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Wives of Tyrants and landing the plane on time: the Harrogate History Festival 2013

As an ex- wannabe-actress, I actively enjoy the performing side of being an author, even if I do need plenty of Piglet-time afterwards before I can get back into writing-mode. So I'm looking forward to providing a Literary Lunchtime at the Ulster Hall in Belfast, on 27th November, and if you can make it, do come and say Hi afterwards. I've never been to Belfast, either, so I also hope I'll get a little time to have a look round.

It's always particularly easy and enjoyable when you're slotting into an established structure and venue, as with the Literary Lunchtimes, but I was surprised to find myself actively happy, a couple of weekends ago, as I turned off the A1(M) to Harrogate. It had been a long drive through Friday traffic from South East London, the sky over the Pennines was inky black and slashed with lightning, and there were rain-soaked roadworks. This was a brand-new festival, and I hadn't got much time left to to prepare an event I was chairing, billed as Wives of Tyrants: Tudors to Nazis. Why was I feeling so happy, and so looking forward to it?

As an author your only responsibility at an event is to be audible, interesting and well-mannered company for the audience and the other authors; it may not be easy, but it is relatively simple. Elizabeth Fremantle and Jane Thynne did it all just brilliantly. But when you're chairing, you're trying, in real-time, to find the coherence in two or more writers and their books and what they have to say about them; you're trying to draw out a discussion from them that the audience experiences as a well-shaped, coherent, intriguing and satisfying forty minutes; you're trying to hold back on what you might say about your own work because it's not about you, today; you're trying to fit in the readings and the questions, and still land the plane dead on 10.58 ... and you're nonetheless trying to avoid making the discussion so complete, or so focussed on the non-fiction interest, that the audience decide they don't need to buy the novels at all.

I love chairing, but in many ways it needs more prep, and can go more horribly wrong, than my own events. So it was nice, too, that the whole festival took place in the same, large, comfortable, agreeably Victorian hotel, The Old Swan. In the gaps where I was tired or had done enough talking and listening for the moment, I could just disappear upstairs to my own room and kick my shoes off. I don't think I once got that lost-in-translation feeling I usually get at some moment, where you eye the hospitality tray and its potlets of nasty UHT milk, and want to be at home.

The first Harrogate History Festival was the brainchild of Manda (MC) Scott, chair of the Historical Writers Association, after an earlier festival, and a marquee-full of books, were drowned in the floods. A roof and solid walls make life so much better, Manda decided, and who better to team up with than Harrogate, which has been hosting the crime writers' equivalent for a decade?

Another thing that made Harrogate such fun was how smoothly it ran: even the microphones were the nifty kind which curl round your ear and you're scarcely aware of. I don't think administrators and curators and committees get nearly enough gratitude when events go well, considering what a difference it makes to our performance if we can relax back onto a solid structure of the right things happening in the right places at the right times. My singer sister suffered hideously when no one remembered to tell her and the other singers till the day that a production of L'Orfeo was to be at Baroque pitch, but even with less critical issues there are always the times where no one knows where you should go, lack of publicity makes a thin audience, and no one's cordoned off the event space or silenced the coffee machine.

Yes, any festival's function, at one level, is to sell: sell tickets; sell books and more indirectly authors-as-brands; sell hotel rooms, drinks, nearby attractions, and next year's tickets. It worked, too: the bookroom was packed, 2000 people bought tickets - far more than even optimistic estimates - many events were sold out and all were full, and all is set for the second Harrogate History Festival in 2014. And the fact that all the authors and chairs must be paid has been built in from the beginning. But what really made Harrogate such a blast was that although we were all in economic relationships with each other, it genuinely felt like a communal event too: the gathering of the Clan History, if you like.

There were writers I already knew, from old hands like Robert Low to students from the Arvon course that Manda and I taught, blogging friends such as Sally Zigmond and Alison Morton, there were Self-Editing graduates, blog readers, strangers in the book room who bought my books, strangers in the greenroom who've written more than I ever shall, strangers I sat next to in other sessions and agreed or disagreed with. The jam-packed event on the Search for Richard III sparked interest in my own A Secret Alchemy; a Random Penguin publicist said something super-useful about the book I'm basing on this blog; historical crimewriter Andrew Taylor and I had an illuminating conversation, over a late-evening Chinese meal with Lloyd Shepherd and Robert Ryan in what used to be the Royal Baths, about the different ways writers work.

The more people I talked to, I realised as I drove away through the most deliciously sunny Sunday afternoon, the stronger a sense I had of a web which connects readers and writers of every kind to each other. We were all readers before we were writers, of course, and the web is spun from our endless, shared fascination with the Otherness and Sameness of the past to our own time. I'm glad we'll all be back in Harrogate this time next year.

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