Friday, July 3, 2020

What We're Writing--Debs in the Ivory Tower

DEBORAH CROMBIE: Most of us writers perpetually wish that we could escape to a proverbial ivory tower where we could write undisturbed. We even pay to go on writing retreats, where we have no interruptions and no responsibilities other than turning out those pages as our deadlines loom. But so far the only retreats I've managed have consisted of booking myself into hotel rooms for a few days, although I daydream about one in which I stay in beautiful cottage in the woods, and delicious baskets of food are delivered to me several times a day while I tap out page after brilliant page... 

Unfortunately, that one hasn't come true.

I've never been very good at sticking to schedules, I have to admit. One outing can throw me off my writing stride for days, and a trip can set me back for weeks, so I suppose it's natural that I've fantasized about having loads of uninterrupted time. I never imagined I would actually get my wish.

But here I am, almost four months into lockdown. No trips, no conferences, no book signings, no speaking events. No lunches out, no shopping expeditions with my daughter, no babysitting, no movies, no concerts, no having friends over for wine-time in my kitchen.

It's just me and my laptop, day after day. We'll see in a couple of months whether or not there's magic in a forced retreat. My deadline is inching nearer.

Here's a snippet from Kincaid/James #19.

And for a  little scene setting, here's a view of the cafe in Russell Square, in Bloomsbury, not far from the British Museum.


And here's the fountain in its center, on a damp and chilly November night.




“Mummy.” Trevor tugged at the hem of her coat.
Lesley Banks gave a sigh of exasperation and kept her eyes fixed on the screen of her mobile. “Honestly, Trev,” she snapped. “Amuse yourself for one minute, can’t you? You’re a big boy now.” One of her staff at the hotel had just sent her a text saying she couldn’t come in for evening shift and Lesley had got to sort it out straight away. The walk across the square was the only time she didn’t have to keep her eye—and her hand—firmly fixed on her five-year-old.
“But, Mummy—”
“Trev, just look at the pretty fountain, okay?” she said, scrolling through her contacts for someone who might be willing to fill a shift at short notice.
Mummy.” Trevor’s tug was more insistent. Something in his voice made her look away from her screen. “Mummy, I think that lady isn’t well.”
“What lady is that, love?”
Trevor pointed. “That lady over there, by the tree.”
Lesley made out a dark shape beneath the trees just beyond the illumination cast by the fountain’s lights. She shook her head. “Not our business, love.”
“But Mummy.” Trevor scuffed at the leaves. “She walked funny. And then she fell down.”
“Look, baby, it’s probably someone who’s just had a bit too much—” Lesley stopped. That wasn’t the best path to go down with a kid, she supposed. And why teach your children to be kind if you weren’t prepared to be bothered yourself? With a grimace, she pocketed her mobile and grasped Trevor’s hand. “Okay, let's have a look.” Taking a few steps closer, she called out, “Miss? Are you okay, miss?”
There was no movement from the shape, but her eyes had adjusted and now she could make out legs, and the outline of a boot. Lesley hesitated. There was something about that stillness that struck her as wrong. Even drunks weren’t usually completely unresponsive. She glanced round, suddenly hoping for a supportive fellow Samaritan, but the crowd had thinned while she’d been dithering.
She could just call 999, of course, but she’d look an idiot if it was a rough sleeper merely the worse for wear. And if the woman really was ill, well, she’d had first aid training—you had to these days in the hotel business, didn’t you?—and the ambulance service could take forever.
Loosening Trevor’s hand, she put him behind her and said, “You stay right here, baby, while Mummy checks on the lady.”
Taking a deep breath, she crossed the intervening ground and knelt. “Miss,” she said.
When there was no reply, Lesley put tentative fingers on the woman’s shoulder and gave it a gentle shake. The figure, loose as a jelly, rolled face up. The flopping arm brushed Lesley’s knees.
Lesley jerked back, her hand to her mouth. “Oh, Christ,” she breathed. Behind her, Trevor began to cry.


Reds and readers, have you had a fantasy come true in a totally unexpected way? And fellow REDS, have you ever done a proper writer's retreat? 

65 comments:

  1. Oh, goodness . . . now I want to know what happened to the lady. And I love Lesley’s annoyance with Trevor when she’s engrossed with the phone: so true-to-life, but it’s not a good lesson for poor sweet Trevor, is it?

    ::sigh::
    I’m afraid there’s no fantasy-come-true to report, but it sounds like something to wish for . . . .

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    1. I loved Trevor. There's another scene where Kincaid interviews him, and I really like that one, too.

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  2. Brilliant as usual, Debs. Hurry up and finish the rest please

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  3. We were in Russell Square last fall. But it was daytime. And no unusual bodies sprawled under the trees. Poor Trev. He Is a good soul.

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    1. Good that there were no bodies, Pat!! But it is lovely, isn't it? I never managed to eat or drink at the Caffe Tropea, though.

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  4. Yikes, you have to tease us with the corpse scene, Debs?! Poor Trev. Now I can't wait to read the rest.

    Now personal fantasy comes to mind for me.

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  5. Wow. Great excerpt, Debs!

    I haven't been on a retreat where people bring me food, but my twice-a-year solo weeks in the Quaker cottage on Cape Cod during the off season are a dream. I bring simple food to eat (plus wine) and my laptop, and I turn into a writing machine. I even write in the evening, which never happens at home. I didn't go in April because of the pandemic but I have a week reserved in October and hope I can go.

    That said, writing during lockdown has been a bit fraught but I've been doing it and staying on deadline.

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    1. That retreat sounds lovely, Edith. I've never been to Cape Cod, but the cottage in the off season sounds perfect.

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    2. It is. I have the whole wifi-free cottage to myself. I can walk to the beach for my exercise. And the library is across the street if I need heavy wifi! Plus, it's behind the historic Friends Meetinghouse, which is surrounded by its own cemetery. Very quiet and inspirational.

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  6. Debs, I never thought of this pandemic as a retreat, but in a way, that's what it is. I don't know about writing, but for the most part, it's been a positive for relationships for us, and for the people close to us.

    The nearest thing to a writing retreat I've ever had was Rhys's workshop in Italy. Two meals a day at the hotel, plus excursions to restaurants within walking distance. Heaven.

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    1. That was definitely a fantasy come true Karen! we were all drooling...

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    2. Now that sounds fabulous!!! We've daydreamed about doing a REDs writing retreat in Italy one of these days...

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    3. One of my favorite experiences too,Karen. I dream about that hotel and the shaded porch now

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  7. No Debs on the writing retreat, though your idea of the cabin in the woods with meals arriving sounds wonderful. Can we all come too? I know my sister was invited to Hedgebrook and it was similar to that, except they got together to share dinner and chat

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    1. I did actually have a place in mind, The Writer's Colony at Dairy Hollow, in Eureka Springs, Arkansas. https://www.writerscolony.org/ We used to stay years ago when it was a B&B run by Crescent Dragonwagon and her late husband, Ned Shank. It was lovely there.

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  8. Deborah, I've shared your dream of unlimited writing time and am not happy with the way it's turned out. The words BE CAREFUL WHAT YOU WISH FOR whisper in my brain.

    I have been on a couple of wonderful writing retreats, holed up with Ramona Long, Edith Maxwell, and friends in spiritual retreat center for a week. Both were phenomenally productive. A friend of mine bought a rental house on a quiet street in a quiet little town about a year ago, and I have the address tacked to my refrigerator. The plan was to book several long weekends there this summer for my own retreats. Hasn't exactly worked out. Maybe next year (I hope, I hope!)

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    1. Actually, even the hotel retreats I've done have been pretty productive. The tough part is finding a place with a fairly ergonomic chair and desk. I've had the best luck with Hyatt Place, although I haven't stayed in one for a while.

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  9. I'm intrigued but then you knew that anyway. And I'm impressed that you are able to work when I can barely read during this unsettled time. Congratulations my friend.

    I don't see a trip to Texas in my 2020 plans as I barely leave the house. But next year will come, and somehow we will again start to travel. I want to have a glass of wine with you and go walking/shopping around McKinney once more. xox

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    1. Ann, every day I make a resolution NOT to read the news. I almost always break it, but it really does destroy my concentration. On the good side, it makes getting into the book world seem like a relief...Fingers double and triple crossed you get to make that trip to Texas next year...

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  10. That's a Deborah Crombie snippet! Did you realize how your voice comes through? I start to read and I'm immediately there, in the setting, with those people. Poor little Trev, although it sounds as if his mum is doing her best to be a good parent to him. And yikes, as Grace said, the corpse scene!!

    My fantasy comes true those times I tell myself to get my butt busy and just work on whatever I'm writing--and then the words start flowing and before you know it, there's pages and pages of stuff and you look up and are astonished at what the clock says. Now if I could bottle whatever causes those moments to happen!!

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    1. We all want to bottle those moments, Flora!!!! And isn't that interesting about the voice. I recognize it, but have no idea where it comes from. That might make an interesting post sometime, the concept of writer's voice.

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  11. A Gemma or Duncan case? Great location.

    In April, I ignored the chaotic world and banged out a really terrible 50,000 word first draft of my next book. But I haven't sustained the momentum. This has been a retreat for me: no obligations, appointments cancelled, my husband does the food shopping. Now that the library has curbside pickup, I'm reading randomly and indiscriminately from the grab bag I ordered.

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    1. Yes, it's officially Duncan's case, but Gemma will have a hand in. And I've long wanted to write a book set in this part of London.

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  12. Fantastic excerpt, Deb... wow. Just wow!

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    1. Thanks, Hallie! It's so hard to pick out one that's works by itself, and isn't too much of a spoiler.

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  13. And to your question— I’ve never done a proper writing retreat... maybe because by the time I got serious about writing my nest was empty... ish.

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  14. Air BnB seems like it might be a nice alternative to a retreat center, coupled with some kind of meal delivery service.

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    1. I've actually finished a couple of books staying in London flats, but that was pre Deliveroo, and the addition of a food delivery would have been really nice! The flat where I usually stay in London these days has the best writing set-up I've found, a big table right in the front window with chairs that are, if not comfortable, at least bearable.

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    2. Chairs are SO important, aren't they?

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  15. Debs, you have the magic touch with words. Your snippet got to me as usual. I hope you make your deadline as I'm looking forward to read this book.
    I can't think of a fantasy coming through an unexpected way.

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    1. Thanks, Danielle! I hope I make my deadline, too!

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  16. Love what you've done so far, Debs! I hope we won't have to wait too long for the finished product but I'd rather it not be rushed; I know it will be worth the wait.

    My house, never called it a cottage (maybe I should) is in the woods and while it is peaceful there are also many distractions! Just a few minutes ago I looked up and there was a beautiful scarlet tanager on a branch not too far from my window! The sun was shining on him and he was singing his heart out! Lost track completely with what I was trying to do. Maybe in the dead of winter you wouldn't be so distracted.

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    1. I used to live in a little cottage in the woods, Judi. I was happy there, but I always warn people who fantasize about that lifestyle that the internet sucks out there, and there's no pizza delivery. The deer will eat your garden and, alas, the grocery store is at least 20 minutes away. No lifestyle is perfect, but it IS fun to dream.

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  17. Debs, I love it. What a scene! Last summer I began to reread your books in anticipation of A Bitter Feast. I have resumed that reading now in anticipation of the book you are writing. Your use of language is so special, incredibly real and the drama unforced. If I tell you that I can hardly wait, believe me.

    My fantasies are always about wandering around exotic places or naturally gorgeous spots with my love and sometimes, not wandering but he's still with me. Good food is part of it as are the books I bring with me. So, we take our small group adventures and sometimes make our own adventures in National Parks and such.

    I wish all of the writers peace of mind while this pandemic continues. Churn out those stories that I cannot put down. Because, now my house is that spot where I must find the beautiful and your books help.

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  18. It's a great scene, Deb, and Trevor is a gem. But you already know how I feel about all that.

    Fantasies? Well, there was the far-beyond-my-expectations trip to Earlville, NY. And I got my fantasy job when I signed on with the Dallas Winds ten years ago. In fact, a friend of mine who is into the metaphysical once pointed out that I have a knack for manifesting things into my life. Which can be a mixed blessing, sometimes, because stuff never turns out exactly the way you imagine.

    On the whole, however, I can enthusiastically recommend that my friends dream big--words that flow like water, starred reviews, lots and lots of money and movie deals--and say YES! any time life offers an interesting new opportunity.

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    1. Great advice, Gigi!! I especially like the "words that flow like water" part:-) Oh, and the movie deal would be pretty nice, too, if we could change that to British TV!

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  19. That is SO DEBS! So visual and so full of personality!
    Writing retreats—no, I have never done that. The closest I ever got is being in an airplane, funnily enough, on cross-country trips. I get so much done— Somehow knowing I only have five hours is a real incentive. Writing right now? Very very difficult.

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    1. Hank, I love the concept, but I have never managed to write on a plane. I'm so distracted and I hate people looking at my screen. I guess my equivalent would be coffee shop writing. If I give myself a couple of hours to write in a coffee shop, they are usually pretty productive. And in the pre-pandemic days, every so often I'd take my laptop to one of my favorite restaurants and have a late lunch at the bar. Even with the bartenders and the TVs and other customers, I could write like a demon for a couple of hours. So weird how you find a magic spot.

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    2. Hank, I work really well on planes and also plan scenes in my head while I’m in the car. It’s the confined space and knowing I won’t be interrupted that do it for me

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  20. Gigi — That is fascinating, and I will try it!

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  21. My "home writing retreat" would be so much more productive if I would just stay off the Internet. I'd add "no Internet" to list of writing retreat wishes, except that I actually use it so much when I'm writing! Google Maps is such an essential for me that I wonder how I ever managed without it, back in the olden days...

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    1. See my earlier reply about my retreat cottage - no wifi! And even if you have it, turn it off for an hour at a time. You can check that map in an hour.

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  22. I'm completely hooked by that scene. Please write fast! (joke) Can't wait to find out what's next. And the rest is set in that part of London? Oooh. I used to have a job which sometimes took me to London for team meetings. ( I know. Lucky me) A few days in a posh corporate hotel, and I always added a few vacation days on my own in a modest b&b in Russell Sq. Interesting neighborhood, easy Underground connections, loved it a lot. Do I want to read your next book? I do! And yes, I did once go on a writers retreat, made possible by an organization I belong to. Small conference center at a nice hotel and we had the whole building. All writers. 2 meals a day. No other chores! No distractions! Just write. And hang out with writers at night. Finally got the next book underway. To this day, I am grateful. This current isolation is no retreat - housework. Chores calling. Food to buy and make.

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    1. Triss, one of the reasons I moved Duncan to Holborn Police Station was that I wanted to set a book in Bloomsbury. This book turned out to be a different story, so there may another Bloomsbury book lurking somewhere. Your retreat sounds perfect!!!

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    2. Yes, Triss. “This current isolation is no retreat.” That’s what I was thinking and feeling when I said below that I need a retreat now.

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  23. "Trevor began to cry..." So did Coralee when she realized she would have to wait for #19's book birthday.

    Retreats? For about 10 years I longed for a retreat where I could navel gaze and find myself. I finally went on such a retreat only to discover I have no self. One hopes that all authors can still find their writing self during these fluid times.

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  24. Okay, I'm hooked. Poor Trevor, trying to do the right thing, I'm sure Duncan was very gentle when they had their talk.

    A retreat of any kind would be marvelous but I so easily distract myself that I probably wouldn't be as productive as I hoped and regret spending the the time and money. Of course, if I could turn off the negative thoughts I would be much better. I can visualize the location. A well built home/cottage on the coast away from the cliffs but still with great views. It's late summer, early fall. Since I've read so much about east coast and humidity, this will need to be on the west coast. Morning and evening soft fog, extremely gentle breezes. Food deliveries would be welcomed but not too early in the day, thank you. Excellent internet connections. Easy paths for quiet walks and lots of yarn, crochet hooks and books! I'm gonna try playing on this retreat. Think we have all earned it this year.

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    1. Let me know when you find this magical place, Deana! Sounds like somewhere around Monterey, California...

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    2. I keep visualizing the area near Goat Rock, Fort Ross and the mouth of the Russian River, which isn't a big leap, distance wise, for me but it is a good dream.

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  25. Oh, Debs! That is one amazing cliffhanging scene! Is it going on the inside flap as part of the book’s description? I don’t think anyone reading that excerpt could help but dive right into reading the book. In fact, putting that excerpt out on social media would sell books like crazy. You really know how to write a suspenseful scene. Of course, you know how to write any scene. I so can’t wait for this book.

    Although I’m not an author, I could sure use a retreat now. That may sound odd in this period of staying at home, but I could use some time away by myself in a scenic place, with soothing sounds of either a babbling brook or the ocean.

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    1. Thank you, Kathy! And I agree, there are a lot of worry and chores in our self-imposed isolation, plus, for those of us with partners, being with another person 24 HOURS A DAY!

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  26. Deborah, what a great excerpt! Now I want to read your book. Isn't it dangerous to talk on the phone when you are watching a five year old? I remember seeing a babysitter talking on the mobile phone while pushing a baby stroller.

    Your question reminded me of something. Be careful what you wish for. My best friend from high school was working full time as an Attorney. She was telling me that she wished that she could take a year off to be with her baby. She was stricken with Graves' disease so she HAD to take time off from work for medical treatments and she got to stay home with her baby too. She said "Be careful what you wish for".

    Stay safe!

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  27. Debs, that's a brilliant snippet! I was terrified Trevor was going to get snatched and now I HAVE to know what happened to the woman. Do report back if the quarantine was productive for you. Having three men under foot all the time - it's constant farting, wrestling, yelling, and pantry raids -- not exactly a Zen environment for writing. (sigh).

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    1. Jenn, you are a riot! Everyone imagines what a house full of men is like, but your description is classic.

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    2. Jenn, I hope that you have a big backyard at your house?

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  28. Oh I can’t wIt for this book to come out. Any idea when that will be?

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  29. Oh dear . . . I should no better than to read a preview because now I want the book . . . right this minute! Please write fast. <3

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  30. *know better Dang the auto-"correct"

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  31. I have so enjoyed reading this entire thread.Debs, you are a terrific writer and I will have to get this new book! Like everyone else I have my own difficulties fending off the interruptions of daily life, the deluge of text messages, voice mail messages, messenger messages, Facebook pm messages, and emails sent through my author Facebook page and website. They said technology would make it easier; they were nuts!

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  33. Marsha MiddletonJuly 6, 2020 at 1:40 PM

    I am so glad that you are working on another book about Duncan and Gemma, I have really missed them. After I discovered your books, I read each one of them in order without stopping. I do that with all favorite authors and when I am done, I feel like I have made new friends of the characters. Unfortunately, that means that while the next book is being written, I do really miss my "new" friends. Thanks for the many hours of enjoyable reading you have provided and I will look forward to the next Duncan and Gemma adventure.

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  34. I know Bloomsbury well having stayed in the area many times. The last time I was in Bloomsbury, I stayed on Upper Woburn at the Russell Hotel. I will enjoy reading your new book seeing Russell Square and that part of London in my mind’s eye, Deb! It sounds fantastic!

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