Monday, July 18, 2011

Return from a Writers’ Retreat

Retreats vary from luxurious escapes to exotic locations, to rough camp-outs, fighting weather and wildlife in the wilderness. The one I attended fell somewhere in between. Three of us — Caroline Todd, co-author of the Ian Rutledge and Bess Crawford mysteries, Elena Santangelo, author of the Pat Montello series, the latest, Fear Itself, just out — and me. We were ensconced in a small 1890s cottage in the wilds of south Jersey with no telephone (the wire to the land-line phone was down and our cells often couldn’t get signals in that remote area), no TV, and no newspapers. We did have a radio, but the reception was so lousy we never played it. The only high-tech devices we had were our computers, but with no access to e-mail or the Internet.

Our rules were few and simple:

  1. No talking except at meals.
  2. The cost of our meals were split three ways.
  3. All labor — cooking, washing up, housekeeping, etc. — was split three ways.
  4. No alcohol.
  5. Silence during working hours (similar to the “Quiet Car” on a train.)

Despite these limitations, we managed to slip in some entertainment. A visit to a pre-Revolutionary cemetery, a sojourn to the town dump, always an uplifting experience (uplifting the trash bags to empty into the correct bins), a drop-in at “The Three Grays,” an intriguing shop that sells everything from antique furniture to used books and rolling pins, and a stop at Stow Creek, where Elena spied a bald eagle (her first!), and a horsefly attacked Caroline, (not her first). I escaped unscathed, except for tripping over the carcass of a snapping turtle. Earlier I had witnessed a family of wild turkeys crossing the road. Momma and babies first, while Papa stood right in front of my car, glaring at me. He didn’t move a muscle until his extended family had made it safely to the other side.

Another high point was exploring a secret road into a field where we stumbled on a small brick house. Elena was able to date it by the shape of the roof and its two chimneys before we spotted the date engraved on the roof, “1781,” with the builder‘s initials, “JW.” I wanted to go inside, but my wiser companions persuaded me not to. (I think they were afraid they’d be stuck hauling me out of the cellar when the rotten floorboards gave way.) But it was interesting to speculate on who had lived there. I knew some of the founders of the neighborhood had names that began with “W,” such as, “Watson” and “Ware.” Maybe…

In the evenings we listened to spooky or funny old radio shows that Elena had downloaded on her computer. The stars ranged from Basil Rathbone to Jeanette MacDonald. But the commercials were the best part. From Lux flakes “for your treasured nylons” to Bromoseltzer, that chugged along like a noisy locomotive, they took me back to my youth. The rest of the party was too young for such memories.

The last night we watched a full moon rise over the opposite meadow, and even in its glare, Elena was able to pick out the North Star and a number of constellations.

By the time we left to return to civilization, we each had fatter manuscripts under our arms and some nice experiences to share. (Plus a few extra pounds from all the ice cream we consumed. Unfortunately, there was no rule against that!)

Robin Hathaway

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