Tag Archives: writers on writing

Writing Retreats : Pleasures and Pitfalls

woman reading book in hammock against dark sky

Writing retreats do NOT include this. Sadly.

I’ve been on quite a few writing retreats. And as you read this blog, I’m probably off on another one. If you’re reading this blog after 20th March, though, you’re too late. I’m back 😉

This post is about writing retreats in general, and what I’m hoping to get out of this particular one. I’m also looking at some of the benefits of writing retreats and — sorry, but I won’t lie to you here — the pitfalls.

Writing retreats : what are they? what do writers do there?

Some writers may do writing retreats by themselves, though I don’t know anyone who does. Most of my writer friends do writing retreats in groups, sometimes just a couple of good mates, sometimes a larger group of writing friends.

writer in mist with candle

With luck, a following wind, maybe some magic?

Writing retreats do, essentially, what it says on the tin. A group of writers go away (retreat) from their normal writing milieu. They go somewhere else for a couple of days, or longer, and they write there, individually (or, occasionally, jointly). With luck and a following wind, they return home fired up and remotivated and with a goodly number of new or edited words under their metaphorical belt as well.

What’s not to like?

Writing retreats : what are the essentials?

The somewhere else mentioned above needs to be conducive to writing. No new location is going to have all the home comforts of an author’s writing room, complete with research library, filing cabinets, printer, and so on. But do we need all those all the time?

The basics

writer smiling sitting at laptopA completely new location can be energising — provided each writer has the basics she needs to work. If pushed, most of us would say that we need a room of our own with a desk and a comfortable chair. Possibly a decent desk lamp as well. We’ll obviously be supplying our own laptop or — for those who still prefer pen and paper — our own writing materials.

writer's desk with laptop and coffee cupsAnd, of course, we need access to tea/coffee/drink of choice throughout the day.

Do we need more than that?

If I’m honest, I’ll admit that quite a lot of us like to have our own bathroom/shower room as well, though it usually puts the costs up.


html under magnifying glassWi-fi? There are differing views about that. Yes, wi-fi allows writers to access emails, social media and the like. It ensures the internet is available for research. But the purpose of writing retreats is to write. Maybe if there’s no wi-fi, more writing will get done? We can always make a note to do that vital bit of internet research after we get back home.

(I’m writing this blog at home and going off on retreat tomorrow. If I manage to respond to any comments on Sunday and Monday, it will be because there IS wi-fi on the retreat. Otherwise, I’ll be responding to comments in mid-week, after I get back home.)

Friendship and tolerance

cartoon Ermintrude whose jaw click when she eats

The other absolute essential is to get on with all the other writers on the retreat, because you’ll be spending a lot of time with them, including most meal times. (Drink may also — just possibly 😉 — be involved.)

Obvious? Yes, of course, but if Ermintrude Gutbucket’s way of slurping her soup drives you up the wall, you would probably be well advised to avoid retreats with said EG. You want to be relaxed when you fall into bed each night, not cursing under your breath about EG’s lack of table manners.

How many writers?

group of friends discussing writingTwo works. Up to ten will probably work too, provided they all get on pretty well and are all at roughly the same stage in their careers. There might be problems if, say, a group consisted of 5 multi-published writers and one unpublished writer. But if they were all good mates, even that might work. The depth of the trusting friendship matters much more than the number of people, I’d suggest.


partners holding handsSome writing retreats are strictly writers only. On informal retreats, partners may be welcome, provided all the writers already know the partners and agree to include them. But it’s important to apply the Gutbucket test: if any of the writers doesn’t get on with one of the partners, there might be problems. If so, the diplomatic course is to ban all partners.

woman working at old-fashioned stovePartners can have their uses at writing retreats, though. After all, the writers want to be writing, don’t they? If the writers need a volunteer to fetch the papers, do the washing-up, fetch the order from the chippie, why not a partner? Partners who can cook for the retreaters may be welcomed with open arms, but most writers on retreat will happily settle for partners who volunteer for chores when required and disappear discreetly when writers need to write.

At the end of the writing day, partners can add to the fun, too.  And they’re useful for pouring the wine while the “workers” relax

Writing retreats : what kind of venues?

The venue needs to be affordable for all those who take part. The usual venues are a hotel, or a hired house. If the writing retreat involves partners, it’s a good idea to pick a location where there’s plenty for partners to do or places to visit while the writers write.


glamorous hotel dining table

Hotels will usually expect to provide breakfast and (probably) evening meals, and to charge for them, of course. That last requirement often means that hotels can be too expensive because of the cost of their restaurant (and their bar). They do have to make a profit, after all.

But some hotels do offer excellent value with meals included so it can be worth seeking them out. It’s very convenient for participants not to have to worry about doing the cooking.

Hired houses

Queen's Head Pub, SpringfieldWith a hired house, the costs are known at the outset and all the participants can chip in for the food and drink or bring contributions with them. It’s normal to share cooking duties among the participants. (The Arvon Foundation does that too, I think.)

If there’s a pub nearby that serves food, or a local chippie, that’s a bonus because participants may not want author-cooked nosh every night. Plus, going to the pub saves on the washing-up.

Writing retreats at home?

blazing fire at homeIf you’re brave — and provided you have an understanding and supportive family — you can do writing retreats at your own house. Sophie and I usually have a retreat, for just the two of us, a couple of times a year at my house and we’ve found it can be very productive. That’s the upside.

The downside is that any home-based retreat does tend to push family life into second place. If I’m supposed to be devoting 3 days to our writing retreat, I can’t really be doing laundry, shopping, family expeditions etc at the same time. Also the family, and the fellow-retreater, will expect to be fed throughout, so home writing retreats need advance planning. A freezer definitely helps.

With the right people, home writing retreats can be great, I’d say, and they’re much cheaper than the alternatives. Probably not for more than two or three writers, though.

Writing retreats : the mechanics

You go on writing retreat. You sit at your computer. And you write. That’s it, isn’t it?


woman at computer screen looking beatenI’ll admit to having once spent ages agonising about what I was going to write, rather than actually getting the words down. And it’s very easy to get deep into displacement activity, especially if there’s a good wi-fi connection. Quite frankly, that’s a huge wasted opportunity.

One approach that has proved helpful on writing retreats is this: before supper on arrival day, each of us tells the group what she is hoping to have achieved by the end of the retreat. And we write it down! If we’re creating new work, we usually couch our aims in terms of thousands of words. If we’re editing, we’re more likely to be aiming to have reached a particular stage in the process. Whatever we’re planning to do, our aim needs to be concrete.

stern woman with glasses halfway down noseAnd checkable. [Gulp] Yup, we’re all on a hook of our own making.

Because on the last night, we go round the table and each writer ‘fesses up. Some will have surpassed their target. Perhaps by miles. Others will have missed it. There will be cheers for the former and commiserations for the latter. (Probably!)

Plans for this time?

head inside question markWhat am I planning to achieve on this writing retreat?

I’m working on a new timeslip novella. I’ve barely begun it and I don’t yet know where the story is going, because I’m a pantser. So, vague though it may be, I’m planning to come back from retreat with a much clearer idea about the arc of my story, and at least a few thousand words of it written. I’d love to reach 10,000 words. However, I know my own weaknesses: I do, after all, have a PhD in Displacement Activity. 😉 I will possibly need the encouragement and/or threats of my writing mates to get anywhere near my goal.

I’ll let you know how it goes
 One thing I’m very sure of, though. It’s going to be great fun. And for most, maybe all of us, it will be really productive. Writing retreats rock!

Joanna Maitland, author


And what actually happened?

Busy fizzMonday night, post retreat report: I can say that everyone did pretty well. One member, having committed to writing 7-8000 words, reported that she had managed 10,000 words. This was greeted with a spontaneous chorus of “We hate you, Ms X”. Ms X smiled knowingly and allowed us to barrack. She knows she’s winning.  For myself, I didn’t make 10,000 words, but I did discover that my timeslip novella wasn’t a timeslip after all. That took a day of agonising, and a lot of writerly support. Having discovered that, I managed to write 5,500 words of the novella in its new form in the next two days. So I am modestly pleased. All I have to do now is finish it 😉

Must You Murder Your Darlings?

Readers - murder your darlingsThis isn’t the first time that the LibertĂ  Hive has pondered the advice to writers to “murder your darlings.”

Indeed, Joanna got seriously confessional about doing exactly that a few months ago. Actually, in her case, it wasn’t so much wilful murder as a contract killing. Editors can be ruthless.


Stephen King On writing, kill your darlingsWell, Stephen King does a pretty good job of it in his On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. “Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.” He was following William Faulkner. But even Faulkner wasn’t the originator.

It turns out to be Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch — that’s the Victorian Arthur Double-Barrelled who was NOT the author of Sherlock Holmes. He did write novels, lots of ’em, signing himself “Q”. But I’ve never read one. (Hmm. Maybe this year?)

But he was also a serious critic and anthologist. And from 1912 to his death in 1944 he was the King Edward VII Professor of English Literature at Cambridge. I’ve always thought that he pretty much invented Lit Crit, in fact. Continue reading

Collaborator and Writer, First Steps in Doing it Together


Collaborator with colleagueBy temperament, I’m one of nature’s collaborators. Show me a team and I’m spitting on my hands and doing my bit. With enthusiasm.

In my various day jobs, I’ve loved the sense of shared enterprise. OK, I could get a bit testy when we had meetings about meetings. But mostly interaction with other people buoyed me up when I was tired, focused me when I was floundering and made laugh a lot.

And I work a whole lot better than I do on my own.

…or Loner?

Continue reading

Nice words: he Rats, they Badger, but does anyone Mole?

animal words create images in hearer's mind

Language is a writer’s basic toolkit. Writers — novelists, playwrights, poets, lyricists, and all the rest — use words to trigger emotional responses or to paint pictures in the minds of their readers and listeners.

How can we fail to see layers of meaning in creations like these?

  • the wine-dark sea (Homer, Ancient Greece)
  • sleep that knits up the ravelled sleave of care (Shakespeare: Macbeth, 1606)
  • nursing her wrath to keep it warm (Robert Burns: Tam O’Shanter, 1790)
  • moonless night in the small town, starless and bible-black (Dylan Thomas: Under Milk Wood, 1954)

English, a pickpocket stealing words?

Continue reading

That Unique Moment – Making a Story Special

That unique moment — we all know what it is when we come across it in a book or a movie, an opera. We recognise it the moment we see it.

smell evokes memoryAlthough feel it would probably be a better word. And sometimes we don’t even realise what it was until we’re describing the story to someone else.

Lots of people try to analyse it. But essentially, it’s visceral. More like a fleeting scent or a snatch of music than anything we can explain. Continue reading

Imperfection for Writers: Good? Bad? Challenging?


imperfection in writing and discarded pages

Imperfection sounds bad. Yet I know all about the dangers of perfectionism. But somehow, when it comes to my writing, I never quite believe them.

It feels too easy, like part of that “everyone gets a prize” approach which I deeply mistrust. The sort of thing that makes teachers say, “Ermintrude is too easily satisfied.” Continue reading

Naming Minor Characters: Fun and Games with Names

One of the fun things about writing fiction is that you, the author, can really play with names for your characters. Hero or villain or somewhere in between? You’re in charge when it comes to naming.

And if you’re writing historical fiction, you have even more scope. Continue reading

Elizabethan York without Dung? Pamela Hartshorne guests

Sadly, today is the last of our series on research. But we’re finishing with a bang!
In delectable medieval York.


Today, we welcome Pamela Hartshorne, a York specialist. Her credentials are beyond doubt — she has a PhD in medieval studies — but she manages to wear her research very lightly. She has written dozens of books for Mills & Boon, a publisher that definitely doesn’t want dry background material to get in the way of the love story between hero and heroine.

Every time someone asked whether she’d use her research in a book, her answer was always no.
Until, one day 

One day, no finally became yes. Pamela turned to writing historical novels set in her beloved York, where she’d done her academic research. Was she taking a risk? Could she make the jump from Mills & Boon romance  to mainstream timeslip? Here’s her story . . .

Research may be useful … or not


John Speed’s late 16th century map of York


By the time I sat down to write a historical novel, I was feeling pretty confident. I’d already written over 50 books for Mills & Boon, so I figured I knew something about storytelling. Continue reading

Gritty Saga Research: Jean Fullerton guests

jean-fullerton-author-picTwo weeks ago, we had Katie Fforde digging in the dirt — with and without Ray Mears! — in order to write about life in the here-and-now. This week, we welcome Jean Fullerton who writes award-winning historical sagas about the not-so-very-long-ago.

It can seem worlds away from where we are now, even though some readers will have lived through the periods of Jean’s stories and experienced exactly the kind of gritty reality she describes. And if you enjoy Call the Midwife, you’ll love Jean Fullerton’s books.

Read on to find out more about the lengths an author goes to in order to get it right

Jean Fullerton, East London Author

Fullerton research 20th century nursing guide

District nurse Jean wasn’t quite like this!


I was born in East London where my family have lived since the 1820s.

I’ve written ten novels set in East London (published by Orion) and am just putting the finishing touches to my eleventh. This one is set during the Second World War, and also in East London. I’m now a full-time writer but I was a District Nurse in East London for over 25 years. These days, I live with my hero just outside London. Continue reading

Sugar tongs at dawn? Elizabeth Rolls guests

It’s useful, when researching, to be able to consult people who were there. But go back more than a century or so — to the Regency in Britain, for example — and there are no living witnesses to consult. Elizabeth Rolls authorRegency novelists — like today’s guest, Elizabeth Rolls — have to rely on other sources.

You may imagine that “other sources” means dusty history books and written materials. But there’s much more than that.

And getting to grips with the non-written stuff can present the odd challenge if the author in question lives 12,000 miles away, in Australia.

As Elizabeth Rolls does

Elizabeth Rolls loves her research

To research or not to research?

For me, research is a must. I’ve had a book kick off in my mind over a snippet about the crossroads burial of suicides in the early 19th century. The past is very much a foreign country, but add 12 000 miles into the equation and you have a real challenge. Continue reading