I will tell you, dear reader, a little about my journey to aspiring historical novelist. I dabbled for years with stories in my head, fan fiction, NaNoWriMo, and eventually trying half heartedly to pull some of this work into a coherent novel. Like many another writer, I worked full time, had a life, and there was only so much energy left over for writing. At times, those efforts were a high priority for me. I was in some kind of flow and did little but work, eat, sleep, and write. At other times, I seemed to be at the mercy of events beyond my control. The main characters in my Work in Progress would retreat into the shadows then, but they were always with me, always whispering. They did not take kindly to being ignored.
Then a couple of things happened. I retired from my public law practice and began working with a terrific law firm. I thought I might write in my spare time. Wait, what spare time? I faced a learning curve I hadn’t quite anticipated and a significant amount of travel. A couple of months later, I came across an opportunity to apply for a Master Class at Hedgebrook, a writing retreat for women on Whidbey Island. The class was to be led by best-selling author Deborah Harkness, which really got my attention.
I had enjoyed and admired Deb’s imaginative historical novels, A Discovery of Witches and The Shadow of Night, and in fact was in the middle of re-reading them. (The Book of Life, which completed the All Souls Trilogy, was published a few months later.) As a reader, I knew Deb as a compelling storyteller, whose novels were rich with the immediacy of historical detail and context. I was also attracted because as a historian and a professor, she certainly knew history and historical research and she would know how to teach. Moreover, I had been to a Hedgebrook Salon a couple of years previously, so I had some idea of what a stay there would be like — a respite, a gift, even potentially life-changing.
In spite of my nervousness about sharing my work with others, I decided to apply — one of those things you do with modest expectations while saying something to yourself like, “Might as well.” To my joy and surprise, I was accepted. I was generously given time off, and in March 2014 was part of Deb’s first Hedgebrook Master Class, “Past Tense: History as resource and inspiration.”
Everyone says Hedgebrook is magical and it is. You are in the care of an amazing and dedicated staff. I felt respected and embraced not only by Deb — who is one of the smartest and and kindest people I have ever met in my life — but my fellow writers, five women I now think of as sisters. I lived in a cottage in the woods. Writing this now, those few words — I lived in a cottage in the woods — transport me back to that time and place, what it felt like to write and read and dream in the window seat of Owl Cottage. In that short, long week I worked on my manuscript and characters, yes. But more importantly, I was given the time, space and energy to think through a pretty profound question: What do I want to do with the rest of my life?
I got past some of my shyness about sharing my work. I began to see how meaningful it would be to be part of a writing community. I admitted I did not want to practice law as much as I wanted to tell stories. I realized that, finally, at retirement age, I could give myself permission to do exactly what I wanted. When an owl flew silently across the road one night as I walked home (home!) with one of my new sisters, it seemed like a sign.