Research: No substitute for being there.

When I began work on my current project–a novel set primarily in Singapore–I didn’t think I’d need to travel there to complete the book. After all, I lived in the country from 1983-1989 and 1990-1993 and had made several other visits before and after those periods. I felt that I knew the country pretty well. So I plowed ahead with the writing.

But the deeper I got into the story, the more I realized that there was a lot I didn’t know, or didn’t remember. For one thing, the story I’m telling takes place both long before and somewhat after the years I lived in Singapore, and if anything remains constant in the country it is rapid change. For another, it is one thing to remember your sensory perceptions and try to describe them. It’s something else again to describe what you’re feeling at the moment. The heat. The humidity. The smells. The crowds. Did I mention the heat and humidity?

So sometime last year I decided I would have to return to Singapore for a research trip. I know–hardship, right? Well, yes and no. I’m happy to be in the tropics during January, that’s for sure. But the planning process was stressful–booking flights and hotels, making various arrangements–and expensive. (If I hadn’t paid for everything in advance, I might have bagged it at the last minute.) Now that I’ve been here for a couple of days, though, I’m so glad I made the trip. The Internet is a wonderful thing, but I don’t think I could have written the book without making this visit.

My research is divided into three parts. The first part is basically done now. I’ve spent the last several days in a hotel near where I used to live. I’ve gone back to areas I used to spend time, and I’ve walked all over this part of town to really reinforce the experience of living here. I’m taking notes as to my impressions and the sensory details, and all of this will be invaluable when I get home to dig back into the manuscript. The second part is a side trip to Bali, where I’m headed on Monday. I’ve visited Bali several times in the past, and it’s only tangentially relevant to the novel, but I can’t deny that I liked the idea of resting and relaxing by the ocean for a few days. (It’s the rainy season there, but I don’t care.) The third part, and the most significant, will happen when I return from Bali. I’ll be staying in a different part of town, closer to some of the locations for scenes in the book. I’ve enlisted the help of the National Library for some actual research, so I’ll be spending a couple of days there, also. And I’ve got some meetings lined up that I hope will be helpful.

I guess there’s a fourth part, too. Chinese New Year will coincide with the last few days of my stay, and that holiday figures prominently in my story, so the timing couldn’t be better.

All in all, despite the stress of planning and travel, I’m very glad I made the trip, and the book will be much better for it.

 

2 Replies to “Research: No substitute for being there.”

  1. Dear Cliff,
    I found it so interesting to read your comments on returning to Singapore, as I have been reading about and thinking about the process (“the process”–as if it were single and unified) of remembrance and recollection exemplified in Henry James’s autobiographical writing. If it weren’t bad form to do so, I would say I envy you your experience both of having lived in such a sensually different environment and of feeling the sensations come back, no doubt the same but different, after years away. I wish you luck in completing the project, however it comes to be.
    Best,
    Jim

    1. I find most memoirs to be remarkable in that way–what is remembered and what is filled in. How could anyone remember in sufficient detail to really convey a sense of the experience without at least some embellishment. And then things change, which makes revisiting problematic. Yesterday I walked past the location of the last apartment building I lived in here. At least I think I was in the right place. Although the buildings were fairly new when I lived here, they’ve all been replaced. Nothing looked familiar, and there were even whole roads in the neighborhood I didn’t remember.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *