500 words from...is a series of guest posts from authors writing about Asia, published by Asia-based, or Asia-focussed, publishing houses, in which they talk about their latest books. Here Jakarta-based William L. Gibson talks about Singapore Yellow, volume two in his 19th century Detective Hawksworth trilogy, set in Singapore and Malaya – it kicked off with Singapore Black, and will conclude with Singapore Red. The trilogy is published by Monsoon, a company specialising in books that open windows onto south-east Asian history.
In Singapore Yellow Chief Detective Inspector David Hawksworth, orphaned, middle-aged and gimlet-eyed, travels to Malacca to meet a mysterious woman who claims his mother is alive, only to find a British Resident has been brutally murdered and a Singapore police expedition has vanished in the jungle. Children are being snatched from villages, sinister commercial syndicates are fighting over virgin resources, and a seductive pontianak is on the loose – a pontianak is a vampiric female ghost in Malay mythology. When native kids start turning up butchered in Singapore, Hawksworth finds himself increasingly isolated as the evidence points to the involvement of the colonial elite. Bringing justice to the powerful perpetrators while saving his own skin and uncovering the secrets of his dark past pushes the detective over the brink.
So: over to William…
In Singapore, I lived for six years in an old police barracks on Pearl's Hill overlooking Chinatown. My curiosity led to my reading history books and biographies and old travel narratives. At the same time, I was taking a lot of dodgy prescription pain pills and drinking cheap white wine and watching old film noir movies. Somehow from this mélange came the idea to write psychedelic, hard-boiled novels set in 1890s Malaya.
I've always liked hard-boiled fiction, especially Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, and not so much the Agatha Christie whodunit style of detective writing. The butler did it? Who cares! I'd rather take you into seedy brothels and get into drunken fights and explore weird old technologies. So for me the plotting is almost secondary to the historical research and the sensual experiences of the story.
Most of the main characters are based on people I know. I was fortunate that in my first weekend in Singapore I made life-long friends with some local Hokkien lads who took me under their wing and introduced me to some of the less salubrious places on the island. Many of those experiences are in the books, as are the Hokkien lads. Of course other local friends and colleagues and even family members (my wife's local) wind up in the books, too.
I would say the characters are sort of exaggerations of real people's personalities…or amalgamations of aspects of the personalities of several people. The fun in writing was spending time with a person then taking notes in my head about which aspects of their personality would best be translated into a fictional character. There are also historical persons that I tried to capture, voices from travel diaries, plus modern media personas, such as 1970s-era Terence Stamp, for the tough guy aspect.
Trying to put readers in the mind of a 1890s British colonial policeman isn't easy! Obviously you can't have a racist central character as sympathetic for modern audiences. So I gave him a past that allowed him more empathy with local people. The colonial racism comes out in other characters.
I think I struggled the most with staying inside the plot. My imagination tends to run wild and I zoom off to describe this amazing thing or that bizarre forgotten practice - all of which is interesting, but none of which propels a plot forward. My editor at Monsoon has been very good at helping me with sticking to the point, and I've learned a lot about pacing. And of course, while writing, I kept in mind the best advice ever given to writers: murder your darlings. My own darlings are long purple prose passages that I labour over in great detail…then reject because a four-page description of a sunset screws up the pacing. I keep all these orphans in a folder on my hard-drive labelled dead matter.