads from her wonderful Trojan War epic Hand of Fire, warning us drolly not to enact this scene at home because only if you are banging a demi-god like Achilles can you have sex being held entirely in the air. And giggles split the room at a Holmes/Watson case that takes an unexpectedly X-rated turn . . . let me just say I will never look at lemon curd the same way again.
10:37pm: More drinks. The HNS Chesapeake Bay chapter (those of us in attendance) assemble for a picture around our new chapter head/Queen, Meg Wessell. We all pledge oaths of fealty to Queen Megan, First Of Her Name, and cheer wildly for several chapter-mates who got requests from agents at this conference to send their manuscript partials. Congrats, all!
11:16pm: I talk Game of Thrones plot twists with Deann, advertising tips with Christopher, Trojan War myth with Amalia Carosalla, and project advice with Stephanie Thornton (for the love of God, NO, do not write about that topic; we both know what it is, and we both know you hate the very idea, so don’t do it!) I feel absurdly pleased when C.C. Humphreys says I do an excellent British accent, and I’m in stitches when Alison Morton calls all the UK Roman-blood-and-battle authors “the bash-and-crash boys.” Things get sober as we talk declining sales in historical fiction and the current lack of interest in seemingly anything that isn’t 20th century . . . but we’re soon smiling again. Me especially, after Facebook friend Janet Butler Taylor gives me a 2013 World Champion Red Sox photo-mag. Bliss!
12:48pm: “One more martini” turns into “Closing out the bar.” I end up dancing with David around the tables again, this time a music-less swing beat. Pat Bracewell and I talk Vikings with Gillian Bagwell; internet trolls are vivisected with gusto over pretzel bites and beer-cheese; and I finally manage to buttonhole Libbie Hawker to tell her how I raced through her Egyptian epic House of Rejoicing in two days flat.
2am: Trail upstairs only to find I have locked myself out of my room. Trail back down to lobby, barefoot, black stilettos in hand, for new room key. Five hours of sleep . . .
7:44am: Wake up 45 minutes before my alarm–this weird mountain altitude has everybody’s sleep schedule out of whack. No time to wield Excalibur this morning; the hair goes in a ponytail. I feel like I’ve crawled out from under a bombed building, but the wonders of foundation and a red shirt leave me looking deceptively bright-eyed.
8:32am: Bacon and croissants with Marci, Sophie, Sam Thomas and–is that be Beatriz Williams?! Why, yes, it is. I manage not to stammer too embarrassingly when I tell her how much I adored her Secret Life of Violet Grant.
10:03am: After talking Nero for a while with the always delightful Margaret George, I head upstairs to get my luggage and check out. I have locked myself out of my room again. God DAMMIT.
10:15: Time for my Koffee Klatch. I signed up for this without the faintest notion what it was–readers signing up for a 45-minute gab session with any author they like. I kept wondering what I’d be expected to talk about, but it turns out great: I end up with a group of about eight, and we gabble excitedly about character development, where to sell ancient world fiction, and who our favorite Roman historical figures are. (Augustus and Livia, for me–world’s original power couple.)
11:50: Koffee Klatch ends 5 minutes early as my shuttle arrives ten minutes in advance. Pile on with my crammed suitcase, head spinning. Is the conference really over already?
12:34pm: My flight is late. Why is my flight always late?
3:40pm: Four hour layover in Chicago. I read Lauren Willig’s That Summer cover to cover in one sitting–Pre-Raphaelite art, a secret affair, and scandal galore; it’s wonderful.
10:17pm: My connecting flight is also late. Rot in hell, Spirit Airlines.
2am: The Overseas Gladiator is long asleep by the time I trail wearily through the door, but the Praetorian Dog greets me with sleepy rapture. By this point I am so far beyond exhausted I might as well be on another planet; sleep is impossible and coherent thought is a distant memory. Tuned somewhere between Zen and stoned, I drop my bags in the middle of the floor in a shower of hotel room keys, pour a double whiskey, and read David’s Master of Verona for the next three hours. He’s the only other conference member still awake, being midway through an overnight drive back to Chicago with his weapons arsenal, so when Brandon the Decapitator takes the wheel, David and I end up texting back and forth at 4am about the Palio races and Shakespeare’s “Taming of the Shrew.”
5:12am: Oh, look, sunrise. I should probably go to bed.
There it is in a nutshell: HNS 2015. Apologies to anyone I’ve left out of my account, or if I’ve recounted something wrong–it’s all a big whirl in my memory, so who knows what fell through the sieve? And I may have exaggerated here and there for comedic effect. (I only locked myself out of my hotel room twice, I swear.)
But what I didn’t exaggerate is just how wonderful it is to join that group of like-minded history-mad nutcases known as the Historical Novel Society. HNS 2011 was my first conference, which I attended as a wide-eyed newbie, and HNS 2013 was my sophomore lap when the world of publishing was still pretty rosy. 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 2015.