In May 2000 I went to Washington, DC, to attend a fan conference called Malice Domestic and to find out if my first book, Circles of Confusion, had one of the big mystery awards, the Agatha Award.
That year, Circles of Confusion was also short-listed for the Agatha Award and the Oregon Book Award. Both the Agatha and the Anthony were for best first novels. It's a lot easier to get on those award lists, because there are probably fewer than 200 first mysteries published each year. After that, there are no "best second mystery" contests. Instead, you are competing against everyone else for "best mystery" - and the competition is much stiffer.
That year about 700 mystery fans, as well as about 100 authors, attended. Every hour there were two or three panels, where four or five authors talked about "Mystery's Bad Girls," or "Humor in the Mystery." And you could also mingle in the bar with your favorite authors and buy them drinks. (I drank more in three days than I have in probably a whole year - that's what happens when you're neither driving or paying.) It was strange being a demi-celebrity, and having trembling strangers ask if it were okay to take my picture. (Now that everyone carries a phone that doubles as a camera, I hardly ever get asked if it's okay, but this was back in the days of actual film cameras.)
How toeless hose helped me make friends
Since Malice Domestic is always held on the east coast, I knew no one at the conference. And everyone already seemed to be friends, standing in little groups, laughing and joking.
But I had a secret weapon that I wore to the big banquet where they announced the awards. It was the latest thing - toeless pantyhose. My friend Vicki had seen them on Good Morning America, and she said I absolutely had to have a pair to wear with my silver sandals. That way my legs would look smooth (the pantyhose) and I would still have toe cleavage (the toeless part).
I ordered them off the Internet (they were not yet in stores), only to learn they would ship in six to eight weeks - well after the banquet. I figured it didn't hurt to ask, so I called up and explained what it was for. A team of people at the company Fed-Exed me three pair in a range of shades the day before I left.
At the banquet, I made a point of going up to little clumps of people and showing off my pantyhose and my silver toenails (I still have some polish permanently imbedded on my bathroom floor all these years later). The hose made a great icebreaker.
Find your own toeless hose
I've since realized that most gatherings of people look so intimidating to outsiders. Everyone else appears to be friends and having fun, and you're standing there all alone.
So what you need is a good icebreaker, like toeless hose.
At Wordstock one year, I really wanted to meet the author Stewart O'Nan, because I love his books. There was a party at Weiden & Kennedy for the authors, and I showed up primarily for that purpose. I had googled a photo of him, but he was wearing a baseball cap. So I would go up to groups of people and ask if they had seen Stewart O'Nan.
Everyone said no, but we still ended up talking. I met the most interesting people, ranging from a French guy who had just made a documentary to another author named Stuart to the people who were providing the beer and had no idea what the event was even about.
It worked so well that I've thought of searching for Stewart O'Nan (who actually never came) at every big event.
Or if you are at an event you've attended before, one where you already know people, try reaching out to a few people holding their glasses and smiling uncertainly. You might just make a new friend.