Kaitlyn Dunnett/Kathy Lynn Emerson here. Last weekend many mystery fans and writers expected to gather in New Orleans for Bouchercon, the largest of the annual fan conventions. A month or so beforehand, it was cancelled due to Covid concerns and rescheduled for a future date. It turns out this was a good thing, since New Orleans ended up being in the path of a major hurricane and attendees would have had a difficult time getting home again.
During the past few months, other annual gatherings have either been cancelled or had already switched to virtual programming. Was I planning to attend any of the in-person ones? No. But it wasn’t all that long ago that I would have been, and in common with those who were registered, I regret that plans had to be changed. For writers, conferences, especially those organized by fans, are a big part of publicizing their work. They’re also a lot of fun. That’s probably why, today, I’m waxing nostalgic about past gatherings.
I can’t say I was ever a big fan of the travel involved, especially if it meant long hours on a plane, but back when I first started going to conferences, even that part of the trip was much less of a hassle. Both before and after 2001, my husband would drive me to Portland Jetport, but in the beginning we’d get me checked in and then go upstairs to the restaurant for a leisurely meal while waiting for the call to board. He could accompany me to the gate to say goodbye and then stay in the waiting area to watch my plane take off before heading home. It was a pleasant, relaxing way to start a trip.
You know what airports are like now. And the planes themselves are less passenger-friendly, too. For the last five or six years, unless I could afford to splurge and fly first class, arthritis and other health issues made even a short flight physically uncomfortable for me. It didn’t help that seats are closer together than they used to be. You want proof? Try lowering the tray table if you carry your weight in front of you. I’d end up arriving at my destination already hurting, and if the conference hotel also required a lot of walking, the fun factor took another hit. At the last few conferences I attended, the hotels didn’t even a nice big lobby bar to hang out in. If you only see fellow attendees when you’re attending the same panels, it really limits the socializing.
A lot of my best conference memories took place in lobby bars, where groups of us pulled chairs together around a table and talked about every subject imaginable. It didn’t matter that most of us only saw each other at those conferences. We could pick up right where we left off the year (or two) before. Thank goodness e-mail and Facebook have made it possible to stay in touch even without the physical conferences. They are a poor substitute for meeting face-to-face, but better than nothing. What’s sad is that far too many friends from the earliest days of my career are no longer with us.
The very first conference I ever went to was the Amherst Children’s Literature Conference in 1987. Thanks to a mutual friend, I was invited to stay at Jane Yolen’s home. Jane was a very big deal in children’s books and wrote a how-to on writing books for children that I still have. One of her best bits of advice was that you don’t have to have children to write for them. You don’t even have to like children. You just have to remember what it was like to be a child.
The next year I attended the International Crime Congress in New York City. That was where I first met many mystery writers who later became friends. At an open house at one of Manhattan’s four (yes, four) mystery bookstores, I also met a reader who is still one of my best conference pals today.
It was 1991 when I first attended Malice Domestic, in the third year it was in existence, and also went to the annual Romance Writers of America conference. That year it was held in New Orleans, my one and only visit to the city that is so much in the news today. What do I remember? That it was summer and hot and humid! And that over lunch and a drink called a Hurricane, I pitched the idea for a time-travel romance to my editor. She loved it! In fact, she was sure Echoes and Illusions would be my “breakout book.” It didn’t quite turn out that way, but I treasure the memory.
Speaking of hurricanes, of the weather variety, I’ll never forget one memorable Novelists Inc conference. We met in White Plains, New York and were wrapping up when we started hearing about cancelled flights. Fortunately, I’d traveled by car with two writer friends, one from Maine and one from New Hampshire. Going home, we made room for an additional passenger, a writer from New Brunswick who was stranded in New York as Hurricane Sandy approached. The other Maine writer took her as far as Bangor and her husband drove there from Canada (in those days, border crossing was easy!) to pick her up.
I could go on. By a rough count, I’ve been to at least ninety writers’ conferences since 1987. Some years I was traveling somewhere on an average of once a month from the spring through the fall. Will I ever attend another in person? Only time will tell. It would help if someone would hurry up and perfect transporter technology. Post-Covid booster, I’d have no hesitation at all if I could be beamed from my house directly to a conference site.
Kathy Lynn Emerson/Kaitlyn Dunnett has had sixty-four books traditionally published and has self published several children’s books and three works of nonfiction. She won the Agatha Award and was an Anthony and Macavity finalist for best mystery nonfiction of 2008 for How to Write Killer Historical Mysteries and was an Agatha Award finalist in 2015 in the best mystery short story category. She was the Malice Domestic Guest of Honor in 2014. Her newest books are Murder, She Edited (the fourth book in the contemporary “Deadly Edits” series, written as Kaitlyn) and, as Kathy, I Kill People for a Living: A Collection of Essays by a Writer of Cozy Mysteries. She maintains websites at www.KaitlynDunnett.com and www.KathyLynnEmerson.com. A third, at A Who’s Who of Tudor Women, is the gateway to over 2300 mini-biographies of sixteenth-century Englishwomen, now available in e-book format.