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The Writer as Detective

Investigate & Solve Your Story

The Writer as Detective

Historians, biographers, and other nonfiction writers are only as good as their material.

From investigative journalism to historical research, and whether they’re pursuing a contemporary subject or looking for inside dope on someone who died 100 years ago, successful writers know how to dig deep for the essential and telling facts. The best nonfiction writers know how to find hidden trails to follow.

During this workshop you will:

  • DISCOVER how to access public records and other primary documents that can unlock a great story;
  • LEARN how to file a Freedom of Information Act request with the federal government and how to obtain an individual's FBI file;
  • DECIPHER extraordinarily complex records;
  • RECEIVE guidance in synthesizing vast amounts of data into a compelling narrative or well-drawn portrait; and
  • EXAMINE step-by-step, the creation of a published biography and see how it was assembled over the course of three years of research and writing.

The workshop is open to writers of all levels. Read on for the schedule overview.

Saturday, August 25, 2018
10:00 am – 4:30 pm

Advance registration strongly recommended.
The workshop is limited to 16 students.

$79 if registered by 8/13/2018
$105 if registered after 8/13/2018



Introductions: What, exactly, are public records? You’ll learn what’s legally available for use and how to understand the state and federal laws that govern the release of information.

Part One: Where do you go for an arrest report? A lawsuit? A company’s financial filings? An inspector general’s report? You’ll learn the specific steps required to track down and secure the information you need.

Part Two:  Once you’ve managed to get your hands on documents, you need to know how to understand them. You’ll learn to decipher the arcane and obscure. We’ll look at bankruptcy records, police reports, and FBI files, and decode their strange language and idiosyncrasies. You’ll see where the great story is buried, and learn how to dig it out.

Part Three: Getting the information is only part of the battle. Now you have to write your compelling story or your great book. We’ll go step-by-step through the creation of a published biography and see how it was assembled over the course of three years of research and writing.

Closing: What are your ideas for a story or a book? What information are you looking for? We’ll have a wrap-up session devoted to your specific questions about what you’re looking for, how to find it, and how to use it.



Location // 5119 Coral Street, Pittsburgh, PA 15224

The lower level of our workshop and gallery space is wheelchair accessible. Free on-street parking is available.

Doors open at 9 am, event begins at 10 am. Breakfast and coffee will be provided. The workshop schedule includes a mid-day break for lunch at local restaurants. A kitchenette, with refrigerator and microwave, is available onsite for packed lunches or snacks.

Doug Swanson is a veteran investigative reporter and editor. He has written five novels and is currently at work on his second nonfiction book, which will be published by Viking in 2020. He has been a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in feature writing, and was a John S. Knight Fellow in journalism at Stanford University. He teaches writing at the University of Pittsburgh.

Questions? Please call us at 412-404-2975 or email our events manager, Hannah Waltz at waltz@creativenonfiction.org.