Behind the Scenes: Thru The Stones, Outlander Fan-Made Gathering

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One of the most fun things about this whole Outlander phenomenon is getting to meet other fans. For many people, Facebook is as close as they’ll get; for others, that’s not enough. The experience of meeting in person, a chance to rub shoulders with someone associated with the production, an opportunity to learn something that Claire or Jamie might have known how to do – that’s what fuels the Outlander conventions, conferences, dinners, meet-ups and events.

One of my favorites is Thru The Stones, a 2-day event held in the Quad Cities area of Iowa and Illinois. The first one was in 2014, and this week, TTS is heading into its second gathering! For as big as this event is – several hundred attendees, a huge trivia contest, big-name production guests, classes, entertainment, vendors – it’s surprising how small the working committee is! It’s not surprising, though, that this small group – three sisters – has worked extremely hard to put it all together.

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Sandy Belshause, Deb Ford and Gin Wray, “Les Trois Fleches.” Photo by Samantha Kraupner

As they head into the final, and extensive, preparations for this year’s event, Samantha Kraupner and i were invited to come visit, help, and chat. (Thru The Stones will be held this coming weekend, Dec. 2 & 3, in Bettendorf, Iowa. There are a handful of tickets still available – go to ThruTheStones.com for info.) We had a great day with event creator Deb Ford, owner of The Parkside Treasure House in Orion, IL, and her sisters Gin Wray and Sandy Belshause, at Gin’s beautiful home, now TTS Central, near the Mississippi River. We cut out giant posters, prepared goodie bag items, and put name tags together. There are boxes, and boxes, and boxes – of those name tags, items hand-made by Gin and Sandy for Beardsley’s Trading Post, decorations, and so much more, waiting to be finished, or done and ready to be transported to the event!

I asked Deb where TTS came from. “In 2013, when I envisioned this, I thought it would be fun to go to an event like this – fun to meet my favorite author, learn things… I’m a learning person. I scoured the internet, and found nothing like what I had in mind. I wrote to Diana (Gabaldon), and told her ‘this is what I’m thinking of.’ She forwarded my letter to her publisher, Random House, and they were on board! So I met with my family and told them that this could really be big, or could really lose a lot of money. My husband said ‘it’s only money.’ But it was decided when my son Eric told me that I should quit doing stuff for everyone else, and do something for myself. I had to wait for Diana to be able to sign the contract (she was finishing up Written in My Own Heart’s Blood), which she did in May (of 2014).”

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Deb Ford with Diana and Graham at TTS 2014

At the time, Deb was Executive Director of Main Street Orion, a not-for-profit community economic development company. “I quit a job for this!” she says. She loved her job, but she knew that TTS would take all her available free time, and she still had the Treasure House (a flower and gift shop) to run, and her family to keep in mind. Her sisters were on board, and TTS was born. That first event was held in December of 2014, in Davenport, IA. Diana and Graham McTavish were the special guests (see my wrapup of the event here and video of guest speakers here).

For that event, Deb was extremely nervous when tickets went on sale, “We’re not affluent by any stretch of the imagination,” she said, “and the fear of losing a bunch of money was very real to me.” But a Midwest event, when everything else that’s been put on, including Diana’s book signings, has really ignored the center of the country, was a big hit with hundreds of us who are within driving distance – and many more who were excited to come from much farther away.

What was the best moment of that first event? “I was just sitting there in the back of the room while Graham was speaking, going ‘wow.’ Everybody was having a good time, everybody was happy. I had a great feeling of accomplishment.” Sandy added, “We knew as the day progressed that something good was going on – the way people were talking to each other, the way people were huddling. Something magical was happening. We were exhausted, but there was so much positive energy.”

So planning began for the next event. “My husband keeps saying that the last one was so good, can you meet it or top it? I keep saying yes. I wanted it big enough to be exciting, small enough to still be intimate,” Deb said. They used the attendee evaluations to help make some changes, looking at which classes and speakers were satisfying, and which weren’t. They looked at the logistics – how lines for autographs, bathrooms, and classes all worked. “There’s so much to think about this time that couldn’t be done last year,” Deb explained. “I have a class – how is it going to be set up? Does it need a garbage can? Tables?” “How long will it take them to get from point A to point B?” added Sandy.

One change, for example, is that this year, there will be activities and entertainment available while groups are waiting to get signatures and photos with this year’s guests, Terry Dresbach and Grant O’Rourke. “That’s where it slogged down last time,” Deb said. This year, instead of taking your own pictures, photos with the celebrities will be taken by a professional photographer and available (at no charge) online later, to keep the line moving.

Each sister has strengths that they bring to planning. Sandy said, “I’m an idea person. I have a secret Pinterest board. I could plan out another couple events with all the ideas we have. I already have a box of miscellaneous ideas for the next one!” And Deb is the people person. “And the organizer,” she said. “I draw everyone in. I’d love to check everyone in, and greet everyone personally.” Gin is the “doer” of the group, an accomplished quilter and seamstress (and she and her husband Tim built their home from scratch), although it’s pretty obvious that all three sisters are high energy forces. Gin says that another one of her strengths is “talking Deb down from the ledge.”

Of all the things that were brand new to Deb in this venture, learning about the legal aspects was the biggest. She already owns a business, so instead of having to incorporate for the event, everything has to legally run through the Treasure House. Insurance, money in and out, contracts – everything was a learning experience. “Dealing with the celebrities was very easy. Dealing with the legal things was much more difficult,” she said.

Deb has received requests to bring TTS to other cities, but doesn’t see that happening. Holding the event basically in her local area makes it easy to run back and forth for food tastings, meetings with the location’s event planner, knowing the airports and hotel shuttle system, and getting those boxes and boxes – and boxes – of name tags, goodie bags, decorations, Beardsley’s Trading post items, and so much more to the locale.

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But she has also spoken with people who would like to put something similar on in their own areas. What does she say to them? “Don’t do it!” Gin jumps in. “Be prepared to spend way more money, way more time. (From previous jobs) I had an inkling of what it would take, but I also had committee members to take on the work. But this, we’re doing it ourselves. Last time, I spent over $30,000 on speakers, celebrities, classes. I hired dancers, musicians, and more.” “It’s not a part-time job,” Gin added. “Be ready for it to consume your life,” said Sandy. “The hours involved – you can’t put a figure on it. It’s thousands and thousands of hours. There are hundreds of details – we’re always calling each other and discussing them.”

Is there an over-arching principle, a main guideline the sisters use when planning? “I want everyone to be treated as best as we can possibly treat them. If it’s possible to do, do it,” Deb told me. “I want everyone to feel really welcome. I want them to think when they get home, I would do that again next week.” Gin agrees. “We go for a family feeling, nobody should feel excluded. Nobody is just a bystander or an onlooker.” At the same time, they work hard at being fair with every attendee, which means that they can’t give in to every request. “I think the thing that helps alleviate problems is that we’re very strong personalities,” said Sandy. “Here are the rules, it’s on you to follow them. Because you start fiddling with the rules, you get someone mad.” “I just want to be fair with everyone,” says Deb.

Is it all worth it? The thousands of hours, the money worries, the hundreds of questions and requests? “It’s a labor of love,” the sisters agree. “I made it in the vision of something I’d want to attend. I’m glad Eric said what he did to me. I’ve met wonderful people. I retired from a job I love to do this convention. I’m really, really glad I pursued it.”


photos from work day by Samantha Kraupner

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Erin Conrad