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The Writing Life The Iowa Summer Writing Festival

July 4, 2014
By Michael Tidemann - Staff Writer , Estherville News

This is a monthly column on the writing process. Topics will range from books and authors to writing conferences and workshops to the writing process itself.

The weekend of June 14-15, I was able to attend my second Iowa Summer Writing Festival in Iowa City. I attended a dialogue workshop with Jim Heynen, originally from Sioux County, the previous summer.

The workshop a couple weeks ago was taught by Hilary Plum, author of They Dragged Them Through the Streets, a novel of how a group of people disenchanted with the war in Iraq take it upon themselves to bomb government installations in protest. Ironically, one of the group's members is killed by an accidental bomb blast, compounding the irony of why the group was formed.

This workshop included an eclectic mix of people from around the country, including Delaware, Colorado, Illinois and from throughout Iowa. The workshop topic was Writing Traumatic Events, quite fitting for Plum's novel. We watched brief video clips from such films as Schindler's List and "Shoot", a grainy 1970s film noire piece in which the film's director is shot with a .22 rifle to gauge audience reaction. (The results were certainly not worth the director's stupidity.)

I came away from the workshop with a number of concepts:

n Don't have a preconceived notion of your work or its quality. The very word "workshop" means people will pore over it, so it's probably best to bring in something that you don't consider perfect. For that reason, bring a work in progress or the start of a larger work.

n Sometimes less is better than more. This actually goes against the grain of what Heynen said at last year's workshop - that if in doubt as to whether you're explaining something well enough, overexplaining is better than underexplaining. In a lot of cases, it's probably better to hint at something and let the reader fill the details in within his or her own mind. After all, vividness happens more in the reader's mind than on the written page.

n Go light on the dialogue. Again, this really flies in the face of what Heynen urged last year - that educational level and income can be shown through dialogue. And yet there's a certain point in which a person starts to overdo it. Just don't go past that point.

Researching the novel

For several months now, I've been researching the Civil War for a longer work. So far, I've recently read about nine Civil War histories which quite frankly is not the tip of the tip of the iceberg. There are countless experts - professional and nonprofessional alike - who have spent a lifetime researching this traumatic event that tore the country in two.

Probably a good reason to research something as vast as the Civil War for a fictional endeavor is to keep from making egregious mistakes. Placing a given battle within the correct geography and having the correct divisions fighting it is essential.

Beyond that, the main purpose of historical research, for myself at least, is to lend a realistic air to a fictional work.

Toward that end, I did try to visit Grant's home in Galena, Ill. on my recent trip - but found it's closed Mondays and Tuesdays.

So I'd suggest that if you're going to visit any battlefields or other historic sites for writing research or just for a vacation that you check ahead for available days and times they're open.

Michael Tidemann's author page is available at: You can also read his work in the Boston-based online literary magazine,



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