Please welcome with me to the blog today Garrett Hutson, whom I have the advantage of having as a very useful critique partner in my writing group. Garrett writes mysteries and spy novels set in various historical contexts, and I always learn something new when I’m reading his pages! He’s come here today to talk about choosing a time and place for his new mystery series, which starts with The Jade Dragon.
Choosing a Place and Time
I was surfing the internet a few years ago, when I stumbled upon a news story about a sort of rebirth of the old Shanghai jazz scene from the 1920s and ‘30s, and it really intrigued me. I followed links, learned more—and in the way internet surfing often does, it led me down all sorts of rabbit holes of information about the golden age of Shanghai, the “Paris of the Orient,” with its glitz, glamor, and intrigue.
Perfect back-drop for a story, right? That’s exactly what I thought. With all of the corruption—I mean, the head of the largest opium syndicate in Asia was the commissioner for the Anti-Opium board in Shanghai, so come on!—I knew it was ideal for a murder mystery. There was so much potential in this setting—radical extremes of wealth and poverty, even more than usual for the 1930s; an International Settlement governed by representatives of fifteen nations, but under nominal Chinese sovereignty; Korean exiles maintaining a provisional government right under the noses of the Japanese—I was in love with the idea.
I began to imagine a basic plot—a pair of Americans out on the town, enjoying the famous Shanghai nightlife, when one of them gets murdered. I would need lots of potential murderers, of course, and the world of 1930s Shanghai offered all kinds of possibilities. There could be some connection with the drug gang, of course, and maybe corrupt police. There were Chinese communists hiding out in Shanghai at the time, waging a clandestine war with the government, so that could be fun to bring in. Oh, and a Japanese spy—I’d weave that in somehow.
I’ve always loved imagining what it was like to live in a different place and time, so naturally History was my favorite class in school, and as both a reader and a writer I have been drawn to historical fiction. History is so much more than dates and events—it is about people and their stories. As a writer, I have been drawn to the lesser-known stories, which is why I had a ball researching the world of Shanghai during the inter-war period.
I found all kinds of fun things, including a 1934 Guidebook chock full of authentic details on anything and everything, and the published memoir of a British police officer who served on the Shanghai Municipal Police from 1929 until 1936. Both were invaluable, and made the setting real.
There is a wealth of stock photographs of Shanghai from this time period that really helped to bring the setting to life for me. I learned that many of the Art Deco buildings from the time are still standing, and modern tourists have posted beautiful color photos of these places on their travel blogs. These made it so easy—and fun—to immerse myself in the setting, and really imagine what it was like. Real people passed through these places, with real dreams and concerns, and I wanted to make it feel that real to my characters—and ultimately, to my readers.
That is my favorite part of writing a novel, and I am so excited when it comes together as it did. If readers love it as much as I did, then my joy is complete.
Garrett Hutson is the author of The Jade Dragon a literary historical mystery set in 1935 Shanghai, available from Amazon. For more information about the author and his books, visit his website at www.garretthutson.com.
Like Garrett, I sometimes come across a setting which begs for a story, instead of inventing a premise first, and it’s great when that happens — because then I know the story will be organic to that setting, rather than shoehorned in and ill-fitting. And sometimes we’d never have the audacity to dream up stuff as wild as real life, such as the opium syndicate head serving as anti-opium commissioner! Truth is truly stranger than fiction.
The Jade Dragon released June 4, 2017, and is available in ebook and paperback.