Writing Historical Fiction: 5 Questions for John Pipkin

When writing historical fiction, sometimes the best research happens when you don’t know what you’re looking for.” John Pipkin

John Pipkin is the Director of the Undergraduate Creative Writing Program at the University of Texas-Austin and also teaches in the low-residency MFA Program at Spalding University. Originally from Baltimore, he holds a Ph.D. in 19th-century British Literature and is the author of the critically-acclaimed novels: Woodsburner (Nan A Talese/Doubleday 2009) which won the New York Center for Fiction First Novel Prize, and The Blind Astronomer’s Daughter(Bloomsbury 2016). He has received fellowships to MacDowell, Yaddo, Dobie-Paisano, and the Gullkistan Center for Creativity in Iceland. He is also the recipient of the 2021 Harry Ransom Award for Excellence in Teaching at UT-Austin.

On Saturday, February 17th, John Pipkin is teaching a class for the WLT called “Writing Historical Fiction: It’s Not About the Past.” In this class, you’ll learn how to research and write compelling stories based on real people and events.

Here’s what John had to share with us:

Scribe: Tell us a little bit about yourself. What do you write? How did you come to writing?

John Pipkin: I am a novelist and I write primarily historical fiction, although lately I’ve been experimenting with more compressed forms, like flash fiction and sudden fiction.  I came to writing fiction after completing a Ph.D. in 19th-century British Literature and realizing that I had more things to say than were possible within the narrow compass of literary criticism. 

Scribe: In your own work, how do you approach overcoming the challenges that come with writing, be it writer’s block or craft or business-related challenges?

JP: I treat my writing like a job and follow the same kind of discipline that I would follow for any professional pursuit: show up on time, stick to a schedule (even if it isn’t every day), have a specific place for writing with specific tools like a dedicated notebook and pencil.  Recognize that writing is a process, and you won’t get it right in the first rough draft because that’s not the purpose of the first draft.  A good rough draft is only meant to help you find the story so you can begin the real writing in revisions.  Trust the process.  Don’t put yourself under too much pressure.  Take breaks when you need them, and then get back to work.  If you treat your writing like a hobby, that’s all it will ever be (which is also just fine).

 Scribe: Has there been a moment of epiphany in terms of your work, when you thought, “This is it! Now I know what I’m doing?” How long did that feeling last?

JP: I’ve experienced moments of revelation like that, but they are fleeting and usually specific to a moment or scene or even just a sentence.  I don’t know if it’s productive to ever allow yourself to believe that you “know what you are doing,” since that can close the door to the possibilities of discovering new and unexpected ways of doing it.

Scribe: What piece of advice do you find yourself giving to writers again and again?

JP: Figure out what your characters want to do, not what you want them to do.  

Scribe: What is one thing that people will take away from this class?

JP: When writing historical fiction, sometimes the best research happens when you don’t know what you’re looking for.

Thanks, John!

Click here to learn more about John Pipkin’s upcoming class.

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