Research Trip Phase III: National Library of Singapore

It may seem as though this trip was just an excuse to be a tourist. But this week was hard-core research week as I spent all day Monday-Thursday in the 11th Floor Reference Room (Southeast Asian Collection) of the National Library of Singapore. I’ve had a blast reading old texts and contemporary histories relevant to my story, and the library is a beautiful space that has made this work a pleasure.

The library offers some wonderful services to researchers. A few weeks ago, I emailed some specific questions I wanted to look into and they emailed back with a long list of resources I might be interested in, so that was my starting point. When I exhausted that list, I found some more, including some that were on microfilm or in digital form, and kept going. I was amazed at how much material I got through. (I may pop in there next week before I leave to take a look at one more thing.)

I took about twenty typed pages of notes, single-spaced, and have a much better feel for the subject than I did before. How I thought I was going to be able to write this book without doing this work, I don’t know.

The library building is new. On a bit of a meta note, my novel’s main character also visits the library to do some research (the same research I’m doing!), but — and this is a little problematic for my purposes — she does it BEFORE this building was built. So I have to rely on pictures of the old building and my imagination, plus some educated guesses. (The archives she’s looking for aren’t digitized, for example, but they are on microfilm, a technology that’s been around a very long time.)

So Phase III is done, and I’m beginning the last phase before heading home. More about that soon.

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.