You may think you’re cool. You may even be cool. But you aren’t “I went out to the Utah desert with two of my favorite authors and a NASA Astronaut” cool. Furthermore, said NASA astronaut casually called a friend of hers on the International Space Station, and had him take a picture of our location.

Now that’s cool.

Here’s how this happened:

My favorite writing podcast is called Writing Excuses, by Mary Robinette Kowal, Dan Wells, Howard Tayler, and Brandon Sanderson. They announced that they were having a week long retreat out at Capitol Reef National Park – a certified Dark Sky location in the southern deserts of Utah.

Photo of Capitol Reef National Park taken by NASA Astronaut Kjell Lindgren onboard the International Space Station.

A “Dark Sky” location is a place where there is no light pollution. If the night is clear and there is no moon, you can see the band of light that is the plane of the Milky Way as well as thousands of stars in the night. You can also see the bands of dust that float out in space, back-lit by millions of stars.

Photo courtesy of the National Park Service because I have an iPhone instead of a camera.

I have a childhood memory of being at someone’s cabin when the power went out. We found some old comics in a trunk and read them by candle light, then we went outside and star gazed. It was the first time I saw our Milky Way. I remember talking with my dad about the concept of infinity. I mean, what is out beyond the edges of space? More space? How does that even work? The night ended up being foundational to who I am today; it was my introduction to comic book superheroes, space, and is a really great memory of my dad.

So when I saw that Writing Excuses was offering a chance to visit a Dark Sky park and learn about writing sci-fi, my heart skipped several beats and posed my finger over the “sign up” button.

Then I remembered attending Futurescapes in 2020. That trip was a DISASTER. The disaster wasn’t the fault of my instructors- either Mary Robinette Kowal or Dan Wells. In fact, they were the two bright spots of it. Dan was a marvelous instructor and gave me some of the best advice I’ve ever received. While I didn’t have any formal sessions with Mary Robinette, I did get the chance to speak with her. Again, fabulous advice, and she also sought me out to give me swag. How amazing is that? I also spent a lot of time hanging out with a couple of writers and we had a great discussion about race relations. So the disaster didn’t come from the conference.

 The disaster was me. I went on a deep downward spiral at that convention that I had no desires to repeat.

Thankfully, my husband is much wiser than I am when it comes to what is good for me, and he talked me into it. I signed up, skipping the critique session that gave me so much trouble in 2020. I booked everything, got out there a day ahead of time, met a few friends for dinner that night, then got ready for the next morning.

Salt Lake City at night
Dan Wells and Mary Robinette Kowal

I’ve already said that Mary Robinette and Dan are two of my favorite authors (Seriously- the ending of Dan Wells’ book Extreme Makeover? Yeah….) This trip made them two of my favorite people as well. They were open to talk about anything from either writing technique to writing life. There were critique sessions; there were board games, there were brainstorming sessions and “office hours.” They were constantly giving themselves and their experiences to us, and no question was off limits. If you ever get a chance to learn with them, do yourself a favor, do it.  

Mary Robinette plugged her laptop into a projector and shared her process with us. She was such a warm and sharing instructor- I am honored to have had the chance to learn from both her and Dan.

We were out there to specifically  “hard” science fiction. “Hard” science fiction is science fiction based on known science. Andy Weir’s  “The Martian” – turned in to the Matt Damon movie is a great example of this. Almost everything in that book and movie follows real scientific theory, if not fact. Compare that to “soft” Sci-Fi- say Star Trek or Star Wars. So we talked about creating ships to travel in space, living in space, other inhabitable planets that could exist in space, doing science in space, getting along with other people in space, and we talked with someone who has been in space.

Dr. Cady Coleman joined us for the week, she is a chemist
who flew on the space shuttle twice and launched from Russia up to the space
station where she lived for six months. She has a PhD. To say she is uber-smart
would be an understatement. She is also amazingly approachable, and like Dan
and Mary Robinette, she was very giving of herself. She even brought a couple
of flutes and played one in a box canyon we hiked through and another at night
with a writer who brought a guitar.

To say that the star gazing was unbelievable would be an understatement. It takes 45 minutes for your eyes to fully adjust from a lighted interior to the total dark required for really seeing the uncountable number of stars in the sky. During that time, more and more stars come into view until the sky is beyond full. I couldn’t see the Little Dipper because there were so many other stars I lost the shape of it. The Big Dipper was nearly the same thing. The sky was so open that we could see the entirety of Scorpio to the south of us, from claw to tail. We saw the Hercules Globular Cluster 22,000 light years away. With a telescope, we saw both stars in a binary pair. The last night we were there we had just the smallest sliver of a moon and when we looked at it through the telescope it was so much more beautiful than the normal silver orb I’ve grown up with. 

Mary Robinette took this picture of the new moon our last night.

The number of shooting stars we saw was without number. And it was all so 3-D. One night it felt like I was walking God’s ballroom with hanging lights of different heights everywhere. Of course, all of this was against the backdrop of the cosmic glow that comes from the stars behind the dust clouds that float between us and the center of the galaxy.

I met some great people there, and I continue to see many of them on the Discord channels that the Writing Excuses team have set up for those of us who have been to any of the Writing Excuses retreats.

This was life-changing for me. The beauty, the companionship, the respect, and the time to write undisturbed, all of it was amazing. That’s not to say I didn’t hit my bumps, 37 writers, two professional authors I fan-girl over and a NASA Astronaut is a lot for someone like me to spend a week with. There were some very challenging times, complicated by some intellectual and physical exhaustion. But I would do it again in a heartbeat.

So that’s how I spent my summer vacation. How was your summer? I would love to hear your thoughts on anything I’ve said here, or tell me what you’ve been up to.

We had a downpour, then saw this. It was actually a triple for a few minutes.
I don’t even know what to say about this.
Amazing instructors, amazing people. I’m so blessed to have been able to learn from them.
I was wondering what was happening in the cockpit of my flight home.


  1. What an amazing experience. I love how you phrase things. God’s ballroom! How wonderful for you. Tingles and happiness radiate from this article. Thank you for the uplift.

Leave a Reply