History, Imagination, and Truth: Bringing Real Life into the World of Your Stories

Mary Helen Stefaniak headshot 2.jpg
Mary Helen Stefaniak headshot 2.jpg
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History, Imagination, and Truth: Bringing Real Life into the World of Your Stories


First, a disclaimer: This is not a course in how to avoid getting sued by friends, family members, or former bosses who recognize themselves in your book. I have no legal advice to offer—only common sense approaches to research, a few not-so-cautionary tales about the rewards and dangers of creating characters and events that have real-life counterparts, and some writing techniques aimed at freeing you to use both history and imagination in order to get at the truth in your work. 

Whether it’s Erik Larson taking us to the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago in “The Devil in the White City,” or E. L. Doctorow somehow getting us inside the mind of General Sherman as he marches through Georgia to the sea in his novel “The March,” or Barbara Kingsolver bringing a version of her own missionary father to fictional life in “The Poisonwood Bible,” a healthy balance of imagination and history—whether of your family or of the world—seems to be required. Give us too much history—all those fascinating facts you discovered while researching your family tree—and the life of your story may end up crushed under the weight of it all.  Use too much imagination—wouldn’t it be great if your mother really had met Elvis in Germany? and why not a scene on Jupiter?—without due respect for the real-world details, and your story may fail to convince the reader.  We need to do our research, and then we need to give ourselves permission to imagine the world we’ve been studying and the characters we want to bring to life in our stories. 

In this course, we will start by looking carefully at some selections by writers who succeed at bringing historical persons, places, and real-life situations to new life in their fictional or nonfictional worlds. Then we’ll write exercises aimed at freeing ourselves to imagine what it must have been like to be Great-Aunt Gladys, for example, growing up in rural Georgia in 1938. We’ll write ourselves into our characters as they encounter specific situations within the world we have re-created for them.

In the end, we hope to fulfill fiction writer Donald Barthelme’s ultimate requirement for any story that makes use of real-life events or characters, namely: “It does not contradict what is known.”

When: Friday, November 2nd,  6:00pm-7:30pm

Saturday, November 3rd, 9:30am-3:30pm

Sunday, November 4th, 9:30am-3:30pm

Where: Iowa Writers' House

Price: $265

Please review our cancellation policy.

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Great instructors are worth traveling for. If you're coming from outside Iowa City (or just want a special place to get away), consider staying at the Iowa Writers' House.