Retreating to the Seaside

Francesca reflects on the advantages and fun of writing retreats.

Hastings Old Town would make a good setting for a novel.

Hastings Old Town would make a good setting for a novel.

Do you ever go on writing retreats? I’ve been going on at least one a year since 2010 and I thoroughly recommend them. They’re an enjoyable way to achieve a good number of words, with no household or family day to day incidents to distract you.

That’s not to say that it’s all work, work, work. There’s got to be a balance. It helps to have an agreed format with those you’re on retreat with. In my experience it goes something along these lines:

  • Morning: work till coffee time. Go out for coffee
  • After coffee: work
  • Lunch: Snack lunch provided and shared by attendees
  • Afternoon: Write till around 3.30. Have a cup of tea and a natter.
  • Work till dinner time.
  • After dinner: Watch TV, a film, natter, feedback.
  • Work if you’re a night owl

A lovely old boat in Whitstable which could spark new story ideas

The breaks seem plentiful but are an encouragement. Plenty of mini goals can be set which I always find spurs me on. Having breaks is also an opportunity for feedback.

The proportion of work the participants get done during each period depends on whether they’re a morning, afternoon or evening person. During my retreat in Hastings, my writing buddy, Angela Johnson, achieved more in the mornings, whereas I did more in the afternoons. She also managed to get an early morning walk in most days before even starting! Another writing buddy, Elaine Roberts, is also a morning person, whereas Elaine Everest likes to work later in the day.

A feature of  some retreats I’ve been on is each person cooking an evening meal, which has provided at least four dinners during the week. The other days, particularly the first and last, we’ve eaten out. How much you do that depends on what people want to spend, so retreats can be tailored to a budget. Sharing a house obviously divides renting costs. If you’re prepared to share bedrooms (I’m afraid we never are), it brings the cost down again.

Littlehampton in the winter sun

All but one of the retreats I’ve been on have taken place by the sea –Whitstable, Littlehampton and Hastings – so there is much to inspire a thalassophiliac* like me. Perhaps mountains or woods are more your thing and you prefer to hide yourself away completely. Personally I feel it helps to have shops nearby. The one retreat we did where we were in the middle of nowhere (if you can call being seven miles from Hastings that!), we couldn’t even pop out for milk.

The final feature of all the retreats I’ve attended has been a day out in the middle to somewhere interesting. It’s another chance to recharge those batteries and could even be a chance for a little research.

If you’re looking for a cheaper alternative and you have close family living at a distance, you could always ask to spend a week at theirs. It’s particularly useful if they’re at work during the day and you can get on, while enjoying their company in the evening. It’s not something I’ve done yet but I have thought about it.

To all those on a retreat soon, happy writing – and don’t get snowed in like we nearly did our first year in Whitstable!

Whitstable beach in the snow, 2010

Whitstable beach in the snow, 2010

* A thalassophiliac is someone who loves the sea!






Time To Escape

Whitstable Coastline

Whitstable Coastline

Last Saturday, four of us, Francesca Capaldi Burgess, Elaine Everest and Natalie Klienman and I descended upon Whitstable, Kent, for a week-long writing retreat. What a wonderful place, it feels untouched by modern life with its small individual shops. Not a chain store in sight. Although the wind was high, the sun was shining and the cottage we rented was lovely and spacious, so finding our own writing space was not difficult.


The Old Neptune Pub

The Old Neptune Pub

Two of us were writing an existing work in progress, the third was editing, while the fourth was writing the opening chapter. I’m not sure out of those three options, which are the easiest. As a writer will tell you, the opening chapter is probably the most important one as you need to hook your readers. Personally, I have six versions of my opening chapter where I keep making changes. On the other hand, I’m not a fan of editing. Although, it has to be said I love the result of a finely tuned sentence, scene or chapter.

None of us knew the detail of each other’s stories but every so often someone would ask a question and that would give us an insight into what was being written about. This was followed by calls of “I can’t get on the Internet”, which made us realize how we can’t function without it.

It didn’t take long to settle down to our own way of working, each of us lost in our own worlds. The weather was glorious and the days were broken up with wonderful walks along the beach and that certainly blew the cobwebs away and got the blood pumping round the body, and of course something fishy for lunch; you can’t go to Whitstable and not have fish.

Francesca's Sunset Photo

Francesca’s Sunset Photo

Francesca and Elaine put Natalie and I to shame when we were too cold to walk down to the beach and look at the sunset but Francesca took a lovely photo of it, which I laughingly said I would claim as my own.

Plenty of delicious food passed through our lips and of course the odd glass of wine. On the last day we spent a couple of hours visiting the individual shops that is Whitstable. We came home ladened with fish, cheese and the local ale.

One of Three Posts Near The Margate Train Station

One of Several Posts Near The Margate Train Station


We had a day out in Margate where we visited the Turner Contemporary Art Gallery and found places to eat, where they played some fantastic music.

I was very pleased with writing just over ten thousand words, especially as we had the day out. I know the other ladies that write achieved their own goals for the week, so I believe we can call it a success.

It was certainly a worthwhile exercise and one I would be happy to repeat.



My Write Place

Francesca Capaldi Burgess talks about where she likes to write

Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin.

Sunset the day I posted this blog.

Sunset this evening.

Being comfortable with where I write is important to me, as I imagine it is with most writers. Currently I use the study, at the front of the house, which overlooks the grass and trees outside. It’s rather dark in the mornings, especially in winter, but benefits from the sun later in the day. Many an evening I’ve admired the sunset from my desk, grabbing my camera to capture it. (It never looks quite as good in my photographs!)

Study view.

Study view.

I’ve used several parts of the house to write in over the years. I started in the study, moving out several years ago when my son, Peter, moved back home for a while. He used it as a (very small) bedroom. I relocated to the ‘playroom’, still called that although it hasn’t been used as one for a long time. It does still contain many boxes of toys, along with the washing machine and dryer, tools, my husband’s hifi ‘bits’ and all those things you don’t know where else to keep. I set myself up at the table originally bought for the children to do their homework on. The room has the opposite light problem of the study, which I don’t really like.


The study desk is always overflowing.

From there, I moved to the dining room which had the advantage of feeling more spacious and a bigger table, but alas the disadvantage of no spare storage. I found myself going constantly to the playroom to retrieve things.

When Peter moved back out, I painted the study and moved back in, gathering together my things that had found homes in various other rooms. There is built in storage on two sides, though I have long since grown beyond it.

shelf 2

Just one of the overflowing bookshelves.

Wherever my work base is, I’ve never confined myself to working only there. When I feel restless, or it’s a lovely day out, I’ll drive off somewhere for a coffee. I can sit for hours, whether in a café at a shopping mall, the local garden centre or a nearby park. It allows me to concentrate entirely on that project, not distracted by the dishwasher, washing or any other household chore that suddenly seems more compelling. And if I’m working on new writing, I’m quite happy to write by hand.

Whitstable Retreat snow

Whitstable 2010. My workspace can be spied through the bottom window.

I’ve been away several times on week long writing retreats and I find this also works well. It has the same advantage as working in a coffee shop, in that there are no household distractions. I’ve been to Littlehampton and also four times to Whitstable, where I’m due to return this April. Despite there being other people present, we are all quite disciplined, allocating coffee and meal times which we stick to. We also spur each other on.

Writing Garden

The problem with writing in the garden is the temptation to weed!

In the summer I love to work in my garden, albeit under an umbrella, with several cushions and a big pot of tea. Roll on the good weather!

Where do you like to write?



Twitter: @FCapaldiBurgess

The Sound of Silence

Elaine Everest explains how sound affects her writing.

As a writer I need to have sound around me. I find that I cannot function in silence. Furthermore I am unable to write in silence. I always have the television on in the background while I write. For me it’s a form of white noise. I’m unaware of Holly Willoughby wittering about babies or Jeremy Kyle screaming for a lie detector. However, the moment something of importance hits the screen I am alert and listening. I’ve tried having the radio on in the background – it doesn’t work. News disturbs me and radio phone-ins annoy me as I need to stop writing to join in. I’ve tried playing CDs but stop writing to jump a track or browse the covers – I come from the days when we read LP covers whilst the music played.

Music can help me when I’m writing one of my WW2 sagas. I’ll put a DVD of a wartime film on the television or perhaps play Vera Lynn songs. At once I’m pulled back to the era where my characters would have lived. I’m able to absorb the atmosphere of times gone by. My fingers speed up on the keyboard and ideas flow.

Music also helps with my story telling. Last night I researched a tune that my main character would dance to in the arms of her new boyfriend. It was the last dance of the evening and sadly many decades before Englebert Humpedink would record his ’Last Waltz’.  His words would have been perfect. Instead I spent a few happy hours using YouTube to listen to music from the 1930s. I discovered a lovely song, memorable from happy family holidays at Warners’ holiday camp (albeit with the right words). Goodnight Sweetheart fitted the bill perfectly and set the scene for the start of a long romance.

sea pic


I always find that I’m inspired to write when by the sea. The sound of waves lapping against the shore – or crashing if the weather is rough – is the perfect setting for my mind to wander and stories to evolve. I find a walk along the shoreline, where the only sound, apart from the crashing waves are the gulls squawking up above, clears my mind ready to get back to the keyboard. No wonder my favourite writing retreat is a cottage by the sea, in Whitstable, with my writing friends!

Sounds I cannot work with are summer sounds. I have a lovely garden and always plan to sit outside, when the weather improves. However, youngsters without volume controls, their parents continually chatting on mobile phones and builders erecting houses at the bottom of my garden have somewhat put paid to my plans to write al fresco this summer. Indoors windows are closed against the ‘outside noise’ and I can control what I wish to hear while I write – but it won’t be silence. To quote Simon and Garfunkel, ‘silence like a cancer grows’ and for me to sit and write in silence does not create words.


Please return on 15th May to read what Francesca Burgess has to say about the sense of touch.