Cleolinda Jones (cleolinda) wrote,
Cleolinda Jones

Toil and trouble

So. Writing update. That scene I had lost--I had tried to recreate it from memory. Turns out I ended up with an opposite take on how one character reacted, so after I found the original (like I said: Windows Explorer can't locate something you didn't type up), I realized that I had two opposing takes to reconcile. Which is fine; I just have to decide which works better. I have no problem writing out a scene in as many different ways as it takes to find one that works. I don't feel like the story exists, concretely, unchangeably, once you write it down, so I don't have a problem playing with different versions. I just have to sit down and figure it out now. It's a really interesting (to me) scene, so it's fun.

I'm skipping around at the moment because that's just how I always roll I'm trying to type up all my handwritten notes and drafts. I think the next bit I type up is going to be about the Chinese apothecary. I did what research I could on the Limehouse/Pennyfields area, while also looking into stereotypes so I can work against those. Does that make sense? To learn about the popular conception of the area vs. what it was actually like? Something like that. Burke's Limehouse Nights is really useful for background detail, if you can stomach the constant and horrific racism--it's the location detail he takes for granted that's the most useful. And if you want to learn about offensive Chinese stereotypes of the 1800s, well, Limehouse Nights is your one-stop racism shop. (Well, to be fair: to get your dime-novel crime genius, you're going to have to stop at Sax Rohmer's on the way home.) There are a lot of really awful attitudes in Victorian literature as a whole, but you have to be aware of them in the first place in order to avoid or subvert them. And what your characters are like and how others treat those characters are two different things. On top of that, even "good" characters can have unpleasant attitudes--at first; they wouldn't be admirable if they didn't grow beyond that. But I do think it's unrealistic to have historical protagonists with a full set of socially progressive 21st-century attitudes right out of the box. You've got to find a way to balance realism for the period with what we expect of people now. My feeling is that the best way to do that is start wherever you have to, and use the extraordinary experiences of the story--literally, "beyond the ordinary," because that's why you're telling this story instead of someone else's--to have them learn things about the world that maybe other people don't. Does this make any sense? Because it's important to me to get this kind of thing right, to avoid hurtful implications or bad messages for readers, but be realistic about how enlightened this or that character, varying by person, could possibly be in 1889.

Talking about this is one of those moments where I want to give up in terror.

Another thing I wanted was for the Chinese apothecary, who speaks some English, but not very well, to make mistakes based on Chinese grammar. (His daughter translates for him when necessary.) Like, when I try to speak Spanish and I'm not sure what to say, I revert to the English order of subjects and verbs and adverbs; I'm not fluent enough to think in Spanish. (I do a little better in French, but that's possibly because of the Norman influence on English.) Now, my understanding is that "Chinese only has one basic form, used for every person and tense," and additional phrases specify who and when. So rather than have really terrible stereotypical gibberish, you sit there and think, what does he want to say in Chinese, and how would he translate that directly, if incorrectly, to English?

I also figured out which particular dialect of Chinese he would speak, based on where he lives, which in turn suggests where he immigrated from. (And which suggests what kind of food he and his daughter would cook, which was something I was too dense to realize immediately.) I also realized that Wade-Giles romanization was used from the mid-19th century until 1958, when pinyin was approved, so I'm going to need to use that instead of modern romanization. And there's a character in a different part of town who speaks a different dialect--I've lost where in my notes I figured this out, but based on notes I subsequently took, it looks like my apothecary should be from Shanghai, thus speaking the Shanghainese dialect of Wu Chinese (and possibly Mandarin as a lingua franca), whereas the other character speaks Cantonese. And many of these dialects are "mutually unintelligible," so this isn't something I can just guess on my own with a Chinese-to-English dictionary. (Which is always a bad idea anyway, regardless of the language.) Basically, I have found out enough to get myself into trouble, and I'm going to have to find someone to consult on this. Possibly a linguistics professor. These are actually supporting characters, not the primary protagonists, but you see them throughout the first novel and then the daughter becomes important, so... I have to get it right.

But I'm at a point where I can't grind to a halt and figure out the specific translations just yet. I can write the dialogue in English italics when the POV character understands it, and possibly keep a lot of it that way--which might be easier for readers anyway--but if I use any Chinese at all, I'm going to have to confirm it with someone. Later. I've done enough research (and no, not just on Wikipedia) to know what I don't know, which is the important thing at this point, I guess.

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Tags: black ribbon, research, this is going to end well, victoriana, writing
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