“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.