It’s good to get away
I have found getting around to any writing this year to be difficult. I am sure it’s the sort of thing, all writers face: family illness, travelling for work, school stuff, just eating and sleeping. Everything seemed to stand in my way. Even my reviews have dropped off (not because I haven’t been reading); I simply didn’t have time to even contemplate what I was going to say. So, when confronted by my inability to carve out time to do one of the things I love in life (along with sailing, running, cycling, and not forgetting being with my family), I had booked to go on the wonderful Imagine Writers’ Retreat to Northmoor House on Exmoor.
Driving through Dulverton and up to the house itself is quite an adventure. You have to cross a magical troll bridge over the river Barle and round a sharp bend in the road, you see the former gatehouse. Trundling slowly down the gravel drive brings you to the House. It’s intimidating exterior and grand oak doors hide bedrooms galore and some of the largest baths in the world (ok slight exaggeration but I think I tried 4 different baths, all of which you could easily get lost in!). When I arrived, I was greeted by the wonderful and talented Jenny Kane. She and her business partner Alison, ran the retreat. They were relaxed and didn’t expect any of the attendees to fulfil anything other than their own goals. So if you didn’t want to take part in any exercises or events, you simply didn’t!
I had chosen my room on a previous visit. It’s not the sort of room you’d expect to me in, after all, I am not exactly girlie! But there I was unpacking my supplies (copious amounts of bubble bath, dodgy flavoured tea bags, and running kit) in the Flower Room. I’d chosen it on the basis of being able to look out over the garden and the room’s calming green colours. I also knew that it was a room where I could work, undisturbed and in a focused manner. By the time I had made it down to the kitchen with my ginger tea bags, most of the writers had arrived ready and prepared to get down to it. 6 of us were there for the first evening meal, along with Jenny and Alison. It was a fantastic meal. Chatting about writing moved from the mundane, to the extraordinary and beyond. In fact, all the evening meals were times where we openly discussed the writing process, progress or lack thereof (!) and were an inspiration to me. I learnt about my characters through these discussions and also realised that sometimes your characters don’t do what you think they should, and that’s fine!
The following morning, I was up and in the kitchen for my coffee very early, well earlier than most! I then cleared off for a run. Retreats are about writing I hear you scream. Actually, they’re about freedom. The freedom to give yourself the space to think. Something that I don’t get to do most of the time. Running through the grounds and out onto the footpath, I met a deer and her fawn, down near the water. They were beautiful but my heavy footsteps on the path startled them and they ran up the steep sided bank and watched me lumbering along. The image stuck with me and funnily enough, ended up in my writing that afternoon. It was an beautiful day and I think each of the writers ended up outside at some point, working in the sunshine.
In the evenings, we had two visiting writers. The first was Dan Metcalf, children’s author, scriptwriter, and lovely person. The world is small and the moment he mentioned going to Torquay Boys’ Grammar School, once more my past came up behind me and whacked me over the head with a big stick! However, times have moved on and Dan’s writing career was part computer generated, part gritty determination, all fuelled by talent. His revelations about the trials and tribulations of a jobbing author working full time and fitting his writing into every spare moment, struck a chord with most in the room. He was generous with his time, staying for dinner and answering endless questions about getting published. Dan has quite some tales to tell and, if you haven’t seen him speak, I highly recommend you do.
Our second author visit was from the equally wonderful Kate Griffin. Her marvellous stories of the incredible Kitty Peck are all set in the Victorian period around the East End of London. Recounting tales of her family in the East End and her visits to music halls both renovated and crumbling, kept all of us enthralled. One of the areas that she recommended to us was entering competitions, as her own break to publication was through entering a competition.She also mentioned that the latest trend in publishing was around ghost stories and that it worth paying attention to what publishers want. Kate was brilliant at bringing her characters to life and I must admit, if it wasn’t for the fact that I am reading as many children’s books as possible, I would be off to buy her books now! Like Dan, she stayed for dinner and continued to discuss with the assembled group her experiences and encouraged all of us to get our ideas written.
In amongst the residents, there were some day visitors, evening visitors, two day stayers, overnight guests, etc. We were a really eclectic mix, ranging in age and interests, at different stages of our writing ‘journey’ for want of a better word. The different genres and ideas were really inspiring and whilst I produced a massive 15,000 words in 3 days (this is the way I work, I probably won’t write anything for weeks now!), it wasn’t about the amount but that my own story took a dramatic twist over the breakfast table! The support and time given by Jenny and Alison to everyone was unstinting. Not once did Jenny mind me wandering over and asking a question or chatting randomly about character development.
I am feeling somewhat bereft now. I am missing the camaraderie, the excellent food, and the time to write. I have already booked my place on the next one and requested the Flower Room again, along with everyone else (it was a huge success!). But Jenny and Alison have another idea for a spring retreat. So keep an eye out. My advice, spend time working with other writers; they’re the best people in the world.