This article, written by M.L. Buchman is from the January 2024 edition of Nink, the monthly newsletter of Novelists, Inc. (NINC). Nink, which is packed each month with informative articles for career novelists, is a benefit of NINC membership.
I have to open with a story.
There I am, working on the 14th novel in my Miranda Chase air-crash-investigation thriller series. I wanted the U.S.-based characters to be near the opening action in Sweden, but not in the fray yet.
Training? Vacation? Hmm… do they ever go to conferences?
Google led me to the International Society of Air Safety Investigators (ISASI). They meet globally once a year and for 2023 they were in Nashville. So, on three weeks’ notice, I became an associate member and paid for the corporate-level conference.
I spent four days with 340 air-safety investigators from 45 countries. Utterly amazing!
First, I’m going to tell you that you should absolutely attend professional-level conferences as a part of your research.
Second, I’m going to tell you that you should never go to one—at least not without serious preparation.
I spent a year researching plane crashes before I began writing the Miranda Chase series. I’d watched dozens of episodes of National Geographic Air Crash Investigation television series, far too many hours of YouTube The Flight Channel’s detailed crash simulations, and I’ve read over a hundred NTSB technical reports, often delving into the supporting materials. I was deeply conversant with the material before I attended the conference.
Do I wish I’d found out about and attended the conference earlier in the series? Absolutely. However, because of my deep research, I was able to connect with the relatively small and highly specialized forum. I had meaningful conversations with crash investigators from: the NTSB, the U.S. and UK militaries, and numerous countries, as well as with the air-safety teams at JetBlue, Gulfstream, and Delta ,among others.
“I research which speakers are attending whose books I’ve read. Then I aim to share a lunch table with each one,” Stevenson said.
Isaak likes to know what she’s going to attend before arriving. “With hundreds of sessions spread across multiple buildings, I pre-plan using the schedule to target my interests carefully.”
Ashley McConnell thought she was ready for the Death Investigation Conference, sponsored by the International Forensic Medicine Association, with a degree in anthropology. The level of detail, “videos of blood splatter, knife and gunshot wounds, fire, drowning, strangulation…hit closer to home than I was ready for.”
Jessica James got a little more hands-on in preparation for the A Girl & A Gun National Conference. She did range work with a sidearm and borrowed a military-grade rifle because there are practical as well as lecture sessions. For the International SOF (Special Operations Forces) Week, she pulled out her journalist’s background and mindset to glean all she could.
By the way, there are classes on everything out there as well. (Sitting on my desk at this moment is the 68-page course catalog for USC Veterbi, Aviation Safety & Security Program.) Like the professional conferences, these classes don’t come cheap. But, if you live near a school, try playing the writer’s card. They may let you audit a course(s) for research purposes.
There’s a magazine for everything, and I mean everything. And the conference(s) to match: tire manufacturing, industrial paint, ambulance design, ICE (the Imaging Conference & Expo)…
If you want to get your tech right—and by tech I mean everything from race cars to the differences between the knitting of Iceland, Norway, and the Faroe Islands—you need to step up your game and delve beyond Wikipedia. (Antarctica? Try New Zealand’s Antarctic magazine, the Australian Antarctic Magazine, or follow The Antarctic Sun blog.)
That’s a phrase in research that’s much more complex than its deceptively simple name. Visit this page.
Notice all of those charming little footnote markers? Those are the sources used to build the Wiki article. They very nicely provide (insist on, actually) source documentation. Drilling into those may lead you to the primary source. If not, chase that bibliography toward the primary source.
Consider a technical or professional society blog. That’s primary-source material. It’s not a Wiki summary, a Quora opinion blog, a biased Facebook post, nor a Reddit r/brawl. This is information directly from the metaphorical horse’s mouth.
Be very cautious about secondary-sourced material. I use Wikipedia as a general education and a starting point for reading wider by hitting the reference section, the manufacturer’s website, etc. (Into SF? Planetary Exploration Newsletter or Ars Technica’s weekly Rocket Report.)
Nancy J. Cohen, author of the Bad Hair Mysteries, attended the Premiere Orlando Beauty Show Conference. She chose to share a booth’s cost on the trade show floor with a book seller, allowing her the freedom to explore and learn but also have an anchor point for herself during the event (and sell some books).
Effects on writing
Because the ISASI conference came years into my series, it was largely a confirmation of my prior research. In attending, I also discovered that my fictional scenarios are not as farfetched as I’d supposed. And I received an amazing education in crash investigators’ personalities, voices, and methodologies—especially how much they care about finding the most detailed answers to improve air safety, like it’s built into their very psyche.
At the Congress on Medieval Studies, Stevenson discovered that typical fantasy and science fiction plots pale in comparison to actual history and that her stories could go far more over the top, making them livelier and fresher. A discussion of the Byzantian mechanical “Solomon’s Throne” directly inspired Isaak’s The Assassin’s Throne.
Cohen and James both pointed to “richer and deeper” settings and conference stories that also directly inspired new titles. “You don’t know what you don’t know,” James comments. “Attending a conference WAY outside what you’re accustomed to can teach you a lot.”
McConnell once attended a horse ownership course taught by a veterinarian. “It altered how I write about horses in all my books. Care, aging, hooves, all of it.”
Back to ISASI. They were very cautious about “the novelist” suddenly in their midst. By the end of it, I was a welcome addition to any conversation cluster.
Why? Here are my main takeaways:
- I absolutely respected that this was their conference and that I was merely an observer.
- I made it clear at every opportunity that I would not be quoting them directly (or using any exact details from any crashes).
- But mostly I was accepted because I’ve spent four years living and breathing this world through my characters and stories. I educated myself before I went to the conference. I wasn’t curious about them and what they did; I was passionate about understanding and portraying their world.
At one point a long-term NTSB investigator looked at me and said, “I think you may have read more NTSB reports than anyone in this room.” That was high praise indeed. Forty years as a crash investigator and yet I impressed him with my efforts to get it right.
If you aren’t ready to participate at that level, I wouldn’t go to any smaller professional conference out of simple respect.
Isaak went in knowing exactly what she wanted to get from the conference and which knowledge she wished to target. “And be prepared to take lots of notes!”
“Set your goals ahead of time and prepare,” is Cohen’s formula.
James reminds people that, “You’re there to learn about them, not from them like a writer’s conference.”
Stevenson avoids anything familiar. “Do not go to any sessions about books.”
“It’s not your conference,” McConnell cautions. “Don’t be that writer usurping the sessions.” She recounts one writer who had to be dragged aside and asked to tone it down or leave; the conference was for the pros attending.
McConnell also reminds us, “Don’t skip the trade show floor. The knowledge to be had there is amazing.”
Your next conference?
Here were a few suggestions folks made for themselves:
- Attend the Rare Book School at UV in Charlottesville, Va.
- Sail in the Clipper Round the World ocean sailing race (if time, money, and age isn’t an object)
- Women in Aviation International
- Chef to Chef Conference
- A mycology convention (about mushrooms and fungi and their friends)
- A wealth management conference (for the stinking rich who want to get richer)
- A conference about cephalopods (squids, octopi, cuttlefish, etc)
- Black Hat cybersecurity conference
- A folklore conference (been to two and they were amazing)
- The Mongolia Society
- You get the idea…
First, go through and do your background research, ask for some one-on-one interviews, read blogs and magazines, and other such techniques.
But once you’ve done all of that background? OMG! It was so much fun and so educational to sit and geek out with the people who actually live in the world of your fiction.
Go forth! Find your tribe. You’ll learn a freaking ton that will deeply inform your future writing.
M. L. “Matt” Buchman, has written over 75 thriller and romance novels as well as 100+ short stories. He’s also the founder/editor of Thrill Ride – the Magazine. PW declares of his Miranda Chase action-adventure thrillers that: “Tom Clancy fans open to a strong female lead will clamor for more.”