At a recent writers’ conference in Boston, a journalist from Estonia joined me for lunch. We talked about the upcoming keynote speakers—historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, author Tracy Kidder and former New York Times executive editor Bill Keller—and swapped career tales. I had already attended a few writing classes, including one on the art of the interview. My new friend, a serious-looking young man with glasses and a bad haircut, opened his conference bag and handed me a glossy brochure featuring reviews of his work.He had written several well-received books about the history of Estonia. “Are you hoping to land an agent?” I asked. “No,” he said. Then why travel so far? “Inspiration,” he said. I was surprised at first, but then I realized: That’s why I’m here too. It’s the reason, in fact, I empty my wallet and attend several conferences each year.
At various times I have rubbed shoulders with Gay Talese, Jennifer Egan, Mitchell Zuckoff, Susan Orlean and Robert Stone. I’ve made new friends and pitched books to agents. But like my Estonian friend, what I really look for is inspiration. Do other authors struggle? (Yes. New York Times reporter Isabel Wilkerson spent ten years on her mammoth history, The Warmth of Other Suns.) How do authors organize a 375-page book? Do they use note cards? Do their spouses read their stuff? (Nathaniel Philbrick, the author of Mayflower and In the Heart of the Sea, enlists his wife and father as early readers.) At the Power of Narrative conference in Boston, Adam Hochschild said one of his best books, King Leopold's Ghost, had been rejected by nine publishers. Nine! The book, which went on to win the prestigious Mark Lynton History Prize for literary style, has sold more than 600,000 copies.
Inspiration.It’s a good reason to pack your bags, battle flight delays and grab a front row seat in Ballroom C. You have a lot of options. There are more than 100 writing conferences, retreats and workshops this year, including get-togethers in Key West, Jackson Hole and—if you’re feeling adventurous—the Sacred Valley of Peru. Want to describe a crime scene? There are 3 conferences for that: Thrillerfest, The Writer’s Police Academy, the Killer Nashville International Writers’ Conference.
Want to get the best return on your conference fee? Come prepared. Practice your elevator pitch before you leave. Study the conference guide. Go online, look at the backgrounds of the speakers and figure out which class is best for you. Read books by keynote speakers—you might bump into one at breakfast. And, of course, grab a drink at the bar, where you can network with other conference goers.
If your subject is history, you’ll want to attend the Historical Writers of America’s second annual conference in New Mexico on September 21-24. Several things make the HWA conference a must-attend event. I know; I helped plan it. At HWA, we celebrate writing, history and place. That’s reflected in our conference sites. Our first gathering in Colonial Williamsburg dropped guests into eighteenth-century Virginia. Our second conference—at the sprawling Tamaya Resort just north of Albuquerque—is near the Petroglyph National Monument, where Indians and Spanish settlers carved symbols on volcanic rocks 500 years ago. Further to the north, Santa Fe boasts the oldest church, house and seat of government in America. And Los Alamos—
4 ground zero for the Manhattan Project—is an hour and half away. At various times the area has been home to Spanish conquistadors, Apache and Pueblo warrior, missionaries, Mexican–American War soldiers, Billy the Kid, UFO fanatics and atomic bomb scientists. If you’re looking for an agent, HWA has invited some of the best. Even better, you’re not limited to a single pitch class. In New Mexico, you can schedule talks with agents all day long. Some great speakers and instructors will be there too, including Therese O’Neill, the author of the New York Times bestseller, Unmentionable: The Victorian Lady's Guide to Sex, Marriage, and Manners, and bestselling historical writer Jodi Daynard, the author of The Midwife’s Revolt and Our Own Country.
So what are you waiting for? You have a few months to prep. Grab your pen and notebook.
HWA Board Member Paul Davis features profiles of the presenters from HWA Conferences, as well as other news-worthy subjects. Paul, a 30+ year veteran journalist, attended the HWA Conference and is in the midst of planning for the next one.