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Sunday, October 24, 2010

Research and the Writer

Yesterday afternoon, I spent the day with several writing friends, and the topic turned to research. Maggie asked me if I'd actually ever been to Hong Kong, the setting of my newest historical release, Kismet's Salvation. The answer? No. Nor have I visited Victorian London or New Orleans during the War of 1812 or many of the other settings I've written over the year. As writers, we're often told, "Write what you know." So how did I manage to write about Hong Kong without ever having been?


Research can be a tricky thing. When I wrote my first historical it was over 800 pages in length, thanks to the tons of facts I learned that fascinated me. And surely, if I was fascinated, my readers would be, too! Ummm...really? Not so much. The Internet can be a wealth of information, but it isn't necessarily factual. So how did I research Victorian London and 19th century Hong Kong? Through books. Travel books, historical books, picture books. I read journals of people who'd lived in these places during the years my story took place. I immersed myself in the culture of Tao, studied the habits of pink dolphins and jackass penguins, and strolled cobblestone streets without ever leaving my library.

And what did all those research books gain me in the end? A book of my own. A book I love and I'm proud to put my name on. Want a peek at 19th century Hong Kong? Take a look at it through my heroine's eyes:

Under Armand’s guidance at the wheel, South Star sailed into Hong Kong harbor through the West Lamma Channel. The air filled with a thick, heavy fragrance. Inhaling deeply, Lydia discerned the distinctive tang of salt mixed with a more flowery exotic perfumed scent.

Baptiste, beside her at the rail, covered her hand with his own. “Hong Kong means fragrant harbor in the Chinese dialect of Cantonese.”

To her mind, no greater truth had been written since the scriptures of the Bible.

“The odor comes from the incense factories over there.” He pointed past the ships that crowded the channel to the hilly, rocky island where gray, weathered clapboard buildings dotted the shoreline.

She stared over those sad, dilapidated structures for a long while.


From beneath her feet, a crackly screech rose. Peering down into the blue-green water, she found an odd sea creature, even stranger than the comical penguins of South Africa, swam alongside the ship. The beastie resembled a large fish but had a long pink snout and face with a white underbelly. With its wide-open mouth and square teeth, he appeared to grin up at her, and the squeaks he made sounded a greeting in a tradition unfamiliar yet unmistakable in meaning.

On a giggle of delight, she leaned over the rail and waved. “Hello there, my friend. Thank you for the warm welcome to your home.”

“That’s a dolphin,” Baptiste said. “Unusual to see one this time of year.”

The playful creature disappeared beneath the surface, and she returned her attention to Baptiste. “I thought dolphins were gray.”

“Most of them are,” he replied. “But for some reason the dolphins of Hong Kong are born gray or black, then turn pink and white as they mature.”

What else had all her books failed to reveal about this strange faraway land? In truth, no amount of description in a book could have prepared her for the variety of wonders her senses beheld as she looked out over this paradise.

Unfamiliar smells, some fishy, some flowery, tickled her nostrils and landed on her tongue, lending their tastes to her mouth and throat. No matter where she looked, her eyes drank in an array of quaint peculiarities. From the dolphin who swam in the water to the ships that sailed atop its surface, one unusual and colorful view melded into another.

A variety of styles of clipper ships and barques clustered about, dwarfing the smaller vessels that shared the harbor with them. Dinghies transported sailors from their moored ships to the shore while local fisherman aboard tinier boats hauled in nets filled with their fresh squirming catch. In the distance, a more triangular vessel she recognized as a Chinese junk glided past on its way out to sea.

Against the backdrop of all those white sails, the hills and mountains on land took on a blue-gray hue beneath a purplish sky.

Her ears had heard the strange cry of the pink dolphin, but also recognized the squawk of various sea birds, the sing-song voices of Chinese sailors, and the more familiar sounds of British accents mixed with a smattering of French and Spanish.

I hope you enjoyed this excerpt! Kismet's Salvation is available now from The Wild Rose Press.


Tina Donahue said...

Great advice, Gina, I too get caught up in research, thinking how fascinating it is, and then I have to dump a lot of it to keep the story moving. :)

jean hart stewart said...

Great excerpt. I love Hong Kong, had no idea how exotic it was at that time. Loved the pink dolphin, which I knew nothing about. Jean

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