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.

Monday 13 July 2020

G. S. Fraser Poetry Prize Winners 2020

The G. S. Fraser Prize is an annual poetry competition for students at the University of Leicester. The winner of this year's prize is Jane Simmons, for her poem "Flood." Colin Gardiner is runner-up, and receives an honourable mention for his poem "Midnight Trees." You can read about the winners, and the winning poems below.

Jane Simmons is a former teacher/lecturer who has recently completed an MA in Creative Writing at the University of Lincoln. She is now a PhD student at the University of Leicester, where her research project is The Poetics and Politics of Motherhood, a practice-led exploration of motherhood through an environmental and political lens, engaging with the theme creatively and as it is treated in contemporary women’s poetry. As a reviewer for The Blue Nib literary magazine, Jane has built a significant publication history of writing about contemporary women’s poetry. A small selection of her own poems appeared in the March 2019 edition of the magazine. Her collection From Darkness into Light – poems inspired by the Book of Kells – was published in 2018. Further poems will appear in two anthologies to be published by Pimento Press, also in 2019: The View from the Steep, and Seasonal Poems from Pimento Poets. Jane regularly reads/performs her work in the Lincoln area. 


When you left, the river was already swollen  – 
with still more rain yet to come.
I can hear it now – percussive, insistent, 
demanding I let it in.

On the radio last night, a spokesman intoned
what to do for the best if it came to the worst – 
and I laughed then, and thought of you,
or you as you used to be. 

Remember when the old women said be careful 
what you wish for, but we didn’t listen? 
Well, the trees bow low now, weighted down
with all our sodden prayer-rags.

Today, I woke to find the road missing,
hawthorns wading down the lane - searching  
for lost hedges. There was strange beauty 
in the reflections of rain clouds.

I am a stranger in this watery land - 
cannot read its language. I am adrift, 
lost – but water will find its way. Like you, 
it has a perfect memory -

no wonder the river is full of itself.
Sofas and armchairs lounge in front gardens -
indoors, the water table rises, and fish
play scales on your piano. 

I have stacked your books in the bath, safely,
raised some of the furniture on bricks
you said would come in useful some day -
though you didn’t take them with you.

And still the sky unburdens its grief. 
If I press my ear to the window, 
I can hear accusations – you know 
who you are, you know what you did. 

Colin Gardiner lives in Coventry. He writes short stories and poems and is published by The Ekphrastic Review and the Creative Writing at Leicester blog. He is currently studying a Master's in Creative Writing at Leicester University.

Midnight Trees

There is a shortcut through the park, where
The trees are hanging in a frail parliament.

They lean in for a late-night session.
Their fragile leaves are trembling

At the prospect of autumn alopecia.
Try to imagine the speed of tree-thoughts

Travelling through accumulated rings.
Seeking to reach a form of expression.

Is their understanding articulated only
By green or gradients of red and brown?

Who can tell in the amnesia of moonlight?
A shopping bag is snagged by brittle hands

And held up, beseechingly, to the stars
That glaze the September sky.

Wednesday 8 July 2020

Doing a Part-Time MA in Creative Writing

By Karen Rust

I began my Creative Writing MA at the University of Leicester in October 2018, having applied three months earlier. I knew I’d have to be part time as having two school-age kids at home, a home to run and a husband with a busy job, I couldn’t commit to full-time hours. Turns out that others in the same position felt they could manage full time, and I watched them do it successfully. The decision is very personal and depends on your individual circumstances.

I was lucky enough (?!) to have earned nothing for a good few years whilst off with the kids, so there was no pressure for me to get back on the gravy train; in fact I was pretty set on not boarding the gravy train I’d travelled on pre-kids. Office life? Urrgrh.

For me, studying part-time has been perfect, I’d recommend it wholeheartedly. Here’s why:

Time to adjust 
Coming back to study 25 years after I finished my degree, it took a while to get back into the flow of University basics – the library, IT, Blackboard, where to get the best coffee and cake. You know, the important stuff. As a part-timer, I had the grace of time to ease back into things without the pressure of having two assignments due in mid-January.

A crucial part of the MA. The more you read, the better you’ll do. Fiction, poetry, non-fiction, craft books and more craft books. Over two years you have a lot more time to read than one, especially when the one year course is so intense. You can continue to read voraciously post-MA, but reading during allows interaction with peers and tutors and these discussions feed into your learning and direction. 

Having a longer time period to get to know tutors and peers allows the relationships to develop further. Also, you meet more people - I’ve met the cohort of full-timers from both my first and second years, plus part-timers who started with me and those who started in my second year. There have also been tutors on project leave whose brains I wouldn’t have been able to pick if I’d been here for just one year.

The Creative Process 
It’s different for everyone, but I like to mull on things. Some things click instantly, but other things take time to come together. At the end of year one of the part-time course, you have a big old gap whilst the full-timers are working on their dissertations, five months in fact from May-September, which provides an opportunity to write, read and engage with your tutor (until term ends in June). Then in year two, you work on the more creative, workshop-based modules and the reading and prep from year one comes into its own. If I’d been full time, I think I’d have ended the year feeling punch drunk and needing time to assimilate all I’d learned.

Given my desire to move writing from a hobby to a career, I’ve had time to explore this during the MA process. I used the kudos of being an MA student when speaking to various organisations within the arts sector. I also submitted short pieces of work and gained publications that added to my writing biography.  As I work on my dissertation now, I’m a Lead Writer for Writing East Midlands. I’ve delivered monthly local writing workshops for disadvantaged children and am about to start a new online workshop series for them across Northamptonshire. A personal biography company approached me via my Linkedin profile, and it was the MA reference that interested them. I now write personal biographies for clients, which is great for writing discipline and working to a brief, plus it pays well. I’ve also worked with a local arts organisation to deliver a spoken-word video for the Grow Arts Festival in February and am talking to them about future community-based projects. I don’t think I’d have had the time for this during the full-time course and would have had to wait until I’d finished to start this journey. My dream is still to have a book published, but in reality, most writers don’t make enough to live on from that route alone, so diversification is key. 

I don’t want to put you off the full-time route if that’s what you have in mind. My ‘other-mum’ peer from last year is also delivering online workshops professionally and has an impressive publication and prize-winning writing biography. For me, having access to my tutors and peers, not just online but in person (until recently!) has buffered my transition from passionate hobbyist to thinking writing could be more. I’m ending my MA feeling like a writer and with a writing CV/biography a million miles away from the blank sheet I started with.
Whatever fits in with your life, go for it, but if you can spare two years, I’d recommend the part-time course as offering the perfect balance of learning and time to develop it.
Happy Writing!

About the author
Karen Rust is working on a young adult cli-fi thriller for her MA dissertation. You can find her work at Mooky Chick, Ink Pantry, Ellipsiszine & Yours Magazine. Check out her blog at: