Research and Inspiration – Shanghai Steam

Would that it were possible for a novel or story to pop into our heads fully formed! Then again, the ideas born in such a manner might split open our skulls like Athena rising with a shout from the powerful noggin of her father, Zeus. That might not be much fun… or enjoyable.

So, as mere mortals, we are left having to draw inspiration from the ether of our minds and hope that we can breathe enough life into our stories using creativity and research.

Even when you create your own world as a setting for a story, parts of that setting are influenced by things you’ve seen or read… something stored away inside your head or even your heart.

Some of the authors who are a part of the Shanghai Steam Anthology shared ideas on their research and inspiration.

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What kind of research did you do before you began to write your story?

Derwin Mak: I researched the Chinese military of the late 1890’s, after Japan defeated China in the First Sino-Japanese War. I researched the Boxer Rebellion, which was the low point of the Qing Dynasty. I also researched European airships and balloons of the period. The sole European character, Albert Tissandier, was a real person.

Tim Reynolds: I researched t’ai chi, the layout of the monastery (it’s a real place), and I read up on
wuxia to understand some the terminology.

Emily Mah: I had to read up on wuxia. Fortunately, I had a husband who was all too eager to get me to watch some of his favorite movies.

Laurel Anne Hill: First, I went online to confirm the definition and scope of wuxia.  I also read about the xia value system.  Next, I turned to my personal library for information about the Chinese in nineteenth-century California and the construction of the U.S. Transcontinental Railway.  Finally, I needed to select a martial art discipline for my main character.  I went online for instructional videos about Chinese martial arts, watching several of the many YouTube offerings at least a dozen times each.

Tim Ford: I read up on a lot of fables, online and offline.  Luckily, I had access to some great, international anthologies of folk stories, so that part was easy.  I also brushed up on my early modern Chinese history, because I didn’t want to fall into the trap of cliched stereotypes like you see in Disney movies.

Julia A Rosenthal: When I decided to set the story in steam-era China, I started by reading some classical Chinese literature to get a feel for life before the twentieth century and Chinese Communism. A good translation of _The Dream of the Red Chamber_ gave me a pretty clear sense of what an average day would be like for someone living during the Qing Dynasty, whether highborn or a household servant.

Once I’d read enough of _Red Chamber_ to get my bearings in imperial China, I switched to Wuxia Lit 101. I wanted to see how Chinese storytellers handled wuxia before the film industry came along. And…I ran straight into a wall of Chinese print editions without English translations. Dropping “wuxia” into the Chicago Public Library’s online catalog pulled up almost 500 items. Limiting the search to English-language items brought me down to…four. (This, by the way, boosted my motivation to write a wuxia story in English.
Obviously the world’s got room for more.)

I was in luck, though. One of the four works was Susan Blader’s outstanding translation of Shi Yukun’s _Tales of Magistrate Bao and his Valiant Lieutenants_ (Hong Kong: Chinese University Press, 1998).
Blader kept the beauty and humor of the original language and added an introduction that could be a mini-textbook on wuxia storytelling. I now own a copy of this book, the binding worn and the pages fluttering
with Post-Its. It’s a fantastic resource. I supplemented _Magistrate Bao_ with plenty of kung fu movies — where, thanks to subtitles, language isn’t a barrier.

Finally, to give the story an authentic late-1800s feel in the city of Shanghai, I used Google Images to find plenty of photos. I kept the photos up on my browser as I wrote. There’s very little visual detail
in “Hero Faces the Celestial Empire” that I didn’t find in a photo somewhere.

K H Vaughan: Significant internet research and I probably reviewed at least a dozen books on the Boxer Insurrection and related issues before I got started.

Crystal Koo: Not a lot, really.

Ray Dean: The idea started as a kernel of information from my son’s AP World History textbook. A letter written to Queen Victoria, urging her to help stop the importation of opium into China. Intrigued, I found two books on the Opium War from and read them through to understand the backdrop of the conflict.

Did something pop up in the middle of writing that called for more research? What was it?

Derwin Mak: No.

Tim Reynolds: Yes. I found that I was using some incorrect terms and did some deeper digging to find the correct terminology.

Emily Mah: I first used Google Translate for the Chinese terms – and no, that was never going to be my final strategy. This gave me some place holders, and then I chatted over instant messages with a Chinese speaking friend to make sure I had the right forms of the words.

Laurel Anne Hill: I needed authentic names for my Chinese characters.  The ones I’d chosen didn’t work.  My good friend, Teresa LeYung-Ryan (author of Love Made of Heart), advised me about the naming process.  Armed with that information, I sought and found appropriate possibilities online.  Other needs for more research arose as well, particularly regarding explosives and Irish accents.

Julia A Rosenthal: Mort Castle, my instructor for a course on historical fiction a few years ago at Columbia College Chicago, once told us that there were certain subjects on which you can never do enough research as a writer. Guns. Baseball. Trains. No matter how much you learn, you’ll have a community of readers that know more and will spot every mistake.

I took a chance when I picked a (real) train as one of the characters in my story. The upside of train-buff mania, of course, is the amount of information you can find. While writing “Hero Faces the Celestial Empire,” I could base the train’s movements on actual timetables and lists of stations in Shanghai. I know how much more a first-class ticket would have cost than a second-class ticket. I can guess, from the vantage point of a person standing in the tracks and facing the engine, how many feet they would have had to look up to make eye contact with the train engineer. The availability of this information was an enormous help.

It’s also a form of pressure. I’m wondering if I’ll get an email at some point from a reader informing me that my third scene could never have happened because the train was not, in fact, ever late on the last run during that particular week of April. (Though if someone was paying such close attention to my story, I think I’d take it as a great compliment — and definitely worth an apology for messing up the details.)

K H Vaughan: For me, that’s constant.  I did extensive research on the Empress Dowager, what the uniforms of her Imperial Guard looked like, found the maintenance manuals for period weapons and schematics for steam-powered motorcycles. I’m cruising along and suddenly need to know something about pipe organ fabricators.  It’s probably excessive but I am constantly trying to run down facts.  I often throw them out afterwards but I like to at least know.

Crystal Koo: Not particularly, though I did check out different Chinese swords.

Ray Dean: One of the things I enjoy about my favorite Kung Fu films is the ability for the hero to defend him or herself with anything. They don’t need any conventional weapons if they are inspired by the need to save themselves or others from harm. So the challenge was to set up a fight in an unlikely place and use everything including the ‘kitchen’ sink’ to get the upper hand. No, I didn’t actually include a ‘sink’ but there were some lovely visual images I looked up online to inform the choreography of the moment.

Did something you discovered during your research NOT end up on the story… are you planning to use it later?

Derwin Mak: There is plenty about the late Qing Dynasty and its internal struggles and conflicts with foreign powers that I found. Perhaps later I’ll base a story on the Chinese who went overseas to learn foreign military techniques.

Tim Reynolds: It all ended up in the story, but there are areas I’m thinking of expanding on in later tales or incorporating in current ones. One of the most spoken-about characters in my story is already a main character in my novel, so there’ a bit of crossover seeding going on. It’s a habit I have.

Emily Mah: Not for me, really, though I’m sure the research will continue to appear in later works of mine.

Laurel Anne Hill: Moon-Flame Woman doesn’t describe the heart-breaking poverty that prompted Cho Ting-Lam’s father to sell her into slavery.  Such back story would have slowed the forward momentum of my main story.  I’ll probably use such details in the future, even if I associate them with a culture my imagination creates.

Julia A Rosenthal: Magistrate Bao is a character who’s been around in oral and written tradition for centuries in China, which puts him squarely into the public domain — and makes him fair game for a project like this. If I could have brought him into one of my stories, he would have been a delight to work with. He’s tough. He’s fair. He sentences hardened criminals to torture and, a minute later, is making moon-eyes at his beautiful (and equally brilliant) wife across the courtroom. I feel as if I’ve got a future appointment with this man.

You can’t do historical research without digging up a lot of seriously weird and memorable trivia. For instance, judges like Magistrate Bao used to wear glasses with lenses made of quartz crystals darkened with smoke. They wore them for the same reason celebrities wear Ray-Bans today: to hide their faces in public. Judges didn’t need to disguise themselves to keep the screaming fans away, but they did need to mask their facial expressions while listening to testimony in court. So now I need a story with a Chinese judge in mirror shades. That detail’s just way, way too good to give up.

K H Vaughan: Probably.  I’ll never tell!

Crystal Koo:  No, not really.

Ray Dean: Mostly visual images. I’ve saved them to a file in my computer and hopefully I’ll use them in another story or maybe I’ll just enjoy looking at them. I’m sure in a few months there will be a whole new batch of images for me to find. The internet is always expanding.

How do you keep track of ideas that you haven’t used?

Derwin Mak: There are way too many of those. They’re described in Word files in folders named after the working titles of their future stories.

Tim Reynolds: Notebooks, primarily. I’m also trying to use Scrivener to plan projects, but I’m new to it. My computer is littered with files of story ideas and works in progress.

Emily Mah: You know, if they don’t stick around on their own, they’re not strong enough to use. It’s survival of the fittest in my mind.

Laurel Anne Hill: These days, I usually save early versions of my stories as well as corresponding story research files.

Tim Ford: I quickly jot them down in a notebook, or – if I’m at my office job – I try to type out the idea and a few choice lines that pop up (they always do) and email it to myself.

Julia A Rosenthal: All of my stories are born on the pages of a handwritten journal. When I’ve worked with pen and paper long enough to have some solid characters and a plot outline, I move over to the computer keyboard. The many ideas that get discarded along the way still have a home on the pages of my journals.

This isn’t the best way to organize them for later re-use, though. Considering how fluid ideas can be, I think it’s a challenge to keep track of what’s lost as stories evolve. I sometimes wonder if a catalog, maybe in database form, would do the trick. I’m imagining something with photos and keywords. In the meantime, I let my subconscious do its usual messy, random, but somehow effective job.

K H Vaughan: I keep a file of fragments, ideas, and stalled or unsuccessful work. Sometimes a piece of that drops into a story I’m working on or becomes the seed of something new.  I scan it periodically to see if anything pops.

Crystal Koo: I usually put them down in a notebook.

Ray Dean: I have a number of notebooks that should one day put into word files…and I have an excel spreadsheet that records the file names of the files I do have on the computer… tooo many files and more to add.

What is your favorite resource for research? (books/internet/etc)

Tim Reynolds:  I love the internet for basic research but sometimes you have to reach a little further and read a book. I found that with a project I did about Harry Houdini. What I found on the internet just didn’t give me the depth of the latest biography and I was able to use the material in the book to go far beyond where most people think of Houdini.

Emily Mah: Talking to people, that way you can get your exact questions answered, and catch up on old news.

Laurel Anne Hill: I don’t have one favorite resource for research.  I customize my approach for each new story.

Tim Ford: The internet.  Maybe a decade ago it was a wasteland of unreliable information, but I feel like the internet has become fairly diverse and good at fact-checking itself.  For every person who hacks wikipedia to sabotage an article with nonsense, there’s fifty people waiting to correct and update it with a degree of truth.  That being said, I always to try sort out the veracity of the claims I find by checking the source.  For example, I’m working on my first novel and I was able to find, online, NASA research papers, university essays on the viability of Airships for food transportation, and plenty more academic and well-cited information.  It’s all there, it’s all free, and it just takes a little effort to sift through.

Julia A Rosenthal: People. No written or online source comes close. Experts not only can tell you anything, but they can help you figure out when you’re asking the wrong questions or forgetting the important ones. If I could have done one thing differently in researching and writing “Hero Faces the Celestial Empire,” I would have been talking to experts on early Chinese trains and on the state of martial arts in late nineteenth-century Shanghai. In my research for a novel about the murder of a teenage king in Anglo-Saxon England, I’d be lost without my network of historical experts.

Aside from people, photos are a tremendous resource for writers. If you can’t visit the setting of your story in person (particularly without a time machine), let photos do it for you. Or, if you’re working in a setting that predates the camera, look for sources such as paintings, engravings, or manuscripts. These images contain details that can lend authenticity to a scene or sometimes drive a whole plot.

K H Vaughan: Depends.  I use Google a great deal but lean on my local library system a great deal.  Depending on the circumstances I may spend a lot of time in Pubmed or various social science databases.

Crystal Koo: Big fan of this thing called the Internet.

Ray Dean: Books. I haunt the local library book sale and find some treasures. Books… lots and lots of books.

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Anthology Authors who contributed to this post were: (in alphabetical order)
Ray Dean – “Fire in the Sky”
Tim Ford – “The Fivefold Proverbs of Zhen Xiaquan”
Laurel Anne Hill – “Moon-Flame Woman”
Crystal Koo – “The Master and the Guest”
Emily Mah – “Last Flight of the Long Qishi”
Derwin Mak – “Flying Devils”
Tim Reynolds – “The Ability of Lightness”
Julia A Rosenthal – “A Hero Faces the Celestial Empire; a Death by Fire is Avenged by Water”


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