Back to All Events

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

  • Iowa Writers' House 332 East Davenport Street Iowa City, IA, 52245 United States (map)

When: November 2nd, 6:00pm-7:30pm

Saturday, November 3rd, 9:30am-3:30pm (Lunch break at noon)

Sunday, November 4th, 9:30am-3:30pm (Lunch break at noon)

Where:  Iowa Writers' House, 332 East Davenport St

Cost: $265


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.”


Mary Helen Stefaniak headshot 2.jpg

Mary Helen Stefaniak is the author of Self Storage and Other Stories, winner of the Wisconsin Library Association’s 1998 Banta Award, and two novels: The Turk and My Mother, which has been translated into seven languages, and The Cailiffs of Baghdad, Georgia, an Indie Next Great Read and winner of the 2011 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for Fiction.  Her fiction has appeared in many periodicals and anthologies, including New Stories from the South, and her short essays can be found online at She recently completed her third novel, World of Pondside. A graduate of the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop and professor emerita of creative writing at Creighton University, she teaches fiction writing in the M.F.A program at Pacific University in Oregon and at Renmin University in Beijing. She lives in Iowa City and Omaha.

Visit and for more about her and her work.


I learned early on that, for me, writing is like working out. To make progress, to reach my full potential, to do the best work I can do, I have to write regularly. A certain amount of non-negotiable writing time has to be built into my schedule each semester. This not only makes progress possible, it also guarantees that I will have those beautiful windows into the freedom of words and imagination on a regular basis. It removes the happiness-destroying stress of trying to “fit writing in” when everything else I need to do is crowding in on me. Now, “regularly” does not necessarily mean “daily.” When I first came to Iowa City to attend the Writers’ Workshop, I had three small children and a husband with a full-time job and a budget too small to pay for day care. My regular writing time in those days was weekends only: Saturday and Sunday morning, a total of maybe eight hours a week. In that time, I managed to produce the two manuscripts per semester required by the fiction workshop, keeping up with fellow students who could spend as much time as they wanted in the coffee shops and bookstore. Every story I wrote was a little better than the previous one, since even so brief a writing schedule put me at the desk (nowadays, at the kitchen table) with time to revise and experiment and reconsider.  If you ask me, the single most important thing you can do for yourself as a writer is to make a schedule and stick to it, even when you don’t think you have anything to write—because, of course, you always do. Be realistic when you make your schedule. Be sure it’s one that you can stick to (or, if you prefer, one to which you can stick).  Better to write once a week, every week, without fail, than to schedule seven sessions a week and start missing one here and there until the whole schedule collapses.

Why delay? Start today! When we meet for the weekend, we can talk about the effect of a regular schedule on your writing life. Did it help? Am I crazy? The only way to find out is to give it a try.


Everyone has a story to tell. If you are financially unable to attend this workshop, scholarships are available through our generous partners and donors. Apply here:


Helping another person attend a workshop is helping them achieve their dreams. Thank you for making our world a better place.


All course information is sent to participants upon registering including confirmation of workshop times, location, and materials.