For Jean Moran, author of Tears of the Dragon and Summer of the Three Pagodas, research is a thing to be applied lightly, like watercolour, not thickly, like oil paint, as she tells Historia.
The titles I wrote as Lizzie Lane centred on the early 20th century, and World War Two in particular, and as regards research relied greatly on my late mother’s life and experiences. Tears of the Dragon and Summer of the Three Pagodas, both written for Head of Zeus as Jean Moran, are based in the Far East, so a change of tactic was called for.
Character to me is the most important facet of a book. I am the protagonist when writing the story, ditto when I am reading. It is, in my opinion, the storyteller’s aim for the reader to empathise with the main character of a novel, to experience what they are experiencing, to share their feelings; in fact, to forget self and become that person.
Not only is it crucial for the reader to become the main character, it is also imperative that they appreciate the antagonist and other lesser characters, recognising traits, habits and behaviour they themselves have experienced.
The question I am regularly asked when giving talks is how I handle the research, how deeply do I go, how much do I undertake before putting pen to paper – or, more particularly, firing up Word. The answer is: very little – or perhaps I should say lightly, and when in need of specific information.
Story and character must come first with me, though even storyline is an organic process; vague planning that turns into something stronger as what is born in the imagination becomes real.
I have said, in answer to that perennial question, that I apply research as a watercolour exercise not with thick oils and a palette knife. Another comparison is viewing it as a stage, very much as in a theatre; the audience follows the character and story and are not that aware of the scenery – if there is any at all. Thus both character and story must be strong and based on research that is relevant to the story, though, like others, I do become intrigued by interesting details that have no bearing on the storyline. Kill your darlings means just that!
I remember when I wrote a 19th-century trilogy coming across the fact that poor people sometimes wore shoes made of cardboard and that there was no left or right shoe; both were the same. I so wanted to include this, but had to be strict with myself. It remains a note on a piece of paper, perhaps to be used at some point in the future.
The foregoing is not to say that I totally ignore research; far from it, but I do have a care not to over-embellish, to show off what I’ve found out – and that includes cardboard shoes!
My first foray into research is knowledge of place and time. I have never visited Hong Kong but have read about it, looked into how it used to be in the forties, long before banks, financial institutions and luxury hotels rose like great cathedrals dwarfing streets, people and the last vestiges of what it used to be. Thank goodness for imagination!
Obviously the vast amount of my research for Tears of the Dragon was gleaned from the internet, where I read of Kowloon Walled City, the basic layout of wartime Hong Kong, attitudes and happenings. I did read a few factual books, personal histories of those who were there on Black Christmas in 1941 when the Japanese invaded.
Military details were in abundance both in book form and film series, most specifically in that wonderful series, The World at War, though the Fall of Singapore is mentioned in more detail than Hong Kong’s.
Doctors and nurses were at the forefront of the slaughter on that terrible day, so I wanted my main character, Doctor Rossiter, as a woman to be part of that. At the beginning she is trying to enjoy herself, having a last night of fun as the enemy draws ever nearer. Duty is pushed aside in the pursuit of what might be the last carefree evening she’ll have for a while – or perhaps forever.
When writing this book, one item of research I did include was with regard to the aftermath of the atomic bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. News that people were dying from radiation sickness was tightly controlled by the military command.
It took an Australian journalist to circumvent the authorities and in secret send news of what was happening to the Daily Express in London. They were the first in the world to publish what was viewed as the scoop of the century – and the journalist concerned was damned for it.
If I thought research regarding Hong Kong was more involved than that involved in writing home front sagas, I found it even more so when I turned to writing Summer of the Three Pagodas, the follow-on title.
Korea was indeed the forgotten war and there is nothing like the same amount of information at hand as there is for World War Two, but I was lucky in finding a few personal histories, including that of an order of nuns!
Jean has written 50 novels in different genres and under other pseudonyms.
Her previous historical novels, mainly set in the Second World War, are written as Lizzie Lane.
She is also a past winner of the BBC New Writers’ Award.
Pedestrians & Vendors On Pottinger Street, A Stepped Street, Central District, Hong Kong Island [c1946] by Hedda Morrison: ralph repo via Flickr
Image from the cover of Tears of the Dragon
Hong Kong street in the 1930s: via Wikimedia
Japanese troops entering Hong Kong, 25 December, 1941: George Lane via Flickr