writing retreat

Edinburgh Writing Retreat to Celebrate my 40th Birthday

I'm home from Scotland, where I celebrated my 40th birthday with the writing retreat I envisioned nearly four years ago while going through chemo. (The story behind this trip can be found here.)

I've been pretty good at hanging onto my post-cancer seize-the-day mentality, so I rented an apartment in Edinburgh and invited my local writer's group to join me for a writing retreat vacation. Nearly half of them were able to make it! Rachael Herron, Lisa Hughey, Mysti Berry, and Emberly Nesbitt hopped on a flight to Edinburgh.

The Writing Retreat

I was so happy to discover that we were compatible travelers! We were all on the same page about writing all morning to meet daily writing goals before heading out for adventures exploring the city. I spent most of my writing time plotting a new mystery novel set in Edinburgh.

Mysti Berry, Gigi Pandian, Emberly Nesbitt,
Lisa Hughey, Rachael Herron

My favorite writing spot in the cozy kitchen of the Edinburgh apartment.

Writing at the Elephant House Cafe, where I used to study during my junior year abroad in Edinburgh, and where JK Rowling wrote the first Harry Potter book

Visiting the Bedlam Theatre, where I performed on stage 20 years ago as a student


Exploring the City

A birthday meal at the Witchery by the Castle

Mysterious Edinburgh

Edinburgh was the perfect city for inspiration for the new mystery I'm writing with ghostly, Gothic overtones! These were a few of my favorite mysterious encounters. 

With how much I love puzzle plot mysteries filled with enigmatic clues, it's hard to believe I hadn't previously experienced a live action puzzle escape game. Dr. Knox's Enigma was the perfect introduction to one! 


Mary King's Close is one of the tours that takes people underground to explore the centuries-old streets beneath Edinburgh's Old Town neighborhood. The modern day central city is built on top of the dark, narrow streets that once housed the city's poor. (A "close" is a narrow alley.)

Like with Dr. Knox's Enigma, in these underground tours the true mysterious history of Edinburgh is sprinkled with fanciful drama. Fact and fiction merge in ghost stories and with figures wearing the real-life beaked masks plague doctors used to wear to combat disease.

A "kirkyard" is a churchyard / graveyard. Greyfriars Kirkyard is famous for the story of Greyfriars Bobby, the terrier who is said to have spent more than a decade guarding his owner's grave, up until his own death. The faithful dog was then buried not far from his owner.

Getting out of town

Revisiting the Edinburgh Setting of "Fool's Gold," the novella prequel to Artifact

In 2012, I collaborated with mystery authors Diane Vallere and Kendel Lynn to write Other People's Baggage, a collection of interconnected mystery novellas featuring our mystery series characters (Jaya Jones for me, Madison Night/Mad for Mod for Diane, and Elliott Lisbon for Kendel). 
Baggage claim can be terminal. This is what happened after a computer glitch mislabeled identical vintage suitcases and three women with a knack for solving mysteries each grabbed the wrong bag.

The story I contributed to the collection was "Fool's Gold," which takes place in Edinburgh. It's set during the annual Ed Fringe Festival, the huge arts festival that takes place every August.

Fool's Gold

All historian Jaya Jones wants is a relaxing vacation in Scotland before starting her first year teaching college. But when a world-famous chess set is stolen from a locked room during the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, Jaya and her magician best friend, The Hindi Houdini, must outwit actresses and alchemists to solve the baffling crime.

Lest this highlights post get taken over by the fascinating histories of the Lewis Chessmen and the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, I'll do a more detailed post on my "Fool's Gold" inspirations next week!

I'll end with one of my favorite images from the trip

Now I need to come up with an excuse to do this again! 

A Dream During Cancer Treatments Becomes a Reality: A Writing Retreat in Scotland

One week from today, I'll be stepping off an airplane in Edinburgh, Scotland. Along with me will be several members of my local writers group who are joining me for a week-long writing retreat. And even cooler than that? The week culminates with my 40th birthday! (Update: You can see photos from the trip here.)

My first trip to Scotland, 30 years ago.
I hatched this plan nearly 4 years ago, while I was going through chemotherapy treatments for breast cancer, a time when I had no idea if I'd be alive and well at 40. The writing retreat was a fantasy that gave me something to look forward to. (So was throwing myself into my writing and going on a round-the-world trip — one down and one to go!)

Since completing my cancer treatments I've been healthier than ever, so I decided to make this writing retreat trip a reality. It's far too easy to slip back into the day-to-day responsibilities and ruts of normal life, but ever since that unexpected experience, I'm committed to seizing the day.

Why Scotland? I liked idea of taking my local writers group with me on this celebratory trip to a place that's been special to me since I was a kid. I first visited Scotland when I was 10 years old, tagging along with my professor mom who was spending the summer doing research in the Highlands of Scotland.

Scotland captured my imagination on that first trip — Loch Ness and its famous monster, castle ruins perfect for exploring, ghost stories told by people with cool accents — so I returned many times. My longest stay was when I lived in Edinburgh while attending the University of Edinburgh for my Junior year abroad during college, I set a big chunk of my first novel, Artifact, in the Highlands of Scotland, and my novella "Fool's Gold" (in the Other People's Baggage anthology) is set in Edinburgh.

Dunnottar Castle, Scotland, along the coast where Artifact is set.

When I thought about where I'd want to go on a writing retreat, I liked the idea of Edinburgh because it's a mix of foreign and familiar, modern and mysterious. That way, I could get my creative energy flowing in a great setting, not be too distracted by feeling like I needed to go out exploring ever minute of the day, and share the experience with several of my dear friends. The plan is to spend our mornings writing in local cafes, then head out exploring the city and surrounding areas.

Having fun in Edinburgh in the '80s.

I wanted to do this trip with my writers group because 1) they're awesome, 2) writing is so much more fun when done with kindred spirits, and 3) they took my wig shopping before I started chemo and bought me my amazing mystery-writerly wig!

Pre-chemo wig shopping party with the Pens Fatales in 2011.

I'm so glad it worked for four of my writer pals to come with me. I'll be posting photos and stories of our adventures from Edinburgh on Twitter, Facebook, and perhaps even Instagram (we'll see...).

See you online from the other side of the world. But only while I'm not immersed in my next novel, which might just turn out to be set in Scotland.

Birthday Weekend and a New Haircut

Writing in a hotel suite overlooking the bay in Oakland.
The long weekend I gave myself to celebrate my birthday is almost over, but I packed in a heck of a lot. This is looking to be a great year.

Mini writing retreat—check.

Dinner party after writing all day—check.

Dinner at delicious San Francisco Mexican restaurant Gracias Madre—check.

Happy hour with old friends at Gather in Berkeley—check.

With pals at Gather in Berkeley.
Taking the day off on Monday to have fun and be productive—half-check. I had a great day, but didn't write much (though I solved a plot problem). I tried updating my website, but found I was in over my head with things I wanted to do beyond simple HTML (I'm thinking of switching to WordPress).  

I've still got a really long list of things to do for my novel coming out in a little over three months, but I'm looking at my list in a new way. Rather than worrying about how daunting it is, I'm back to having fun with the journey.

Relaxing after a long day of writing.

And...I'm sporting a new haircut! I didn't believe this haircut would work on me until I listened to the sage advice to buy conditioning shampoo. Turns out curly hair needs love even when it's this short! The next time you see me, I'll look like this: