What I learned about creative research at the Writer’s Digest Conference

So earlier this month, I attended my very first Writer’s Digest Annual/Novel Writing Conference, which happened also to be my first non-library conference and my first virtual conference. Overall, it was a great experience! I focused my time mostly on craft-related talks for reasons explained below but there were also quite a few on the publishing business and more self-help related topics that I’m hoping to catch up on via archived recordings. Definitely worth the time and something I would probably attend again, either virtually or in-person.

Though I’ve been aware of Writer’s Digest as a publication for quite some time, I don’t think I ever knew they had their own conference. Instead, I stumbled on the information about it while searching their website this past summer as part of my project to read through 10 years’ worth of their author interviews in search of information about the role of research in fiction writing. I thought attending the conference might be a good opportunity to learn more about my chosen topic, especially when I saw that there was going to be a presentation by Susan Meissner specifically about research and historical fiction.

Turns out the conference was one of the best opportunities I’ve had yet to learn more about creative research, both in a passive and active sense. I was surprised how much the topic came up even in craft talks that were not focused on research. When it didn’t come up on its own, I was able to get in a few questions as part of the Q&A that the presenters were then kind enough to answer. I’m also hoping to follow up with a few authors and presenters who said that they were open to being contacted after the conference.

Here’s some of what I learned:

April Eberhardt/Memoir or Fiction: How to Choose the Best Way to Tell Your Own Story: I thought this was a really intriguing topic for a presentation, definitely something I hadn’t considered before. After her talk, I asked Eberhardt for her thoughts on any differences between the research process for writing fiction versus the research process for writing memoirs. She gave a very thoughtful answer about how researching memoirs often comes down to reaching out to people in your inner circle—usually the people who are part of the memories you’re planning to talk about—while research for fiction means having to reach outside of your immediate contacts, often to experts or other sources. In retrospect, this distinction seems kind of obvious but it was something I hadn’t thought about and I think it definitely speaks to the contextual considerations that come into play even between different types of creative research.

Susan Meissner/Ten Tips for Researching and Writing Historical Fiction: This presentation was my main reason for attending the conference and it turned out to be maybe one of the most important sources of information I’ve encountered yet about the role of research in fiction writing. Meissner talked a great deal not only about the different types of sources she uses, but also the approximate order in which she consults those sources (starting with general works of nonfiction to get a sense of things, then eventually moving through scholarly articles and primary sources). Most important of all, she addressed some of the questions I’ve had about the ethical use of information in creative research by giving her thoughts on when it’s okay to change or ignore a historical fact for the sake of a story. In her own work, she says she tries to do this only when it’s absolutely necessary for the story being told and even then she tries to acknowledge the discrepancies in her notes at the end of the story so that readers will be aware of the changes. !!!! In the Q&A, I asked her if she, as someone who regularly uses experts and eye witnesses as part of her research, had any advice on how to approach such sources when you’re a newer writer without a publication record to point to as your credentials. This is something I’ve been wondering about for a long time since expert research comes up so often in the writing books I’ve been reading. Meissner’s advice for these situations was to emphasize that, as a writer, you want to get things right since helping with this is something that experts often have an interest in doing, even if they’ve never heard of you. She also said that the worst thing they can say is no, in which case you can look for someone else to help you instead. Overall, really valuable stuff.

Nevien Shaabneh/Diversity, Inclusion and Equity in Publishing: From First Pitch to Book Birthday: This was one of two presentations I attended on questions about diversity (the other is described below). Shaabneh shared a lot of great information aimed at becoming more mindful about how we perceive and portray others who are not like us, which was really thought-provoking. During her presentation, she alluded to research and how it can help combat stereotypes and help make stories and characters more authentic. I asked her to say a little more about this in the Q&A. Her answer came down to not making assumptions about a particular culture or a particular person from that culture based on research that you do, which I thought was interesting. Definitely a favorite of the presentations I saw.

Abby L. Vandiver/It’s a Small, Diverse World: Creating Authentic Voices for Your Characters: I admit that I was a little distracted during Vandiver’s presentation because, well, history was happening in the next room (or the next browser window, as it were). I didn’t want to be rude but with the election ongoing, I had FiveThirtyEight’s live updates running in the background for most of the conference and would sometimes click away to check the progress on all the vote counting. They announced that the news outlets had started calling the race for Biden while Vandiver was speaking, so I did a lot of clicking back and forth while the presentation was live. I’m hoping to go back and watch it more closely because this was actually a presentation where research came up on its own as one of Vandiver’s suggested strategies for “knowing what you write” when it comes to characters who are different from yourself. She talked a lot in particular about the OwnVoices movement and her own disagreements with some of the thinking behind it, especially since many of the books that get canceled or removed for being “problematic” are, in fact, by non-white writers who happen to be writing about culture that are not their own. I didn’t get a chance to ask a question during this presentation but Vandiver is one of the presenters I’m hoping to follow up with since this is an area where I see the myth of the writer as a “divinely inspired genius” really clash with the necessity of research as part of the creative process (for many writers). In writing books, writers often talk about their seemingly magical ability to step into someone else’s shoes and tell their stories without giving a sense of the work that actually goes into such things. Vandiver’s presentation did a good job of showing that this isn’t really the case.

Those are just a few of the highlights from the conference—ones that are most directly related to my research. Like I said, I’m hoping to follow up with a few of the other presenters who seemed open to such contact and also work my way through some of the archived recordings of the presentations I wasn’t able to attend live. If I learn anything more and am able to share, I’ll be sure to post it here.

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