At-Home Writing Retreat

I’ve always wanted to go away for a writing retreat. Doesn’t it sound wonderfully creative and fun? But the truth is that a writing retreat is not an option for me. I haven’t found any that interest me within my preferred price range. Maybe some day this might be possible. Plus, if I’m going to spend money on a hotel or a cabin nestled in a forest or mountains, I’d want my husband to come along. I decided to create my own writing retreat at home. I scheduled the writing retreat for a day when my husband would be out of town and took a day of vacation from work. (It also helped that there are no children afoot.)

I held my at-home writing retreat in late 2019 before the global pandemic.

Preparation

To avoid distractions, I cleared my schedule. I didn’t want to have an excuse to stop writing, so I handled household chores, grocery shopping and errands ahead of the scheduled writing retreat. It wasn’t easy because I had to tag on extra hours at the end of each workday over the course of one week to get everything accomplished, but it ended up being worth it.

I made sure I had healthy snacks, fruit and tea on hand. I also prepared a slow cooker meal (Greek lemon chicken with potatoes) early on the morning of the writing retreat. I didn’t want to take time away from my writing by having to figure out lunch during the day. Having lunch and dinner ready was the best decision for me.

I decided what time to start and end the retreat. For me, the best decision was to start at 7:00 AM and end at 4:00 PM. Though you could easily start your at-home writing retreat later, especially if you prefer exercising first thing in the morning.

To stay focused and motivated, I wrote out my retreat goals. My goals were:

  • Write (I didn’t set a word count).
  • Research a particular subject for my story.
  • Listen to specific podcast episodes.
  • Work on editing a specific section of my manuscript.
  • Organize my writing project e-folders.

Writing Retreat Day

I followed a loosely planned schedule per the goal list. I omitted distractions. I didn’t check emails or any social media during the duration of my retreat, not even at lunch. I turned off my phone notifications. I avoided temptation by clearing my cookies. Avoiding social media was probably the best thing I did for a productive writing retreat. The most interesting aspect of this was that I learned I didn’t even miss Twitter or Instagram. I never once had the urge to log in.

I wanted the writing retreat to be more than just writing and editing. It was important for me to seek inspiration by connecting with nature, so after lunch I took a long walk on a nearby trail.

It’s important to have fun and I spent an hour reading a book that wasn’t related to my research. This might seem counterproductive, but I think reading for pleasure and letting your mind wander can also create bursts of inspiration for new ideas.

Outcome

The day flew by. Having an at-home writing retreat was highly productive and left me feeling motivated. I completed everything on my list. I wrote more words than expected and even drafted the outline for the next book in my series.

I hope this helps you plan your own at-home writing retreat. Please let me know if you have any questions or just want to chat about your own writing retreat.

xoxo, Jane

Thursday Reading Links #59 (Cold War Edition)

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I don’t have any appropriate pictures for this post, so let’s just pretend this trail from my walk is a dead drop.

I’m working on a series of novels (Book 1 is in the editing phase, Book 2 needs to be rewritten and Books 3, 4 and 5 are in the draft outline phase) set during the Cold War. So, I thought I would make today’s reading links all about the Cold War.

What I Learned From Women Who Were Prisoners of the Gulag.

The Long History of the Red Scare as an American Political Tactic, an interview with Kathryn Olmstead, professor of history at the University of California, Davis.

Capitalism’s Baby Mania.

Nazi who arrested Anne Frank became a spy for West Germany.

Activist or spy? The curious case of a Cold War nuclear scientist.

Four Books about the Cold War.

My life under surveillance after I married a KGB agent.

Not about the Cold War, but set during the Reagan administration: Dee Snider on PMRC Hearing: I Was a Public Enemy. Dee Snider of the band Twisted Sister talks about his senate hearing. It’s a fascinating read because he is being brutally honest and doesn’t mind calling people on their hypocrisy. I had no idea that this was even an issue in the 1980s. Sometimes I wonder if politicians create drama and waste taxpayer money because they have too much time on their hands. (Sounds like Dee would agree with me.)

Let me know what you think of the articles.

xoxo, Jane

Four Books About The Cold War

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I’m intrigued by the Cold War era for so many different reasons. It’s why I set my own fiction during this era (more on that another day).

So, it’s no surprise that I read a lot of non-fiction books about the Cold War. I wanted to share a few of them with you. Let me know what you think or if you’ve read any of these.

Iron Curtain – The Crushing of Eastern Europe by Anne Applebaum

Anne Applebaum is a columnist for The Washington Post. Iron Curtain covers the horrifying period in Eastern Europe between 1944-1956. The dedication in this book gives me the chills: “This book is dedicated to those Eastern Europeans who refused to live within a lie.”

Vaclav Havel

Spymaster: My Thirty-Two Years in Intelligence and Espionage Against the West by Oleg Kalugin

This book is written by former KGB general, Oleg Kalugin, who spent decades spying in America. Eventually he grew disillusioned with the Soviet system and its institutional corruption. He went public about it all in 1990 and now lives in Washington D.C.

Spy Sites of Washington, DC by Robert Wallace and H. Keith Melton

This is a fun read and I highly recommend it. It covers espionage in Washington, D.C. between the years 1790 and 2016. I bought it for the extensive Cold War section. What’s fascinating (and fun) is that the book actually gives you physical addresses of buildings and homes where spy activities took place, including dead drop locations.

A Spy Among Friends: Philby and the Great Betrayal by Ben Macintyre

If you are at all interested in the Cambridge Five, I’d read this book. It’s a comprehensive volume of Kim Philby’s life as a double agent. I am fascinated by Kim Philby. Not because he was such a stellar guy (he wasn’t) but because I can’t understand giving it all up to live behind the Iron Curtain. For those who don’t know about the Cambridge Five, they were a network of privileged young men recruited by the KGB at Cambridge. Philby was one of them. He defected to Moscow in 1963 because he was about to be outed as a mole. He died with full Soviet honors in 1988.

Do you have any favorite non-fiction books about the Cold War?

xoxo, Jane

Writing Prompts

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I was searching for writing prompts for myself when I came across an author’s website where she was charging for them. That didn’t sit right with me, so I came up with my own prompts which I’m sharing with you. Enjoy!

  1. Write the first sentence of a cozy murder mystery but use the words “green” and “rendezvous.”
  2. It is modern day. You are standing in line at the post office. Your favorite 19th century writer just walked in. What do you do or say?
  3. Your cell phone rings. You answer and it’s the FBI. What happens next?
  4. You discover an unpublished Jane Austen manuscript. What is the title?
  5. You find your late great-grandmother’s diary from 1917. Assume you can read the language in the diary. What’s the most interesting entry you read? Write it diary-style.

Feel free to leave your own writing prompts in the comments.

xoxo, Jane

Fashion For Your Characters!

I love reading and learning about fashion and fashion history. Luckily for me, my characters seem to enjoy fashion too. My main characters are female heroines who like to look chic while fighting off their adversaries. Since they live in the 1950s and 1960s, I consult the following books for a good grasp of the fashion.

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The Kyoto Costume Institute – Fashion: This two-volume set is incredible. It focuses on clothing, shoes and accessories between the 18th Century and 20th Century. The well-researched writing is accompanied by hundreds of glossy photographs.

Fashion The Definite History of Costume and Style: This book is a treasure trove. It’s jam-packed with fashion and style history from prehistory to present day. It contains timelines, graphics, photography and fashion designer biographies.

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Forties Fashion – From Siren Suits to the New Look: This book is about the fashion history of the 40s. The book’s focus is on Europe and North America. It’s organized in a coherent manner and the historical tidbits are invaluable to my fashion research.

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How to Read a Dress by Lydia Edwards: This is a fun book to read, whether for research or just for personal pleasure. It focuses on fashion from the 16th Century to the 20th Century. The author included personal family photographs to showcase some of the fashions of her foremothers, which I found touching.

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For further fun and/or research, I listen to the podcast Dressed. The hosts are well-versed in fashion history and dive into all aspects of fashion history and fashion culture.

Let me know if you have any favorite books on fashion history. xoxo, Jane

The Cold War Q&A Part II

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Welcome to the second part of my Q&A session that I presented last year. Find Part I here.

Last week we ended our post with containment. Let’s pick up where we left off. Please remember, this was just a basic Q&A session. It is not comprehensive of the era. Feel free to ask me any follow-up questions.

Also, you might want to settle in with a cup of tea because this post is a long one.

What is detente? This is when the US and the Soviet Union began to thaw their icy relations. Nixon first went to China to meet with Mao. Important Chinese officials were literally waiting for Nixon at the airport and greeted him as soon as Nixon got off Air Force One. Then shortly after that, he went to Moscow to continue “thawing” relations. Things were looking up. Tensions were loosening. But then, the Iranian Revolution happened.

We all know about the US embassy takeover, the hostage crisis and the ousting of the US-backed Shah. Much to the bafflement and confusion of the West, this revolution was not about communism. It was about fundamentalism. This was really bad for the US because they lost their ally in Iran. And their steady supply of oil.

But that’s not all. Then the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. But the Mujahideen fought back. With US weapons. 

And with those US weapons killing Soviet soldiers, detente was over.

What resources do you use? I use the Encyclopedia of the Cold War by Thomas S. Arms to make sure I get everything straight in my stories. I also like to read modern nonfiction about the spies and spycatchers that lived during this time. Most importantly, I use a lot of primary sources such as booklets that were provided to US soldiers during their deployments or Russian travel books printed by Russian publishers.

There is some fiction I recommend if you really want to get a sense of the era, like John Le Carré’s The Spy Who Came In From The Cold. It’s a short, dark read. For a funner option, the YA trilogy, The Apothecary by Maile Meloy, is set during the Cold War. It’s about three teenagers trying to save the world from nuclear war. This is a super fun series that gives you a sense of the eery era.

Afterword: In one of the James Bond movies, Judi Dench’s character, M, said something along the lines of, “Damn, I miss the Cold War.” I feel exactly the same. It sounds strange, I know. The Cold War was a terrible time. It was a scary, anxious time. All of us were terrified of a nuclear war. Now a majority of Americans talk fondly about this era. I didn’t research why this is the case, but I’m going to guess it has something to do with living through 9/11, ISIS, the Taliban, the current US presidential administration…I suppose the nostalgia makes sense under the stressful times we currently live in.

This is the historical era I love to write in. I love to write stories that are interesting, mysterious and romantic and the Cold War is the perfect setting. Plus, I’m always learning something new. I feel like I will never know everything about the Cold War (well, maybe I would if I didn’t have the #dayjob).

Thank you for reading! xoxo, Jane

Podcasts

I enjoy listening to podcasts. They are entertaining and educational.  I wrote about how I use podcasts for research at the Hearts Through History blog, but I’d like to expand on that post here.

Podcasts

History podcasts

BBC Radio 4 creates amazing podcasts. Some of my favorites are Cold War: Stories from the Big Freeze and Germany: Memories of a Nation. My weekly binge listening is History Extra. I’m not sure if it’s part of BBC Radio 4, but it’s well done and the subjects are phenomenal. Just this week, the podcast hosted historian and author Diane Atkinson. She talked about her new book on the suffragette movement. If you love history, History Extra is for you!

Writing podcasts

First Draught Writing is run by three romance writers and they share their knowledge on writing and the publishing world. Their knowledge is vast. They also seem like a super cool group of women I’d really like to hang out with.

How Do You Write is a new find for me, hosted by author Rachael Herron. It’s inspiring to listen to Rachael interview other authors or talk about the writing craft in general.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Smart Podcast Trashy Books. Created for romance readers and writers alike, this podcast is just pure fun. Highly recommended.

Lifestyle podcasts

Tea and Tattle is an absolute gem of a podcast. It’s hosted by two best friends, Miranda and Sophie. They talk about relationships, books, travel and “everything in between.”  There is a new episode every Tuesday and, more recently, a new mini-cast every Friday called Tea Reads. This podcast is a pure joy! Another podcast I really enjoy is The Simple Sophisticate, hosted by Shannon Ables. She talks weekly about “intelligent living paired with signature style.” I love listening to these two podcasts.

There are many more lovely podcasts, but I should probably stop here for now. Let me know if you have any favorites! xoxo, Jane