Graduate Research: Researching for Creative Writing

by Laura Shepperson-Smith on 31 July 2014

Although I have undergraduate degrees in Law as well as English and Classical Studies (studied at the University of Auckland) and I have practised law for over ten years now, I have always loved creative writing.  My short story, ‘Smile and Wave’ was published online at Every Day Fiction, and I maintain my own blog.  When I saw that the University of Cambridge was offering a part-time Masters degree in Creative Writing, I decided to apply.  I was fortunate to be one of 18 students accepted on the inaugural course, which is studied part-time at beautiful Madingley Hall, just outside of Cambridge.  We have four concentrated weeks of class time, or residencies, over the first year, which means that students can join us from all over the world, and I can continue to work full-time in a London law firm while studying.

When I started my Creative Writing degree I knew I would have to write a 15,000 word dissertation in the second year, which I assumed would be a section of a novel.  However, in our first residency the biographer Michael Holroyd came to speak to us about what he calls “recreative fiction”, the art of biography.  The thought of travelling the world as Michael does, researching lives of interesting people, sounded fascinating.

In my second residency I was working on a short story and comparing it to the work of Katherine Mansfield, the famous New Zealand expatriate writer.  As I lived in New Zealand for ten years I have always read and enjoyed Mansfield’s work, but while reading about her creative process I realised that every writer had a different opinion about her life, and particularly about her relationship with the Modernist writer Virginia Woolf.  Were they best friends, or professional rivals?  Intrigued, I decided to make this volatile relationship the subject of my dissertation.

Researching for creative non-fiction is similar to the research I did in my earlier English degree, but it is not identical.  Biographies are aimed at the popular market, who may be very well-read but would not be considered academics or experts in the field.  While facts still need to be checked, the writing needs to be entertaining and engaging.  The writer needs to remember that she is telling her readers a story, and there is a place for imagination.  Accordingly, while I have begun reading the journals and letters of Woolf and Mansfield, I am also doing what the biographer Richard Holmes called “footstepping” - following in the footsteps of the subject to recreate their lives.  Earlier this year I visited Virginia Woolf’s home, Monk House, at Rodmell, and in October I will visit Katherine Mansfield’s childhood home in Wellington, New Zealand.  While I may not get much in the way of new facts from these visits, I do find that visualising the homes of these writers allows me to better picture their lives, which in turn, helps me to describe their lives and surroundings in prose.

While we only need to write 15,000 words for our dissertation, my intention is to use the next year to complete a book-length biography of the relationship between Woolf and Mansfield.  It has been inspiring to have the encouragement of my fellow students, particularly the “Lucy Cavendish Four”, and I even had a poem published in the Cavendish Chronicle.  A great advantage of studying at Cambridge is access to the Cambridge library system, most of which is online, and I want to make full use of this resource while I have it.   And after that, with a lot of hard work and even more luck, perhaps Katherine and Virginia may be coming to a bookshop near you!