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Thursday, 21 September 2017

How Does a Writer Undertake the Research Process?

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The journey of every novel begins somewhere. For me, it was a photograph on the wall of a Singapore museum where I was a guide. Two young Chinese people - one a man, the other a woman - were getting married in Singapore dressed in the elaborate costumes of China’s Qing Dynasty which had disappeared three decades before.

Through my training programme with the Friends of the Museums of Singapore, I had learned that for a century, a young Chinese coolie fresh off the boat could be selected (if he was intelligent and could speak a southern Chinese dialect, read and write Chinese script) to marry the daughter of a rich local merchant who had lost all those attributes over the centuries of foreign life and now spoke a local patois called Baba Malay and needed fresh blood to invigorate his family and reconnect to a China long forgotten by their Peranakan (locally-born) Chinese families spread throughout Southeast Asia.

Who could not be intrigued? She and he, the two in the photograph, looked entirely the same, yet for decades these two people would have been completely different. He would not have been able to speak to her, nor she to him. He would not have understood anything of her culture, nor she his. And why would a young, clever man not have jumped at such a marriage? For him, instant status and wealth, a docile wife and a new prosperous life. All too tempting, a way out of poverty and misery in this hot and alien British land.

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Image: Dawn Farnham / Faye Rogers PR
All right, I was hooked. So where to go from there? I needed conflict for the Chinese hero. I needed an impossible love affair which would supply tension for the Chinese man and his true love, a Scottish woman, fresh off the boat who meet long before these arrangements are made; who meet the night they both arrive, from the distant ends of the earth on an English schooner and a Chinese junk.

My research then began in earnest. I spent hours in the National Library of Singapore, researching the coolie trade, prostitution, trade practices in early Singapore, triads, opium farms, Peranakan customs and culture. I read all the first-hand historical accounts of the colonial government of the time. I found out what colonial women wore in the 1830s and how they did their hair.

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Image: Dawn Farnham / Faye Rogers PR
In the National Archive of Singapore, I found the first map of the town drawn up in 1824 by George Coleman, the colony’s architect. Singapore’s streets in the Civic District haven’t changed at all and I could walk that map today. Through old paintings of the town, I discovered George had a Dutch/Armenian mistress and he had built her a beautiful house.

There is a lot of reading, but most of it gets left out of course Only the fascinating details which give colour to the story remain in the final edit, but most historical novelists do masses of this kind of research. It is actually part of the great pleasure of writing historical novels.

Dawn Farnham is the author of The Straits Quartet as well as numerous short stories, plays and children’s books. A former long-term resident of Singapore, Dawn now calls Perth, Australia, her home. Learn more about Dawn on her website. The Red Thread is available to buy now. 

Did you know how much research goes into writing historical fiction? Let me know in the comments below!

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