Wednesday 25 November 2020

Writing Retreat Review: Unworkshops at the Highlights Foundation

One of the questions I’m asked most frequently, as a published novelist with a demanding day job, is how I have time to write. I very much admire those authors who can and do write every day, but I’ve never had a lifestyle that can support that sort of schedule. Instead, I’ve written before about the importance to me of making time to write i.e. setting aside intense periods of productivity, devoid of competing demands and distractions.

My cabin!

Over the last few years I’ve adopted a pattern of going on spring and fall retreat weekends with one of my writers’ groups. We (a group of 10-15 people) typically rent an Airbnb somewhere within three hours’ drive of New York City (e.g. in the Hamptons or in upstate New York). We spend our days writing in companionable silence, and our evenings drinking while making far too much noise. It’s cheap, fun, and effective. However, in 2020, retreats like this (often with crowded sleeping quarters) have obviously been impossible. 

This was why I was delighted when my friend and fellow historical novelist Kris Waldherr introduced me to the Highlights Foundation, a retreat centre in the Pocono Mountains in Pennsylvania. The Highlights Foundation normally runs workshops for writers of children’s books, with time dedicated to learning together as well as writing alone. However, during this pandemic period, the facility has pivoted, becoming a destination for “Unworkshops”—unguided, socially distanced retreats for writers. I attended an Unworkshop there in mid-November and wanted to share my thoughts on the experience.

Cosy in my cabin

Is it safe?

The Highlights Foundation has gone out of its way to make their Unworkshops the least risky retreat possible in our current circumstances, and, while I was there, all attendees were scrupulous about following Covid-19 protocols. 

Accommodations are mostly private cabins—each with twin beds, a writing desk, a fully equipped bathroom, and a snacks and beverages station. There’s no need to go anywhere else.

Meals are served at the central barn. You can order your food to go, eat outside (there are heat lamps, as well as crackling fireplace), or dine in the barn, spread out and behind Perspex dividers. I ate almost all meals outside so I could safely socialise between writing sprints. Yes, it was a little chilly, but as someone who’s been alone for most of the pandemic, it was worth it.

Walking in the woods

Is it inspiring?

The Highlights Foundation facility is in a beautiful location, so if you’re inspired by walking through the woods before returning to a cosy cabin, this could be the retreat for you. The books and artwork in the cabins were all focused on kids and children’s literature, so I imagine children’s book writers would feel even more at home.

The view from my writing desk

Is the food good?

Hard yes. The staff was also really accommodating to those with particular dietary needs. Wine and beer was served with dinner (though perhaps not in the quantities of my usual writing retreats!). I brought extra (and harder) liquor for late night nightcaps by the heat lamps.

Is it worth the money?

Everyone has a different tolerance for what they’re willing to spend on a weekend away. This retreat was certainly pricier than the DIY retreats I’ve done with my writers’ groups in the past but, in this case, a) I had much more personal space, b) food and wine was included, and c) there was no need for arguments over who was doing the dishes! 

For me, it was pretty priceless to enjoy a retreat experience safely during the pandemic. I’d even consider going back to the centre in a (hopefully) post-Covid reality, especially if they expanded their workshop purview to include writers of fiction for adults.

The Highlights Foundation

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Saturday 21 November 2020

October Articles About Bronte’s Mistress

After a crazy couple of months in August and September, October was a quieter month in terms of press for my debut novel, Bronte’s Mistress, which tells the true story of Lydia Robinson, the woman rumoured to have had an affair with Branwell Bronte, the Bronte sisters’ brother. Still, I wanted to share some of the publications that were good enough to feature the book last month!

In costume for Halloween Gothic panel!

I’m a double alumna of the University of Oxford, with a BA from Merton College and an MSt from Corpus Christi College, so I was delighted that the university’s North American office featured me as the Alumni Author of the month for October. Looking back at their other 2020 picks, I loved seeing the range of topics fellow Oxfordians have written about—from DNA to environmental policy in Vietnam to resilience—but was surprised to be the only fiction writer featured this year.

Clarissa Harwood published a great blog post in support of debut novelists who’ve had to contend with a 2020 release date. I loved seeing Bronte’s Mistress as one of her historical fiction picks. I read and enjoyed A.H. Kim’s A Good Family, one of her choices for women’s fiction, and Tonya Mitchell’s A Feigned Madness and Rita Woods’s Remembrance are definitely on my TBR list! 

Fall in Brooklyn

Writer C.P. Lesley also included my novel on her Fall Bookshelf roundup. I recently recorded an episode for her New Books in Historical Fiction podcast, which I look forward to sharing with you in the next week or so. And speaking of podcasts, check out my appearance on the History Through Fiction podcast, which also aired last month.

Finally, the Attic Girl blog had the distinction of being the first holiday gift guide to feature Bronte’s Mistress! If you’re buying holiday gifts for a literature lover I of course highly recommended getting them a copy of my book! Other novels recommended on the list are Natalie Jenner’s The Jane Austen Society, which I wrote about here, and Rachel McMillan’s The London Restoration.

Zoom on...

Thank you for another month of support, nice messages, and reviews. If you’d like to keep up with all news about Bronte’s Mistress and my writing, follow me on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter, and sign up to receive my monthly email newsletter below.

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Friday 13 November 2020

Review: Cousin Phillis, Elizabeth Gaskell (1864)

After months of blog posts dedicated to Neo-Victorian fiction and the publication of my debut novel, Bronte’s Mistress, I’m back with a review of an actual nineteenth-century novel, Elizabeth Gaskell’s 1864 Cousin Phillis.

This short and sweet work of Victorian realism ends abruptly (it was published in four parts, and Gaskell had apparently planned for parts five and six), but is otherwise a shining example of nineteenth-century domestic storytelling. The novel would make a great addition to student essays on Gaskell’s better-known works.

The plot is simple and undramatic. Engineer Edward Holdsworth meets Phillis Holman, the much-loved only daughter of a clergyman/farmer and his wife. But, while the young man is taken with her beauty, goodness and intelligence, he’s careless with her heart. 

More interesting is the perspective Gaskell chooses to tell the story from. Paul Manning, Phillis’s cousin and Holdsworth’s subordinate at the railway company, is our primary narrator. 

Paul’s own emotional life is never centred. He’s briefly attracted to Phillis, but soon sees her as a sister, since she is a couple of inches taller than him and better at reading Latin (!). When he meets the woman who will be his wife, he only dedicates one sentence to this momentous event. 

Paul struck me as something of a nineteenth-century Nick Carraway. And Gaskell’s skill is apparent in how she develops his character to make this short work into a bildungsroman through the lightest of touches. Paul’s error in repeating Holdsworth’s idle talk to Phillis is believable, na├»ve, and achingly human. The book may be quiet compared to the high drama of, say, Mary Barton (1848), but that doesn’t that its characters feel any less.

I’d love to watch the TV adaptation from 1982, but so far haven’t found anywhere to stream this particular costume drama online. 

Overall, if you love mid-nineteenth-century prose, Cousin Phillis is a worthwhile investment, even if, unlike for the century’s more famous unfinished novels, modern writers aren’t flocking to anticipate what Mrs Gaskell’s ending might have been.

Do you have a suggestion for which Victorian novel I should read, review or write about next? Let know here, on Facebook, on Instagram, or by tweeting @SVictorianist. And if you want updates on my writing and my own novel Bronte’s Mistress, sign up to my email newsletter below. 

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