Writers, Retreats, and Insane Asylums

It’s been just over a week since I returned from a Writer’s Retreat held at Mayday Hills Lunatic Asylum at Beechworth. Yep, you read right – a writer’s retreat held at an old insane asylum. It was as awesome as it sounds. Five days sequestered with other writers in a hauntingly (and quite possibly haunted) beautiful asylum is the stuff of inspiration. And personing. I did a whole lot of personing.

What made this doubly excellent was the other writers in attendance, all but one of whom were very close friends, so it was a catch-up of epic proportions. This also meant that we were all comfortable throwing around ideas and points of view, and engaging in general shenanigans. But we were there to write, to have that uninterrupted time some of us seldom get when at home. And it was glorious.

Writing is often a solitary endeavour where you live in your created worlds among created people. But put a bunch of writers together, and it’s a whirlwind of book discussions, plot summaries, story ideas, and why synopsis writing is the tenth circle of Hell. There’s joy in this cacophony; the rise and fall of voices, the quirks and strange paths conversations take that would make no sense to non-writerly folk but which feeds the soul and the muse of those who bleed ink. They will tell you why your story necessitates the killing of a character (beloved or otherwise) then offer a plethora of options on how to do so that would land them on any federal watchlist.

Just being among fellow scribes is enough to invigorate, enough to drown out that writer-imposteritis but we were also fortunate enough to have the wonderful pocket-rocket Kylie Chan providing workshops all through Saturday, which were fantastic, but always there was time to write. There’s not a lot better than sitting in a nicely heated room listening to the clack of keys in the silence as worlds and people are created – individual galaxies within a shared universe. It’s kinda cool.

But when we weren’t writing, there were historical tours of the asylum, and one very late night there was also a paranormal investigation. As much as I would have liked to go on the paranormal investigation, when it’s -4˚ outside… well, I’m staying where the heat is. Those that took up the challenge had a great time despite the sub-zero temps.

We ate, slept and created together… wait, let me rephrase. Look, we bunked down in the same room, wore pretty much all the clothes we’d brought with us when it was time to venture outside – hell, I even wore my slippers out to dinner because damn it was cold. We took the piss out of each other, we laughed, and we revelled in our own and each other’s weirdness.

And the location was everything. The asylum has a melancholic beauty about it.  The history is both shocking and sad, with desolate and worn-down buildings that hold memories that are like scars. For my mind, pain and suffering has a tendency to linger, to echo long after people are gone, and I don’t doubt there is fear and horror etched into some of the walls, the cells of the asylum.


Too soon the time was over, and I had to take a tiny plane home, but those five days were like manna from heaven. I came away with so much more than just a honed story premise and structural architecture (and glow-in-the-dark skeletal gloves), but a renewed vigour for writing. I can’t wait to go again next year. And I can’t thank all the people involved enough, but let me try.

To Geoff and Dawn for organising and running the reatreat – you two work immensely hard not only on Asylum Ghost Tours but Cohesion Press as well. You two rock. (Special shout out to Mandy and Leah for all they did over the five days as well.)

Now I’m going to list the writers at the retreat – they are an amazing bunch and you really should be reading their work. They’re incredible and diverse storytellers, and there should be something in here for everyone.

Kylie Chan

Devin Madson

Marty Young

Andrew McKiernan

David Schembri

Fiona Shearer.

And for all those writers out there, find a retreat, a place that evokes inspiration and puts you around others who not only share your passion to create, but will encourage and badger you to do so.

Whispers in the Void

A couple of months ago, Mark Lawrence launched this year’s Battle of the Bards competition ‒ write a flash fiction piece (300 words or fewer), for a chance to win signed books from some of the giants in the grimdark/fantasy genre.

My friend, Devin Madson, won that comp with her incredible piece ‒ Between Lanterns and Corpses. It’s a brilliant story, and I was so chuffed she’d won. You can read it here, along with the short-listed entries. For those familiar with Devin’s work, this story is set within her Vengeance trilogy universe, and this post explains the origin of the winning flash piece. You should be reading her work, she’s quite the storyteller!

I, too, gave the competition a whirl, but alas, no free books. While a ‘loss’ in the literal form, it was a win in the time-to-write column. Yes, it’s only 300 words (good words, I think), but it was more the act of creativity that soothed my soul ‒ that’s always a win.

The story I wrote has also brought into sharper focus one of the characters of my WiP, so I’ve gained another win (two ticks in the win column ‒ I’m on a roll!). Writing tight forces those essential traits, the… trueness of a character and lets the world see it.

So, if you’ve read this far, then perhaps you can read another three hundred words.

Whispers in the Void

Wren knew this wasn’t the last of the dead they would stitch beneath her skin. This night the soothsayer would be forged into the finest jewel, and Wren would carry that hateful woman for all time. Already the sickly-sweet scent of roasting flesh clogged her throat.

Anointed in oils, Wren had been left to commune with the souls she carried, but never had their voices been quiet. Never had they let her be. Silence, how she craved it. Nights undisturbed. Days, her thoughts her own. But the people had cut and carved and delivered their dead ‘til she was a shadow within a shell. Infested. Infected. The slow death of self.

Escape was all she had. And freedom meant retribution. With no Journeywoman to replace Wren, the clan’s spirits would be unprotected. Ripe for the Undergod’s pickings.

Beneath the Spirit House, blisters bloomed on her skin as she dragged herself past the furnace where the soothsayer sizzled and spat. May the Undergod never shit you out. Wren stifled a cry; lances of fire a thousand-fold speared through her, the spirit-gems enraged at being so near their creators. Life-eternal they’d been promised, yet prisoners they’d become in an unwilling crypt.

They blazed their fury, but freedom meant pain. They would soon understand.

At the slag pit’s egress, the light of day stung her weeping blisters, and glinted off the jagged spears of metal below. Thousands of spirits she’d been burdened to carry. She would carry no more.

The drop from her perch was steep, and the dead began to beg. Without her, they were just whispers in the void.

Freedom beckoned. Her life her own, however fleeting.

No longer the caged bird she had always been, Wren smiled as she pushed from the edge, and for a moment, she flew.


Art by: Dimitarsizce