The conference was held at the Hyatt Regency Woodfield, a beautiful hotel in the Chicago suburbs eight miles from O'Hare airport (although with the traffic, it might have been eighty miles!). The ultramodern setting--huge open spaces, kidney-shaped tables, low couches, free standing columns, pyramidal topiaries, a soothing brown and aqua color scheme--made a curious contrast to the conference topic, especially since the setting for the previous gathering had been a hotel decorated with antique furniture and colonial shop signs. The Woodfield staff were efficient, the food delicious, and the space perfect for our various sessions. If there were any snafus with the facilities, they weren't at all noticeable from the participants' point of view.
Now on to the exciting stuff--the incredible authors and publishing professionals who were in attendance. Margaret George, author of THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF HENRY VIII and HELEN OF TROY, gave the opening address on Friday night. Declaring that historical fiction authors are time travelers who take their readers with them, Margaret described the various methods she uses to create the atmosphere of the era she is writing about. To get in the proper mindset when she writes, she surrounds herself with the music, objects, smells and tastes of the past, trying her best to block out the modern world. Her methods must work, given her books' success! Trish Todd, the editor-in-chief of Simon & Schuster's imprint Touchstone/Fireside who has brought us the novels of Philippa Gregory, Kathleen McGowan, and Anne Easter Smith, described during a lunchtime address the economic difficulties facing publishers today and the thrill she continues to find in her work despite them. She foresees many changes in the way publishers do business, but feels this is not a cause for alarm--good books will continue to find their way into readers' hands and hearts. The prolific Sharon Kay Penman spoke during the final banquet and regaled her listeners with little-known facts about women's lives during the Middle Ages, particularly in Wales. Women there had many more rights than they did in England--for example, a woman could initiate a divorce if her husband had bad breath or if he added a live-in concubine to the household! It was an amazing experience to hear these talented women share their wisdom and artistic lives with us.
The panel sessions I attended were equally enlightening. On Saturday morning, I listened to Michelle Moran, Christopher Gortner, and Karen Essex talk about "Breaking In and Staying in the Historical Fiction Game"; they shared their experiences as first-time authors and emphasized the importance of authors actively working alongside their publishers to market their books. The panelists suggested a plethora of practical marketing ideas and strategies. In the session "Debut Novels," Catherine Delors, Kamran Pasha, Barbara Corrado Pope and Ann Weisgarber spoke about the genesis of their first books and recounted their paths to publication, which varied widely. Mr. Pasha, an enthusiastic speaker who has written a novel about Mohammed's wife Aisha, encouraged us writers not to give up; we all have something important to share, a message the world needs to hear that only we can impart. His inspiring words provided me much food for thought, as did the other panelists' stories of dedication and determination.
On Friday afternoon, I attended the Editors' Panel, in which Shana Drehs (Sourcebooks), Barbara Peters (Poisoned Pen Press), and Trish Todd (Touchstone/Simon & Schuster) spoke about selling historical fiction. It was quite interesting to hear how the three presses, medium, small, and large, each go about acquiring new work and how they were adapting to the difficulties of the present market. In "Talking the Talk: Historical Fiction Dialogue," Christine Blevins, Kate Forsyth, Margaret George, Nancy Hull and Mary Sharratt addressed the use of dialogue to establish character, narrative, and setting in their works. They spent a good deal of time on the appropriate use of dialect, as well as the importance of choosing the proper level of diction. They even shared the curse words characters in their novels use in anger! On Sunday morning, I attended only one panel: "Query Letters that Worked." Three authors, Catherine Delors, Barbara Corrado Pope, and moderator Joyce Moore shared their query letters; two agents, Stephanie Cabot and Pam Strickler, discussed what they liked about the letters and why they had garnered requests. The agents shared additional letters from their authors and opened the floor to questions from the audience. Listeners came away with excellent advice on what agents look for in a query letter--a brief, to-the-point description of the story--and how to address issues such as multiple novels and target audiences.
Saturday evening was devoted to fun. First came the group book signing, in which over seventy authors chatted with attendees and signed copies of their books purchased from the well-stocked conference book shop. The cash-bar reception then preceded the sumptuous banquet, which was itself followed by a historical costume fashion show. Twenty or so attendees paraded costumes ranging from medieval gowns and wimples to eighteenth-century pirate hats and spyglasses to twentieth-century suffragette sashes and placards. Finally, the hardiest attendees ignored their fatigue to listen to five authors--Eileen Charbonneau, Margaret Frazer, Jade Lee, Anne Easter Smith, and Diana Gabaldon--share titillating sex scenes from their novels. The bartenders and wait-staff got more than they bargained for working this gig!
The best part of the conference, for me, was meeting many of the writers whom I've gotten to know over the internet during the last two years. I reconnected with Diana Gabaldon, Martha Terilli, Sarah Johnson, Tinney Heath and Marilyn Alm, whom I met at the last conference; Catherine Delors, Sheramy Bundrick, Lucy Pick, C.W. Gortner, Michelle Moran, George Berger, Christine Blevins, Laurel Corona, Susanne Dunlap, Karen Essex, Amanda Orr, Donald Platt, Vanitha Sankaran I got to meet for the very first time. I was also very lucky to be able to spend time with my lovely agent, Stephanie Cabot, who up until now has only been a voice on the phone.
Heartfelt thanks go to the Historical Novel Society and the conference organizers for putting together this amazing event. For readers who are considering attending the next conference, I have two words--DO IT! You'll make new friends and valuable connections and meet authors whose books you've read and raved about. Exposed to the wisdom and expertise of published authors and industry professionals, you'll come away exhilarated, inspired and determined to finish that book. The only disappointing thing is that the conference lasts only two and a half days, then you have to wait two years until the next one.