Images and text by Louise Mangos
Plucking writers out of their comfortable surroundings and placing them somewhere unfamiliar is often the perfect catalyst for creative inspiration. One might think that travelling from the rugged peaks and shimmering lake waters of the Alps to the calm rolling hills of Gascony in Southwest France would have the reverse affect. That it might lull a mountain woman into a sense of sultry summer somnolence. Not so.
To escape the searing cauldron of Switzerland in early July this year, it was bizarre to be heading so far south and yet experience a drop in temperature. Despite being also in the grip of a Europe-wide heat wave, a gentle breeze blew from coast to coast over the rolling hills of le Gers, ensuring cool nights and mornings. Ideal for an early-rising writer like myself. But I wasn’t in Gascony simply to induce the flow of creative juices while gazing upon endless fields of sunflowers. A weeklong series of workshops and presentations at ‘Writing at the Castle’, a creative writers’ retreat at the Château de Sainte-Mère, re-ignited my determination to finish a third novel and publish my first, which has been wavering between agents and editors for the past few months.
An eclectic group of keen writers formed an intimate literary group for the five-day retreat, with backgrounds in teaching, singing, song-writing, dancing, painting, history and world travel. In a shady corner of the delightful castle garden dominated by two impressive medieval towers, a handful of writing experts covered all aspects of the creative journey.
At the first workshop, historical novelist Tracey Warr proved how useful this displacement from a regular writing environment could inspire our stories. She used the artefacts and images of the castle and surroundings to reinforce a sense of location, and to inspire the creative connection between fact and fiction. We each brought objects back to the table that we had found while foraging in the castle grounds, and ideas for a new scene or story were born from the essence of them. Concentrating on their origin, imagining the people who might have handled them, describing their visual and tactile qualities, invoked an all-round mindfulness of objects that might seem mundane to the layman. This exercise proved useful for all genres of writing, and we certainly had a collection amongst us, from historical and magical-realism, to crime and literary.
On day two, best-selling author Amanda Hodgkinson had us sweating in our literary thinking caps with a fabulous workshop on plot and characterisation. Her method of using the classic Cinderella fairy tale arc, adapted for our own writing needs, was a simple but powerfully effective tool. At first horrified that we would be expected to spontaneously write a thousand words in half-an-hour, the exercise had us all clamouring for more time to complete the arc of our stories, and more ideas were hatched for the creation of a short story or a scene from a work-in-progress.
On day three, The Woolf‘s very own Jill Marsh took us through the publishing process, de-mystifying the work involved in self-publishing. After showcasing her own beautiful self-published novels as part of the Triskele Collective (I kept picking them up and smoothing my wistful palm over their sensual matt covers), we all acknowledged that getting an agent isn’t the only solution to seeing our novels on bookshelves.
On day four, Anselm Audley, author and editor, gave the group editing tips, along with how to prepare a manuscript and synopsis for submission. He presented us with several pieces of writing, which he had purposely turned into clichéd bad narrative, for us to take apart with our newly honed editors eye and produce a scene that flowed more comfortably for the reader.
On the final day, experienced literary agent Andrew Lownie patiently took us through the steps involved in making a submission to agents, and opened our eyes to the reality of the traditional publishing process. He graciously agreed to read excerpts of our work, and was consequently elevated to idol status, as half a dozen authors clamoured around him like fans backstage at a rock concert.
Before the final revision, it is imperative that a writer reads his or her work out loud, but hearing a third party transform those words with extra dramatic flair was an incredible thrill. The highlight of my week was hearing my words performed by professional actors from the OBRA Theatre Company. A stage was set up in the enchanting interior of the main castle tower. Oliviero and Edwina from the OBRA troupe magically brought words to life of samples of each of the participant’s work.
At the end of each intense day, after a frenzy of renewed writing madness, we were able to cool off in the pool in the garden. And as the sun began its descent behind the towers, we enjoyed an evening aperitif—a couple of glasses of chilled local rosé—followed by a magnificent dinner prepared by Jacques, a local gourmet chef.
The evenings were filled with discussions about what we had learned during our tutor sessions in the delightful company of Sylvie and Piers, owners of the Château de Sainte-Mère. One evening we were treated to a breath-taking performance of the prologue of Ted Hughes’s Gaudete by the OBRA troupe at the Au Brana Theatre. Over two further evenings, each writer presented three literary works they would choose to take with them in the event that the castle were under siege.
In the lonely world of the writer, there are many advantages to attending events such as these. They offer the chance to network with professionals in the publishing industry. There is always room to improve writing skills, and it is reassuring to share the trials and tribulations of an author’s daily writing endeavours
Solid author friendships were formed with both participants and tutors, with promises to see each other in the future, and perhaps to return to ‘Writing at the Castle’ next summer. The success of this year’s event has encouraged the organisers to fix a date for the retreat in 2016: June 29th to July 5th (subject to confirmation) and to set up a new offshoot organisation, INKY Productions, with the aim of organising a set of twelve writing events and courses around Europe in 2016.
For details of what was on offer at this year’s retreat, you can click on the following link: http://writingatthecastle.tumblr.com/homepage
If you are interested in a future event, contact Sylvie or Piers directly on [email protected]
Piers also organises an annual chamber music festival at the castle in the month of August. http://saintemerefestival.net/
Louise Mangos is a writer and artist living in central Switzerland. She is hoping to publish her first full-length thriller next year, has completed a second novel for editing and is a few chapters into a third. You can connect with Louise on Twitter @LouiseMangos, and Facebook. Her website is www.louisemangos.com