Tuscan Traveler’s Picks – Brainstorming at the Spa in Matera for Writers

Time to get out of Florence (or wherever you might be) and go to Matera in the south of Italy near the heel of the boot. Tuscan Traveler has written about Matera, its bread, and the Women’s Fiction Festival, one of the best conferences for writers worldwide.

Matera is a UNESCO World Heritage Site (photo from suzyguese.com)
Matera is a UNESCO World Heritage Site (photo from suzyguese.com)

One of the geniuses behind the WFF is Elizabeth Jennings. About five years ago she came up with another great idea: Brainstorming at the Spa. This is an intensive weekend for writers that focusses on their individual writing projects. We asked Elizabeth a few questions about what she had in mind when she came up with the inspiration. (Details about joining the group from April 4 to 7, 2014, can be found below.)

The idea for Brainstorming at the Spa in Matera, Italy, came from the highly successful Women’s Fiction Festival held in Matera every September. Please describe the background of Brainstorming at the Spa and how the process works.

In the United States, it is not unusual for writers to hole up in a retreat and brainstorm their current books. Writing is a lonely business and a professional writer, under deadline and working hard, often needs help. The nicer the retreat, the better the work that comes out. There is just something about meeting with your tribe (fellow writers) and talking through your book, in a nice place, that helps you progress. Particularly if there is excellent food and wine to hand.

The process: you might have a couple of books to brainstorm, the current one and future ones or you might have just one book to brainstorm. We all operate on the basis that you are writing professionally, whether published or not. Everyone is very serious about their projects.

The bulk of the work is in the morning from around nine thirty to lunch and a couple of hours after lunch. We divide up the time over the four days so everyone has an equal slot. You describe your book, taking care to establish the genre and the emotional overtones you wish the book to have so that the other Brainstormers understand what you are trying to achieve. You give what elements you have at the moment. Some people bring a fully thought-out synopsis and brainstorm specific plot points. Some people bring a general outline and we work on fleshing it out together.

The writers write across a full range of genres and it is an international group (though we work exclusively in English) and the suggestions and plot points and insights forthcoming are extraordinarily helpful.

The Underground Spa at the Locanda San Martino
The Underground Spa at the Locanda San Martino

We work hard and then in the late afternoon we go to the spa and relax. Where we meet, the Locanda di San Martino has an underground spa guaranteed to relax you after a full day’s work.

We are guided through the brainstorming process by talented agent Christine Witthohn, who has Plot and Story at her fingertips. This year she will be joined by another well known agent, Marlene Stringer. Christine and Marlene also know the book marketplace inside out and their advice is priceless.

Fellow writers help you flesh out and plot your book and our agent coaches help us think in terms of marketability and promotion.

The four days are incredibly helpful. You know how you calculate things in dog years? One year equals seven? Well the Brainstorming at the Spa program operates on Brainstorming time. One day equals several months of agonizing over your book in isolation.

Have any published books had their genesis at Brainstorming at the Spa?

Lisa Marie Rice brainstormed a trilogy published by Avon: HEART OF DANGER, I DREAM OF DANGER and the upcoming BREAKING DANGER. Shannon McKenna brainstormed FATAL STRIKE and IN FOR THE KILL, published by Kensington. Kim Golden solved her plot problems for SNOWBOUND, which she indie-published in November 2013, and MAYBE BABY, which is under consideration with Kensington. S.G. Redling did some world building for DAMOCLES, out now from 47North.  Ann Reavis puzzled out the details of ITALIAN FOOD RULES, MURDER AT MOUNTAIN VISTA and SHADOW OF THE TOWER. Elizabeth Edmondson brainstormed VOYAGE OF INNOCENCE and a forthcoming mystery/thriller set in the 1950s. Elizabeth Aston plotted VALENTINE’S DAY published by Amazon StoryFront. Rosemary Laurey brainstormed a dragon series for Samhain publishing. Nancy Barone brainstormed THE HUSBAND DIET, published by Bookouture. Beate Boeker worked out the details of her TEMPTATION IN FLORENCE mystery trilogy and a stand alone novel MISCHIEF IN ITALY. Claude Nougat added nuance to FOREVER YOUNG. Beatrix Kramlovsky put the final polish on her MEMOIRS OF A VAGABOND.

Brainstormers at Work in Matera (photo by Claude Nougat)
Brainstormers at Work in Matera (photo by Claude Nougat)

Why is the process so productive?

They say that productivity is the speed with which you eliminate wrong answers. The Brainstorming process just speeds up the creative process. Writers do not write in a straight line. We create our books in circles, looping around again and again, trying to make the book fit the images in our heads. The Brainstorming process helps this enormously. Articulating your problems and challenges with other writers, who get it, in a way that others cannot, helps you develop your book. A little like the old fashioned form of film development where the photograph slowly becomes clear.

Let us not forget that the pleasure principle is also at play here. Matera offers world-class food and wine. We work hard and well, we eat and drink well and we relax well in the spa. We meet in a beautiful venue. All these elements stimulate the senses and foment our creativity.

Is Brainstorming at the Spa only for creating ideas for an author’s future books? Are there sessions devoted to other subjects?

The Brainstorming at the Spa program is for professional writers and writers who are serious about their craft. So besides discussing our specific projects we also discuss markets, promotion, how to stay healthy while writing eight hours a day, how to brand ourselves, how to plan a career. All that good stuff.

Why is Matera the perfect place for Brainstorming at the Spa?

Matera is an extraordinarily beautiful city. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and it is, per Italian statistics (ISTAT) the safest city in Italy. The Sassi district, where we meet, is an ancient city carved out of the face of the rock. A stone garden. It is quiet, with no traffic, the only noise the kestrels gathering at dusk. It is an enchanted city, out of time.. The  perfect place to dream your way to a new book.

Come to Brainstorming at the Spa 2014

If you would like to join the group this year, the date s are set for April 4 to 7, at Locanda di San Martino in Matera, Italy. Information and an enrollment form can be found here. If you have any question, please leave a comment on this post or contact me at tuscantrav (at) gmail.com.