Oysters, Sand and Worldbuilding as Plot

There’s a trick, well-honed over the last eleven years, to finding a good ROR retreat. Ideally, we need some kind of shared accommodation to fit 5-8 writers, a working kitchen so Mr Flinthart can do his thing, a decent-sized space to all sit in for critiquing sessions, some inspiring scenery and some nice walking areas nearby.

Steeles Island, a mostly-private peninsula out near Carlton Beach (on the eastern shore of the Derwent River), turned out to have all these things in spades. It was a lucky find, as it turned out to have so many benefits we hadn’t even hoped for.

This particular ROR (wRiters on the Road/Rise/Riesling) had a family theme to it. We’d only included family members once before, when little Raeli was too young for me to bear leaving her behind for a whole four days, and so she and my honey came along to a North West Coast Tasmanian ROR, staying nights with us at the Hawley Beach house we rented, and disappearing during the days to visit relatives. This time around, we planned to do something similar only with Jem along – and then Margo and Rowena decided to bring family members too!

The house was so decadently large that we were able to critique separately from the non-writers in our party, and had the benefit of getting to know each other’s families as well as the non-stop industry talk that characterises these retreats.

We tried the experiment of using an iPad and Skype to include a long-distance member, with our virtual Maxine sitting in on a couple of sessions, as well as getting to have one of her own. It worked a lot better than we suspected it would, and while you wouldn’t want to do it every time or for every session (the great value in these retreats is getting to hang out in person) it was certainly better than having no Maxine at all! Those who weren’t experienced with Skype found it quite distracting to be talking to a black panel, and we talked at one stage about decorating a boiled egg to represent our Maxine (a random apple core just didn’t have the right aura about it) but we coped valiantly with the technical challenge. A good precedent, I think. We had also meant to record podcasts while we were there, but totally forgot. Sorry!

We were right on the beach, so the girls (and grown ups) tracked sand everywhere, indulged in recreational sweeping (or as Jem put it: the Cleaning Game) and generally had a ball. The tennis courts, mini-golf, swings, kayaks, and especially the pool table were all utilised, and we were greatly entertained by the facilities we could never use to their full extent, like the six fridges, three ovens and gazillion beds – the house is usually used to cater family weddings and conventions, and can comfortably sleep 20, or feed 50. The non-writers also took the chance to go off adventuring, as we were close to historical sites like Port Arthur, and tourist attractions like the berry farm.

And oh, everywhere we looked there was water, sand or greenery. A beautiful place, inspiring and (mostly) secluded. The mud crabs delighted the girls, as did the ocean in their back yard, and I only regret that the changeable Hobart weather only created two perfect swimming days – the one when we arrived and the one when we left, of course! The storm in between was marvellously atmospheric, though, and we only had one day so cold that the mainlanders started to look a bit grim and shivery. And yes, we let them have a wood fire.

The food as ever was epic, Dirk being delighted with the best kitchen we’d ever provided for one of these events – he offered up salmon, salads, baked chicken in damper crust, smashed potatoes, butter chicken, lemon cake with strawberries, pancakes and a truly luscious bread and butter pudding. Also fresh-baked bread, and for one especially memorable breakfast, petit pain au chocolat hot from the oven. The older kids often hung out with him in the kitchen, and he shared cooking tips and techniques with them. Raeli was especially excited to see bread made from scratch! We also ate our way through titanic quantities of fresh dark cherries and sweet greengages.

Being so close to Barilla Bay, we had to “do oysters” one night! We did have permission to raid the local oyster beds, but they were frighteningly large and mostly underwater, so we ended up playing it safe and not risking the wrath of the sea gods. We bought seven dozen and ate our way through them on the night of the official release dates of Margo’s and my books – particularly appropriate for Sea Hearts! Though no seal wives were harmed in the making of our dinner.

It wasn’t all eating and talking – though of course that is a huge part of our ROR weeks! There was work, too, and we critted up a storm, with quite intense working sessions that left us light headed and sleepy by the time evening came around. There is absolutely no price you could put on the benefit we get from having so many dedicated professionals giving feedback on your book-in-progress, and getting a window into their process at the same time. We had books that were fragment first drafts, books which were five minutes away from going to the publisher, and everything in between.

And of course, what is workshopped at ROR stays at ROR. But oh, I wish I could tell you about these fabulous books that are coming!

We talked a lot about worldbuilding as plot, one of my favourite writing techniques, because once it was raised in one session, it became relevant to all the others (of course!). We talked a bit about agents, ebooks and the changing marketplace, too. And, it being our anniversary ROR (we didn’t manage to have one for our ten year mark – this makes it eleven) we ended up looking back on our our careers had changed and developed since the original five of the group came together. Rowena has been archiving the goals we set every ROR, and it’s fascinating to see which of our past predictions came true, and which were heartlessly abandoned. Marianne and Trent (and Maxine, of course) we missed you MOST on that night!

I’m very pleased that I managed to time my book launch to fit with the last day of ROR (it involved some very precise timing and great goodwill on the part of my publisher!) and even more pleased that Margo was able to join me. It’s a rare thing to have so many of MY author people at one of my book launches, and it felt like an appropriately dramatic way to celebrate the end of a trilogy that began, as many of my books do, with a ROR manuscript. [more launch pics here]

It all feels a little flat now it’s over – and we keep thinking of other ways to use that magnificent house! It would be a fabulous site for a Clarion style writing workshop, or boutique professional conference. (Tehani and Terri, take note) The sign of a good ROR is that we start musing nostalgically about coming back to that particular place before we’ve even left… but of course, we never do. There are always new places to explore.

Rowena’s ROR report here, with a bunch of different pictures of different bits of the house and island!

Margo’s report on the ROR blog, talking about Formidable Energies – the very very early stage novel she brought to our workshop!

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