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Just back from the Vashon Artist Residency

I just returned from a fabulous month on Vashon Island in the Puget Sound off the coast of Seattle at

the Vashon Artists Residency (picture right). If any of you have thought about doing a residency, but you weren’t sure if it would be worth the time away from everything but writing or your art, do it!

I got more accomplished in three-and-a-half weeks on the island than I had over the past year-and-a-half. Of course, the past 18 months have been a whirlwind of packing, moving, moving again, and dealing with contractor disasters at our new house. I needed to get away just for sanity, if not for work. I took a few medieval history books with me (actually: media mail), and I was able to focus on research for the last bits of history that I needed.

My novel is a time-travel tale set in part in a contemporary university town and in part in sixth- century Gaul. Researching medieval wars, fratricide, religion, dynasties, marriages, illegitimate children and fratricide that far back is hard: even harder is finding anything that helps with setting, dress, food, and grooming. Add to it unknown cityscapes and modes of travel, and it can be overwhelming. It’s not something you want to try to do while moving twice in six months.

A major benefit I realized from being in a house with three other artists (even if they weren’t writers) was noticing the way they “work.” They played more at their art than I had ever dreamed of doing. And it loosened me up for experimenting with my story. I had been avoiding some of the sixth-century scenes because I wasn’t sure I could pull them off. What if some historian reads my book and points out that I have the dress on backwards?

My three co-residents (one from the UK, one from nearby in Washington State, and one from Georgia) didn’t approach every project with an expectation that they had to get it right—that it had to be perfect. They tried things and either kept them or threw them away, and never felt a bit guilty about time wasted. And here I was, with a keyboard that allowed me to backspace over anything that didn’t come out and start over with a blank line, yet I was afraid to not get it right the first time, all the time.

That attitude had been defeating me, which made no sense. I usually write at least four drafts of anything I do, and sometimes ten drafts of a single paragraph. I know I can improve things later. How had I gotten into that perfectionist rut with my first draft?

Well, good news: being around a trio of artists who knew how to let themselves experiment and play helped me get going again, take some risks, and make mistakes—all can be fixed later.

Now I have 90% of the first draft of a novel complete, and I’ll get it finished in the next week or so. Then I’ll take a break and sketch out some new synopses before going back to my draft and starting the rewrite. (I love the rewrite! It’s so much less intimidating than the blank screen!)

I had been at another residency two years ago in California. I was very productive there, too, but it was during the pandemic lockdowns, and I saw little of my other residents. We all had our own

kitchens at that residency, and I learned the value of a communal kitchen at Vashon. It gives you the chance to share ideas and laughter and get out of your own head for a while.

I listened in on an Authors Guild webcast recently about "how to get the most out of your residency." Unfortunately, they talked little about getting anything out of the experience and more about trying to get along with other residents and sleeping all day. I didn’t want to sleep all day, so I made some spreadsheets to keep track of my days. (See right.) So, you see, I was still a little analytical about it all, even if I loosened up a bit. (The blue hours represent work on the novel.)

While there, I came up with a one-sentence elevator speech for my novel so I could answer my fellow residents’ question: what is your book about? It is: The Marriage Portrait meets “Midnight in Paris” in (title TBD), a time-travel novel about a current-day historian who falls in love in two distant centuries when she travels to sixth-century Spain to research the tragic, true story of a young Frankish woman who married a Visigothic prince and triggered the conversion of the Visigoths to Catholicism.

Next month I’m off to the Historical Novel Society conference in San Antonio. I have two novels to pitch to agents while there: The Candlemaker’s Woman (about a fifth century Germanic girl who is bought off the auction block to work in a candlemaker’s shop), and my current yet-untitled novel. I am looking forward to meeting and kibbitzing with other historical novelists--sharing challenges and ideas, and writing and research tips.

Back for a moment to the Vashon Artists Residency—let me give you a little sales pitch. If you’re thinking about whether you should choose VAR for your next residency, the setting on Quartermaster Bay is reason enough (photo above). The comfortable four-bedroom, four-bath house hangs over the rocky beach has a large, communal kitchen, dining room, living room, outdoor kitchen, and two large, eat-out-here decks overlooking the water.

On site are three studios for visual artists and a recording studio for musicians. Two of the bedrooms are master suites with large writing desks. My desk came with a 22-inch monitor so I didn't have to squint at a laptop screen, and offered a beautiful view of the bay (see right).

The residence provides three kayaks, two paddleboards, and four bikes for play time. I got in two nice kayaking breaks and waded into the cold (50 degrees!) water a couple of times. The residency founder lives next door and had us over for dinner one night and ice cream another night. And we invited her down for a joint barbeque as well.

The only thing I missed was having another writer in our group. I enjoyed talking with the artists and learned from them, but I would have loved to have had another novelist to talk with about writing and not writing.

Thanks to the generous founder and a grant from the Paul Allen Foundation, there is sliding scale residency fee and you can apply to have part or all of your fee waived.

Next month I will tell you how those pitch sessions worked out. Wish me luck!

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Yvonne Werttemberger
Yvonne Werttemberger
May 24, 2023

Marj, this sounds terrific. Had never heard of Vashon Island as a retreat - but what you said - yes it is. Only regret that I did not get to see you - although doesn't seem like it should be - yet is from Whidbey Island. Thanks for including me in your tale. Yvonne

May 26, 2023
Replying to

Yvonne: I thought of you the other day when I read about David Eggers new book, The Eyes and the Impossible. It is aimed at a slightly older audience than your story, but I think you might enjoy it. Thanks for reading my blog. I hope to get accepted at the Hedgebrook Residency on Whidbey Island someday. Then we can get together! Best, Marj

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