falconry

Why I went to Scotland

Writing retreat + Scotland = two concepts that don’t necessarily go together. For me and about 25 other author/illustrators, this was a fantasy-turned-reality c/o Kindling Words West this past March. Weeks before the trip, I could barely speak the words “I’m going to Scotland for a writing retreat” without my breath catching. But the venue was just part of the reason . . .

Kindling Words is an exclusive community that hosts two retreats a year for authors and illustrators of children’s literature — run by a true fire-starter of a creative force, Alison James. A renowned program twenty years running, eligible participants must undergo an application process. For most retreats there is a lottery and/or waiting list. To be included this year was an absolute honor.

   

It helps to have a famous friend. One of my most cherished childhood friends, Anika Denise, also happens to be an accomplished picture book author, and may have pulled some strings along the lines of “I need a roomie!” to secure my slot.

JD Spero and Anika Denise

Me and Anika Denise

Yesterday morning my husband asked me what was the one thing that stood out as the most important part of the experience. I showed him a pano-pic my new friend (the very talented Hazel Mitchell of Toby fame) had taken and tagged me in. It shows 7 of us writers/illustrators quietly at work in the same room.

Tears came to my eyes as I explained why this retreat was so important to me. My husband knows all too well how many hours I spend *alone* in my house or a coffee shop writing away. Writing can be a very lonely occupation.

This retreat was all about community. I was surrounded by other writers — stars of the children’s literary world — whose clicking of the computer keys triggered my own creativity. To sit among these successful and talented people who share my passion was validation for me as a writer. Competition did not exist within this group; I was warmly welcomed. I was embraced into their circle without question. For that, I will always be grateful.

When I told friends from home about my upcoming trip, the same question kept coming up: Will you get any writing done . . . in a castle . . . in Scotland?

For me, it was never a question. That’s what I was there for, and since I’m in the middle of a project (the 3rd book of the Forte series for Xchyler Publishing), I had a lot of work to do.

The week’s schedule was set up to help us focus, too. After morning yoga and breakfast, there were workshops where each of us hosted a creativity exercise to help get the juices flowing. My story starter was entitled “Wolves of Scotland” and the results varied from a silver-haired female ghost wolf, to a puppy wolf cub, to a distinguished wolf in a 3-piece-suit. After workshop, we had a silent retreat from 10 to 5. Which seems like a long time but the hours flew by . . . especially when you had to squeeze in spa time. (Oh, did I forget to mention the castle had a spa?)

Let me tell you about the castle

Built in the 1300s, to say the Dalhousie Castle is rich in history might be a tiny understatement. But it was no biggie for the Scottish people. They have lots of these castles hanging around. They weren’t even phased when their resident ghost blasted the surround sound, interrupting our host during the opening ceremony dinner. Even the gloomy castle dungeon had been transformed into a swanky restaurant, where we dined one night while serenaded by a bagpiper.

Castle Dalhousie

dinner in the dungeon, Dalhousie Castle

Our very sophisticated dinner in the dungeon.

Dalhousie offered falconry

Yes, that meant we were able to fly exotic birds that were nearly bigger than me.

This is a Siberian Eagle Owl named Jude (or Juke) who has lived at the castle since he was ten days old. They told me he was used to humans. Still, his eyes were the size of clementines. Of course, I had to be shown up by a 7 y/o girl who flew him first and didn’t flinch at all. Not me. I may look cool and composed in this pic, but inside I was flinching for days.

Siberian Eagle Owl with Dalhousie Castle in the background

Me w Jude, Dalhousie in background

Where in Scotland is this, exactly?  

The castle is only 8 miles from Edinburgh. Although we could’ve spent the entire week exploring this ultra-cool city, we took one day off to check it out. Now’s a good time to mention how nice everyone is in Scotland. We were often complimented on our “exotic accent” and asked to say “burger” and other R-dominant words like “lord” and “pork” and “ruh-roh”.

Victoria Street - JK Rowling's inspiration for Diagon Alley

Victoria Street – JK Rowling’s inspiration for Diagon Alley

Edinburgh Castle

Anika and I inside Edinburgh Castle

So, yeah. This was an amazing experience on so many levels. It was a huge gift to myself that at first felt too luxurious. It was hard to break away from my husband and three young children for an entire week overseas that was solely for me and my writing.

But I got over that.

This mirror is actually a portal. We’re on the other side. LOL