Category Archives: Researching

Portraying character: The importance of a haircut.

If you’ve ever taken one of my classes, or worked with me as an editor, you’ll know that I’m a fan of Coco Chanel: “quality is in the details.”

Often, the details I’m focussed on are word choices. Is this the most evocative verb? Is that the most specific noun? As Mark Twain said, “the difference between the right word and the almost-right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.” But when it comes to portraying character, those aren’t the details I worry about most.

Don’t get me wrong. You still need the right words and not the almost-right words in any description or dialog. But what portrays character most powerfully, in literature as in life, is what a person does. So I spend a lot of time worrying about what my characters do, and what that says about them. Which gestures, decisions, and actions should I choose to show you, the reader? Which are the gems that will best evoke my characters?

I recently had a brainwave about one of my characters — the one loosely based on my great-great-great grandfather. Let me first explain what “loosely based” means. It means that the character in my novel walks around in my head. I have a feeling for him. I know him on an intimate and nuanced level, although like any human, he may surprise me. I might even be a little in love with him.

I don’t know what kind of man my greatx3 grandfather was. Like any reader, I have to deduce this from his actions. But the man that I’m “reading”from the paper trail I’ve researched is not very much like the corresponding character in my head. No matter. Greatx3 grandpa is only there for inspiration. After all, my novel is fiction.

The other day, I was looking at a photo of Greatx3 Grandpa taken in 1905. Here it is…

CCH 1905

Doesn’t he look like a Mafia don, with his thick, short, centrally parted hair and self-satisfied smirk?

That hair fascinated me. I kept coming back to it like a tongue to a missing tooth. Where was his queue—the long Celestial braid that should have been hanging down his back?

The queue was not a fashion statement. The queue was an imperial edict enforced by law, punishable by death. All Chinese (Han) men had to wear a queue as a sign of their subservience to the Qing, their Manchu overlords. Lose your queue; lose your head.

And yet, here was Greatx3 Grandpa giving his finger to the Emperor. He was involved in a lot of China trade at that time. One year, he shipped east four thousand 100-lb sacks of American flour.  Yet, queue-less, he must have stopped outside the Manchu’s gates—at Macau or Hong Kong, foreign colonies where head-chopping for missing queues was not enforced.

This gesture, this one little hair cut, tells you so much about his character. It tells you that he was nationalistic. It tells you that there was a broad streak of defiance in him. It tells you that he was confident — that he didn’t have to kowtow; he had other options, in America. It tells you that he had his eyes on the future.

Six years after this photo was taken, the Qing Dynasty fell.

My great-great-great grandfather’s early cutting of his queue is what I’d consider a telling action. Although, with all the “show don’t tells” I chirrup, maybe I should call it a showing action. So I’m stealing it for my novel.

My character is softer than I suspect my greatx3 grandfather was. He’s less businessman, more romantic. But they share a boundless optimism, an ability to see the glass half full and on the verge of getting fuller. Both had eyes on far horizons.

In my novel, cutting that braid will cut ties to the past. It will be the declaration of a new man. It will be the exultant embrace of a new world.

So, sometimes you can tell a lot about a man from his haircut.

Happy writing!

Shirin

 

 

 

Building the platform — with help from my great-great-great-grandfather

CCHAP Postcard Front

Greatx3 Grandpa

At every writers’ conference I’ve attended in the last three years, much time and angst has been spent over “the writers’ platform.” Having one improves your chances of sales, and because of that, your chances of getting published. Logically, this means you should have a platform in place before you pitch your book. Here’s where the angst comes in: how does one do that?!

First of all, what is “a writer’s platform”? In advertising speak, it’s your reach. A workable layman’s term would be your fame…although that word has been ruined by the Kim Kardashians of this world. Notoriety won’t cut it. Not for most books, anyway.

From a publisher’s perspective, a writer’s platform is the author’s ability to convince the publisher that s/he has access to an audience already interested in the author, the subject, or best of all, the book in particular. Writers often think of publishers as gougers who give them some crummy percentage when they (the writers) do “all” of the work. But it is edifying to think of them as the people who are the first to pay and the last to be paid. In that context it makes sense that they’d really like to maximize their very slim chances of getting their money back.

Now, at the risk of eliciting some “that’s easy for you to say”s, here’s an example of a writer’s platform being built in advance. Before you read any further, make sure you’ve read my last post about how I’m living in the Twilight Zone. It will give you necessary context.

I came to Washington to conduct research on a novel whose germ was the story of my great-great-great-grandmother. She was a Native American woman who married a Chinese merchant and eventually moved to China. The man she married, who has a small part in my novel, happened to be the first Chinese resident of Seattle.

MARY_AND_SONS

Greatx3 Grandma

A friendly Seattle Public librarian introduced me to her friends, and those librarians to other librarian friends, until in ever-expanding circles, my research came to the notice of the very warm and lovely curator of the Seattle Room. Turns out, the Seattle Public Library partners with the Museum of History and Industry to host a program called History Café, a monthly soirée for people interested in Seattle history. Would I like to speak to them about my great-great-great-grandfather?

Here’s a tip. This may look like an obvious decision, but I’ve seen many people turn down opportunities like this — because public speaking is not their forte, because they don’t have time, because they are working on a novel about one thing and being asked to speak about another. But my attitude is that life is short, and experiences are to be collected. At the end of life, it’s not the one with the most toys who wins, but the one with the best photo album.

So, anyway, I said yes, and worked on drafting the presentation and conducting much deeper research to fill the many holes. I started spending considerable chunks of time in the Wing Luke Museum. Then, weirdly, I began sensing some discord in the ether. I felt as if I was being pulled in two directions by jealous ancestral spirits. Time spent on the presentation (Greatx3 Grandpa) was time I didn’t have to work on the novel (Greatx3 Grandma), and my time in Washington was running out.

So, goofy as it sounds, I sat down and made peace between them. I promised Greatx3 Grandma that I would finish the research I needed to do for the novel, but pointed out that even if I didn’t get it done in this one pass, all those resources would be here another day. The opportunity that Greatx3 Grandpa had so graciously thrust in my lap, however, was evanescent. I also pointed out that the research I was doing on him was giving me great context for her: scales were falling from my eyes. I could see her world with increasing granularity. So for now, I was going to prioritize the presentation. And listen, Greatx3 Grandma, I concluded, it will be the first plank of my platform: it will help your story get disseminated one day.

I think Greatx3 Grandpa decided to reward my faith. The Chinese Services Librarian of Seattle Public asked me when I would be speaking. I told her, and told her it would be at the MOHAI. “Oh no!” she said. “I mean, that’s good, but we really need to have you speaking here. Maybe we can partner with the Wing Luke to sponsor another presentation in our auditorium. Ask them.” So I did…the parties will meet to discuss on March 10th. “And when your book is finally published,” the Genealogy Librarian said, “We’d love to do something here to help launch it.”

So, without the guiding hand of a 19th century ancestral spirit, how to you start building your writer’s platform? Consider what your book (and the good research you’re conducting for it) makes you an authority on:

— An individual
— A demographic group
— A historical period
— A geographical area
— Some aspect of lifestyle or culture
— An environmental or political concern
— The process of research
— The process of writing

And then ask yourself who would be interested in this information, and how you can put yourself before them. It doesn’t always have to be public speaking, although that certainly helps. You can write articles for special interest magazines, you can give interviews on local radio stations, you can offer your insight to writers’ groups, and you can even — yes — blog.

Happy writing!

Shirin

 

[Insert Twilight Zone music here]

When I first decided to come to Washington to research my novel, I looked for a place on Bainbridge Island in order to be half way between the Suquamish Museum and the Seattle Central Library. My great-great-great-grandmother was reputed to have been Suquamish. And my great-great-great-grandfather was  the founder of the Wa Chong Company, the first Chinese business registered in Seattle. Their story is the germ from which my novel sprouts.

As I trolled through rentals on VRBO and Airbnb, I found and fell in love with the cottage that I’m ensconced in now. I noticed belatedly that it wasn’t actually a Bainbridge listing. Instead, the cottage is located in Port Orchard. Port Who? I’d never heard of it before, and on investigation it was further away from both the museum and the library. But, the heart wants what the heart wants, so I accepted the longer commutes.

On my first visit to the library, I made an appointment for a consult with their genealogy librarian. Chun Ching Hock, my great-great-great-grandfather I wrote, under Who are you researching? on the application form. When I showed up for my appointment, the librarian was welcoming.
“I’m also interested in Chun Ching Hock,” he said. He was researching a cemetery that CCH had some role in establishing.
“Have you seen this?” and he handed me a postcard.
“Oh yes,” I replied. “I wrote it.”
It was a card that I’d helped a distant cousin to create, when she’d wanted to encapsulate CCH’s role as an American pioneer. That was neat, I thought. It’s not often that someone hands you something you wrote.
“Look at this,” the librarian continued. “They had three sons, born in Port Orchard. Looks like they were living there.”
[Insert Twilight Zone music here.]

Another thing we found that afternoon was a reference to my great-great-great-grandmother being Duwamish, not Suquamish. Well, I thought, I guess I’ll have to go introduce myself to the Duwamish.
That evening friends asked if I’d have dinner with them “and a friend.”
“Who?” I said suspiciously.
“Oh, he’s a great guy. Intelligent. Blah. Blah. Blah. We used to race motorcross together, but I haven’t seen him much in the last two years.”
“Why?”
“He’s very involved with his tribe.”
“Which tribe?”
My friend sent a text.
Duwamish came the answer.
And, as it turns out, not only Duwamish but on their Council and willing to introduce me to the rest of its members!
[Insert Twilight Zone music here.]

Next stop was the Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience. They are housed (in part) in what used to be CCH’s store. I spoke with the librarian, who kindly showed me around and arranged to gather items from their archives for me to peruse on another day. As I left, I turned around to look at my great-great-great-grandfather’s storefront again. And there in the window was my book, Ruby’s Wish.
“I’m sorry we’re in such a mess! We’re setting up for Chinese New Year,” the sales assistant said.
“That book in your window. I wrote it!”
“Oh,” she said, taken aback by my excitement.
“And this used to be my great-great-great-grandfather’s store!”
“Oh,” she repeated. Then, “Would you like to sign them for us? I have a bunch.” She cleared a spot for me to sign, and I noticed that the stack of books she was moving to make room were my sister’s.
[Insert Twilight Zone music here.]

Ruby and Goldiluck

I touched base with that distant cousin, to tell her about the Duwamish lead. As we were chatting I mentioned how my character was going to live in the store itself, whether that had happened in life or not.
“Do you know that my grandfather inherited that store,” she said.
“No!” I answered. (If you think this strange, bear in mind that CCH had 11 wives and many children, including a son who had 44 kids of his own. It’s hard to keep track.)
“My mom and uncle grew up there. Uncle Joe is still in Seattle. He can tell you what that would have been like.”
I’m having lunch with Uncle Joe on Friday.
[Insert Twilight Zone music here.]

Yesterday, I had lunch with two friendly, supportive, WONDERFUL Seattle Central librarians. They’d introduced me to a friend of theirs who gave me access to the SPLC’s Writers’ Room. (Take a look at my new office…)

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In the middle of lunch, one says to the other, “I should introduce you to Peter Baccho. I went to school with him.”
“PETER BACHO?!?!?!”
She looks at me strangely. “Yes, he’s a local journalist.”
“He wrote the article that said my great-great-great-grandmother was Seattle’s daughter. I have none of his references. I’d love to know how he came to that conclusion!”
An hour later, I had an email saying he’d be happy to chat.
[Insert Twilight Zone music here.]

“Don’t ignore coincidences,” my new Duwamish friend said. “Someone wants you to write this book.”

 

The stock take — or, an intro to MindNode

Most of you are ahead of me. Most of you have started or even finished a novel. But this is my first. How do women face pregnancy and childbirth for the first time, I wonder. That’s something I’ve never attempted either.

Rather than stare into the abyss of inexperience, I thought I’d do a little stock take of where I was in this novel-writing gambit. If you are about to start your first novel, this is a good tip. It was really helpful.

First, I got myself a copy of MindNode on the recommendation of my brother. He’s also a writer, and he said it was great for getting down and then organizing a lot of information. It helps you think laterally, because you can ideate first, and organize later.

So, I put down the core structure I mentioned in my last blog. East, South, West, North. I put down a two-line description of each part’s protagonist. I put down everything that I knew about each protagonist in terms of life moments. Then, from each life moment, I budded out all the things that I didn’t know—knowledge I would need to describe that moment well.

This is what it looked like. (This is as fast as the animation will go!)

There wasn’t a lot of random ideation, yet. I was unpacking things that had been gathering in my head, and for the most part, it all came down in chronological order. But I can see how MindNode will be great when I need to throw ideas at the wall later.

One cool thing about MindNode is that it makes it easy to reorganize your thoughts (nodes) by just dragging and dropping them. So, I reorganized the life moments so that they were sequential — a timeline. Well, four timelines.

Timelines
Then I shook out of my other ear all the scenes that have been rolling around in there — little flashes, brief movie snippets. I aligned those with the timeline.

Scenes I have

You can see quite quickly where I have gaps, where I need to get down to the writer’s first job of imagining. But it’s been very reassuring to me that I have this much at all!

Of course, “Do I have enough to write about” is not the only cause of anxiety. “How do I write this” is at least as terrifying.

I have a crutch for that too! I am going through a fiction course and letting that guide me along. The one I’m using is an audio course by James Hynes (sorry, Michael) from the Great Courses. I love the Great Courses — but don’t buy anything that’s not on sale. If you wait long enough, your course will go on sale and the discount is always significant.

So, seeing as I now know that I have enough of a plot to get started, and that I know my protagonists well enough to at least summon them for a meeting, what next? For me, the first barrier to laying ink down is which tense and which POV?

We’ll see what James has to say about that next week, when Julia speaks.

In the meantime, happy writing!

Shirin

 

The story of this story…

January 13th. As promised, the first post in my new “Julie and Julia for Novelists” blog. I’m hoping that these flow-of-process ramblings will be useful to you, or at least entertaining. They will be useful to me. They will be like footholds up the mountain: pauses for respite and added impetus to advance another step. I hope.

OK. Where are we now? We are in Washington State, on the Olympic Peninsula. For more than a decade, this book has been rattling around the back of my head like a dried bean in a gourd. Once, I came up to Seattle to start researching it. But I turned tail and fled. It just seemed too big.

The original germ of the book came from family history. One of my great-great-great grandmothers was a Suquamish woman who married a Chinese man and went back with him to old China. What must that have been like? I am Chinese. I was born outside China, but in an age when China was only a few hours’ flight away; or a good book and a comfortable chair away; or a click to the travel channel away. And yet when I first visited China, I found it such a shock. I felt so foreign. How must she have felt?

Over the last ten years, this skeleton of a book idea, banished to a dungeon, has put on flesh. Other dislocations have attached themselves. From rich to poor. From east to west. From dark to fair. From aware to blind.

You’ll remember that I thought the original book too big. How dare I attempt it now that it has swollen like Mr. Creosote?

Driving one night, my mind kept turning over how the Chinese call out the four points of the compass. Not North-South-East-West (making the sign of the cross), but East-South-West-North (clockwise, starting from the region of “most importance”). I suddenly saw how my book could be a book of four parts, each part following a different protagonist in a movement east (Seattle to China); south (China to Hong Kong); west (Hong Kong to San Francisco); north (San Francisco to Seattle). This rudimentary structure gave the book solidity, anchored it in reality for me; made it attemptable.

So, I’ve committed to the attempt. I’ve cleared my calendar (minus some editing) for the next three months and rented myself a cottage on the Olympic Peninsula where the book starts and ends. I’ve given the Suquamish Museum and the Seattle Public Library notice that I’ll be coming to pester them. I haven’t reached out to the Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience yet, the one housed in my great-great-great grandfather’s shop front. I think I’ll drop in on them in person.

For the past few weeks, I’ve sketched the book’s basic outline at different holiday parties. I’ve introduced my four protagonists to my friends. With each telling, the book feels a little more gestated.

In the meantime, I’ve armed myself with Scrivener and Mind Node, programs that I’ve yet to learn to use. I’m carrying a packet of blank index cards around with me. I’ve been noting down the scenes that randomly pop into my head. I’m planning commitments and finances so that I leave huge writing blocks free through this year and the next, just in case I get any traction.

So now that I’ve settled into my writing cottage, what comes next?
I think I will start with a stock take. I want to organize what I have…and what I know I need but don’t have. I’ll share what this looks like with you next week.

Happy writing!
Shirin

When what you’re looking for finds you.

One cold Melbourne morning, Kathryn Otoshi and I went location scouting for her coming book, Peter Dobb and the Wondrous Pod. Specifically, we were looking for Sir Wanderoy’s house cum book store. This is what we found…

Sometimes, life works like that. You have an idea of what you’re looking for, but you haven’t had time to really think about it. And then, the universe puts it in your path.  You realize the gift is exactly what you had in mind, down to unarticulated details.

The writing life is full of moments like these. Your character steps out of a book that you haven’t written yet and greets you in an antique shop. Your opening sentence floats to you on the wind, and you realize whatever it’s opening is already nascent within. You turn the corner, and that house in your head materializes as an old post office in Melbourne.

Here’s to the writing life—and to more gifts from the universe!

Shirin Yim Bridges

 

 

 

When what you find is that it shouldn’t be found.

So, if you’ve been following our goose tracks, Kathryn and I have been in the Red Center looking for clues as to the identity of the pod in her coming book, Peter Dobb and the Wondrous Pod. We had a hunch that it had something to do with the Aboriginal dream time, and for that reason we booked ourselves on back-to-back cultural tours and headed for a big red rock in the middle of a big red desert.

If you know me, you’ll know that I’m well traveled and have lived on four continents. I like to think of myself as culturally sensitive. But in retrospect, I rode into that red desert as prejudiced as any colonialist. All I was missing was the pith helmet.

My prejudice was that if you have a story, you will want to share it. I’m an author. That’s my world. My colleagues, my clients, my friends, my family, we are all story tellers who want our stories to be heard. So it was quite a revelation to me that there is a fundamentally different way of thinking about story: that you can treasure a story as a secret; that you can nurture a story in order not to share it.

What I learnt, following a guide around who was so passionate that he literally frothed at the mouth (correct use of literally), is that nobody is supposed to know the entire dream time story. Even within small family groups, what the men are allowed to know is different from what the women are allowed to know. Neither must search for or even inadvertently discover the story that belongs to the other. Hence the community’s wariness of photography, because it puts images out there of things that should be seen only by owners of a certain part of the dreaming.

As a story teller I’m fascinated by this concept of story—by having a great, intricate cloth, to which you hold only one thread. You know where your thread intersects others…threads coming from other family members, other families, other tribes. You also know that you’ll never see, are not meant to see, the whole picture. So you treasure and nurture this thread in trust, with faith that it has its place and its meaning, and that meaning you will never fully know.

In the red rock canyons, having let the others walk ahead so that I had everything under a blue bowl sky to myself, this thought is what resonated with me—that sometimes it’s OK not to know. You can hold something precious without knowing really how it relates to the rest of your life or the world. You can just have faith that it does. That it is sacred and necessary.

Sounds simple, but it goes so much against our cultural grain.

And where does that land us with the pod? We have more cultural sleuthing ahead, but at the very least we’ve learnt how delicate this dream time fabric is. How delicate and how very lovely.

Shirin Yim Bridges

In Search of the Pod: The Red Center

So we’ve made it to the Red Center: Uluru, a sacred site for all of Australia’s many aboriginal cultures.

Our one disclaimer: Kathryn says she’s sorry for her mispronunciation of Ayers Rock.

Coming soon, a slightly deeper dive.
Stay tuned!

Shirin Yim Bridges and Kathryn Otoshi

And they’re off! Kathryn and Shirin’s Great Adventure: The Treasure Hunt Down Under

In three days, fellow children’s author, Kathryn Otoshi, and I will be making the grueling journey to Sydney, Australia, to begin a three-week adventure that is, amazingly, all business.

First thought: This is what writers actually do.

Second thought: What a blessing to be a writer!

When I say “grueling,” I want you to know that I have been on a three-day camel trek into the Thar Desert that resulted in a butt blister, and I think cattle class for 18 hours on an international carrier is worse. But it will be worth it. Most of the trip is essentially a treasure hunt—researching key nuggets that Kathryn needs for a book. Nothing could be more fun to a self-confessed nerd and travel junkie like me.

This short video will explain exactly why we’re going and what we hope to accomplish. You’ll find an animated map of our itinerary in the sidebar to the right.

And then, we’ll be posting from the road. First stop: The SCWBI Australia East and New Zealand Conference where both of us will be speaking. Do the antipodeans have a different perspective on kids’ lit?

I’ll let you know!

Shirin Yim Bridges

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Hello world!

My first blog. I’m a writer and a publisher. I’m alive in 2014. How is this possible?

Well, I kept thinking I was too busy writing and publishing. But now I’ve seen the light. Now I see that this is writing and publishing, too; and that some of the things that I want to share with the world (my primary motivation in publishing) can be even better shared in this format.

For Goosebottom Books’ readers, and their educators and librarians, I’ll be sharing nerdy nuggets that delight me. (Did you know that they’ve found the bones of Richard III under a parking lot? The uncle accused of murdering the Princes in the Tower?) There’ll be interviews with our geese and other children’s and YA authors. If you follow this blog, you’ll also follow my goose tracks across Australia this summer, as I go off on a research trip with fellow kids’ author, Kathryn Otoshi.

For my writing and publishing students, and all the aspiring authors and publishers out there, here’s the chance for a behind-the-scenes peek. You’ll see how frustrating, rich, and rewarding the writing and/or publishing life can be. I’ll also be sharing the articles and opportunities that I used to share with my list-serve. Now I’ll be serving up all that great information right here.

So please follow Goose Tracks, and enjoy!

If you’d like to be informed of new posts in particular categories, just send an email to shirin.bridges@goosebottombooks.com and let me know which categories you’d like to follow. You can also review just those posts in those categories by using our pull-down menu on the left hand side.

Honk! Honk!

Shirin