Into the Woods with Ruth Ware

As a crime fiction reviewer, I’ve often had to say, “Sorry, I haven’t read it” when people ask me about a new book.  The reasons can vary.  I might be swamped with review copies.  I might not have been in the mood for that particular book after sampling it.  Or I might be wary of the publicity blitz around the book since I’ve seen so many crime novels over-hyped by publishers and been disappointed when they turn out clichéd or badly written.

But then it’s a wonderful surprise to pick up a book with thousands of reviews on Amazon and Goodreads and discover that it truly lives up to the promotional material.  This past week I finally caught up with Ruth Ware’s gripping debut In a Dark, Dark Wood.

After an enigmatic brief prologue, the book opens in a hospital with Leonora, a heroine who can’t remember how she got there but has hands sticky with blood.  Something horrible has clearly happened.  Is she a murderer?  She’s desperate to regain her memory and for much of the book that struggle is a dark, dark thread.

How did she end up in the hospital?  Well, because she should have said no to a bizarre invitation.  Leonora, a crime writer herself, has led a solitary life for a decade after university for undisclosed reasons but readers know they’ll find out and will surely hope there’s high drama involved.  The invitation breaks into her solitude: it’s for what the English call “a hen party” and Americans call a bachelorette party.  Weirdly, she hasn’t been invited to the wedding itself and it takes some coaxing from a friend of hers and the bride’s to say “yes.”

The party is hours from London, very remote, in a big, isolated, ugly ultra-modern house.  Though it’s not haunted, it has far too many large, un-curtained windows and is surrounded by bleak forest.  Everything about it is oppressive, creepy, and exposed.  Tensions soon rise among the motley group of partiers and what seems at first to be an Agatha Christie homage turns violent and bloody.

In the second half of the novel we learn what drove her and her bride-to-be friend apart and while some of the revelations aren’t as surprising as you might wish, they fall into place with a satisfying way.  Ware is deft at building tension, evocatively describing people and places, and the book is explosive in many ways.  It’s also intriguing to read about a crime novelist caught up in a series of mysteries, a woman who might be a murderer herself.  And a woman who by all rights should have been far more wary and suspicious from the start.  When you read a Christie novel, a great deal is revealed in dialogue and readers of this novel should pay close attention to what characters say if they want to figure out what’s really going on in this taut, enticing novel.

Lev Raphael has reviewed for The Washington Post, The Detroit Free Press and other newspapers and public radio stations.  He’s the author of ten Nick Hoffman mysteries.

The Marvelous Miss Marple

 

I discovered Agatha Christie in junior high school at my local library and was usually more interested in reading about Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple than anything my English teachers assigned me for homework. Christie’s characters were unfailingly intrepid as detectives and their cases deliciously mysterious. While I could never remotely match their sleuthing skills, I didn’t mind because the journey was enjoyable and the solutions so satisfying.

Given that Poirot was Belgian and my parents had lived in Belgium, it was Miss Marple who actually seemed more exotic, living in an alien-to-me world of gossipy small towns, vicars, cottages, servants, gardens, servants, endless cups of tea and glasses of sherry.  And she was such a delightfully unlikely  amateur sleuth, given her age and retired life, yet as keen-eyed and sharp-witted as Sherlock Holmes, though far less arrogant. 

I especially loved it when she discoursed on the nature of the human heart and evil in the drawing room, and I relished the way people underestimated her ability to pierce what might seem like an impenetrable fog around a murder.  My students at Michigan State University enjoyed her too when I taught The Murder at the Vicarage, Christie’s first Miss Marple mystery.

Val McDermid pays homage to that fiendishly clever novel with her standout story in Marple, a book that collects twelve new Miss Marple stories by an international array of bestselling women crime writers like Kate Mosse and Ruth Ware.  McDermid’s story, wittily titled “The Second Murder at the Vicarage,” is filled with dry dialogue and lovely clues.  And its vicar isn’t remotely as stupid and unbelievable as the one played by David Tennant in Netflix’s appalling new series Inside Man.

The Marple anthology isn’t rooted in England, but also takes Miss Marple abroad to New York, Cape Cod, Hong Kong and Italy.  That last locale is the setting for Elly Griffith’s luscious “Murder at the Villa Rosa” which opens with the elegant, mouthwatering line “It’s not necessary to travel to a beautiful place to commit murder, but sometimes it does help.”  The gorgeously written story about a crime writer haunted by success is a pleasant surprise.  Though Miss Marple’s role is a minor one, something she says proves to be pivotal.  Of course.  Perhaps most surprising in this glittering volume is Miss Marple’s response after she unmasks a murderer in Leigh Bardugo’s complex “The Disappearance.”

Throughout the volume, Jane Marple twinkles, knits, drinks tea, calmly spies on neighbors, assures her friends that murder is much more ubiquitous than they imagine, softly jokes about mystery novels vs. real life, and glows with quiet fire.  One character in Ruth Ware’s “Miss Marple’s Christmas” amusingly praises her ability to solve crimes by saying she has a mind “like a bacon slicer.”  Ware’s plot turns in part on a story by another mystery legend, Dorothy L. Sayers–what a treat for fans of both authors.

These highly entertaining stories make for a wonderful vacation and are a fine tribute to the genius of Agatha Christie.  All the authors deftly play with the sharp contrast between Miss Marple’s appearance and her dark knowledge, as expressed in “The Murdering Sort” by Karen McManus where Miss Marple notes that “no one is ever the murdering sort until they are.  The least likely people can shock you.  Young mothers, elderly clergy, esteemed businessmen. You can’t rule out anyone, I’m afraid.”

Lev Raphael was a long-time crime fiction reviewer for The Detroit Free Press and is the author of ten Nick Hoffman mysteries which have been praised by reviewers across the U.S.

 

“The Favor” Needed More Suspense

The husband and wife team who write as Nicci French are acclaimed as “masters of psychological suspense” and their latest, The Favor, has the short chapters we expect from suspense novels.  But “masters”?  A major secret is pretty obvious from the prologue onward, and that drains a lot of energy from the over-long, over-crowded story.

Jude is a London doctor whose ex-boyfriend Liam re-enters her life after eleven years and asks for a favor he won’t explain.  Liam wants her to take his car and drive to a rural cottage, use his credit card en route and not her own, then meet him when he arrives later by train.  The favor has to be kept absolutely secret, and  Liam will only tell her what’s going on when he gets there.

She says yes.  And why?  Because after the two of them survived a car accident as teenagers, his life turned out badly while hers was a relative success, so she feels guilty.  That’s supposedly it.  But it doesn’t quite add up, and if you read the prologue carefully, you’ll guess what her real reason is, something the authors reveal about two hundred pages into the book.

Liam is murdered and having said “yes” to his request gets Jude involved in a police investigation where she’s a prime suspect and the detective sounds more like a therapist than an investigator.  When it’s exposed, Jude also has to explain her bizarre behavior to her fiancé, her parents, Liam’s parents, Liam’s unsavory friends and Liam’s lover in a round of cringe-worthy encounters.  

She plunges more deeply into the mystery of what Liam was up to when she discovers he’s made her one of the executors of his will and she agrees because “for whatever bizarre reason, he had chosen her for this task.”  Well, that’s just half the story: she has a profound reason to agree, something that would make almost anyone feel indebted and we can guess way too early.

Liam’s financial affairs were a total mess and people keep telling her to back off, but she doesn’t.  She feels so helpless and trapped, though, that it’s hard to believe she could help anyone as a doctor. Jude is the kind of heroine who viewers would yell at when she’s on a TV or movie screen: “Don’t do it!”  Though she’s supposed to be a competent doctor, she seems clueless and lacks agency, and the authors at times seem to be indulging in what crime fiction fans call “femjep.”

Jude lets herself be repeatedly insulted and these interactions are annoying–more seriously, she doesn’t seem much interested in who might have killed Liam until after p. 300.

Despite its flaws and extraneous detail, the book has some good lines in it.  Like this one when she heads home after a long shift at her hospital and feels a migraine coming on: “Jude held her migraine at bay all the way home, pushing her bike for the last mile as if a moment of clumsiness might tip the pain over like a scalding liquid.”

Migraine sufferers might of course wonder why she chose to ride her bike instead of taking an Uber….

Lev Raphael is the former crime fiction reviewer for The Detroit Free Press and has also reviewed for The Washington Post and a handful of public radio stations.  He’s the author of ten Nick Hoffman mysteries.

 

 

Should You Write Every Day?




Lots of authors worry about the number of words they write per day. Some even post the tally on social media as if they’re in some kind of competition.

And if they’re not writing at least 500 or 1200 or 2000 words or whatever quota they’ve set, they feel miserable. Why aren’t they working harder? Why are they stuck? What’s wrong with them? How come everyone else is racking up the pages?

If that kind of system works for you, fine. But as an author, editor, and writing teacher, I think it can be oppressive.  Too many writers believe that if they’re not actually physically writing a set number of words every single day, they’re not just slacking, they’re falling behind and even betraying their talent. Especially when they read online about other people’s booming word counts.

How do they get caught in that kind of dead-end thinking? It’s thanks to the endless blogs and books urging writers who want to publish and stay published to write every day.  They make that sound not just doable, but the norm. Some days, though, it’s simply not possible. Hell, for some writers it’s never possible. And why should it be?

I never urge my creative writing workshop students to write every day; I’ve suggested they try to find the system that works for them. I’ve also never worried myself about how much I write every day because I’m almost always writing in my head, and that’s as important as putting things down on a page.

But aside from that, every book, every project has its own unique rhythm. While working on my 25th book, a suspense novel, I found the last chapter blossoming in my head one morning while I was on the treadmill at the gym. Though I sketched its scenes out when I got home, I spent weeks actually writing it.

Some people would call that obsessing. They’d be wrong. What I did was musing, rewriting, stepping back, carefully putting tiles into a mosaic, as it were, making sure everything fit right before I went ahead, because this was a crucial chapter. I was also doing some major fact-checking, too, because guns were involved and I had to consult experts as well as spend some time at a gun range. It took days before I even had a workable outline and then a rough draft of ten pages, yet there were times when I had written ten pages in a single day on the same book.

The chapter was the book’s most important one, where the protagonist and his pursuer face off, and it had to be as close to perfect as I could make it. So when I re-worked a few lines that had been giving me trouble and found that they finally flowed, it made me very happy. I was done for the day!

And if I didn’t write a word on any given day or days, I knew I would be, soon enough. Because the book was always writing itself in my head, whether I met some magical daily quota or not.

I don’t count how many words or pages I write a day, I focus on whether what I’ve written is good, or even if it has potential with revisions. That’s enough for me.

Lev Raphael has taught creative writing at Michigan State University.  He’s the prize-winning author of 27 books in many genres and has also published hundreds of stories, essays, book reviews and blogs.  He edits and coaches writers at writewithoutborders.com.

Image by StockSnap at Pixabay

 

The Perfect August Read for Spy Novel Fans

 

In my many years as crime fiction reviewer for the Detroit Free Press, one of the best mysteries I ever reviewed was Dan Fesperman’s Lie in the Dark, set in war-torn Bosnia. It was brilliantly plotted, beautifully written, and stunning in every possible way.

His latest book is just as thrilling.  Set in the chaos of a crumbling communist East Germany not long after the Berlin Wall has been breached in 1989, Winter Work tells twin stories of an American CIA agent and a former Stasi agent whose lives connect in surprising ways. 

Long before East Germany (the DDR) was falling apart, high-ranking Emil Grimm felt “irretrievably” convinced “that the state he served had become corrupted beyond salvation, and that he had become a willing party to its inevitable decline.”  Having relished his Stasi privileges and having used his own power for revenge, he was filled with remorse–and that’s not his only secret.  Grimm’s personal life involves a bizarre sort of ménage-à-trois which might condemn him in the eyes of even liberal-minded Westerners.

Grimm and a Stasi colleague have hatched a plan to escape from the ruins of their country which hasn’t even reached its 50th birthday, by attempting to trade information to the Americans.  But they’re not the only ones on the market as “CIA people were scurrying all over the Berlin area, seeking to make friends of their old enemies in hopes of prying lose their secrets.”

One of those CIA operatives is young Claire Saylor, tasked with contacting a Stasi agent whose name she doesn’t know and whose information is mysterious but presumably valuable.  Her on-site boss is critical, suspicious and withholding, and Saylor has to rely on a retired agent for backup on each rendezvous.  His spycraft augments hers and they forge a dynamic and entertaining  bond.  Unbeknownst to Saylor, however, the KGB has her and Grimm in its sites and a mission that looked relatively simple becomes hair-raising, dangerous, and bloody.

That’s because in the DDR, someone is always watching: “After more than forty years of training their citizens to keep their eyes one another, one could never take lightly the idea of having your movements go unnoticed in the German Democratic Republic.”

Inspired by real events and deeply researched, Winter Work has everything you expect in a top-notch mystery/thriller: characters to care about, a fascinating setting, and a plot that keeps you guessing and on edge.  Fesperman was a Berlin-based journalist and his knowledge of the city is crucial in making this book both intimate and electrifying.  There aren’t many crime novels I lose sleep over, but this was one of them and I didn’t mind because the rewards were so rich and satisfying.

The short opening paragraph of Winter Work perfectly sets the book’s tone:

In winter, the forest bares its secrets.  Hill and vale are revealed through disrobing trees.  Mud and bone arise from dying weeds.  Woodpeckers, taking notice, pry deeper on leafless limbs and rotting logs.  Their drumbeat goes out like a warning.

Lev Raphael is the author of ten crime novels and seventeen other books in many genres.  A former guest author at Michigan State University, he currently mentors, coaches, and edits writers at https://www.writewithoutborders.com.

Every Writer Needs an Editor (Guest Blog by Meredith Phillips)

Guest blog by Meredith Phillips

Everyone needs an editor–even editors. Why? Primarily because an editor brings objectivity to your writing. When you proofread your own writing, you sometimes see what you expect to see, what you meant to write, on the page or screen before you. The editor brings an outsider’s view and is much more likely to pick up typos or mistakes. And truth be told, auto-correct or spell-check will not pick up homonyms.

Furthermore, because of editors’ training and wide reading background, they can spot an infelicity, misstatement, or erroneous fact—not to mention a plot hole. The editor’s job is to make the writer look good by preventing the reader’s confusion, making things as clear as possible. If you’re not “traditionally published,” which would presumably include professional editing, you should hire an editor at your own expense. You’ll find it is well worth the money.

When it comes to traditional or legacy publishing, after acquisition or commissioning a book, ideally several levels of editing take place. Those can range from development and/or substance editing to line and/or copy editing to proofreading. My own experience is mainly in fiction editing, the majority being crime fiction, but I’ve worked on all kinds of nonfiction as well, from cookbooks to handbooks to how-to guides. Over forty years I’ve edited hundreds of books and I still love it. I’d rather spend my time with red pen in hand, or these days with Word Review on the screen, than doing most other things. This has served me well during the pandemic.

***
How does anyone become an editor? I doubt that any children say they want to be editors when they grow up. And I suspect that most editors originally began as writers, as did I. After first writing magazine pieces, a guidebook, and then a mystery, I decided that I’d rather tell other people how to write than do it myself. And I’ve done so ever since (although a certain amount of writing of catalog copy, blurbs, press releases, etc. is inevitable in the job). As well as learning by doing, I read books and articles on editing and joined professional organizations.



I spent the first ten years alone at Perseverance Press, editing and publishing new mystery writers who usually had other kinds of writing backgrounds. After ten of these books, some award-nominated, I went “on hiatus” and concentrated on freelance editing for mystery writers with NYC publishers. I was lucky enough to again be working with professional writers and didn’t have to deal with newbie writing problems.

But freelance editors are definitely at the bottom of the publishers’ totem poles, and liable to be blamed for all snafus. Then came the opportunity to partner with an old friend who wanted a mystery line in his small independent publishing company. And from 1999 to 2021, John Daniel & Co. / Perseverance Press published more than eighty traditional mysteries by established writers. This idyllic arrangement came to an end with John’s death, so I’m a freelancer again. And I was lucky enough to be available when Crippen & Landru needed an editor last year for their respected collections of Golden Age short fiction.

***
Does editing mysteries differ from mainstream fiction editing? Not a lot. The plot structure is usually tighter in mystery/suspense, and attention must be paid to suspects’ activities and alibis. In the end, order should be restored and readers should feel that they had a chance of figuring out the puzzle. The background environment, geographical setting, and/or the historical period in a mystery are often rendered in detail, as they may contain clues. The conscientious editor should do some research (via Google and Wikipedia these days instead of a trip to the library) to be conversant with the milieu depicted by the author. I’ve bought a lot of books on editing but have found only a few of real use: Strunk & White’s Elements of Style and William Zinsser’s On Writing Well, which I’d recommend to all writers.

Do mistakes still happen? Of course! In my early days I let an author get away with putting the protagonist in “a room with no doors or windows.” And much more recently, a main character kissed a man who wasn’t her fiancé, whom she didn’t like, and who wasn’t even in the same place as her. This goof sneaked by the author, me as the editor and two proofreaders. But of course it was pointed out in an Amazon review!

That takes me back to the first line, above….

[Free Images from Pixabay]

Patrica Cornwell’s “Autopsy” is a Dud

I was surprised to receive a review copy of Patricia Cornwell’s 25th Kay Scarpetta book, and I can’t imagine this book getting published by a newbie.  It’s a meandering, slow-mo crime novel that’s badly written and badly edited.

The book is filled with odd usages like “right much” for “very” or “a lot,” and dialogue between family members and spouses that sounds overly formal, almost British. Even tough characters keep saying things like “I’ve not” rather than the more common “I haven’t.”

Whole passages in this book read like a murky first draft, and there are many lines like this one where the writing is seriously off:

My next stop is the kitchen table, what’s actually a butcher block that no doubt belongs to the house.

Just as damaging is the way Cornwell interweaves present tense and past tense–too often I had to go back and figure out what was happening when.  Cornwell’s use of present tense is painful anyway, as when Scarpetta gets dressed and each item of clothing is mentioned in a separate line while she’s on the phone with someone.  Pages like that feel like filler.

Scarpetta is meant to be a uniquely talented, supremely experienced medical examiner but she often seems like an amateur and a jerk.  She’s annoyingly obsessed with minutiae outside her field, griping about a murder victim who didn’t water her plants or recycle, for instance, or use the right storage container in her fridge. 

And for someone scared half to death at one point, the shout of “Goodness!” makes her sound like Miss Marple, not a strong woman at the top of her profession. 

Her overall character seems oddly realized. She lets colleagues, family and even her new secretary bully her, which comes across as annoying and unbelievable.  And for someone who rhapsodizes at length about fine French wines, she thinks pedestrian appetizers are somehow special.  Calling ordinary cheeses “antipasto” doesn’t make them exotic.  If she’s been to France and adores French wine, how comes she’s clueless about its many fabled cheeses?

Her husband drives a Tesla SUV which costs over $100,000 and it gets lavish attention in the book, but they can’t afford an actual wine fridge and she has to jerry-rig something in the basement?  Is that–and plebeian cheese–supposed to appeal to readers who can’t afford expensive wines?  Then why show off the fancy SUV?  These things don’t add up and they exemplify the problem of disconnection that runs through the whole book. 

Time and again, there are places where there’s a kind of logical hiccup, some missing connection.  Like a scene where Kay and her husband are alone in the Oval Office with the president and vice-president, but suddenly he’s talking to “those assembled behind closed doors.” Huh?  And while some characters aren’t described at all, others are described well after they appear on the scene. 

As for the denouement–it fells like a cheat, but saying why would be a spoiler.

Autopsy is often so disjointed you wonder if it was written by a committee. In the end, the uneven mix of forensic thriller with industrial espionage, outer space drama,  office politics, biomedical engineering and AI makes the book seem overstuffed yet weirdly underfed.  

Former crime fiction reviewer for the Detroit Free Press, Lev Raphael is the author of 27 books in many genres.  He mentors, coaches and edits writers at writewithoutborders.com, with clients across the U.S., in Europe and Asia.

 

 

𝘿𝙚𝙥𝙖𝙧𝙩𝙢𝙚𝙣𝙩 𝙤𝙛 𝘿𝙚𝙖𝙩𝙝: Research Can Be Murder

In Department of Death, the latest Nick Hoffman mystery set in the wilds of academia, Nick has become chair of his university’s English Department–but nobody reading the series could have predicted that would ever happen. It’s definitely not something that Nick ever wanted.

I introduced him to mystery readers in Let’s Get Criminal as an English professor who wasn’t respected in his Midwestern department for way too many reasons. To start with, he was a “spousal hire,” which meant he got his position only because the university wanted to hire his partner.

Spousal hires at a university can arouse a lot of animosity in their new colleagues even when they’re well-qualified, because they’re basically just part of a package deal. In most cases, they would never have been hired on their own at that point in time. Other professors will feel they’re intruders, unworthy of joining the rarefied club whose membership they guard so zealously. And it doesn’t take much to anger highly combustible professors anyway in an environment where grudges flourish like feral hogs, walking catfish, Burmese pythons, and other invasive species that are ruining the Everglades.

Nick was also looked down upon because he enjoyed teaching the most basic course the department offered: composition. His peers would do anything to avoid being stuck with it. That kind of course put him at the level of graduate assistants and adjuncts, and liking the hard work involved in helping students strengthen their writing skills created suspicion and even contempt: who was he trying to kid?

And then there was his scholarship: Nick is a bibliographer. A bibliographer of Edith Wharton. That means that he’s not only read every single book, story, review, and essay that Wharton wrote, he’s read everything that’s ever been written about her. In every language. The project took him four solid years. He’s annotated each item and created multiple indexes for the bibliography which is a splendid guide for anyone doing research about the American author who was the first women to win a Pulitzer for Literature.

That might sound significant, but to his new colleagues, it’s grunt work, uninspiring–and worse than that, his book is useful. Unlike their own books which are written in abstruse critical jargon that only appeals to minuscule audiences.

I chose this focus for Nick’s scholarship because my college writing mentor was a Wharton bibliographer and I wanted to honor her years of research. And it appalled me how that book did not get her promoted to full professor when she should have been.

Nick has had a different path, pockmarked by murders of course. He did get promoted to full professor; a visiting authors’ fellowship was established in his name by a grateful student who struck it rich; and through a bizarre twist of fate in the 10th book of the series, he’s heading up a department filled with people who loathe him more now than ever.

He regrets having agreed to become chair before the first week in his new position is over. What happens? Nick is unexpectedly privy to a bribery scandal that threatens to blacken the name of the university. Nick himself is the object of intense administrative harassment and spying. And of course, he becomes involved in yet another murder.

Can his research skills and his love of crime fiction help him out of this tangle of problems? They always have, no matter how little respect they’ve earned him from his colleagues.

In classic mystery form, the murderer and motive are revealed at the very end of the book amid a scene of crazy academic chaos unlike anything Nick has ever witnessed or dealt with before.

Lev Raphael is the former crime fiction reviewer at the Detroit Free Press and author of 27 books in a wide range of genres.  He coaches and mentors writers at writewithoutborders.com.

 

Writing is My Passion–But It’s a Business Too

My father had a small business which I thought imprisoned him, so when I was growing up I swore I would never “do retail.”

Boy, was I wrong.  As an author, I wound up owning my own small business and it’s as vulnerable to competition and the vagaries of the marketplace as any physical store.  Sometimes it’s just as exhausting.

From the beginning of my book publishing career in 1990, I was deeply involved in pushing my work, contacting venues for readings, investing in posters and postcards, writing my own press releases when I thought my publisher hadn’t done a good job, and constantly faxing or mailing strangers around the country about my latest book.

Then came the Internet and everything shifted to email.  Add a website that needs constant updating; Twitter and Facebook, Goodreads and Instagram; keeping a presence on various listservs; blogging and blog tours; producing book trailers; updating ebooks in various ways; and the constant reaching out to strangers in the hope of enlarging my platform and increasing sales.  It never ends.

And neither does the advice offered by consultants.  I’m deluged by offers to help me increase my sales and drive more people to my web site.  They come 24/7 and when they tout success stories, I sometimes feels as if I’m trapped on a low-performing TV show while everyone else on the schedule is getting great Nielson ratings.

Going independent for a few books after I published with big and small houses momentarily made me feel more in control, but that control morphed into an albatross.  My 25th was brought out by a superb university press, Terrace Books, and I was relieved to not be in charge, just consulted.  Ditto with nos. 26 & 27, mysteries published by Daniel and Daniel.

Way too often, the burden of business has made writing itself harder to do, and sometimes it’s even felt pointless because it initiates a whole new business push.  So this isn’t a blog that promises you magic solutions to your publishing problems.  This blog says: If you’re going to be an author, prepare to work your butt off at things that might not come naturally to you and might never feel comfortable, whether you’re indie published or traditionally published.

One author friend who’s been a perpetual NYT best seller confided to me that despite all the success she’s had, “I still feel like a pickle salesman, down on the Lower East Side in 1900.”

Lev Raphael is the author of 27 books in genres from memoir to mystery.  He coaches and mentors writers, as well as editing manuscripts, at writewithoutborders.com.

Why I’ve Never Gone On a Writers’ Retreat

Fans often ask me if I go to writers’ retreats. I never have and I’ve never really wanted to, because I live in one.

The mid-century house I bought over 30 years ago in a heavily-treed subdivision is extra quiet because it’s dead center, even though there are some major roads nearby. That means you can’t hear any road noise whatsoever whether you’re inside the house or sitting out on the patio or the deck. There’s also very little traffic through the subdivision itself, sometimes none at all. 

What you can hear is bird song of all kinds: chickadees, robins, finches mourning doves–and of course we see our share of hummingbirds because they like our Rose of Sharon trees. Oh, and I also hear people biking by, neighbors with strollers chatting on their phones, minor stuff like that that forms a pleasant soundscape.

Yes, there are lawnmowers in the Spring, leaf blowers in the Fall and snow blowers in the Winter. But as someone who grew up in New York, that seems close to silence. For a few years when I lived in Queens, I was directly under a flight path to LaGuardia Airport, and sandwiched between the roar of the Long Island Railroad and the craziness of Queens Boulevard. 

My street is lined with maples that form a canopy when they leaf out, and a sculpture garden when the leaves fall.  From my study window, whatever the season, I have a view of a tall, graceful Gingko tree. If you don’t know this tree, they have succulent green fan-shaped leaves that turn a Napoleonic yellow in the Fall and can drop all in one day like gentle snow.  It has special resonance for me because there was Gingko near my elementary school in Manhattan.


I can see the tree down at the base of the driveway while I write at my PC and while I make corrections on printed-off manuscripts sitting in my reading chair. It’s just one of the majestic trees around the house and it symbolizes home for me.   As does the enormous oak at the very back of our yard which a former neighbor told us was standing here in the 1920s when a 400-acre farm was subdivided into lots for houses.  I like to do handwritten notes on a printed-off text outside looking  at that tree for inspiration.

Growing up in New York, I had very little sense of the change of seasons, but here I can watch it change by the day–and sometimes change back,  because as people in many states say, “If you don’t like the weather here, wait an hour.”

The trees remind me that Michigan is where I became an author, not New York.
I experienced a five-year drought after publishing my first short story in a national magazine and it was only after moving to Michigan that the drought ended and my work started being accepted again.  I apparently needed a major change of scene to blossom. 

In Michigan I was fully free to become the writer I turned into, someone multiply anthologized, publishing across genres, taking the lessons my college writing mentor gave me into the classroom at Michigan State University and then beyond.  I now work with writers online at writewithoutborders.com, mentoring, offering individualized workshops, editing manuscripts of all kinds, and enjoying an even greater level of freedom than I had before.

I know that one of the appeals of a retreat is escape from where you are, but I don’t need that.  And people also go to commune with other writers, but I had that intense experience for two and a half years in my MFA program and I’ve hung out with writers at numerous conferences across the country.  I once interviewed Julian Barnes and asked who his writer friends were and he said, “They’re next door, in my library.  They’re my oldest friends.”

The books in the shelves around me in my study–biography, history, fiction– inspire me as much as the quiet of home.  This is where I’ve taken root. 

Lev Raphael is the author of 27 books in a dozen genres ranging from memoir to mystery.  His most recent book is Department of Death, which Publishers Weekly called “immensely enjoyable” in a starred review.

(Gingko image by Marzena P. from Pixabay)

(Oak image by Csaba Nagy from Pixabay)