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Washington Romance Writers 17th Annual Retreat

In the Company of Women

Hilltop House Hotel -- Settling into its dramatic mountainside perch over the past hundred years introduced some interesting angles to the floors, hallways and rooms of this Harpers Ferry, W.Va., landmark. But that only adds to its charm. (Photos by Jean Marie Ward.)

"Oh wait!" Dawnflight author and Crescent Blues reviewer Kim D. Headlee exclaimed. "Shouldn't we get some cupcocks?"

Small, elderly, white-haired old ladies with barely the strength to shove their grocery carts to the back of the Centreville, Va., Giant supermarket executed 180-degree wheelies worthy of Jeff Gordon and roared down the nearest aisles. Marlene Award finalist Anne Shaw Moran staggered into the display of baked goods that prompted Headlee's outburst, hooting with laughter as the rest of the store's patrons scurried to the checkout counters. Your correspondent pulled out pen and notepad.

And the Washington Romance Writers (WRW) 17th Annual Retreat hadn't even started yet.

Forget any religious connotations you might attach to the word "retreat." Called "In the Company of Writers," the April 27-29 event looked and sounded more like a slumber party for your 120 nearest and dearest friends -- fewer than a half-dozen of whom happened to be guys.

"Linda Howard began writing at the age of nine, but she's always lived with other people in her head."

Held at the historic and haunted Hilltop House in Harpers Ferry, W.Va., WRW's biggest yearly event boasts some of the biggest names in romance. This year, in addition to such attending WRW bestsellers as Nora Roberts, Patricia Gaffney and Mary Jo Putney, the speakers included stars like Linda Howard and Robin Lee Hatcher. The seminars featured five editors from major New York publishing houses, five well-respected agents, the executive editor of Publishers Weekly and a top script consultant at Paramount Pictures Television.

Straight Talk -- In her Saturday afternoon chat, Robin Lee Hatcher told writers and fans what she considered important: "Getting up in the morning and feeling good about myself. Feeling I'm right where I'm supposed to be or I'm working towards where I'm supposed to be… I want to die at the computer." She added, "Money is what you don't want to commit to."

But these "major players" didn't come to wheel and deal. They came to hang with friends -- some old and some so new they never met before the retreat. They came to talk turkey about writing, publishing and living in a few choice seminars and in copious, well-run editor/agent sessions that sometimes ventured far beyond the usual book pitch and three chapter request.

WRW President Michelle Monkou set the tone at the April 27 reception in the hotel's homey dining room (complete with cast iron stove). Her gaze fixed on keynote speaker Linda Howard's biography, Monkou said: "Linda Howard began writing at the age of nine, but she's always lived with other people in her head."

The audience snickered, then shared Monkou's full-throated laughter as she realized the implication of her words.

"That's all right," the Alabama-born Howard drawled when she took the podium. "The voices don't tell me to kill anyone anymore. As long as I take my medication, I'm fine."

Howard reminded the audience how few writers make a living at their craft. "But you don't become a writer for the money. You become a writer because you dream. I dreamed heroic tales, and the central character was me. I put myself inside the character. I did the great deeds."

It didn't particularly matter to Howard that the things she dreamt didn't become her day-to-day reality. "If I had been meant to be a fighter pilot, that's what I would've been. I would've loved to be President of the United States, but it's not going to happen. Though I don't see anything wrong with having thousands of hard-bodied warriors ready and willing to do my bidding --

"You notice how my dreams always involve men adoring me," Howard said.

"Warrior Queens" to "Outback Gladiators" -- Books for swapping and raffle prizes lined the walls and windows of the wrap-around porch of Hilltop House's lower level. This table, featuring a basket of BKC (Butt-Kicking-Chick) toys (left rear) and Aussie heartthrobs collected lots of interest and raffle tickets. The highly sought-after, autographed picture of Gladiator Russell Crowe can be glimpsed at the farthest corner of the table.

Where Howard focused on the lack of boundaries in dreams and, by extension, in writing about those dreams, Saturday's luncheon speaker Robin Lee Hatcher grappled with a darker side of the writing life. Hatcher, a former Romance Writers of America president almost as famous for her class action suit on behalf of Dorchester authors as for her writing, talked bluntly about fear and what to do about it.

"There are thousands of ways a writing career can slap us down. The hardest ones are the ones we do to ourselves," Hatcher said.

She advised writers and would be writers to: "Set goals you can control -- the quality of the book, meeting deadlines, how you invest yourself. You can't control the marketing of the book or the release data."

Hatcher continued, "When you fail to meet goals you set for yourself, you can analyze and overcome your weaknesses. You can't do anything about the goals outside of your control except feel like a failure."

Lessons learned over writing careers of varying length and commercial success formed the theme of most of the 2001 retreat's panels. As in the case of Howard's and Hatcher's remarks, the setting and casualness of the company encouraged the kind of confidences shared in women's restrooms -- rueful, deadpan observations laced with salt and humor. Real women don't do effeminate.

"Writing is sort of like menstrual cramps," remarked western and contemporary writer Patricia McLinn. "When you first get them, you feel like you're going to die. After a few years, you know you're not going to die, but doesn't make them hurt any less."

Ruth Glick, who writes romantic suspense as Rebecca York and cookbooks under her own name, warned, "Don't get into a major fight with a wet-behind-the-ears editor. She can turn out to be a major powerhouse that you want to sell to later."

Despite her the bumps in her personal writing road, Glick echoed Hatcher's and Howard's belief that a writer writes because he or she craves the act of writing. But Emilie Richards McGee, whose writing credits (like Glick's) span dozens of books and several genres, underscored the need to set limits.

Two Rivers -- Hilltop House Hotel overlooks the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers.

"You don't need to love every sentence you write," McGee said. "It's not that cut and dried."

"But you need to love something," Glick protested.

"You can love the paycheck."

If you can do the math -- or maybe, if you believe Heidi Betts, it's better if you don't even try.

Betts came to her panel armed with a Top 10 list of writing lessons learned the hard way that proved almost as funny as her three western historical romances. Initially, Betts counted down from the top. "Five: People will ask you how you write, and you won't have a clue. Four: The sex scenes in your book will become tantamount to running around town naked. And why is it that the naked scenes are the only ones anyone is ever interested in?"

But when Betts finished her number one lesson, she kept going: "…Twelve: You may turn in an absolutely perfect manuscript, but when it comes back as a galley, it's dog doo. You hope your editor won't discover your dirty secret. But don't worry, there is a solution. When the book goes into print, all your powers will be restored."

And going: "Finally, when you begin writing, your math skills suffer. It's true. My Top 10 list had 12 items. Writers don't do math."

Long-distance Member -- Paranormal romance writer Susan Krinard belongs to the Washington Romance Writers (WRW) chapter of RWA, although she lives in New Mexico. WRW members get first crack at retreat tickets. This year the retreat sold out before sales could be opened to the general public.

No one had the heart to tell Betts that her list went to 13.

Congeniality ruled. Professional status and job titles tend to disappear when everyone stands in the same buffet lines for breakfast, lunch and dinner, or clusters around the small hotel bar laughing with bartenders and staff who look forward to the return of "their ladies" year after year. It didn't hurt that everyone pretended to be shy.

The easy-going atmosphere so impressed Paramount Television script consultant Kathie Fong Yoneda, she staged an impromptu free drawing for five, 10-minute "script pitch sessions" in addition to her panel. A noted story analyst and development specialist, Yoneda's consulting services normally cost $300 per hour.

With no offense to the men, especially volunteers like Tim Bentler-Jungr who helped with panel room set-up, the conference displayed a very definite "woman's touch." You could see it in the raffle prizes donated by WRW members to raise money for the chapter. More than books, hand-made jewelry and exquisite tole paintings fought for display space with dozens of extravagant gift baskets ranging from a fully outfitted Pittsburgh Pirates toll-gate hamper to the "Outback Gladiators" collection of Beth Fedorko.

Every year Fedorko spends months haunting E-bay and other on-line auctions to create a giant basket centering on a hot romantic hero type. This year's basket, "Outback Gladiators," starred an autographed picture of Gladiator hunk Russell Crowe. X-Men toys (in honor of Hugh Jackman's portrayal of Wolverine) and Mel Gibson action figures played major supporting roles.

Shower curtain rattling seems to be a particular favorite of Hilltop House haunts.

Nora Roberts and young adult/historical romance writer Eileen Charbonneau raffled tarot card and petro rock readings, respectively. On Friday and Saturday nights, Roberts and Charbonneau made their predictions at some of the same tables used earlier in the day for editor/agent pitch sessions. You couldn't help wondering if the readings helped the eager writers or vice versa.

Meanwhile, people wandered back and forth from the bar to the main dining room where contemporary romance favorite Kathleen Gilles Seidel tried to stump some of the world's top romance readers with Romance Jeopardy. Talk ranged from the massages provided by Hagerstown, Md., massage therapist Michael Braid (and whether it would be possible to squeeze in another session) to ghostly encounters in the hotel suites. (Shower curtain rattling seems to be a particular favorite of Hilltop House haunts.)

On Saturday night, fans of the paranormal received another treat in the form of the first Harpers Ferry Ghost Tour of the 2001 season led by local historian Shirley Dougherty. Several attendees offered their vans to transport friends and new acquaintances to the tour's departure point across from the Harpers Ferry train depot. The drivers wound up navigating the steep hill above the town with crossed fingers, hoping that no local police would notice their vehicles carried close to twice the number of people recommended by the manufacturers.

Nevertheless, everyone survived to Sunday morning, wishing the weekend wouldn't end so soon. Publishers Weekly executive editor Daisy Maryles' information-rich report on trends in women's fiction and the much-awaited raffle drawings only meant the retreat would soon be over. But closing speaker Nora Roberts, as reliably entertaining as her more than one hundred books, ensured an upbeat good-bye.

Cooking with Iron -- Antiques arranged around the main dining room lend a homey air to the hotel's buffet meals.

Roberts offered strategies on handling people who think anyone can write romance (don't strangle them) to editors and agents (don't strangle them either) to relatives with book ideas they want you to write (ditto, ditto, ditto, even though your fingers itch and sweat streams down your forehead). But after twenty years in the business of romance, she confessed some things about life and writing still perplexed her.

"I once had a book where my regular editor left in the middle of the project, and the new editor wanted me to insert a Marxist terrorist subplot into my kidnapping/amnesia plot. The changes would've required a total rewrite, and I wouldn't have been able to make the deadline for the slot. But I have this reputation for being fast." Here Roberts, another self-professed shrinking violet, paused and milked the moment. "I've had it since high school."

Jean Marie Ward

Just read your piece on the WRW Harper's Ferry Retreat. This was my second year attending, and it is everything you said and more. What an inspiring gathering of writers!

Robin Bayne