2013 Historical Novel Society Conference: The Recap

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

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


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

FRIDAY

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SATURDAY

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SUNDAY

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

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

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

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

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

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

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