Reflections on Yvonne Daley’s Workshop “Using Research in Creative Writing”

by Kerstin Lange

Yvonne Daley, journalism professor and author
Yvonne Daley, journalism professor and author

I don’t know what I love more—research or writing (and when I say “love,” I mean the whole spectrum of joy, inspiration, hard work, and pain). It doesn’t matter, of course. What I love about both endeavors is that there is both an art and a craft to them, or, you could say, an inspiration element and a nuts-and-bolts element.

Almost invariably when I open a book, I feel compelled to look at the acknowledgements page. Seeing all the names and specialties of the people the author has been in touch with conjures up an image of synapses connecting not just within one brain but across many—sort of an ecosystem of interconnected minds. Perhaps this is my favorite thing about the BWW, too: That it offers a balance between the solitary and the social aspects of writing and helps us connect with other writers.

So it took me about five seconds to sign up for Yvonne Daley’s workshop on “Using Research in Creative Writing” when it was posted.

An intimate workshop that covered a lot of ground

We were a delightfully small group of seven participants, which allowed for an engaging mix of conversation and presentation. I still don’t know how we covered as much ground as we did. Yvonne’s preparation of examples and lists of advice no doubt had much to do with that—as did her wealth of experience, as a journalist for the Rutland Herald, Boston Globe, and People magazine; a Knight Journalism Fellow; a journalism professor at San Francisco State University; the author of four books, and the director of the Green Mountain Writers Conference (for more than this very brief summary, see her website and this recent story in Vermont Woman).

Perhaps this is my favorite thing about the BWW, too:  That it offers a balance between the solitary and the social aspects of writing and helps us connect with other writers.

What made her work immediately credible and meaningful for me, however, was what she shared about her process and philosophy. For example, when she pointed to the importance of “the research we don’t call research: observation,” and when she talked about restorative journalism—“journalism that talks not just about the problem, but the solution.”

“Solution,” as I understood her, not in the sense of easy answers but as an intentional choice to find stories of people who see even catastrophic events not as the end of the road, but The Bend in the Road (the title of one of Yvonne’s books). Another example is her book A Mighty Storm about the stories of people affected by Tropical Storm Irene (you can hear Peter interview Yvonne about it here!).

Tips for bringing reality to life on the page

Among the “nuts and bolts” advice Yvonne shared:

  • Pay attention to the scene. Scenes are the building block of any writing, fiction or nonfiction, employing the elements of description, environment, character/s, dialogue, action, and point of view. Yvonne used excerpts from Donna Tartt’s book Goldfinch to show a masterful application of these elements (If you have the book, read pages 61-93, identify the various scenes, and contemplate them with the above list in mind).
  • Look at the verbs. If you’re tempted to use an adverb, use a thesaurus  instead to see if you can find stronger or more accurate verbs.

And for a big-picture perspective:

  • Every book should ask a question. Ask yourself what is the one thing you want to answer and structure your book around this point.
  • Find the right person to tell the story, or at least to begin the story. Any story is made stronger, and more intimate, when told through the eyes of a compelling character.
  • Have confidence in your ability to tell the story. Don’t get too bogged down in other people’s research. You have a unique point of view and it’s your version of the story you want to tell.

Tips for organizing your research

Another very useful topic in the workshop was the challenge of the mess of research—how to keep track of notes, interviews, ideas?

Regarding the latter, Yvonne recommends defining a process like the one she successfully employs:

  1. Keep your interview notes organized as you go. Yvonne uses reporters’ notebooks and folds the pages from each interviewee up and over, writing the interviewee’s name on the outside of the folded pages. For direct quotes, she uses a different color pen.
  2. Write down the 5 points you want to cover in your story.
  3. Copy your notes and put them in piles matching these 5 points. Then arrange and re-arrange them until you feel the story come alive.
  4. Write your story straight through first. Then go back to your notes to double check the quotes and facts and gather new research as needed.

For still more advice and inspiration, I recommend Yvonne’s book “Vermont Writers: As State of Mind,” which may well be on most BWW members’ bookshelves already.  In it, Yvonne portrays the paths and work of writers including Howard Frank Mosher, Grace Paley, Chris Bohjalian, and Julia Alvarez, grouped into sections headed “Finding One’s Material,” “Finding Community and Nature,” and “Finding Sanctuary”.