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Contact: Elena Hartwell - elenahartwell@gmail.com and visit me on the web at www.elenahartwell.com

NYC to Chincoteague: ThrillerFest and Ponies on the Water

Whenever I travel for work, I try to take time to experience the places I go. It's easy to attend a conference and spend the entire weekend inside, soaking up amazing information and hearing from favorite authors, but disconnecting from the location where the event takes place. Left Coast Crime in Honolulu got me back in the islands, with a few added days in Kona. My whirlwind trip to Asheville, Hays, and West Palm Beach, included baby bears, a flood, and alligators. I'm happiest when I'm engaged with the natural world. ThrillerFest in New York City provided an amazing opportunity to hear from the top authors in my industry and to connect with other writers. It also got me on the east coast. From there it was a short hop to fulfill a childhood dream, to see the feral ponies of Chincoteague.

ThrillerFest was a very special event for me. As the Debut Author Program Chair, I got to interact with almost forty debut authors over the course of a year. Most of them have been featured on my blog and the rest will either have interviews or guest blogs posted through the end of September. Spending time with twenty-two of them in person was a wonderful experience. I loved having the opportunity to give back to ITW after my own fabulous debut year and I think I made a positive contribution to the experiences of these remarkable writers.

As authors, we can feel isolated in our careers. We don't have a handbook about what to do after that first novel comes out. Building relationships with other authors provides us with advice, solace, and friendship with people who are experiencing many of the same highs, lows, and fears. I believe I've created connections that will last for the rest of my life. I think I was even more nervous this year than I was last year. Last year, all I had to do was show up. This year I felt (gasp, yikes) responsible for other people. Luckily, I was working with brilliant folks (you know who you are!) who made all the debut author events go without a hitch.

One of the highlights of the conference for me was Saturday night. I didn't go to the banquet and figured I'd spend that last night in NYC alone. Instead I went to dinner with four other writers from ITW. We went to Nirvana, an Indian Restaurant a few blocks from the Grand Hyatt. The food was terrific, but the conversation was the best part. I spend much of my life feeling like an outsider. I think many authors feel that way. We exist somewhere between our heads and our hearts and don't always know how to connect to people or feel that we "fit in." But our dinner felt like homein the sense of breaking bread with kindred spirits. For a couple hours I felt like I belonged.

Sunday morning I left NYC behind on the road to Chincoteague. I've loved horses since I was two. My parents moved to a neighborhood in San Diego, where wild places still existed. Our house perched on a canyon, that at the time was undeveloped. A few blocks away was a horse stable, owned by a family named Ames. It had been there a long time and lasted until I was about ten. We would walk over to the stableI often rode in the little red wagon my parents would pulland feed carrots to the horses. I don't remember ever not being enthralled by a horse. At forty-eight, I still point and say "oh, look, a horse" whenever I see one from the car. Of course I read Misty of Chincoteague by Marguerite Henry. And I've wanted to see those feral ponies ever since.


The Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge is actually on Assateague Island, which lies between Chincoteague and the Atlantic ocean. The refuge contains numerous birds, both resident and migratory, deer, muskrats, rabbits, and of course, feral ponies.

The first day there, I could see a herd far off from the road. Fences keep the horses from wandering into the places where people are allowed. The best way to see the horses is from the water.

Booking a trip with Captain Dan's Island Boat Tours had me anticipating even better views. It didn't disappoint.


Captain Dan not only knew where to find the horses, but also the names of the stallions and the mares in each band. He could recognize them by their markings and their behavior. Additionally, we saw ospreys, a juvenile bald eagle, three kinds of egrets, pelicans, and great blue and tri-colored herons.

I was struck by the vast differences between NYC and Chincoteague. I love the great coffee shops, the theatre, the excitement of NYC. Spending time hearing from people like Lee Child and Steve Berry and other bestselling authors is fascinating and helpful and reminds me of the hard work every successful writer has put in to reach the top of our industry. I relished the time spent with up-and-coming authors and the volunteers and the readers, who make what we do possible. Without them we'd have no careers, no conferences, no one to love our work or appreciate our knowledge.

But I also love the quiet places. The feral landscapes where human beings are the outsiders. Where water and sky come together and land erodes and birds are unconcerned about the catastrophic decisions of men. The reminder that nature will take her course and there's little we can do to stop her. And perhaps, if we listen, we will learn something from the natural world.

That things move forward regardless of our own hopes and dreams. That everything changes around us, whether we want it to or not. That life exists outside the world we make for ourselves and it can be achingly beautiful if we take the time to look. I am humbled by the talent of others, the novels I read that touch my soul, the thrillers that keep me turning pages, the characters I wish I could meet in person. But I am nurtured by nature. I am renewed by still waters. My heart always soars with wild things. How lucky am I to be able to live in both.

2 comments:

  1. Loved reading your thoughts about reading, writing, and the natural world! And these pictures are gorgeous. NOW I understand why you laughed when I asked if you were going to buy another horse. (=

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    1. There was the cutest little boy I thought about, he was so small I could have carried him on the plane ... of course, I would have had to explain to JD why we needed to feed a third horse....

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