Women Writing The West Conference Takeaways

I joined another writing organization this year: Women Writing The West. Every year they have a short story contest called the Laura as well as a published fiction contest named The Willa (with categories from children’s, YA, poetry, nonfiction, contemporary and historical fiction). The focus is on stories told in the west with female protagonists – like the ones Laura Ingalls Wilder and Willa Cather told. The group also creates a beautiful catalogue of member’s books that is distributed to more than a thousand bookstores each year.

The organization also hosts an annual conference in a different western city each year – the 2019 event was held in San Antonio, Texas. I love a good field trip – and this conference had three! We visited The Alamo, the Briscoe Western Art Museum and the World Heritage Missions outside the city. What a treat to see such sites with a group of well-informed and curious women!

I tend to write contemporary stories – with the exception of the story-within-a-story in Jungle Crossing about an ancient Mayan girl. No matter what I write I like to do a fair amount of research, probably because I have a nerdy love of learning about almost anything! I decided to attend a lot of sessions about research at the conference.

Jane Kirkpatrick and Pam Nowak talked about finding something strange in your research and fully exploring it – being careful to look for the shared knowings when coming across disparate accounts of a historical event. Also – work to think beyond your own interests to find something that will interest a variety of readers.

Elizabeth Boyle talked about the importance of hands-on research. As someone who loves to go places to learn about my characters and settings, I loved this advice. I also liked her idea about making a list of things that you need to learn in order to write the story.

General interest books are great if you know very little about a topic, but the more you know, the more you need to narrow your focus and find specific expertise. She highlighted the importance of books over online sources because footnotes can lead to all kinds of story potential. My next WIP came from a vague reference that I couldn’t stop thinking about. So I agree: books rule in research!

When you’re out and about researching, find the right person. Don’t let one person tell you no. Go to the next one. Join local organizations that may give you special access for a small membership fee. Visit during the less busy seasons, so the staff has time to spend answering your questions.

Another session with Jane Kirkpatrick, Kim Nowak, and Gail Jenner talked about how we need to find the common struggles that we share with women from the past – as modern women. I think this advice works for all characters – finding some connection with which we can identify will make it more likely that our readers will feel the same way.

The panel also emphasized that you have to start writing before you think you should. Otherwise you’ll never start. I love this advice, as someone who went and took a major’s worth of history classes before starting to write a novel that I never got around to writing. Yikes, right?

Think of it like a horse race, they said, just get the story down on paper!

Barbara Brannon talked about several ways to find information from various records to newspapers. She talked about how it can be helpful to transcribe things like letters before trying to understand the significance of the content. I admired the way she used her research to inform all types of writing from fiction to poetry to song. She got our her guitar and sang for us!

All the women I met were so welcoming and incredibly inspiring. So many women in this organization have had long writing careers and show no signs of slowing down. Very inspiring!

Next year’s conference is going to be in Colorado Springs, Colorado from October 15-18, 2020 – and the field trips look fantastic!

The Benefit of Small Conferences

I spent last weekend speaking and critiquing at the SCBWI Canada East conference in Niagara Falls–and it got me thinking about how much I love small conferences.

I’m standing just above the waterfall. 

We all slept, ate, workshopped, and socialized (the best part) at the Mount Caramel monastery and retreat center.

My roomie Fran Cannon Slayton and I could hear the waterfall from our room.

Before the conference, SCBWI volunteer extraordinaire, Jackie Garlick-Pynaert, took the faculty members on a tour of the falls. We got really close to all that thundering water.

Getting soaked with author Terri Farley.

But we also grew close to the attendees. By the end of the weekend, I’d had the chance to talk to nearly everyone. Small events allow the faculty to get to know you as a person–you’re not just a face in the crowd or 5 critique pages. You’re the person with school-aged kids (like me), or the one who tells hilarious bear stories.

Post-workshop Q&A time. I talked about character development.

Small workshops create a cozy, intimate atmosphere. Even a shy writer (and aren’t we all a little bit shy) won’t feel intimidated about asking questions. I also had the chance to talk to people about their work after my workshops. We chatted about stories, writing, and balancing writing with family over lunch, dinner, and during evening socializing. Only a small conference offers so many of those moments.

During our sight-seeing tour, I wondered if the American Falls, which would be a truly impressive waterfall in any other location, felt like the sidekick to a much more beautiful, impressive friend.

American Falls is downstream from the huge horseshoe-shaped Niagara Falls.

I used to feel overwhelmed by all the writers filling the ballroom at big conferences. I’d think, all of these people share my dream? Yikes! And I’ve never been good at squeezing myself into a group of professional schmoozers to chat with faculty. Small conferences allow me to be my quieter self. And I’ve made friends who’ve allowed me to connect with even more friends at bigger conferences. (I’m learning to schmooze.)

Veronica Rossi, Terri Farley, Hilary Breed Van Dusen, Josh Adams, me, and Fran Cannon Slayton.

So, if you’ve been thinking about attending a conference, but aren’t sure if you’re ready, try a small conference. I know Jackie already has a great lineup for Niagara Falls next year!

Much thanks to Jackie Garlick-Pynaert, Lizann Flatt, and Alma Fullerton for a wonderful weekend.