How? The short story is that I arrived at the conference in May, convinced I was supposed to supplement my poetry with writing Bible Studies and that sort of thing (not fiction) and a week later I was making reservations for the Advanced Writers Conference, aka the Autumn in the Mountains Novelists Retreat.
At the time I made my reservations, I had no novel in progress. I'm sure you realize, a novel in progress constitutes the minimum requirement for attending a novelists retreat.
What I did have were some notes, hasty ideas on plots and characters, scribbled down in Yvonne Lehman's "Novels and Novellas" -- a class I hadn't intended to take but ended up in anyway (God does things like that) -- and the kind encouragement of several professional writers, among them Ann Tatlock.
Oh, and multiple nudges or outright confirmations that the Lord wanted me to give this a shot.
On my way home I remembered a park that used to be a resort spot in the early 1900s. A setting suddenly gelled. Work on a novel (really still a novella at the current word count) began.
Internet research is a wonderful tool, but there are only so many things you can learn on the Internet. If your main character will insist, as mine did, on taking the Appalachian Trail as a shortcut to walk from the reality-based road she fictionally lives on, to the reality-based park the story revolves around.... Well, then, you need to do some reality-based hiking so you know what that really looks like, because the Internet doesn't say.
The Internet cannot tell you that how the dark center of the dead tree across the rocky trail will make you lose count of the tree rings somewhere after 91. Nor will the web offer the insight that this tree, over one hundred years old is sliced narrowly, just wide enough for hikers and chipmunks to pass single file through the wooden gap.
The Internet doesn't explain the smooth worn feel of rubbed bark, where that hands of every passing hiker have grabbed the young sapling for support as they climbed or descended along the ravine. The Internet doesn't even tell you that the bridge across the stream is wooden, and the Internet certainly didn't tease me about the "buns of steel workout" involved in climbing up the other side of the ravine with my friend.
Really all the Internet told me was that it would be about a mile, and there would be a view when we got to the park. Which is true; but to know the story of that journey, to write that story, sometimes you have to walk that mile. Sometimes you have to do the work to arrive at that point for yourself.