What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas. One could say the same for the Romantic Times Convention: a jam-packed five days in Kansas City where thousands of the writers, editors, agents, and readers of romance came together to learn, listen, and of course gossip. I’ve attended the Historical Novel Society Conference before, but this was my very first RT, and (gulp) I was also a speaker. There were shenanigans galore, and for some of the scandals, I’m sworn to silence–but there’s plenty that’s printable, and here it is!
6:10 a.m. There are some people who manage to travel chic, but I am not one of them. Forget chic Louis Vuitton carry-ons or even matching Samsonites; I’m hauling a tattered faux-Coach tote from my college days, a neon floral gym bag circa 1987, and a massive black and yellow sports bag that could hold every hockey stick the Boston Bruins own. Given the fact that said black-and-yellow bag is missing both wheels, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to learn it was used to bash a goalie’s head in during the last Bruins-Maple Leafs scrum.
8:23 a.m. My deep ingrained displeasure at having to rise at What The **** O’Clock is off-set by the fact that my pal and fellow author-of-the-ancient-world Stephanie Dray has agreed to fly out to RT with me in adjoining airplane seats. Stephanie is a marvelous traveling companion; even with a massive tote over one arm and a boarding pass clutched in hand she has the air of one being borne along on her journeys by slave-borne barge.
10:48 a.m. Get two authors together on an airplane with nothing to do but talk shop, and the facts start to fly–after an hour’s breathless natter over the airline peanuts about the building of Monticello, the guerilla tactics of Tacfarinas, and the common poisons and antidotes used in Imperial Rome, the man in the seat ahead finally turns around and fixes us with a certain wary interest. “Just what is it that you ladies do?” After assuaging his fears that we are not in fact planning real murders, only fictional ones, we manage to brainstorm and plot a book each. If we’re this productive on the return journey, we’ll probably have sample chapters and a full outline prepped for our respective agents.
1:05 p.m. The hotel is massive, connected to the world outside with glass walkways, and the conference is already in full swing. I barely have a chance to dump my bags before I’m subsumed into a mass of new friends. Over quick burgers at the hotel pub, I commiserate with Jeannie Lin, who writes T’ang dynasty romance. “Concubinage is underestimated as a happily-ever-after,” she says thoughtfully. Where else in the world would you hear that and not be fazed?
3:47 p.m. I’m late for my very first workshop: “How To Work With Your Publisher on Publicity and Marketing.” Sourcebooks puts on a marvelous talk, but everything is overshadowed by meeting yet two more new friends, fellow HF authors Christy English and Donna Russo Morin. We’ve bonded through Facebook and have been dying to meet face to face–and Christy turns out to be a southern-born charmer with a curtain of brunette hair and a beaming oft-repeated exclamation of “You’re so sweet!” while Donna is a vibrant Italian hugger-and-kisser in leopard pumps. I’m somewhat proud of my own ability to walk in 4-inch heels but Donna has me beat by a Florentine mile: the woman wasn’t just born in stilettos; I think she was born with spike-heeled feet like Angelina Jolie in “Beowulf.”
5 p.m. “Using Theme To Strengthen Your Brand.” Stephanie’s speaking at this one, and I haul Donna and Christy along for the fun. It’s one of the best talks of the conference: Stephanie is joined by Norah-Roberts-To-Be Laura Kaye, and Queen-of-the-Highland-Warriors Eliza Knight for a thought-provoking talk on theme that produces its share of Eureka! moments in the audience. “Everything I write has the same theme!” Christy exclaims midway through. “How did I not realize that?” I’m stuck on what my overall theme could possibly be; Stephanie offers a suggestion of Karma’s a bitch. I think she may be onto something there.
6:31 p.m. Dinner at an Italian restaurant with Donna, Christy, and Stephanie. Prosecco flows. Secrets are exchanged. Also much swearing over recent trends in historical book covers.
8:37 p.m. E.L. James is supposedly here, but under an assumed name. Resolve to keep my eyes peeled.
9:14 p.m. Christopher Gortner and I meet up and fall on each other with happy cries of joy–we hit it off at the San Diego HNS conference, but haven’t met face-to-face since. Not only is he the best dinner companion on earth–he’s got more one-liners than Rupert Everett in an Oscar Wilde play–but we’re both writing Borgia books. We trade plot details happily: his Vatican Princess focuses on Lucrezia, and my The Serpent and the Pearl takes a wider angle on the Borgia Pope’s mistress Giulia Farnese, so we’ve managed to cover the same era without stepping on each other’s hems. Excellent.
10:02 p.m. Do I really want to go to the Ellora’s Cave Disco-Themed Cocktail Party bash? Is Christopher giving me an imperious stare? Looks like I’m going to the Ellora’s Cave Disco-Themed Cocktail Party.
10:36 p.m. Oh dear God. Six male dancers get up for a bump-and-grind routine to “Stayin’ Alive,” wearing unbuttoned sequin shirts and white spandex bell-bottoms so tight that, in the words of Robin Williams, you can tell what religion the men are. Brain bleach, brain bleach!
10:41 p.m. “Stayin’ Alive” gives way to something else from “Saturday Night Fever,” as the gyrating continues. “Clearly the only thing to do,” Christopher counsels between fits of laughter, “is to take pictures and send to your husband with the caption `Missing you, honey!'” Two flutes of Prosecco later, this seems like an excellent idea.
12:09 a.m. Slide into bed with a sore stomach from laughing so much. Am wakened an hour later by a text from the hubby: a pic of him and the Navy cadre from his division, all dressed in drag and holding skirts up to show hairy legs. “Missing you, too.” Well played, sir.
8:30 a.m. I notice that the only event scheduled before eleven is the breakfast for inspirational romance authors. I think inspirational clean-living sort are going to be the ONLY ones at this conference up that early.
2 p.m. Lobby Posse reunion! At the Historical Novel Society in San Diego, the stars aligned to throw six or seven women together in the lobby for shop-talk and insta-bonding. I was lucky enough to be one of those ladies (along with Sophie Perinot, Michelle Moran, Teralyn Pilgrim, DeAnn Smith, and Marci Jefferson) and we’ve none of us lost touch since. This is a rare opportunity to catch up with DeAnn, a KC native, and bless her, she was even able to set up a quick interview for me on KCTV. As Christy English would say, “You’re so sweet!” I even manage to sound reasonably coherent. Thanks again, DeAnn!
(I’m in the video on the lower left)
2:45 p.m. Christopher and his agent present a sensational panel on self-marketing. Twitter; blog ads; Goodreads; Facebook; nothing is overlooked. I take copious notes. Let it be known: C.W. Gortner is not only the king of insightful fictional portraits of historical bad girls; he is the king of marketing.
4 p.m. I’m signed up for the e-book Expo signing. As one of my Goodreads blog followers once wondered, exactly how does one sign an e-book? I’m not exactly sure, and I’m not sure anyone else is either. But I sit here gamely, and hey, somebody does ask me to sign their Kindle.
6:10 p.m. Fast dinner with the new posse. More swearing about covers, more dark secrets–and we plan to invade the 30th anniversary RT Formal Ball this evening en masse. We all try to persuade Donna to unearth her Three Musketeers costume, the one with the tabard and the thigh boots.
8:42 p.m. An evening of mad primping, followed by a dash to the ball. I’m going va-va-voom with something strapless, scarlet, and very Liz Taylor. Christopher has fabulous Italian leather shoes, Stephanie sports a 20’s feathered headdress and a long Audrey Hepburn cigarette holder, and Donna may have decided against wearing her Musketeer tabard, but she flashes an Angelina “leg” pose when we stop for pix. We are one fabulous bunch, if I do say so myself.
9:39 p.m. Why is it that so many parties decide that the moment of greatest merriment among the guests is EXACTLY the time to stop for a 90 minute speech? Jay Gatsby would not approve. Fortunately, we’re all at a table in the back where we continue to drink champagne, eat chocolate, and dish. We argue about whether Plantagenet history is more of a minefield for the fans or the writers, and whether anyone reads American-set HF anymore at all. Christopher withstands all my blandishments, blackmails, and bribery for a hint on his next project, damn him.
10:46 p.m. Trail upstairs at last to watch TV in my pj’s and pearls. Donna has raved about the show “Vikings,” in particular its hero – “eyes like blue lasers!” – so I give it a try. Donna’s right about the lasers; Travis Fimmel is one tasty Viking, even with his hair strapped into a tight ponytail braid that could easily make him look like a really muscular prep-school girl.
11:59 p.m. When you get a midnight text imploring you to head out for an emergency group bitch session on the Worst Publisher Ever, as well as the real story on whether E.L. James is at the conference or not–you pack up and go. This part stays in the Cone of Silence.
Noon I take a long morning to prep for my one speaking gig: a panel with Donna, Christy, and Christopher titled “The Hottest Sex In History.” Are those butterflies? Why yes, they are.
1:15 p.m. Piteous pic sent from the spouse: him and the dog, both looking sad. Aww, my boys are missing me.
3:45 p.m. “The Hottest Sex in History” is scheduled opposite a vampire meet-and-greet, so attendance is light, but we ham it up and have a great time. “What’s the raciest tidbit you’ve ever found in your research?” asks Christopher’s agent Jennifer Weltz, who is moderating. I relate a bit of real-life banter where a medieval courtier teased a lady when she asserted that women like herself did not have hair upon their bodies like men did, even in intimate places: “Certainly not; grass would never grow on such a well-beaten path.” Ouch.
5:13 p.m. Third time back at that Italian restaurant. The waiters know us all by name by now; they have Donna’s prosecco ready to go, and the waiter is writing “chicken marsala” before I can form the words.
7:42 p.m. Ok, the real story on E.L. James? She came to the conference under an assumed name to support a writer friend, but blew her cover almost immediately by standing up at a panel in which her books were mentioned, and getting huffy with the moderator because she didn’t like what they were saying. I don’t know about you, but if I could buy an island in the Caymans with my last royalty check, I wouldn’t be getting huffy about anything.
9:51 p.m. Have resolved that I am going to make this an early night: pj’s, hotel room, maybe a little more “Vikings.” So naturally I’m up till 1:15 a.m talking shop with Christopher and Stephanie, who are meeting for the first time and hitting it off famously. Screw it; I’ll sleep later.
9:15 a.m. Wake up looking like I spent the night under a collapsed building. Shriek at reflection in mirror; reach for concealer. It’s the giant book fair this morning: three hours of signing and selling. Knowing me I will walk out with an armload of new books, even though I’m the one who’s supposed to be selling them.
10 a.m. Is that Mary Jo Putney sitting right next to me? Why, yes it is. She could not be nicer; signing for her legions of fans, she steers them gently my direction–and in between the fans, we gab. “I like a book hero with real problems,” she says, and points to two of her latest. “This one’s an alcoholic and this one’s nearly feral from solitary confinement.” I point at two of mine. “This one’s an inarticulate killing machine, and, well, this one’s just kind of a jerk.” We trade books: her feral ex-prisoner for my inarticulate killing machine.
2:13 p.m. And yes, I am walking out with a stack of books. Text the husband: “Need another bookshelf.” Get a text back: “Running out of walls.”
2:17 p.m. Meet a darling teenage girl in the line who has brought a suitcase full of books to be signed by all her favorite authors, and is mourning the fact that three hours wasn’t enough to get to them all. I ask who she missed; she takes a gander at my name tag and says, “Well, for one, you!” I end up signing for her in the checkout line.
3:45 p.m. Eliza Knight, a friend from the local Maryland writers group. She looks cheerful but a trifle haggard–as well she might, considering she is the mother of three who can turn out six books a year. “I don’t know how she does it” doesn’t even begin to cover this woman’s work ethic. She ends up dragging me, and Donna as well, to a Hunky Highlanders panel where we listen to Scottish ghost stories while sipping Scotch whiskey and sampling haggis. Not bad (the haggis).
9pm Harlequin Dance Party! Donna can not only walk around all day in those fabulous leopard-skin stilettos of hers; she can dance all night in them. She has all the cover models salivating. When I’m too tired to dance, I flop down with Christy and we talk Princess Alais of France, one of Christy’s book heroines and historical co-star in the epic Katharine Hepburn movie “Lion in Winter.” Was Alais seduced by Henry II, or vice versa? Christy thinks Alais went for him. “He’s charming! He’s handsome! He was the king! And,” Christy adds, “we know he didn’t wear riding gloves. Who could resist a king who has working-man calluses?” Good point.
12:09 a.m. And it’s another late night for me! Laura Kaye dishes details on the Cinema Craptastique event; where an epically bad movie is picked for viewing with hilarious voiceover. Stephanie volunteers a howler of a horror movie called “Bad Sheep” for next year’s event, and Christopher contributes a campy old vampire flick. Who knew he could do such a dead-on parody of Marlene Dietrich? “Are you hungry, daaaaahlings?”
3:55 The conference is done; Stephanie and I fly out in the evening. But we squeeze in one last farewell coffee with Christopher, and an epic barbecue lunch with Lobby Posse pal DeAnn. I’m 90% convinced this is the same barbecue joint where Kevin Spacey plots world domination in “House of Cards.” And how can Kevin Spacey make such an ominous prop out of a bottle of barbecue sauce?
6:15 Stephanie and I board our plane over-caffeinated and exhausted, finely tuned to a state somewhere between Zen and stoned. I say something vague about our flight connection in Atlanta and she stares at me for a moment. “Was that English?” Me: (thinking seriously): “Possibly not. In my sleep I speak French, and currently I’m three-quarters asleep.” (True story about the French.)
10:55 p.m. Both Zen and exhaustion are replaced with fury as airline screw-ups causes us to miss our connecting flight. Neither of us will be arriving home until at least one-thirty in the morning. It’s not wise to upset historical fiction authors. Know this, you apathetic, chinless, pimpled cretins in the Customer Service Department of AirTran, and know it well: you will all turn up in Stephanie’s and my next books, and you will be crucified along the Appian Way.
1:47 a.m. And I’m home. The hubby is asleep. The dog is asleep. The conference is over.
There you have it, in a nutshell: the 2013 Romantic Times Convention. I anticipated the fun panels, the useful discussions, the industry tips–but what gets me every time about these writer conventions is the strange and wonderful zaniness of the people who write for a living. We work alone, curled up on our couches or at our desks, engaged in the solitary process of stringing one word after another. Put us all together in one room for a change–people who all give the same knowing nods when somebody exclaims, “Don’t you just hate it when you get a historically inaccurate dress on your cover?”– and we party like nobody’s business. A few more days of this, and Kansas City might have been burning like Rome.
Next year’s RT is already set for New Orleans. I confidently predict shenanigans, madness, and fun.