Friday 17 July 2020

Researching and Writing a Historical Dissertation

By Thilsana Gias

My MA Creative Writing dissertation consisted of the first few chapters of a Young Adult novel set around 1990, during the Sri Lankan Civil War. My protagonist is a teenager who becomes displaced from her hometown (Jaffna).

Naturally, one of the greatest challenges about managing this project was trying to obtain the correct kinds of historical information to progress the writing process. At first I was worried about there not being enough factual information about the war itself to write something that was accurate; but I soon realised that actually names and dates were not really what I should have been focussing on. The facts that I needed were things like brands of drinks that were sold, the names of radio stations operating at the time, types of cultural food, popular hairstyles, the materials used to make garments .... Including this sort of information in the description would make the story more vivid and true to its era.

The best way to obtain these sorts of details is to talk to someone from that place/era or use materials and resources from the era (e.g. letters written into newspapers, diary extracts, accounts from explorers and journalists, etc.). If you can go to the place you are writing about or visit a museum, that might help you construct your descriptions a little better as the labels of artefacts often include things like material names. I also found that analysing photographs of Sri Lanka helped me build an effective picture of the place in my head. But one thing I bore in mind is that sometimes you can easily get misled by your own sources. Here are some examples I came across of this kind of 'betrayal' by my own sources:

  • Using current maps to work out travel routes was difficult because the Tsunami and the war itself changed road layouts a lot (because of army checkpoints, etc.)
  • When I visited Sri Lanka, I wrote down some village names from the main war-torn areas to use in my writing. I later found out that these places didn't exist in 1990 because they were refugee camps that got converted into villages or they used to be areas of jungle. 
  • Environmental destruction changed the perception of things as well. Certain plants and creatures would not have been seen in 1990 because the forest was denser. Some species in present-day Sri Lanka also didn't arrive until a few years after my story was set so I couldn't include them.
  • Some products from that era were not actually available during war time because of food shortages/blockades, etc.

The easiest way to avoid encountering these problems, I suppose, is just to invent your own fictitious food brands, plants, villages, etc., or to rely on common objects and things that definitely exist (like elephants!). Sometimes being too specific about certain elements will lead you into inaccuracy. 

Also, your audience might not be familiar with some of the things you are referring to, so providing a glossary of terms is one way of helping them understand the context better. If you're struggling to establish what might need to go in the glossary, ask someone to read through your draft and find words they don't wholly understand.

Writing historical fiction might seem like a daunting task but so long as you're organised and aware of the most obvious pitfalls and misconceptions about the era you're writing about, you should be fine. Actually, the experience of researching for a dissertation based on true events was useful because it gave me a proper insight into what things really bring a story to life. It's very easy to get caught up in the high-octane moments of history and spend ages working out how to depict a Hollywood-style chase scene or an air-raid attack, but sometimes the moments that speak the most are the details that are talked about the least ....

The lingering scent of smoke from a steadily diminishing candle in a power cut. 

The silence of a once-busy street. 

A closed door ....

Sometimes, these are all the specific details you need to make your writing memorable.

About the author
Thilsana Gias is an MA Creative Writing graduate from the University of Leicester. She will start a PGCE in September to teach English in Secondary Schools. She hopes to extend her dissertation into a longer body of work for publication, and is currently wondering when she last watered her houseplants.

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