The Next Book–Part 3: Research

[This is Part 3 of my series on The Next Book. For the first two parts, see Inspiration and Beginning the Novel.]

I lived in Singapore from 1983 to 1993 (minus a year spent in Los Angeles), so I felt comfortable writing a book about Americans living there. In fact, my 2021 novel, Oliver’s Travels, also includes a section set in Singapore about a young couple who have taken teaching jobs at the Singapore American School. However, the story I had in mind for the new book takes place almost ten years after I left and, although I’d been back a few times over the years passing through on my way to Jakarta for work, I felt I needed to refresh my perceptions of the city. More importantly, a significant part of the novel is set in 1914-15 in Singapore, and I didn’t know much about the city during that period.

The internet is amazing, but there was a limit to what I could glean. I did find some resources that spoke of the colonial period in Singapore and some that also described a particular incident that I was interested in, but that was about it. In order to do more comprehensive research, I concluded that I needed to take a trip, and so I spent most of January 2017 revisiting the city that I knew well. It didn’t hurt that it was the dead of winter here at home, so being in the tropics during that time wasn’t really a hardship.

I decided to stay in two different hotels in Singapore because I was going to break up the trip with a short visit to Bali, which also figures in the book (in a small way), and that gave me an opportunity to spend time in two different parts of the city.

Goodwood Park Hotel

I started at the Goodwood Park Hotel, which happens to be next door to the apartment building where I lived from 1984 to ’87 and not far from the other two apartments I lived in during my time there. In the novel, the main character has dinner in that hotel with a local couple and learns that it once served as a social club for the German community, which was impacted significantly by the First World War and the events described in the historical section of the novel. The hotel provided a great base for the first part of my research, which was re-familiarizing myself with that part of the city, including places such as the Botanic Gardens and the former Tanglin Barracks. (Also, the hotel upgraded me to a suite with a kitchenette and wonderful balcony, so it was delightful.)

After a week or so, I flew down to Bali. That trip to Bali was in part just a beach getaway, but I was also moved to visit the scene of the 2002 terrorist bombing in Kuta Beach, another important event in the novel. I had been to Bali three or four times over the years, but this time I did some things I hadn’t done before, including taking a tour up to the volcano at the center of the island and visiting other areas in the island’s interior and west coast.

Back in Singapore, I checked into a funky hotel near the Singapore River, one that was within walking distance from Chinatown. Studio M itself plays no part in the novel, but I enjoyed its design elements—rooms included a loft sleeping space, a great work area and comfortable lounging spot. In addition, it included a massive buffet breakfast by the pool. It wasn’t as close to the subway station as I might have liked, but that just meant I had to stroll along the river before beginning my explorations.

I was mostly interested in seeing buildings from the colonial era, many of which remain, and I was able to enter many of them—now museums or serving other public functions. For that, I was grateful for a book called A Walking Tour of Singapore by G. Byrne Bracken. However, my primary research activity for this part of the trip involved going most days to the National Library of Singapore, which is housed in a beautiful new building in another part of downtown. I had contacted them in advance about the subjects I was interested in and when I arrived, I had a list of materials I wanted to see. I sat in their wonderful reference room with my laptop and thoroughly enjoyed going through countless books, pamphlets, and old newspapers on microfilm. Because the library was so comfortable and the staff so helpful, I enjoyed spending time there—out of the heat, humidity, and monsoon rains!

During the final days of my stay, I visited a shop that I knew well from my days of living in Singapore and bought a reproduction of a 1913 map of Singapore. It shows the city much as it was during the historical part of my novel, and it’s also beautiful.

In the end, the trip provided me with more material than I could use in the book without overwhelming readers, but it was all absolutely necessary and gave me the confidence I needed to continue writing.

Next: Writing the Novel

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