Agatha Award for Best Historical Mystery 2017

Edith here. Last week we hosted the Agatha nominees for Best Short Story and Best First Novel. Today we’re lucky enough to have the nominees for Best Historical Mystery! Jessica Estevao (otherwise known as Jessie Crockett) and I, also nominees, are delighted to welcome D.E.Ireland (also known as Meg Mims and Sharon Pisacreta), Catriona McPherson, and Victoria Thompson to the Wicked Cozys. Here are (imagine me wearing my Oscar Ceremony gown here) the nominated books, in author-alphabetical order:

  • Jessica Estevao: Whispers Beyond the Veil
  • D.E. Ireland: Get Me to the Grave on Time
  • Edith Maxwell: Delivering the Truth
  • Catriona McPherson: The Reek of Red Herrings
  • Victoria Thompson: Murder in Morningside Heights

First, Jessica asks: In which time period do you set your books and how did you come to choose that era?

WhispersbeyondtheveilJessica:A few years ago my family purchased a vacation home in Old Orchard Beach Maine. By the end of our first summer there I knew I wanted to start a mystery series set in that town. The biggest question was when it should take place. After all, in a town as steeped in fascinating history as Old Orchard, a writer is spoilt for choice!  are So, I decided to begin at what was the beginning of the town’s real fame, 1898 when the original pier was built.  Between the cultural shifts, the technological developments and the architecture it proved to be a fertile time period to explore!

DE: Our Eliza Doolittle & Henry Higgins series features the main characters from Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw, and begins mere weeks after the action of the play concludes. We couldn’t have chosen a better historical setting than 1913 London. Although the Edwardian era technically ended when King Edward VI died in 1910, the four years between his death and the outbreak of war is a fascinating mélange of old world traditions coming up against an upheaval in politics, culture and technology. In other words, a perfect time in history for an iconoclastic phonetics teacher to partner with a former Cockney flower girl turned lady. But a lady who demands to be regarded as an equal.

Of course, Eliza Doolittle may have learned to speak and act like a lady in the earlier Victorian era, but her prospects for respectable employment would have been limited. But 1913 is a perfect time for Eliza to become a teacher like Higgins, allowing her to help others to better themselves as she has done. While Shaw made Higgins something of a careless misogynist, we’ve let readers occasionally glimpse a warmer side to the arrogant professor – all thanks to a newly independent, modern Eliza. We are also far less inclined to rush Eliza into marriage with her ardent suitor Freddy, as Shaw intended. Instead, we decided our characters need to take full advantage of these tumultuous and exciting years before the war. It is a new, uncertain century, one suited for a pair as rebellious and resourceful as Eliza Doolittle and Henry Higgins.

Edith: My choice of era came about accidentally. I had moved to Amesbury , Massaschusetts in 2012, having bought a modest home built for the textile mill workers in 1880, but I had been in the area and a member of Amesbury Friends Meeting (Quaker) since 1989. In April of 2013 I read a local newspaper article about the Great Fire of 1888, which burned down many of the factories which made Amesbury’s world-famous carriages. A few days later I was walking to worship on Sunday morning, as Friends have over the centuries in Amesbury, and a story popped into my head about a 17-year-old Quaker mill girl who solved the mystery of the arson. (Historically it wasn’t arson, but hey, I write fiction.) After the short story was published in a juried anthology, the characters and setting refused to go away, so I invented the mill girl’s aunt Rose, an independent midwife.

As it turns out , 1888 is a really interesting time to write about! So much is in flux – electricity and telephones are starting to come in but aren’t widespread, midwives still predominate but physicians are starting to edge into the birthing world, and even women’s clothing is changing with the new emphasis on bicycling and physical fitness, leading to looser garments and fewer corsets.

Catriona: I don’t really set mine in a real historical era. Dandy Gilver lives in a corner of our culture that’s half the 1920s (eek – except I’m up to 1934 now!) and half the Golden Age of British detective fiction, where gently-born amateur sleuths solved murders. It’s never happened in real life, but in between the wars in the UK it seems normal.

MorningsideVictoria: The Gaslight Mysteries are set in turn-of-the-century New York City.  The series starts in 1896 and the most recent, MURDER IN MORNINGSIDE HEIGHTS, is set in 1899. Oddly enough, the original concept was generated by Berkley.  They did that a lot in the early days at Berkley Prime Crime.  My agent called me one day to tell me she’d just had lunch with a Prime Crime editor who was looking for someone to write a series set in turn-of-the-century New York  City where the heroine was a midwife.  My agent thought of me, since I’d recently written a book set in that time period and I had been putting mystery subplots in my historical romances for a while.  They sent me their ideas for the series.  I liked some of them and threw out a few others.  Then I realized that my midwife, Sarah, would need a male cohort, preferably someone who would logically be solving murder mysteries, so I created Police Detective Frank Malloy. Berkley had suggested that Sarah be a poor relation of a rich family, but I made her the rebellious daughter of a rich family, which would give her entré into all levels of society.

My new series, The Counterfeit Lady Series which launches in November, starts in 1917.  I purposely chose this era because so much was happening in the world at that time.  Women were demonstrating for the right to vote, which finally came in 1920.  The US had just entered World War I.  The flu epidemic that killed millions is looming on the horizon.  Most importantly, for both my series, the issues people were concerned about then are the same issues we are concerned about today, which makes these books a lot of fun to write.

Great answers! Now, how about this one from me (Edith):

What’s the most fun thing you’ve ever done as research for your series? How about the hardest or most risky?

Jessica: This past summer I spent several days in Lily Dale, NY which is the world’s largest Spiritualist enclave. It dates to the Victorian era and was a delightful place to work and to conduct research. I atttended open air platform readings by a wide variety of mediums. I attended talks, visited the library and booked a private consultation with a medium. All in all it was a fascinating trip and it taught me a lot about what it would be like to live and work in the fictional world I have created for my characters to inhabit.

FinalGetMeToGraveFullCoverDE: Although learning about the Edwardian era is always fun, neither of us have done anything hard or risky regarding research for this particular series. However research was responsible for the plot of the first book in our series, Wouldn’t It Be Deadly, where a Hungarian linguist blackmails his students. In the process of researching Pygmalion, we discovered Shaw later wrote updated versions of the play, including screenplays and revisions to the 1912 text. One of the revised versions of Pygmalion contains a scene between Higgins and this Hungarian language expert, who boasts that he makes all his students pay, “and not just for lessons.” Voila! Researching Shaw’s revisions gave us our first murderer, with a motive already provided.

A similar serendipitous moment occurred in our second book, Move Your Blooming Corpse. Because the novel opens at Royal Ascot in 1913, we knew the real life Harold Hewitt would run onto the racetrack and be trampled by horses – in a copycat of Emily Davison at the Derby. While creating a colorful cast of suspects who would attend this deadly Ascot race, we learned Harold Hewitt survived being trampled and was sent to a mental hospital. Soon after, Hewitt escaped and was never captured. This true event allowed us to make Hewitt one of our murder suspects. We’ve never been happier to discover how correct Mark Twain was when he wrote, “truth is stranger than fiction.” All it took was a little research to prove it.

Edith: The most fun has to be riding in a real carriage (buggy, actually) drawn by a real horse on real outdoor trails. I wore my long linen skirt and hung on tight. The side of the carriage are low, there are no seat belts, and it’s bumpy! I fully understood what women as old as me and with knees as creaky as mine went through to relieve themselves in the middle of the night back then.

Called to JusticeIn one of my past lives as a childbirth educator and doula, I did attend a number of births, first as an observer and then as a support person (but not a midwife – I never wanted the responsibility a midwife carries). I know firsthand the risks of any birth, as well as the normal, healthy process that it is in the absence of risk factors. It wasn’t dangerous to me personally to be part of the miracle of these births, but I was present at more than one where things went seriously wrong due to no fault of the caregivers or the birthing mother. Those experiences have enriched my fictional descriptions of childbirth, both easy and otherwise.

 

Catriona: I’ve never put myself in danger. But fun, now? The way I do research it’s a 7b98a5ff-fdcb-478d-b41c-62517b4f7e22stretch to call it working. I go to castles, palaces, manor houses and various other stately piles in Scotland and I ask awkward questions until one of the docents demands to know why. Then I reveal that I’m writing a book (and produce an earlier one to prove it). And without fail, at that point they fetch an enormous bunch of keys and take me to my favourite place – “round the back”, aka the attics and dungeons where the public don’t get to go.  Bliss for a nosey parker!

 

Victoria: Funny you should ask. I did one thing, completely inadvertently, that really helped with my Gaslight research into what a midwife does.  I arrived at my daughter’s house for the birth of grandchild #3 to discover that, after two C-sections, she intended to have a natural home birth with a midwife and a doula. My duties included a trip to the hardware store for an adapter so we could fill the inflatable tub for a water birth (which didn’t happen) and keeping the two older boys, ages 6 and not-quite 2, occupied during her labor.

We were all present when Keira Jane made her dramatic entrance into the world and when she didn’t realize she was supposed to start breathing right away. A little oxygen and an unnecessary visit from the fire department paramedics set her on the right path, though, and I got way more information than I needed about how a midwife works.  I even got to see a placenta up close and personal (while the midwife explained its function to my oldest grandson and the younger paramedic) and watch as my oldest grandson cut the cord. Was it fun?  Oh, yes, when it was all over.  Was it hard?  Let’s just say explaining the situation to the 911 operator while my newborn granddaughter turned blue was pretty difficult.  Was it risky? Not for me, since I didn’t actually have heart failure and it all turned out fine. Keira is now 7 and just as feisty as you’d expect. I’ll never forget the 911 operator asking me if she was breathing, and when I looked over the midwife’s shoulder to see, Keira was staring up at me, all pink, as if to say, “What’s all the fuss about?”

Thanks, ladies. See you all in Bethesda at the end of April! Below, left to right: Catriona McPherson, Victoria Thompson, Sharon Pisacreta, Meg Mims. You can find Jessica and Edith in the Wicked Cozy banner.

Readers: What era do you like your fiction set in? What risks would you take – or not take – in the name of research?

Happy Cruel Winter Book Birthday!

Happy Book Birthday to Sheila Connolly. Her fifth County Cork Mystery, Cruel Winter, is cruelwinterout!

Snow is a rarity in Maura Donovan’s small village in County Cork, Ireland, so she wasn’t sure what to expect when a major snowstorm rolled in around Sullivan’s pub. But now she’s stranded in a bar full of patrons–and a suspected killer in a long-ago murder. Over the next few hours, the informal court in Sullivan’s reviews the facts and theories about the case–and comes to some surprising conclusions. But is it enough to convince the police to take a new look at an old case?

To celebrate, I (Edith) decided to make one of Sheila’s many Irish recipes from her other group blog, Mystery Lover’s Kitchen. She’s over there most Fridays sharing dishes, both savory and sweet, that she has concocted. I’ve adapted the following recipe slightly, but what follows isn’t too far from her Feb 7 post of three years ago. As you can see, I didn’t have Irish whiskey, but figured I couldn’t go too far wrong with using bourbon, instead.

Irish Chicken and Cabbage

Ingredients

1/2 cup flour
Salt and freshly ground pepper
2 bone-in chicken breast halves, with skin on
1/4 cup olive oil
3 cloves garlic,  minced
2 carrots, peeled and thickly sliced
1 medium onion, thickly sliced
1 T dried rosemary leaves, crumbled
2 cups shredded cabbage
1-1/2 cups chicken stock (homemade/canned/from a bouillon cube)
Sheila’s twist—a tablespoon or two of Irish whiskey (Edith’s substitution—an equal amount of bourbon)

irishchickingred

Directions

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees.  Mix the flour, salt and pepper in a shallow bowl or pie pan and dredge the chicken pieces in it, shaking off the excess.

In a Dutch oven, heat the oil over medium-high heat.  Add the chicken pieces and sauté for 3 to 4 minutes per side, until lightly browned. Tuck the garlic cloves, carrots, onions and rosemary around and between the chicken pieces. Lay the cabbage in an even layer on top and season with salt and pepper.

Mix the whiskey into the broth and pour the liquid over the chicken and vegetables. Cover the contents of the Dutch oven with its oven-proof lid, or with foil (press it against the contents to make a fairly close seal), then place the pot in the oven and cook for 75 (remember, the heat is low). Peek once or twice and baste the top with the pan juices.

irishchickTo serve, place a piece of chicken on the plate and spoon the vegetables and sauce over it. I urge you to check Sheila’s original recipe for pix of the entire process and for the few ingredients I left out (because, oops, I didn’t have them in the house).

I wanted to serve the dish with new potatoes steamed and then lightly sauteed in olive oil and herbs – except somebody in my house used the last potato and didn’t put them them on the shopping list. So instead I made quick whole-wheat soda biscuits. Which went almost better with the dish than the potatoes would have.

Readers: Who has read the County Cork series up to now and can’t wait to get your hands on this one?  [Me! Me!] Anybody been to Ireland and, if so, what was your favorite meal? Your favorite Irish pub near where you live?

Guest: Wendy Tyson

This is Edith, wondering what New England will give us for weather next! And happy to BitterHarvest fronthave the talented Wendy Tyson back as my guest. Her newest Greenhouse Mystery, Bitter Harvest, came out this week, and to celebrate she’s giving away an audiobook (on CDs) of the book to one commenter today. Wendy was kind enough to consent to an interview, so let’s go (my questions are in boldface)!

You wrote a darker standalone, plus the Allison Campbell series for Henery, about an image consultant. I haven’t read either the standalone or the series, but even the series seems a bit darker than the cozy Greenhouse Mysteries. Do you prefer one style over the other?

I’m a huge fan of crime fiction—from small-town cozy mysteries to great, sprawling international thrillers and everything in between. The Greenhouse Mystery Series is very dear to me because I love organic gardening, and I feel passionate about the regenerative farming movement. Plus, I’ve fallen quite in love with some of the characters.  And these days, when you turn on the news and you’re constantly confronted by some tragedy or another, it’s nice to return to a place that’s welcoming and just a little isolated from some of the world’s misery (even if that place is fictional). That’s how I feel about Winsome, PA, the setting of Bitter Harvest.

That said, I also enjoy writing darker mysteries and thrillers. These books provide a different kind of outlet as a writer, and it’s exciting to sink into an edgier, more complex novel. I guess the answer is no, I really don’t prefer one over the other. I like to think there is the flexibility for me to write and publish both.

Our readers are always curious about our writing schedules and habits. Do you have a day job in addition to writing fiction? When and where do you write your mysteries?

Vermont Respite

Vermont

I do! I’m an attorney and I work full-time as a consultant at a mutual fund company. (I practice ERISA law. Bonus points for Wicked readers familiar with that area of the law.) I have a husband, three sons, and three dogs, and I split my time between Vermont and Pennsylvania. Life is hectic, but writing provides me with the quiet time I need to recharge. Making time for writing isn’t always easy, though.

A schedule? I get up early—around 5:30 am—and write every day before work, until about 7. If I’m up against a deadline, I’ll also write during my lunch break. I try to reserve evenings for my family and for any social media/marketing I need to do. That all sounds very disciplined, doesn’t it? The truth is, while I do stick to that schedule, it’s often not enough to meet my deadlines, and so I tend to be a binge writer. I write for hours during family vacations, on my days off from work, at soccer and lacrosse tournaments, in waiting rooms. I’ve learned the art of writing wherever and whenever. To do that without sacrificing family time, I integrate writing with my life. This means I can write at the kitchen island while the boys do homework or play and a meal is simmering on the stove. I’ve had to learn to block out distractions. (If only I had mastered that skill in college!)

I know you are an avid gardener, as is Megan Sawyer, your Greenhouse series protagonist. What’s your favorite crop to grow, and which give you the most problems? (I’ll add my own answers after yours!)Yard mico farm Tyson

Red peppers are a favorite crop. We plant red bell peppers and Hungarian peppers, and we eat the bells like apples (the kids love them). Peppers grow very well in our climate. Potatoes do as well, and we generally have excellent crops of red and Yukon potatoes. Homegrown potatoes are delicious—earthy and flavorful, even without butter.

Most problematic? That changes to some extent every year. Last summer, we had a tough time with tomatoes (another favorite crop), and mid-way through the summer our basil died for no apparent reason. The year before we had more tomatoes than we could possibly eat, and fresh, fragrant basil until well into fall. We almost always get aphids on our spring kale and spinach eventually…something you learn to live with when you’re planting an organic garden on a small piece of property.

I’d love to hear your thoughts!

E: Oh, man, broccoli was such a pain. It’s good to plant, because it’s healthy and doesn’t mind cold weather. But when the cabbage moth lays its eggs in the head and you’re in the kitchen getting ready to chop one up for your dinner and there are MOVING CREATURES hidden in the florets? Gah! Forget it. I’ll buy broccoli at the farm stand. When I was selling my own produce, the tiny holes the flea beetles chew in arugula and other leafy green crops was a big pain but not harmful, just cosmetically unpleasing. But I love growing my Sun Gold cherry tomatoes every year. I used to start those from seed before hardly anybody knew about them – now all the garden centers sell seedlings.

Bitter Harvest takes place in the fall. Here in New England more and more family farms are putting up hoop houses and nurturing crops like hardy greens all winter long. Do you try to grow year round? 

Absolutely. We were inspired some years back after reading Eliot Coleman’s book, The Winter Harvest Handbook, and my husband built an unheated hoop house and low tunnels in our yard. It’s been a little bit of heaven to go out into a snowy yard and pick fresh spinach or kale. We’ve also grown arugula and pak choi in the low tunnels with decent success.

E: I’ve seen Coleman speak! And still own my copy of Four Season Harvest.

Other than writing about murders and growing food (and being a wife, mom, and dog owner…), what else do you do for fun in your “free” time? Believe me, I’ve been there except for the dog part, which is why I put free in quotes!

Free time…you’re right, there isn’t much left over. I love, love, love to travel. The entire part of a trip, from planning to execution, is great fun, and we’ve managed some interesting trips over the last five years or so. We drove to Montana from Pennsylvania one summer, another summer we did a “road trip” through parts of Western Europe and

Corfu, Greece

Corfu

Slovenia, and we spent three weeks in a house on the Greek island of Corfu a few years back. These trips provide family time and writing time, and I find that a new locale always offers novel ideas and a fresh perspective. Aside from travel, I enjoy hiking and swimming with my kids, especially in our adopted state of Vermont.

Since this year is Sisters in Crime’s 30th anniversary, tell us how the organization has benefited you and helped you along as an author. Are you active in any chapters?

I value Sisters in Crime and the networking opportunities it provides. I’ve met so many inspiring authors through the organization, and I’ve learned a great deal about marketing and the writing industry in general. I’m also a member of International Thriller Writers, and I’ve been an editor and columnist for their two publications, The Big Thrill and The Thrill Begins. I highly recommend that new and aspiring authors join SinC or ITW or another writing organization. Absolutely invaluable.

What’s one thing hardly anyone knows about you? 

I don’t own an e-reader. While I applaud the advent of the e-book, and I see the great value of e-readers for so many reasons, I’m hopelessly attached to paper books. My husband built me a wall of bookshelves, and even so we don’t have enough room for them all. I love the smell, the feel of a new book, the comfort of an old favorite. I am addicted. (There, I admitted it for all the world to see.)

You could do a lot worse with addictions, my friend! What’s next for you on the writing front?

My fourth Allison Campbell Mystery, Fatal Façade, launches on June 13, 2017. I just turned in Seeds of Revenge, Greenhouse Mystery No. 3, and that comes out in late 2017. This year promises to be a busy one!

Readers: Who has an e-reader and who doesn’t? How do you feel about gardening? Favorite vacation travel story? Remember,  Wendy is giving away an audiobook (on CD) of the book to one commenter today.

In Bitter Harvest, Megan Sawyer should be shouting from the barn roof. Washington Acres survived its first year, the café has become a hotspot for locals, and Winsome’s sexy Scottish veterinarian is making house calls—only not for the animals. But as summer slips into fall and Winsome prepares for its grand Oktoberfest celebration, beer isn’t the only thing brewing. When the town’s pub owner is killed in a freak accident, Megan suspects something sinister is afoot in Winsome—but no one is listening. As nights grow longer and temperatures chill, Megan must plow through Winsome’s fixation with autumn festivities to harvest the truth—before another dead body marks the season.Wendy Tyson

Wendy Tyson’s background in law and psychology has provided inspiration for her mysteries and thrillers. Originally from the Philadelphia area, Wendy has returned to her roots and lives there again on a micro-farm with her husband, three sons and three dogs.  Wendy’s short fiction has appeared in literary journals, and she’s a contributing editor and columnist for The Big Thrill and The Thrill Begins, International Thriller Writers’ online magazines. Wendy is the author of the Allison Campbell Mystery Series and the Greenhouse Mystery Series.

What Happened This Month?

By Edith, still writing from her couch north of Boston. The way we Wickeds work our calendar is that each of us is responsible for wrangling one month twice a year. The wrangler sets up the Wicked Wednesday group posts, and generally make sure all the weekdays have a topic or a guest. March is my month this year. I’ve been a little out of it, and only last week noticed we had  big honking gap on March 7! Gulp. Scrambling to come up with a topic, I thought I’d see what has happened in the month of March over the last dozen centuries.

If I were really clever I’d make it a mash-up quiz. But I’m not, and I haven’t done my taxes yet, so  we’re sticking to the facts, ma’am. From the delightful History Place web site, I have learned the following positive facts:

  • peace-corps1March 1, 1961 – President John F. Kennedy established the Peace Corps.
  • March 3, 1917 – Marshmallow Fluff is born.
  • March 4, 1789 – The first meeting of the new Congress under the new U.S. Constitution took place in New York City.
  • March 6, 1475 – Renaissance genius Michelangelo was born in Caprese, Italy.
  • March 10, 1903 – Politician and playwright Claire Boothe Luce  was born in New York 796px-clare_booth_luce_by_van_vechtenCity. She served in the House of Representatives from 1943 to 1947 and then became the first woman appointed as U.S. ambassador to a major country (Italy). [Photograph from the Carl Van Vechten Photographs collection at the Library of Congress.]
  • March 12, 1888 – The Great Blizzard of ’88 struck the northeastern U.S. (an event that took place a scant month before my novel Delivering the Truth opens!).
  • March 14, 1833. The first female dentist, Lucy Hobbs, was born in New York state. She received her degree in 1866 from the Ohio College of Dental Surgery and was a women’s rights advocate.
  • March 22, 1972 – The Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was passed by the U.S. Senate and then sent to the states for ratification.
  • March 25, 1807 – The British Parliament abolished the slave trade following a long campaign against it by Quakers and others.

There were certainly some disastrous and violent events in March over the centuries, but let’s not dwell on them. Other notables besides Luce and Hobbs born in the month, which I found listed on a site about history in March, include Alexander Graham Bell (3rd), Einstein (14th), Grover Cleveland (18th), Wyatt Earp (19th), Johann Sebastian Bach (21st), Van Gogh (30th), and Franz Josef Hayden (31st). Funny, notice how they’re all men?reese_witherspoon_at_tiff_2014

So I went searching for famous women born in the month and found Miriam Makeba (4th), Reese Witherspoon (22nd), Sarah Jessica Parker (25th), Keira Knightley (26th), Mariah Carey (27th), Lady Gaga, (28th), and Celine Dion, (30th). Women celebrities sure back loaded this month!

But of course the most famous birthday of all is month is that of none other than our own Sherry Harris! AND her fabulous cozy-mystery-loving mom, Martha.

So have a great birthday month, Sherry!

Readers and Wickeds, what happened (or will happen this year) for you in March? Did I miss any big positive historical events from March pasts?

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?

T:

tiger

Tiger Wiseman

  • Writing snacks ( I bring potato chips)
  • A good book or two
  • Comfortable walking shoes
  • MP3 player
  • Wine
R: 
  • 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.

L:

liz

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!

H:

  • 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

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.

vcca-real-world

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

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 –

20160608_134622

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

img_4858

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

hollyretreat

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!

The Odakyu Line

Edith north of Boston, juggling a few too many balls pre-Christmas.

When fans – and other authors – ask if I ever mix up my series, I usually say no, that I do my best to work on one series at a time. Sometimes that blows up. Right now I’m writing a first draft in one, slogging through edits on another, and trying to finish a short story, too. Along with baking cookies, wrapping gifts, and getting ready for family to arrive.

So I thought I’d give all you fabulous blog readers a thank-you gift instead of composing a post from scratch. “The Odakyu Line” is my first published fiction as an adult – and it’s a Christmas story! It won a holiday flash fiction contest held by the North Shore newspapers back in 1995 and was published in their weekly arts magazine. I worked on the story in my first writing group, held weekly in author Susan Oleksiw‘s home a few towns away, and benefited greatly from hers and the group’s critiques.

mejapan
A bit of background: I lived with my American boyfriend Tim Ottman, who was in the US Navy, in Japan for two years in the mid-seventies. We had a little house near the base, and I taught conversational English to businessmen and studied Japanese. (The picture is me in 1977 and I still have that indigo shirt…)

The following very short story isn’t true, but of course I draw on several of my own experiences. Enjoy, and have warm, cozy, delicious holidays!

The Odakyu Line

Riding the subway was like surfing. Ruth liked to bend her knees and go with the movement of the brightly-lit car. She rode the up and down movement. She swayed from right to left, mastered the sudden slowing, steered into the gradual stops. She only let herself grab an overhead handle in case of emergency unbalance.

odakyu-line

Ruth pushed her wire-rimmed glasses back up on her nose. Her long hair was never thoroughly brushed, but she held her shoulders straight back and kept her stomach muscles in tight. A year of karate with a local master had taught her that. Ruth felt good in her body. She thought about how she never would have taken the class without Paul, or have developed such a firm midriff. “Do as many sit-ups as you can, and I’ll do twice as many,” he used to say. This was the nature of their romance.

Paul left. She knew he would, when he started talking about traveling around the world and used the first person singular. Ruth stayed on, continuing to teach conversational English to Japanese engineers. She didn’t much mind Paul’s departure. She had the drafty little house to herself, and while she missed sitting on his lap to keep warm in winter and watching his long strong body move through karate forms, she valued her new solitude. She went to her English-teaching jobs, tried to glean ever more knowledge about making sushi from the local fish woman, and kept up with her Japanese lessons with Kenji.

Kenji. Ruth thought about his smooth skin, his wild black hair, and the crack in his delicious laugh. The way he fed her sushi, morsel by morsel off purple chopsticks, in his tiny 11th-floor apartment outside of Shinjuku. Ruth smiled, then looked around. All of her subway compatriots were studiously avoiding making any eye contact, as per their custom. Ruth knew people managed to look at her: she was gaijin, a foreigner, even though she was the right height and had dark hair. Other women didn’t walk around with their heads up and their shoulders squared. Ruth got a lot of attention, yet among all these people she still felt isolated.

She and Kenji became lovers after Paul left. Now, on Christmas day, they had eaten, slept, and talked together for hours. They ate the strange Japanese Christmas cake decorated with Disney characters sold in Tokyo only on this day, and drank port wine. Ruth sat on the heavy woven tatami. Her legs were crossed under the low table, her chin on her hand, her back warmed by a quilted jacket, a present from her beau.

Since she couldn’t be with family, this was a happy substitute. Kenji fed her another bite of sushi and murmured at her to stay. But when she refused, and it was time for her to go, Kenji smiled a smile as wild as his hair as she trekked shivering off for the station.

Ruth changed for the suburban Odakyu-sen. It was the midnight run, the last train out. She grasped a free pole, wondering if she was too tired to surf this last leg of her trip, and then noticed something unheard of. People were talking to each other. Complete strangers were looking at each other, cracking jokes, and chatting. Unacquainted Japanese people chatting – if that doesn’t take the cake, Ruth thought. The man next to her, red-faced and happy, attempted a few words in her language: “Mari kurisimasu!”

“Doomo, doomo,” Ruth thanked him, smiling and holding her ground as the train swung around a bend. “Merry Christmas to you, too.”