Making a Writing Retreat: Part II

From Edith, starting to walk around again (after getting a new knee) north of Boston.

Here’s Part II of my poll on writing retreats, with answers to my questions from authors Tiger Wiseman, Ramona DeFelice Long, Liz Milliron, and Holly Robinson – their bios are at the end of the post. Check out Part I for the purpose and feeling of a retreat, although of course there is overlap.

What are your top five tips for what to bring?



Tiger Wiseman

  • Writing snacks ( I bring potato chips)
  • A good book or two
  • Comfortable walking shoes
  • MP3 player
  • Wine
  • For work, only what you need. Before you leave, prioritize your projects and bring research, notes, etc. for those projects only, instead of every possible story on your dream list. Bringing too many projects can leave you feeling like a failure because you’ll never get to them all.
  • Comfort items, like your favorite pillow, blanket, teddy bear, Christmas lights, a sound machine.
  • A story idea or issue that can be discussed or brainstormed as a group. This is a real bonding experience.
  • A journal. If you are a newbie, it may help to note what you brought that was a godsend and what you left behind that you longed for. If you have a meaningful experience, journaling it will keep it alive for you  long after the retreat is over.
  • A camera! I use my cell phone and love looking back at photos of my writing escape places.



Liz Milliron

  • Anything you need to make your writing space comfortable (pillows, lap desk, favorite blend of tea, etc.).
  • Something you can take notes on (cards or a phone app), preferably portable so if you decide to take a walk and inspiration strikes, you’re prepared.
  • Materials for the WIP – me I never go without my MacBook air, which has everything I need on it, but if you write longhand make sure you have all your things. This sounds silly, but I once went on a retreat and a woman there had forgotten half her research materials.
  • Snacks to power you through the day (our retreats are never lacking for food, but if you crave something bring it along).
  • Comfortable clothes to write in. I am known in our Sisters in Crime chapter for my Cookie Monster pajama pants.When the pants come out, everyone knows I’m about to hunker down.Jeans are for socializing, but Cookie Monster is for writing!


  • Flannel Pajamas & slippers: my favorite writing uniform
  • Running clothes: I find that solitary runs with music are the best way to wake up my brain
  • Bath bubbles: Yes, a bath works wonders to ease the kinks in your body after writing for hours
  • Quick reads: when I’m intensely writing, I like a good mystery or thriller for escape
  • Chocolate & wine: yeah, I know those are two things, but they go together!

E:  I’m seeing a theme of snacks and comfort, there! And what I bring is no different.wellspring-bedroom

  • Comfy clothes and walking shoes (yes, and slippers).
  • My smaller laptop, favorite pen, and paper notebook.
  • Super easy meals. I don’t want to waste time cooking unless I’m with others.
  • Wine and chocolate, of course.
  • Chargers!
How long does it take you to get into the groove? What’s the optimal number of days to be away?
T: I can get into my writing groove immediately. Optimal retreat is 4 to 7 days.  Anything shorter and you don’t get enough written to feel successful; longer and you start to fret about things not getting done at home. . .and the dog.

R: I lose the bulk of the first day and the last day for coming and going, so the optimum


Ramona DeFelice Long

short side is 5 days, because that leaves you at least three full days to write. I have been away for two weeks and four weeks, and the first is too short and the last is too long. For long term I’d say the sweet spot is three weeks.

L: I get into the groove pretty quickly – an hour, tops.l think this is because my limited writing time during the week has conditioned me to hit the ground running. I love weekend retreats. A day isn’t quite enough and I think I’d go a little bonkers after a week, but a weekend (Friday afternoon through Sunday morning) is perfect for me.
H: I get into the groove pretty quickly, after setting up my stuff, unpacking, and taking a walk to clear my mind. Optimally, I love going for 3-5 days: intense 10-hour writing days.
E: It takes me a few hours, usually. I have to get the space set up to my liking, poke around the kitchen, breathe some oxygen outside, and depending on long my drive was, take a walk – but even that is kickstarting my writing.
If you’ve hosted a retreat, any comments about the experience? Selecting whom to invite?
T: I’ve hosted several retreats in Vermont. I find that 3 to 5 writers (including host) is a good number since we share cooking duties.  I often let one person invite whoever they want, their friends.  I don’t think the choice of people is as important as making sure everyone understands and follows the rules: quiet times, chore division. Anyone can get along for 5 days, as long as they’re accomplishing what they came to do. Down time is very important.  If you’re alone, you may push too hard; with others, you stop for dinner and–at my retreats–wine and conversation or games. Makes for a well-rounded, relaxing retreat.


Sign as one leaves the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts

R: I have hosted. Once I rented the retreat house and invited a few people I thought might be available. Another time, I specifically invited people who’d been to a past retreat, as a reunion. A schedule that allows for private work all day and a dinner followed by group readings, brainstorming, discussion, or just chilling with wine is my favorite program. If there are workshops or any programming, those should be in the morning so the afternoon can be devoted to a long period of writing.

L: if you are putting together a weekend and inviting people (as opposed to something like doing it as a chapter of an organization), look for people who are flexible. People who like being in groups and are willing to pitch in – not sit around and live off other people’s work. Nothing brings a group down faster than a constant complainer. And if your event is going to be open to a chapter and you know there’s a complainer, resolve that the person is not going to ruin the weekend for you.
E: Morning workshops wouldn’t work for me. I need my morning creative time alone, and would rather hang with the group late afternoon and evening. Re-entry can be rough, too.

H: I do have mini-retreats at my Prince Edward Island house. I only take friends who write


Holly Robinson

as intensely as I do—that’s just three people to choose from—my favorite friend to take is one who knows when not to talk! Which is pretty much all day, unless we’re on an afternoon walk, or after the wine comes out after dinner and we share what we’ve been working on.

E: Holly, I’m that kind of writer! Take me along next time, please?
My guests:
Readers:  Ask our retreatants questions – they’ll pop in and check throughout the day if they can. And be sure to check out their writing if you haven’t already. They are a talented bunch!

Making a Writing Retreat: Part I

From Edith, in the only-partially frozen reaches north of Boston.

Many of you know I am fond of going away on writing retreats. Addicted, one might even piretreatsay! Even if all I do is occupy a friend’s empty house in the next town, I love getting away from home (and all the obligations and joys thereof) to focus on nothing but writing. A couple of weeks ago I had a hugely productive solo five days at a friend’s empty beach house not far from my town. And I have my routine down by now: what I bring, what I wear, how I work.

Of course the Wicked Cozys also go on an awesome group retreat every year, but we’ve covered that here several times, here and here and here, among other posts.

So I thought I’d poll some other authors pals who also like to go on retreat – some of whom I have been on retreat with, but not all – to see how their experiences compare with mine.  Here are answers to my questions from Tiger Wiseman, Ramona DeFelice Long, Liz Milliron, and Holly Robinson – their bios are at the end of the post. Thanks for sharing, ladies (mind you, none of them saw the other’s answers).

Caveat One: I have edited down the responses a bit in the interest of space and reading time. Caveat Two: Everyone had such interesting and useful things to say (well, they’re writers, after all!), the post was getting really long. So I’ve split it into two parts. We’ll have the second part a month from now. This part has more to do with the purpose and feel of a retreat, while Part II will get into some of the practical side.

What’s your favorite part of getting away from home with a focus on writing?

T: Knowing I won’t have to worry about anything except being creative and productive –


Tiger at her very own Vermont retreat house

things that normally fall second to mundane necessities of cooking, cleaning, laundry, etc.

 R: Leaving behind all duties, from writing to meetings to housework, that interfere with creativity.
L: The removal of the distractions. With two teenagers, someone always has to go somewhere and someone almost always wants something. And then I have a husband to pay attention to. And the laundry. And the dishwasher. And, and, and… It’s always nice to get away for a day or a weekend where the only thing I have to worry about is feeding myself and writing.
H: Just that: the ability to focus! Even though my children are now out of the house, I find that between household chores, work deadlines, husband, dog, etc., it’s very tough to find the mental space to focus on fiction writing, especially when I’m starting a new project. 20160609_061555It’s so wonderful to be able to go to bed thinking about whatever you’re writing, and to get up in the morning and sit down to it first thing, with your papers scattered around just the way you left them.
E: I’m seeing a theme, here! All those comments apply to me, too.
Do you prefer to go away by yourself for concentrated writing, or with others? Why?

T: I prefer being with others in a structured environment. I like the company of others after the writing day is over, but during writing hours I want total silence.

 R: This is a tough one, because I love both. I like being with other writers, but I need a private space to write, sleep, and think. A small retreat with private bedrooms and studios is ideal.

L: I like going with others as long as there are solitary writing times built in to the schedule. I’m fairly good at shutting out the world, but knowing that this is my time and I’m relieved of the burden of being social lets me really concentrate. But all writers get stumped, so having a group to brainstorm with is always


Liz in pink shirt on right. Photo credit Paula Smith.

nice. And of course, after the writing is over, hanging with friends for snacks and wine is a great way to recharge for the next day’s writing.

E: I like both, but as Ramona says, only if I have a private space for work, sleep, and thinking.
Where is your favorite place to retreat to?
T: Vermont, LOL. Lake, forest or mountains. Actually for me a retreat needs to be quiet (no traffic, planes, kids); provide space for long walks; not have TV or too many sites of interest which I’ll want to visit; good restaurant in case I’m too lazy to cook.
R: For overall enjoyment, the beach. For productivity, a quiet country setting. Specifically, Rehoboth Beach for a solo retreat for a few days. Long term, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts (VCCA).
L: I love the woods. My chapter does an annual retreat and we have frequently gone to the Laurel Highlands, about an hour outside Pittsburgh. If I could hole up there every few months for a weekend, I’d be a happy girl. Little wonder my series-in-progress is set there.

H: I usually go to mid-coast Maine in winter, because it’s so quiet and it’s very cheap to


Split Rock Cove

rent condos on the beach then. I occasionally go to a writer’s residence in the Berkshires (Wellspring House). I also like Split Rock Cove up in Maine—very cheap off season, and the woman artist who runs it is fun to get to get together with in the evenings. Mostly, it’s important for me to be in a place where I can take long walks or runs, and there can’t be too many shops or restaurants.

E: I’ve been to Wellspring House a couple of times. I also head down to a Quaker retreat house in West Falmouth on the Cape, but only when I can have the house to myself. Otherwise house-sitting or group retreats are my usual places.
My guests:
  • Tiger Wiseman is an aspiring mystery writer & confirmed foodie.
  • Ramona DeFelice Long writes every morning at 7:00 a.m. in her home in Delaware. She is an independent editor specializing in crime fiction. Twitter: @ramonadef.
  • Liz Milliron writes The Laurel Highlands Mysteries. Her short fiction appears in Blood on the Bayou, Fish Out of Water, and Mystery Most Historical.
  • Holly Robinson is a novelist, journalist, and celebrity ghost writer whose newest novel is Folly Cove. Visit her at her web site and on twitter @hollyrob1.
Readers: Do you ever go on retreat, whether writing or otherwise? Share your experiences!

Being Crafty

Susannah/Sadie/Jane here, taking a break from last minute online shopping…

Hello, all. Hope your holidays, however, whatever, and whenever you celebrate, are bringing you much joy.

We talk a lot about the craft of writing here at the Wickeds. But today let’s talk craft of a different kind: handicrafts! As satisfying as it is for me to write stories, and to edit stories for other people, sometimes there’s just no substitute for making a physical object–something useful, beautiful, or just plain fun. So here’s a crafty pattern, with a variation, for you to try:


For the knitted version, which you can easily make in an hour, you will need:

-Size 13 knitting nesadie-hartwell-picture-1edles

-Bulky weight yarn, about 10 or 12 yards

-A pint-size mason jar, or any glass jar that’s about 5 inches high with a circumference of about 9 inches. Cozy will stretch.

-Small flameless candle

Gauge is not important. Cast on 26 stitches. Row 1: K1, P1 across. Row 2: P1, K1 across.sadie-hartwell-picture-2a

Repeat these two rows until piece measures 5”. Bind off, and sew shorter edges together into a tube. Place tube on jar. Decorate with ribbon, tiny Christmas ornaments, or bits of greenery. Place flameless candle inside and enjoy.


For you non-knitters (Gasp!), here’s another version, using a doily. It will take about 60 seconds to make. You will need:

sadie-hartwell-picture-3          -A doily (if you don’t have one of Grandma’s, check thrift stores. Use one with a loose pattern around the outer edge)

-A glass jar that’s shorter than ½ the diameter of the doily. I used a 9” doily and a 4” high jar.

-Paper or cloth ribbon


sadie-hartwell-picture-4aThread ribbon through the pattern around the outside of the doily. Place jar in center of doily, and pull the ribbon tight (like a drawstring), creating a ruffle around the top of the jar. Tie off the ribbon. Use some double-sided tape to hold the doily in place if necessary. Fill with a flameless candle, or use as a cute vase as I’ve done here.

What’s your holiday craft of choice? Bonus points if it includes glitter, felt, pipe cleaners, Popsicle sticks, yarn, or hot glue!

Polish, Deepen, Hone

Edith here, writing from north of Boston, gearing up to ignore the short days and darkness of the coming month.

I’m doing that by keeping really, really busy. Today I’m incorporating all the red ink I added over the last week during my last (I hope…I truly hope) paper read-through of Turning the Tide, Quaker Midwife Mystery #3.
Some of my comments to myself are edits with a goal of polishing the language. Split the long sentence into two. Divide that paragraph in a different place, because the last sentence really belongs with the next para. Make sure all the senses play a role.

Some are plot related: on page 94 one scribble says, “Why didn’t she think of this when she found the body?” – which happens on page 6. Oops, but fixable.

Of course there are also the missing periods, redundant words, and unclear wording to fix. Other bits to sharpen and hone.

A few of my remarks relate to research for this book, which is set during presidential election week in 1888 (I know – great timing!). For example, I described a road covered with planks, not cobblestones, which was a method of temporary paving back then. But I realized during the read-through that I don’t know if the planks go crosswise or lengthwise and I need to check on that.

I read a great craft post last week over on Inkspot, the Midnight Ink writers’ blog (where I blog every second Thursday of the month) that really made me think.  inkspotheaderLisa Alber wrote about sense of place. She says, “You know when you hear readers say that they skip the descriptions? I would bet in most cases, those descriptions are static — just the author describing the environment around the character rather than describing the environment through the character.”

That’s so true! I’m sure I’ve thought about it in the past, and been taught it, but imbuing setting with my character is something I have to learn over and over. Lisa gives a few great examples of the same setting – sunshine streaming in a kitchen window and illuminating a spider web – as seen through different characters’ eyes. Go read the post. You’ll see what I mean.

So as I move through my manuscript, I’m also going to take a look at every single place description and deepen it. I’m going to make sure it has a reason to exist: showing us how midwife Rose Carroll is feeling. I can show another character’s reaction to place, too, as long as it’s through dialog or physical reaction, since this story is told exclusively from Rose’s point of view.

Thanks, Lisa, for pushing the end of my revision process a little further away. I know checking for sense of place will improve the book in the end, and that’s what counts.

Readers: What do you do with a beautiful description of setting that is only that? Skip it or enjoy the rich language? Writers, is making sure that setting is filtered through your character’s eyes already part of your revision list? Do you ever slip up?

Prioritizing…or Avoiding?

Edith here, trying not to get whiplash from the New England winter weather of the last couple of weeks.

I recently faced a conundrum and put it out, as one sometimes does, on Facebook to gather insights from others.

I wrote, “Saturday poll: When you’re kind of stuck on a project (like a book…) and you have three other smaller projects looming (like TAXES, writing a short story, and final read-through on another book), do you power through on the first one, or knock off the other ones so they’ll stop looming?”

This wasn’t only a case of muddling through the middle, which we’ve discussed before on this blog here, among other places. The “stuck” part did have something to do with where I was in my fifth Local Foods mystery, but this isn’t that post.

My conundrum was more a product of staring at my whiteboard, which is directly above 20160225_125719my writing computer, and seeing:

  • Taxes
  • Ch breaks & recipes for GRITS
  • New short for Bouchercon

Every time I sat to write, those items stared at me from directly below the “WRITE THE %&!$@# story!” graphic.

All four of those things needed to be done, in a certain order of urgency. GRITS was due March first. The story, March fifteenth. Taxes, well, you know, April fifteenth. And the book I’m writing, May first. Still, I wanted to get the first draft of the book done before I go on a trip on March tenth.

I know that often when I’m a bit stuck I just need to stay in my chair and start typing (thus the “Write the Blankety-Blank Book” bit). I type, stuff comes out, and I get unstuck. But this particular book has been going more sludgelike than most lately, and I wondered if it was because of those other tasks looming. If I prioritized my to-do list, would I be helping myself or just avoiding the inevitable?

PrioritzeWhat do you think the 52 replies to my highly unscientific Facebook poll said? You got it. The vast majority suggested knocking off the small things so I’d have the peace of mind to do the big thing. Here’s a sampling of suggestions on that theme:

Ramona DeFelice Long started the reply thread with, ” I have to do the small stuff, because they drive me nuts.” Another friend wrote, “Gotta remove distractions from my creative flow.” Author Anna Loan-Wilsey said, “I get at least one of the other small projects done so I feel like I’ve accomplished something and gotten a break from the project I’m stuck on.” Cori Arnold chimed in with, “I’m totally on board with everything Anna is saying [wink emoticon]. One small project and take a walk.”

My friend Elizabeth added,  “Use each one as the relief task when you get sick of working on one of the others.”  And Sisters In Crime President Leslie Budewitz offered one of the only views from the other side: “Oh, Lordy. An eternal debate. Today, I’m choosing the big project, but other days, other choices!”

So here’s what I did last Saturday. GRITS was nearly done. Besides being first on the “due” list, it was also the easiest and most straightforward to accomplish. I touched up the recipes, inserted chapter breaks, made a final copy, and hit Send. One item to cross off the list! And it only took two hours of my morning.

Then I went for a long fast walk, which always helps me when I’m stuck on anything. Not only did the exercise start to unstick the book, it also let me talk through the short story to myself. Yes, out loud. In public. I think by now people around town know me as that crazy author lady who talks to herself on her power walks.

I took the next two days to draft and revise the short story for the Blood on the Bayou bloodonthebayoulogoanthology. The tale almost wrote itself, which in the past has led to some of my best stories (I hope it’s true this time!). Another item was well on its way to being crossed off. I let it mull for a few days, read it to my critique group, and gave it a final polish before sending it in on Tuesday for consideration in the anthology.

Now I’m back on the book, Mulch Ado About Murder. I needed a new suspect and he gave birth right there in my mind. I needed one character’s secret and, bingo, she told it to me on another walk. I’m at over the 56000-word mark and heading into the end. I’ve finally removed enough obstacles to let the story flow again.

Taxes, you say? Hey, I still have six weeks…

Wickeds and Readers – What works for you to remove obstacles? Do you power through, or wash the kitchen floor/do your taxes/knock off an easy task so you can keep going? Share your tips!

Mythbusting–Cozies Are Not The Shallow End Of The Fiction Pool

Susannah here, enjoying a cup of joe … and avoiding housework...

So, my Wicked people, today I thought we’d have a Mythbusting session. No, I’m not going to use a magnifying glass and the sun to start a campfire, or investigate the potentially uncomfortable results of combining Pop Rocks and soda. Not that that wouldn’t be fun–er, educational!

I belong to a number of different writers’ email loops, and they are sources of invaluable information. But sometimes they are full of misinformation. Or perhaps I should say misperceptions.

Recently on one of the loops someone mentioned the “fact” that cozies are not “deep” and that she was having trouble connecting with her characters and story. This was her first cozy contract, but she had extensive experience writing in the romance and paranormal genres. A couple of people chimed in that they were writing or reading cozies and either implied or came right out and said that cozies were “light,” the implication being that they were shallow.

I’m going on the record right now to tell you that traditional, cozy mysteries do NOT have to be shallow, devoid of character arcs and development, or plot driven to the point that the characters don’t matter. Certainly no Wicked Cozy or Accomplice is writing books like that! I butted in and emailed the author privately and we brainstormed some ways that she could not only get more into her sleuth’s head, but tie what’s in her head to the plot–both the immediate plot (the murder), and the ongoing plot (the character’s backstory and development over the series). So in case this helps any writer or reader get a better handle on adding or identifying depth in stories–any genre–here are some of the thoughts and techniques I offered:

  •  The key difference between an ongoing series, like a cozy mystery or darker procedural, and a standalone, like a romance, is that the main character’s entire character arc cannot–in fact, MUST not–be revealed in one book. In a romance, you only get one chance. There are two main characters, and they fall in love, overcome obstacles to their relationship, including both external AND internal, and in the end they get together with a promise of a Happily Ever After. The End. These characters may make cameo appearances in later related novels, but their character arcs are essentially completed because subsequent books have new romantic partners as main characters.
  • However, in an ongoing series, if the author reveals everything in the first book, or starts the main character from a place where she’s already settled (already happily married, already has children, already firmly established in a profession, completely secure in her place in the community), the author and the story have nowhere to go in subsequent books. An exception to the above would be if the character starts from a place where she THINKS she’s settled or all her demons are conquered, but then something happens to throw that balance way, way off.
  • Give the main character some family issues.  A mother or father who abandoned her. A sibling with whom she has never gotten along. An interfering grandmother. An awful ex-husband with a new trophy wife. A mother or father who disapproves of what she is doing with her life. A family secret that no one ever talked about, but that suddenly comes to a head, causing strong emotions to come up. This ensures lots of plot and conflict material for future books. And if a relative or someone else from her past gets killed off later, the heroine will have to deal with the guilt that they never reconciled. Or maybe one of these people is accused of murder, and the heroine finds she can use finding the real killer as a means of reconciliation. Does the heroine take some action, thinking she’s doing the right thing, but in the process injures an innocent person and must find a way to deal with her guilt and make things right?
  • Give your heroine a deep-seated reason to want/need to succeed. She could have a need to prove her parents wrong–they wanted her to go to law school, but she wanted to open a bead store and make jewelry. Or she could have had a boss or a teacher who told her she had no talent and would never amount to anything, and she has believed it, limiting her success. Or maybe she grew up on the wrong side of the tracks, so it’s vitally important to her to have roots and financial security. Or maybe she has been working at a job that sucks the life out of her but pays the bills, but her real dream is to drive an ice cream truck. Does she have a physical challenge that she has always been told will prevent her from being what she wants to be, and she needs to change her belief system in order to get there? Help the character find a way or ways over time to move closer to her dream(s).
  • Use secondary characters as foils for the sleuth’s over-time development. Example: a friend falls for a con man, and the heroine knows he’s dishonest because the guy tells the same kind of stories as her own ex. So helping her friend also gives her some closure with her own issues. Or a member of the community or the sleuth’s mentor figure used to be a stockbroker, but gave it all up to come home to her small town to open her dream knitting shop. By example, the heroine sees that living authentically is possible, which could allow her to grow and develop and make strides toward her dream(s).

This cozy stuff is like any other genre fiction–it just happens at a slower rate over a series. The thing is that whatever character issues you choose, they have to be woven in over the framework of the mystery itself. So the character issues should tie in with the heroine’s success–or failure–at solving the mysteries.

It’s your turn, readers and writers. How much character development do you want to see, and how quickly do you want it to happen over a series? What are some examples of series that make character development a priority (whether or not you agree with the direction the author chose to take her/his character, which is another topic entirely)?

A Writer’s Reference Books

Edith on retreat in Vermont, on a glorious summer morning.


Daddy, aka Allan Maxwell, JR, at the dinner table. 1923-1985. I still miss his gentle humor, keen sense of justice, and his devotion to finding the facts even during dinner.

We all know Mr. Google is our friend, much of the time. But for reference books, nothing beats sitting down and leafing through some real pages made out of paper. My dear departed father was famous for leaping up from the family dinner table when one of his four children asked a question. He’d let his food cool while he brought back the appropriate reference book from our extensive shelves laden with multiple encyclopedias and dictionaries. He’d find the answer and read it out loud.

I have a shelf full of writing reference volumes, not counting my American Heritage Dictionary. I need to get back to my WIP this morning, so I’m not going to list them all out, but I think you can see them pretty clearly. I have books on poison. On revision and manuscript submission. On what police officers know and do.


I have books on the craft of writing mysteries (including Hallie Ephron‘s Writing and Selling Your Mystery Novel), general fiction, and memoir. Books on forensic linguistics. More about police procedure.


And I have the Emotion Thesaurus, the Dictionary of Idioms, and several valuable sources of historical information for the late 1800s.


That’s not all the reference books, of course, but it’s the core. I couldn’t write without them! If there are any you can read the title or author for, just ask.

Readers: Your favorite reference books for whatever you do?