I’m currently working on a young adult novel set in Kuala Lumpur in the late 60s. Problems inherent: I am not a young adult, nor was I around to observe KL back in the day; hell, I wasn’t even born yet. So what to do? Simple. I act like the journalist that I am: Read, research, write, repeat.
- I’ve been reading a lot of critically acclaimed YA novels, for several reasons: to get a sense of pace and flow, to understand the “voice,” to know what my audience is looking for in a good story, and finally — well, they’re really just bloody good books that I wanted to read.
- My protagonist also lives with OCD and anxiety, so I’ve been reading both fiction and non-fiction about that subject. The fiction is to see how these issues are being portrayed by other writers; the non-fiction is to understand how those living with these issues portray themselves (the two don’t always align, unfortunately).
- I’ve been reading a lot of blogs and forums and reaching out to various people that I find from them for very specific things. An example: My protagonist is a teenager with OCD, so I reached out to several teens with OCD to ask them about their lives and experiences. My protagonist is a teenager in the 60s; I’m mired in a lengthy and extremely detailed conversation with a blogger producing a documentary of the music at the time, hashing out such details as what teen girls listened to in the late 60s, whether or not her home would have a record player or just a transistor radio, and if it would be realistic for said protagonist to walk into a record shop in the Petaling Street area to look for Cliff Richard and the Shadows records if I read somewhere that they primarily only sell CHINESE records… (I think he thinks of me as being slightly deranged, but it’s all good. Thanks Carl!)
- I’ve been actually listening to music from the late 60s, and watching local movies produced during that period (thank you, good people of the Internet, for the sheer number of P Ramlee movies that have been uploaded in their entirety to YouTube). I’ve also been scouring websites and forums for pictures of old KL. What I’m looking for are clues: Where places are, what people are wearing, what cars and buses looked like, the feel of a city in its heyday.
- I’m also poring over one particularly useful, zoomable scan of an old map of KL in the late 60s, which allows me to gauge what kind of distance needs to be covered when my characters go from place to place, and how they’d get there.
I’m looking for those details that elevate a book from being just a story to an actual time travelling machine; the ones that make you feel like you’re actually there. If my characters go to see a movie at the Rex, I want you to see the bright painted posters on the wall featuring the stars du jour, Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward; I want you to feel your feet peeling back slightly from the floor with every step, sticky with spilled drinks and spit and littered with kuaci shells; I want you to know to carefully circumvent the seat covered in red cloth just over there, for fear of angering the spirit said to occupy it. I want to engage all your senses, and I wouldn’t be able to do that without digging things up, putting myself in my characters’ shoes, and fully immersing myself in their world as best as I can.