My Writing Retreat

16 – 21 March 2015: Rosemerryn, Lamorna

The keeper of the Fogou
The keeper of the Fogou

The Writing Retreat, is run by Kath Morgan and Jane Moss, writers and creative writing tutors based in Cornwall.  This was their second retreat, and they had one returning client – testament to their initial success.  Kath and Jane are both very accomplished, with different interests and emphases, giving a rich mix for the benefit of their clients. The focus of the week at Rosemerryn was The Craft of Writing.  There were workshops/classes each day, which you didn’t have to attend and space in the afternoons to write, or walk, or sit and hug the aga!

Like most writers heading for a retreat, I was hoping for space, inspiration and TLC for my writerly self.  I was not disappointed. I attended each of the workshops, others didn’t.  It didn’t matter.  The workshops were delivered at a marching pace – and therefore I think not for the beginner.  At times it felt there was an overwhelming amount of handouts, but examples enriched the learning.  All of the workshops were well thought out and well-structured, with a clearly signed path through each, and throughout the week.  My stand out session was on the short story structure – so much so that I went back to my room and blew the dust off an old story and tightened it in line with the model examined in class.  I think, to much better effect.  In addition to Kath and Jane, there was a guest presenter for the session on dialogue, with Jenny Alexander.  Jenny was very generous with herself, and gave a fascinating presentation on her own work the previous evening.  I learned a lot from simply being around her.  She encouraged me to write more and think less.

The table ready for dinner
The table ready for dinner

It was important to our hosts, Kath and Jane, to ensure that we were well-nourished.   Breakfast was a help yourself, with just about everything you could wish for.  The warm kitchen at Rosemerryn was a lovely place to start the day, and had the feeling of being around a friend’s table.  Lunch also took place around the table, always a hearty soup and plenty of fresh salads and breads – and Kath’s epic Quiches.  Supper was a three-course affair, and the ‘rule’ of the week was that each client had to help out with kitchen duties one evening.  I enjoyed this immensely – there is something wonderful about preparing and sharing food.  The evening meals were outstanding, well navigated between various dietary requirements.  You could never go hungry on Writing Retreat.

Sennan Cove
Sennan Cove

We were blessed with a sunny week, not exactly warm, but generous for March in Cornwall.  There are a couple of lovely walks from Rosemerryn, including down to Lamorna Cove.  With a car, I was able to get across to Sennan Cove for a blast of sea air one afternoon.

The partial eclipse at The Merry Maidens
The partial eclipse at The Merry Maidens

My highlights:

  • the one-to-one sessions offered by both Kath and Jane.  They were able to gather up the fragmented aspects of my writerly-self, poke around in the draft ideas of my WIP and give concrete suggestions and strategies to get writing.
  • Finding the Fogou at Rosemerryn, and in that, a mental place to banish my inner critic to.
  • Watching the partial eclipse at The Merry Maidens.  I don’t think I’ll ever forget it.
  • The last evening together hearing each other read (and sing sea shanties).
The wisteria-climbing cat (on my uke!)
The wisteria-climbing cat (on my uke!)

My lowlights:

  • Creaking backache from the workshop table – way too low to work at.
  • the wisteria climbing cat who wailed at my bedroom window to be let in, night and day.

The Writing Retreat delivered everything that I wanted from a writing week away, and my take away feeling is that I am walking taller as a writer.

Book review: Larkswood by Valerie Mendes

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“one house, one family – and a lifetime of secrets”

Larkswood was a gift from a friend and I wanted to read it because of this.  If I’m honest, I wouldn’t have finished it otherwise.  The book cover suggests an enticing story, but the reading of it wasn’t particularly enjoyable for me.

Larkswood flits back and forth between two periods of time – 1896/97 and 1939, just before the outbreak of the Second World War.  The book begins in 1897, and reveals an event at the heart of the book, but it isn’t about the main protagonist, Louisa Hamilton, who enters in the third chapter.  I spent the first few chapters wondering who this book was about.  To my mind, not a great start.  I didn’t mind the travelling between the two periods, as this was well pointed, but the set up at the beginning did not work for me.

The writing itself was variable – at times charming and vivid, and others clichéd and underwritten.  “She swallowed her breakfast along with her pride,” (yuck), “her father emerged silently but promptly from the shadows” (there must be a better way of writing that), or “she climbed stiffly out of the car”. That said, I enjoyed the direct voice letters of Milly (Louisa’s sister), a very effective device in the book.  I had a clear sense of place and setting, Mendes captures this in a way to give the reader clear images in the mind.

The premise of the story is a good one, but the telling of it frustrated me as a reader.  Larkswood’s characters were all a bit caricature, rather than characters, a little two-dimensional.  Evil parents being the root of the damaged children (grandfather and great aunts to Louisa), a tom-boyish Louisa, and her frilly sister Milly.  The gardener who is good, solid and handsome.  All a little uninteresting for me.

In Larkswood, the style of narration grated on me.  It is essentially a third person limited perspective, but the narration was at times in the style of the third person, so that it was almost a first person.  For example, Edward, Louisa’s grandfather (and somehow both hero and antagonist, which didn’t work for me) is clearly supposed to be super-posh and speaks in clipped tones, without starting his sentences properly, but this wasn’t only in his speech, but his narrational observations.  This drove me insane, and was a reason alone to want to hurl the book across the room at times.

Mendes, in her notes at the end of Larkswood, said that she wanted to tackle one of the great social taboos, which I shan’t reveal for risk of a spoiler, but, with some expertise in the field, I felt this was naively handled.  It was given a rather Hollywood gloss on it with a massive, unlikely reconciliation at the end.  I thought Louisa’s confrontation of her grandfather was unconvincing, as was his facing up to his past, as was the degree of forgiveness and acceptance.

Mendes wrote that it took seven years to research and write.  This took me by surprise, as the book as something of a feel of it being pushed out.  Mendes also says that she was a children’s author first, which makes sense on thinking about the book.  It was a disappointing read, a disappointing edit and ultimately, sadly, a book that I would not recommend.

A writer lost…

I was going to write that I’ve had a bit of a writing hiatus, but that’s not strictly true.  For much of February my husband and I have been celebrating his 60th birthday, and our 10th wedding anniversary.  We spent nearly three weeks in Thailand during the big ‘hoorah’.  Every day I kept up my travel journal, so I’ve accumulated some 25,000 words of scribblings in that time.  That’s hardly slacking!  Indeed, I might add that I wish I were that prolific in my garret!

Pete and I in Phang Na Bay, Thailand
Pete and I in Phang Na Bay, Thailand

It comes back to the ‘why do you write’, well, it helped me make sense of the travels and experiences, as well as anchoring the experiences in a way that photographs can’t.  But being back home, well, I’ve lost my writerly self somewhere, and I’m desperately not trying to get too cross with myself.  Timing is everything, and next week I’m off with The Writing ReTREAT to develop my craft and, also evidently, reconnect with myself.  If I’m honest, I’m feeling a bit scared of my WIP, and a bit adrift from it.  That’s one of the things I want to look at next week, but I also want to have a bit of fun with my writing.  I think I’m getting too serious, critical and hung up about all things writerly.  That’s the downside of sitting alone in my garret, throwing my head on the desk, it’s hard to self-soothe all the time.

So, as a short-term measure to keep myself engaged, and not terrified, I’m preparing a short story for a competition.  It will do my writing no harm in the long run, and hopefully distract some of those naysayers that seem to have roosted in the inner recesses of my mind.

Book review:  Touching Distance by Rebecca Abrams

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Touching Distance is a historical fiction based on the life of Alec Gordon, the man who in 1790 discovered the truth behind the spread of childbed fever, or puerperal sepsis, a disease more deadly than plague.  It is an absorbing and beguiling read, part mystery, part love-story.

Abrams is gifted in creating a sense of place and time, allowing the reader to suspend the things we take for granted today.  We are reminded that the doctor had to walk for miles to see a patient, and that the conditions of the time were not as sanitary as they are now.  You feel the bone weariness of Alec Gordon and the pressures that fell to him because of the time he was born into.  This was the period of great enlightenment, as shown in Alec Gordon and the movement of medicine, but there was also great resistance, in Touching Distance in the form of the stoic midwives operating in the homes of the granite streets of Aberdeen.  It was in these streets that Alec Gordon charted his observations, which lead to his great scientific discovery.

Abrams creates a strong character in Alec Gordon, a methodical, focussed man who is determined to save women in childbirth.  It is not until later in the book that this drive begins to make sense, when some of his childhood is revealed to us.  As Alec is trying to save the lives of others, his own marriage is breaking apart.  For much of the book, the reader has sympathies with Elizabeth Gordon on her cold, distant husband.  Elizabeth’s character is perhaps the most complete (more so than Alec Gordon even) in the book, as Abrams shows her descend into a tortured madness, with relief found in the opium stolen from her husband’s medical supplies.  Elizabeth seems to be an unreliable witness, and my sympathies were often thrown between the polarities of this fractious marriage.  Abrams choses to share with us near the end of the book Elizabeth’s back story, a story that is revealed to Alec as he kneels at her bed, trying to save her, but unable to save the marriage.  The backstory is an extraordinary subplot that had me completely hooked, with links to Antigua and the slave trade.  I can still see the powerful scene of Elizabeth’s two brothers and her flight through the jungle.

Abrams writing is wonderful, and her research is evidently extensive.  At times the writing is truly graphic, with vivid, toe-curling scenes.  Abrams doesn’t shun the gritty, grimness of the birthing room of the time.  And yet, Touching Distance is written with tenderness for the endeavour.  It is a remarkable story of a much unsung hero, not only in the medical profession, but in saving the lives of thousands and thousands of women. Abrams has crafted a fabulous story of what might have made the man.

Drum roll… I won a writing competition!

I alluded to the fact that I’d won a competition, but I wasn’t able to say anything because it hadn’t been announced or published. It is my first creative writing win. I won the local writing competition for The Mylor Magazine.  I was told that there were 27 entries, and that my entry was a clear winner.   Feedback was that it was ‘well-structured’, ‘not a word wasted’ and ‘polished’.  Those comments made my heart sing, because that’s what I was trying to do.  It was a story of 430 words, my first attempt at flash fiction.  I must’ve edited the piece about 10 times, over a period of a few weeks, tying to pare down the writing to the minimum.  I almost knew it by heart, and that’s also a danger because you have to edit what you’ve written (and not what you think you’ve written). Years of reviewing audit working papers, audit reports and more audit reports have honed those skills!  Anyway, here’s the story….

Lights Out

Emilia Novak lay, swaddled in a white blanket, her eyes fixed on the ceiling.

Ten… Eleven…

She muttered the numbers like an incantation. She wondered if she would reach twenty by the time she got there. The wonky wheel, like that on an errant shopping trolley, snagged. It made for a lumpy ride.

Twelve… thirteen…

She travelled along a sea of endless shiny blue walls, punctuated by loud posters for ‘FLU JABS’ and ‘NOW WASH YOUR HANDS’. The voices of the porters, her two pilots at her bow and stern, drifted above her. The wonky wheel squealed as they rounded the corner.

Fourteen… bulb not working. Does that count?

The stiff cotton of the gown chafed her. She wanted to scratch, but could not wrestle her arms free. She attempted a wriggle, but the cotton dug in.

Fifteen…

The porters eased the trolley to a stop. A shrill ‘ting’ sounded, as doors opened. She was edged into the dim space, which darkened as the doors closed behind them.

Huh. Pretty pathetic light – does this one count?

Her stomach clawed at the loss of height.

The lift stopped abruptly, like a yoyo on the full release of its string. The doors opened and brilliant light flooded in. The light caught the gold tooth of the porter, as he beamed a wide grin at her.

‘Nearly there, love.’

The reek of Dettol assaulted her, as she wrinkled her nose.

Sixteen.

Great doors swung open, and the porters wheeled her in and executed a three-point turn parking her against the wall.

Seventeen.

‘Good luck love. Goodbye.’ Their feet padded off into the distance.

She felt a squeeze of her hand, soft and warm.

‘It won’t be long now. Dr Lloyd, the anaesthetist will be along shortly.’

There was nothing to count so Emilia shut her eyes.

‘Hello there,’ Dr Lloyd peered down at her, ‘I’ll be at your head, just wanted to say hello. We’re going in. You know Mr Carter, of course.’

She nodded.

Different voices drifted above her, as the wonky wheel limped back to life.

Eighteen. A big light, like a dentist’s lamp on steroids. Perhaps that could count for two.

Dr Lloyd settled down behind her with his upside-down smile. Something cold stroked her right hand.

The door opened. Six squeaks advanced across the floor. Mr Carter, with a union flag scrub cap, appeared. ‘Right let’s get started.’

‘You’ll feel a sharp prick, and then you can count to ten,’ said the upside-down face. Emilia smiled. Then the union flag spoke.

‘OK Mrs Jones.’

What? Oh no…

“I’m not Mrs…”

Lights out.

©juliawebbharvey

Book Review:  The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

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Rachel takes the same commuter train every morning, which often stops at the same signal.  She sees a couple in a house from the train, “Jess and Jason”.  Their life is perfect, not like hers, but more like the one she lost.  Rachel sees something shocking from the train, a moment, but she cannot keep it to herself.  She tells the police, and so becomes involves in what happens next.  It’s a difficult book to review without revealing the plot, rather like We Are all Completely Beside Ourselves, and like that review, I shall not include any spoilers.

The Girl on the Train is an absorbing read.  Hawkins gives us three different narrators, Rachel, Anna and Megan, whose lives become more entwined, and enable the reader to have a wider view of the unfolding story.  There is a twist in the narration, however, in that each of the narrators is unreliable, and so the reader has to decide who to trust with the truth.  An alcoholic, a liar or a cheat?  I think this is a real strength of the book, yes, it is well plotted, but the development of the characters is excellent.  Hawkins’ main characters are all quite unlikable, with some despicable characteristics, and yet you read on. At the end I was left thinking that none of the remaining characters had any hope of recovery – at least, I didn’t trust them to change. Isn’t that the hope in all of us?  The mystery of the book was solved, but I don’t think the people were at all. It is clever writing.  It reminded me of the characterisation in JK Rowling’s A Casual Vacancy, but this is somehow much darker.

Hawkins’ themes in The Girl on the Train are hard hitting – alcoholism, domestic abuse, childlessness, infidelity and untimely deaths – and are woven to create this story that is fascinating, creepy and tragic.  There is not much warmth or light in the book, except perhaps the rather wishy-washy flat mate of Rachel’s.  Those moments of happiness remembered from the past are more like illusions.  Rather like the seemingly perfect “Jess and Jason”, the layers are peeled away revealing a more murky, toxic environment and past as the mystery unfolds.

The Girl on the Train makes for good holiday reading – absorbing but not too heavy going.