Friday, June 09, 2006

Dark City

Get a blog, everyone tells me. But I've never been blog-literate, not in that sense. So here's my first post. Just testing. And I'm linking it to this article I've written in today's Star.

Suspicious minds

What kind of research goes into book writing? Dark Cityauthor XEUS writes of researching pains and why a writer’s motives are always suspect.

Uh, how do you make a man, you know, go ka-boom?” The university chemistry professor sounded puzzled over the phone.

“What do you mean by . . . ka-boom?”

“You know . . . make him blow up.”

“You mean like spontaneous combustion?”

“No, it’s got to be a chemical equation. Like when you mix nitromethane and ammonia, and it goes ka-boom.”

The professor’s voice was suspicious. “Who did you say you were again?”

I will be the first to say this: researching a book isn’t easy.

OK, it’s easy when it’s your field subject in university. But when you’re writing a collection of short stories which are as twisted and disparate as possible, and they involve murder, mayhem, CSI and every one of the seven deadly sins, it appears you have to wear many hats.

I used to think Dan Brown must have taken a year off to research The Da Vinci Code, until I found out he hadn’t even been to Paris when he wrote it.

(For the uninitiated, The Da Vinci Code is set mostly in Paris. And because Brown hadn’t been to Paris then, he got most of his knowledge second-hand from his wife. That’s why he got the Parisian streets layout wrong.)

Michael Crichton goes one step further for his biblio-technical thrillers. He even quotes his references, journal-like, from research papers. Pick up State of Fear. His references alone take up a quarter of the book.

Prison isn’t that cramped, not really

In the course of writing Dark City: Psychotic and other twisted Malaysian tales, I interviewed a prison warden for one of the stories.

I could have easily made the whole thing up but I wanted authenticity.

He told me a lot of interesting things, like: “We only issue short-handled toothbrushes, two inches long, to the inmates. Once upon a time, when we gave them the regular long ones, a prisoner broke off the handle and used the jagged edge to gouge someone’s eye out.”

Or: “The prisoners are only given 20 minutes for meals. Dinner is early, sometimes at 4.30pm.”

In writing a book, you need to be nosy, sometimes pushy and have a measure of courage to visit places such as prisons and red light districts. —Filepix
“Prison is terribly cramped, right?” I said. “Like, you have four prisoners in a cell made for two?”

“Actually no. Each prisoner gets a bed nowadays.”

I was discontent. I wanted prison to be cramped, tiny cells packed with stifling humanity up to the ceiling. It made for a riveting story. I had visited Pudu Prison once, and the tour guide was telling us four prisoners were in a cell with two beds.

“Where did the others sleep?” I asked.

“On the floor, of course.”

“Without a mattress?”

“This is prison, you know, not the Hilton.”

Another thing I noticed, the cells were filled with gorgeous ink-drawn drawings. No careless graffiti like #%%* you on prison cell walls; it was as though the prisoners were trying to make their new homes as aesthetically pleasing as possible. And so I merged Pudu prison of the 80’s together with the new one of today, and voila! – I have references that make for good copy.

“So,” I asked the prison warden, “how does a prisoner escape?”

He eyeballed me suspiciously. “Why, do you want to help a prisoner escape?”

The bad things that happen to people

In stories, things must always be happening to the protagonists, usually a conflict of some sort, and the story must always be in dynamic movement, never static. Medicine (not the healing sort) plays a very important role.

“How do you kill someone with cyanide?” I asked a doctor friend.

He looked suitably alarmed. “Why, do you want to kill someone with cyanide?”

I waved him off. “It’s for a story. Cyanide hardly shows up on a toxicology screen, right?”

He was still suspicious.

Still more suspect is my insistence on visiting the back alleys of red light districts, where ladies of questionable virtue prowl and call out to customers in droves.

“Come on,” I urged my doctor friend. “Let’s go talk to them. You can make like a customer and I’ll take down notes.”

Research doesn’t have to be live, of course. The Internet and the library are always good places to start. But of course, one has to wade through the entire Inferno section of Dante’s The Divine Comedy to get to what happens in Purgatory.

“I want to write a story about Purgatory,” I insisted. “I have to do research on what happens in Purgatory.”

“The way you’re going now,” says my doctor friend, who thinks I’m going be the greatest serial killer since Hannibal Lecter, “that’s where you’re heading.”

And when the whole book is written, the National Library of a neighbouring country says, aghast (despite the local distribution rep pointing out that Dark City’s content is no different from the countless Western titles out there): “We can’t stock this. The sex and violence are all a bit too explicit, isn’t it?”

“It appears the Malaysians, both readers and writers,” the local rep replies smugly, “have matured to the next level.”

Last I heard, they’d shunted off my book to the mature readers’ section. Maybe I’ll research that instead. W


Yvonne Lee said...

CONGRATS to the birth of a new blog and of course, a new book!

I've bought and read your book Dark City and hmmmm, it looks like something exciting is happening to our local writing scene.

Already, MPH Megastore 1 Utama has a huge poster of your book. That on top of several mentions of your book in The Star for the past weeks. Do keep us informed of anymore features or book talk.

Here's looking forward to seeing your title on the best-seller listing soon!

Xeus said...

Thanks Yvonne! I can only hope to emulate your bestselling status one day :)

Don't forget MPH Mid Valley still has that huge poster of your book in the center :)

Anonymous said...

At last, you've got a blog! =)


John Ling

Ted Mahsun said...

And when will you get a proper one, John Ling? :D

Congratulations on your new blog, Xeus! The first post is a great way to kick things off!

It's funny how some people fear the knowledge you possess or want to possess. I can understand the university professor and the warden being suspicious, but why your doctor friend? Surely he knows you're only doing research for your fiction. I mean, he's your friend! Surely he knows you're going to use the info responsibly...

Er... you are responsible, aren't you?


Btw, have linked to your blog.

Yvonne Foong said...

Hi Lynette!

Waddya know? I came here thourhg John! Hey, awesome. Gonna grab your book someday. When is the signing?

Xeus said...

Thanks for all the kind words, guys! I'm err....semi responsible. And I don't have a signing yet....not sure anyone would come :(