2015 Historical Novel Society Conference: The Recap
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.