by Alexandra Sokoloff

So it’s October, and for me that has come to mean not just Halloween, but a semi-annual retreat with my awesome writing posse: Margaret Maron, Sarah Shaber, Diane Chamberlain, Katy Munger, Mary Kay Andrews and Brynn Bonner.  At first once a year, then twice, now sometimes three, we go on retreat to the beach or the mountains or some generally fantastic place. We work all day long by ourselves and then convene at night to drink wine and brainstorm on any problem that any one of us is having (and of course, compare page counts!). Murderati’s own Dusty Rhoades now regularly joins us for at least some of the fun.

Our favorite retreat is the Artist in Residence program at the Weymouth Center in Southern Pines, NC.

I’ve written about Weymouth here before: the mansion I used for my haunted house in The Unseen, a 9000 sq. foot mansion on 1200 acres that was what they called a “Yankee Playtime Plantation” in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, the fox hunting lodge of coal magnate James Boyd. James Boyd’s grandson James rebelled against the family business to become – what else? – a novelist. Boyd wrote historical novels, and his editor was the great Maxwell Perkins (“Editor of Genius”), and in the 1920’s and 30’s Weymouth became a Southern party venue for the likes of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Sherwood Anderson, and Thomas Wolfe. That literary aura pervades the house, especially the library, with all its photos and portraits of the writers who have stayed at the house.

And yes, it is haunted, ask anyone who’s been here.

When I started plotting The Unseen, I needed a haunted mansion that I could know and convey intimately – the house in a haunted house story is every bit as much a character as the living ones. So of course the Weymouth mansion, with its rich and strange history, convoluted architecture, isolation, vast grounds, and haunted reputation, was a no-brainer. I truly believe that when you commit to a story, the Universe opens all kinds of opportunities to you.

And that’s what a retreat means to me. It’s a commitment to do as much work – and as much magic – as you can possibly do in a weekend, or a week, or if you’re really lucky, two, or in the case of NaNoWriMo – a whole freaking month. 

Last time we were at Weymouth I came committed to figuring out the sequel to Huntress Moon. I left a week later with a full thirty-page outline. This week my task was to take my rough draft of Blood Moon and bash through a second draft. I finished yesterday, and today am bashing through the update of my website (a much more daunting task than a book, let me tell you!)

Writers among you know this Goethe quote I’m sure (which doesn’t apply just to writing…)

Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness concerning all acts of initiative and creation. There is one elementary truth, the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans; that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision raising in one’s favor all manner of unforeseen events, meetings and material assistance which no one could have dreamed would have come their way. Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it. Begin it now!

Well, I’d like to add that it really, really helps to have a whole group of pro writers committed to the same thing along with you.

But you know what makes it exponentially productive?  This place is imprinted.

One of the most prevalent theories of a haunting is that a violent or tragic event leaves a lingering residue on a place, like an echo or a recording. Well, Weymouth has had its share of tragedy and weirdness, but it’s also got an imprint of pure creativity.  (Come on, reread that list of authors above!)  It’s been a writers’ retreat for decades now, centuries, and you can feel it in the marrow of the house.

Layer on to that the sexual energy, just another facet of creativity – oh yes, think about it. Writer parties in the Roaring Twenties?  What was going on in every other room, in the gardens, in the horse stables…?  Did I mention that Weymouth regularly hosts weddings?  We arrived to find a massive wedding marquis in the back gardens, the most elaborate I’ve ever seen, (and I’ve been part of a wedding or two) with the detritus of what was clearly a fantastic and opulent party.

As I write this, well-built men are putting up another party tent in one of the front gardens while another bride is being photographed in the gazebo in back.

It resonates, I’m telling you.

All of this beauty and, um, stimulation, it really makes the pages fly. Also the dreams I’ve been having… well, never mind that.  But one of the most fantastic things about the writing life is that our work brings us into these incredible, layered situations, dreamlike, sometimes, with hazy boundaries between eras and dimensions, between the real and our imaginations. When we’re in the zone, synchronicities spark and breakthroughs become the norm instead of a longed-for rarity.

Writing is a draining thing. You can never really turn it off. So I’ve found that retreats, and the dedicated companionship of other writers, keeps me working deeper, faster, further than I could possibly go on my own.

And I am grateful to whatever providence brought me to my writing group and to Weymouth.

So what about you all? (You all.  Yes, I must be back in the South….)  Do you have retreats, writing groups, places that supercharge your writing?  Let’s hear about them!



Lots of extras today. 

— First, for the Cumberbitches out there (you know who you are) I was interviewed by Newsweek/The Daily Beast as a Cumberbatch authority and managed remarkable restraint, if I do say so myself.  Read here.


It’s October, my favorite month, and you-know-what is coming, so I’m giving away 31 signed hardcover copies of my spooky thrillers Book of Shadows, and the book that stars the Weymouth manor I speak of in this post: The Unseen.

Enter here to win!

Book of Shadows.

An ambitious Boston homicide detective must join forces with a beautiful, mysterious witch from Salem in a race to solve a series of satanic killings.

Amazon Bestseller in Horror and Police Procedurals




The Unseen

A team of research psychologists and two psychically gifted students move into an abandoned Southern mansion to duplicate a controversial poltergeist experiment, unaware that the entire original research team ended up insane… or dead.

Inspired by the real-life paranormal studies conducted by the world-famous Rhine parapsychology lab at Duke University.




And finally, I’m doing my usual NaNoWriMo prep series on my Screenwriting Tricks blog.  Commit!!!


20 thoughts on “Retreat!

  1. Jake Nantz

    I don't have a place, but I sort of do…through music. I have to have quiet to write, but that doesn't work in a house with a wife and 2 dogs, so I created a couple of playlists that I use EVERY time I write, and it works as my safe little inspirational place. I have to write to either hard rock or the blues, depending on the character/story I'm working on, and these playlists provide me the kind of workspace I need wherever I am.

    Unless I forgot to charge the iPod. Then I'm mired in the swamp trying to write through it. That sucks.

  2. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Jake, I'm finding I need music for this book, too. It's so weird – could not listen to music for Huntress, but this one I NEED it to get into it. I can't possibly tell you how that works. You're right that it creates a different space, though.

  3. billie hinton

    You know already that I too love Weymouth. Speaking to that layering of energy you described so well, I was there once with a good friend/writer – there were supposed to be two more but they each had to back out at the last minute, so it was just D. and I.

    We got there, settled in, and each went into some kind of superspeed writing zone which lasted the entire week. We didn't leave the house/grounds at all and both finished drafts of new books. Each night we would meet in the Hall of Fame library and I'm not exaggerating – as we read pages out loud you could feel the swirl of energy in that room. We were completely outside of reality that week.

    And I've said this before – all I have to do is get in the car and head to Weymouth and the book just starts writing itself. I have to stop and write things down on my way. The only other place that does that for me is the NC mountains. I've written huge chunks of novels in the pull-offs on the curving roads inside the Great Smoky Mtn. National Park – the combination of mountains with river rushing alongside the road is like some kind of writing drug.

    Enjoy your time – I'm going to find that ball of Alex energy and use it in a couple of weeks when I get there!

  4. Sarah W

    Weymouth sounds wonderful–and I'm so excited that Blood Moon is that much closer to being released!

    I'm part of a small online writers' support group–some of us are published, some not, and some don't intend to be. We all 'met' as regular commenters on a single blog a few years ago and ended up as sort of online (and open) circle. We offer each other support, beta-work , opinions on *everything*, and care packages. A few of us have met face-to-face, and one of these days we'll figure out how to get all of us in one country at the same time for a retreat, but even if we don't, these amazing people still inspire me every day.

    (Your interview about Mr. Cumberbatch's appeal was excellent)

  5. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Bllie, I feel like I feel YOUR energy here, too. I'm in the Thomas Wolfe room which if I remember correctly has come a little alive for you. (the dresser game?)

    Me, all I get is erotic dreams.

  6. billie hinton

    Meant to say earlier that the quote you shared is one of my all-time favorites – in my own experience and in working with clients, I have seen what seemed like truly stuck places be cleared by simply leaping forward into whatever place, change, etc. one wants to have in life. It's difficult to explain to someone who is locked into fear and/or wanting "the thing" to happen to them while they wait in safety, but often it takes the trust and commitment of leaping with no net to make things happen.

    The Thomas Wolfe room has been the scene of lots of activity – I know folks who will not go back to Weymouth after staying in that room! I had two "scary" experiences there but I tend to be very matter-of-fact with stuff like that and I just said STOP THE SPOOKY STUFF and after that have had truly sweet experiences only.

    The past two times I've stayed in the room with the double bed – I now refer to it as the bird room after the new mobile was literally spinning above my head as I wrote beneath it. No heat/air was on, no draft that I could detect. I felt the air moving above me and when I looked up it was in full whirl mode. Interestingly, a bird plays a large role in the book I was working on!

    When younger that would have scared me to death, but now I find it intriguing. That's the room I got locked into the last time too. My sense is that the ghost gets a kick out of scaring people – if you spook, he escalates the negative stuff. If you draw a line for him and enjoy the game, he gets lighter and more helpful.

    Have they redone the little "Jo March" room yet? Last time I was there Alex (the other Alex) was measuring for new mattress and they were talking about removing those two large closets to enlarge the space.

  7. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Billie, no, they're still just talking about the renovation.

    The bird room – is exactly what it is!

    One older guy who had stayed in that Wolfe room had a TERRIFYING story about it. Maybe I shouldn't tell you. But it was right after a death, so I'm sure whatever it was has moved on…

  8. billie hinton

    Oh, do tell – a good friend of mine had a terrifying experience in there too the one time she went – she said the spirit literally pulled her out of her body and wouldn't let her get back in. She moved to a different room the next day, but even then, she couldn't really relax and ended up getting nothing done.

    I had one experience in there where I woke up and something was literally beating on the door like they were going to break through it – other people in the house were awakened by the noise. And another time I was there alone in the house/room and an email that someone wrote me took on a sinister tone – I was sitting in that room for hours re-reading this email over and over, getting completely freaked out by its meaning, looking up every word in the dictionary, etc. I wrote back a very upset, defensive email. The next day when I got the very confused reply and re-read the initial email I was flabbergasted – it was perfectly innocent. That episode was actually the more frightening b/c it was so psychological. But for whatever reason I haven't had anything like that again.

    I'm esp. interested in your story because I've never heard of a man experiencing anything in that room – and have several male writer friends who will ONLY go to Weymouth if they can have that particular room!

  9. Jake Nantz

    Truly haunted, eh? Nope, never going there. I've always said, "I don't believe in ghosts, but I'm afraid of them."

    So no, no way in hell will I be going there. Have fun on your retreat though, Alex. Happy writing to all of you!

  10. Jake Nantz

    If it's physical, then I can go down fighting/swinging/kicking/shooting. If not, then I am robbed of even the illusion of control over my own fate. As I said, I don't believe they exist, but I am mortally terrified of finding out I'm wrong. So Alex, you have a better chance of getting me to earn (win?) a 3-book pub deal at $5 million per book, and then TURN IT DOWN, than you have of getting me in that house.

    Trust me.

  11. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Yike, Billie, I don't think I'd ever go back if I'd had anything even close to what you're talking about.

    The man I talked to about the Wolfe room stayed there at least 40 years ago, after one of the Boyds had just died in the house (in the kitchen, actually, which explains why I avoid it at night!) This man was asleep in the room and woke up to see something very alive out the window. He describes it extra-dimensionally and it completely freaked me out to hear him tell it. It was just a few nights after this woman had died in the kitchen.

  12. Reine

    Hi Alex, I've been following/doing your NaNo Prep. It's been very helpful, but I love this because here you talk about all of the things that drive my writing – some I hadn't realized yet I'd been accessing more indirectly than, if able, I might do in real time and space. My supercharge space is a place back home in Marblehead, Massachusetts, a protective place I can visit in my memory and is very alive. That is a space that allows me to confront all my local ghosts and terrors of my birthplace and family in Salem.

  13. KDJames

    I'm with Jake. I will never go to Weymouth. Not after reading THE UNSEEN (which was an excellent but scary book and if you all haven't read it, you should!). And especially not after reading these comments. Geez. I've had several unsettling psychic-type occurrences in my life, so I know I'm open to it, and I think going to a place like that would be a personal disaster. I don't enjoy being scared. But I'm delighted you discovered it and that it enhances your creativity and, um, whatnot.

    A few years ago, I took a week and went to the (NC) coast and stayed at a cheap little place right on the beach that had rooms with a tiny efficiency kitchen. I loved that I didn't have to go out anywhere to eat. My kids thought I was crazy. "You're going to the beach? By yourself? For a WEEK?" It was wonderful. I love the sound of the ocean. I finished a VERY rough first draft while there. I need to go back.

  14. billie hinton

    Wow – 40 years ago! The morning after my friend experienced the out of body thing we walked through the house and she identified the brother as the spirit who had tormented her. I read some info on him and can imagine why he might be stuck there or choosing to stay there… with a love/hate relationship with writers in particular.

    I agree – some of these experiences sound very scary. I suspect that the people who have the most terrifying ones are in some way vulnerable for whatever reason during their stay – my friend in particular admitted that she had been doing a lot of Qi Gong work just prior to coming and was doing it in the hallway outside the Tom Wolfe room, and had opened herself fully to anything that wanted to play around and scare her.

    I suspect one of the reasons the place is so under-used (imo it should be booked solid 52 weeks of the year) is because of the energy there. You either open to it in a way that allows for scary things to happen or you figure out, one way or another, how to tap in to the writing energy.

    Sounds like you all had a fantastic dinner tonight and are plotting a return. 🙂 Fun to compare notes on the house and its occupants!

  15. Lisa Alber

    As a matter of fact, I missed this post because I was away on retreat all weekend! Every year a group of us get together in the middle of nowhere, Oregon. We each write a ghost story in 24 hours, and then we read them aloud. The next morning we roundtable our feedback. It's exhausting and stimulating and fun and wine-filled. We call it Ghost Story Weekend.

    I'm a big fan of retreats. The Weymouth Center sounds wonderful–right up my alley.

    I'm just starting to get into the communal side of writing fiction. I tend toward secretiveness and thinking I need to do it all on my own. But bouncing ideas and plot problems off fellow writers is sooooo helpful.

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