Rewriting History

Last month, I gave a master class on novel writing at the International Writers’ Collective. Because my debut novel is set in Shanghai 1937, we spent a little time talking about the historical research that went into The Dancing Girl and the Turtle. Out of fear of disappearing into the research rabbit hole, I decided to write the story first and figure out the facts later.

That seemed to make a lot of people in the audience happy. I think I made writing historical fiction sound easy. Did I mention all the rewriting?

a slow learner

I made some major historical mistakes in that first draft of  The Dancing Girl and the Turtle. They ranged from setting my novel during the wrong Sino-Japanese War to misusing the term for those body-hugging dresses worn in 1930s Shanghai. Fixing all those gaffes required a full-on, page 1 rewrite.

In fact, if I had to hazard a guess, I would say that 90% of what I wrote for The Dancing Girl and the Turtle, I threw away. And what was left, I rewrote. Not once or twice but maybe hundreds of times. They say the easy part about writing is getting that first draft on paper. The hard part is the rewriting.

Portrait Mao Zedong
By Zhang Zhenshi (1914–1992). Mao Zedong portrait attributed to Zhang Zhenshi and a committee of artists (see [1]). [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Now I’m on my second novel. It, too, is a work of historical fiction set in my beloved Shanghai though 18 years after the close of The Dancing Girl and the Turtle. During those 18 years, the Jazz Age, World War II and the Chinese Civil War came and went. Mao Zedong rose to power and Shanghai turned into a very different place. This was the full extent of my historical knowledge when I set out to write Peace Court, i.e. nothing I knew about Shanghai was relevant anymore.

And still I chose not to research first. I would write the story and leave the rest to the rewriting.

writing without a net

Last October, I announced that Peace Court was in the works. I had a first draft by then and figured, with one novel already under my belt, the second one would be a breeze. Ha! Eight months later and I’m still rewriting with no end in sight. Should I have done things differently? Perhaps started with a plot outline or some historical research upfront to plug up the holes in the leaky boat?

The sad truth is that there’s only one way I know how to write: without a plan or even a goal in mind. Yes, it can lead to face plants but it’s also the only way toward that je-ne-c’est-quoi that all writers seek. You can call it surprise or serendipity. I call it blood on the page, that moment when a character does or says something real.

This is not to say I’m flying totally blind. With The Dancing Girl and the Turtle, I had two parameters set. One, my story would be situated in Shanghai, around the time my father lived there. And, two, my theme would be silence.

With Peace Court, my restraints have multiplied. These two novels will be part of a larger work, The Shanghai Quartet, a set of four interconnecting novels. Characters that appear in one novel may reappear in another. Each of their narrative arcs need to line up across all four novels. And since I’m writing in the noir genre, gritty realism is key. That’s a lot of balls to keep in the air. Or, to mix metaphors, it doesn’t feel so much like I’m flying without a net as I’m wrapped inside of one.

rewriting for accuracy

Add to all this the historical context and you’ll agree, I’m completely screwed. I did quite a lot of rewriting just to keep all those plot lines across four novels aligned. When it came time to dive into the history books, my primary questions pertained to plot. I was looking for holes, factual impossibilities and anachronisms of all kinds. But also inspiration for new plot points.

For example, I learned about the class label (chengfen) assigned to each household to designate their relative loyalty to the revolution. Initially, there were many classes and subcategories. In time, these distinctions were conflated

 into two opposites: red or black, friend or foe. They would determine a person’s fate for decades to come, as children inherited the status of the head of the household.

Frank Dikötter, The Tragedy of Liberation: A History of The Chinese Revolution 1945-1957, p. 48

In addition to plot points, I was looking for signs of daily life. What did people talk about, eat or wear? What sorts of jobs were there to be had in 1950s Shanghai? I took my cues from numerous sources, ranging from the Little Red Book to The Art of War. I would have liked to explore fiction written during that period of time. But neither the works nor their creators survived the many purges of the Communist Party. For Peace Court, there was only so much historical research I could do.


Of the material I did find, I took copious notes. Anything that struck me as comical, disgusting or enlightening. Then I had to pick and choose. Rewriting my manuscript in order to stuff it full of facts didn’t seem like a great idea. At the same time, I did (and do) feel the need to establish my credibility as a storyteller.

historical rewriting
Flying Pigeon headbadge. Image source:

Grounding a reader in time and place is one way to establish authorial authority. So in Peace Court, you’ll learn that the Flying Pigeon was the most popular bicycle in town. You’ll find that lipstick has been banned in the former Paris of the East and ration cards introduced. And you’ll visit a watch factory installed inside the home of a former English banker.

There are many schools of thought as to whether a character should use the language of his time. Since I’m writing in English and all my characters speak Chinese, I don’t have to cross that bridge. But I did want to give a hint of revolutionary language. So Peace Court is larded with self-criticisms, novel extracts, letters among comrades and a poem or two. All of it was made up but it most certainly sprang from the well of my historical research.

change notes

Change notes are the way I organize these disparate thoughts. The notes are organized chapter by chapter though some changes may need to be implemented throughout.

1. Too many characters talking to themselves?
2. Delete all adverbs and adjectives!
3. He said, she said: are they all necessary?

My change notes to Peace Court, version 30.04.2018

Instagram rewriting
Winter sweet. Image source:

I’ll read that, in the 1st century BC, the Chinese designated most food stuffs from the West (aka the Middle East) with the prefix Hu and decide to change a character’s name. In a scene where one character is looking out the window at the building across the way, I realize I don’t have the geography of Peace Court fixed in my mind. On Instagram, I run into a picture of winter sweet, a flower that blossoms in Shanghai winters. All these flights of fancy land in my change notes.

So far, I’ve created four sets of change notes. Those notes have led to more rewriting. I don’t actually know anymore how many drafts I’ve produced. At this stage, I’m going through the novel chapter by chapter. Sometimes there’s little rewriting involved, just a handful of tweaks and then on to the next chapter. Other chapters require a full re-haul or have to be woven out of thin air.

rewriting for truth

In this stage of rewriting Peace Court, historical facts are the least of my worries. Having added all the granular texture, I need to pare back, if need be using power tools. I’m looking now for the one detail that implies all the rest. Think of Tolstoy in War and Peace as the soldiers are in full retreat in the face of a Russian winter. He doesn’t show us suffering soldiers. Instead, he gives us the dogs who shadow the troops, growing sleek and fat on corpses.

geographical rewriting
My map of Peace Court. Photo credit: Karen Kao

That’s what I want and nothing less. History books are full of facts: dates of battles and number of dead. Useful to know, essential even to creating believable characters and conflicts. But now it’s time to leave all that behind.

Novels are about truth. And I’m still flying blind. I’ll keep on rewriting until I stumble upon what I’ve wanted all along. A story that rings true.