Of Chinese descent, author Celeste Lim was born and raised in Malaysia, where she spent the first seventeen years of her life envious of the children she read about in English storybooks. Now, she has the desire to give the same gift—the awareness of exciting worlds that exist beyond where we live—to children through her own writing. An MFA graduate of Manhattanville College and The New School, Celeste now lives in Queens with her Pomeranian, Hamlet. The Crystal Ribbon, her debut MG novel set in Medieval China about a young girl who was sold as a maidservant and child bride to a three-year-old husband, came out from Scholastic Press in Jan 2017. She can be found at www.celesteplim.com.
What typically comes first for you: a character? An era? A story idea? How do you proceed from there?
As far as writing goes, I am a major plotter, so for me, an idea for a story would usually come first — a concept that’s fun and intriguing enough to get me excited about writing it. Then, I would try to find an interesting era or setting that would best fit or bring out the story. Lastly, will be the protagonist who is tailor-made for the story and setting — maybe someone who doesn’t fit in, or the kind of character who would experience the most hardship within the given story.
How do you conduct your research?
Because the stories I write are mostly set in Asia, my research typically comes in two stages. I always try to start from the primary language, looking up specific topics of interest on the Internet in Chinese, and bookmarking everything that is helpful. From these sources, I would try to find recommendations for books that directly relate to what I am trying to learn about. For THE CRYSTAL RIBBON, I drew much inspiration and info from both medieval and ancient Chinese texts and literature, such as the “Shanhai Jing”, “Liaozhai Zhiyi” and “Journey to the West.”
My second stage of research is trying to find all corresponding information in English. At this point, I’d usually have enough knowledge at my disposal to feel confident about writing, but I would want to know what is out there for the English readers I’m writing for. Would they be able to find accurate corresponding info in English on the Internet? How are these terms and ideas described in English? Does English have its own interpretation of the same thing or topic? If it does, which one will I use in my novel? More often than not, there would be slight to major discrepancies between the Chinese and English versions, which is where judgment has to come in.
When I was writing THE CRYSTAL RIBBON, I had had to make a number of decisions as I write, such as, whether I should maintain a more accurate Chinese wording, or a more accessible English version of the Chinese word. A simple example of one such word would be “kung fu”, which has become a pop culture of sorts in the West and can be easily Googled, but the proper Chinese pinyin is actually “gong fu”, which English readers may not be as familiar with. Therefore, as I write, I needed to be consistently mindful of that.
At what point do you feel comfortable beginning to draft? How does your research continue once you begin writing?
I will begin writing at a point where I feel I know enough to be able to write smoothly without having to interrupt myself too often to Google something. Usually, if I can clearly picture the scenes I’m going to write with confidence in its accuracy, I will dive right in. My main goal is to avoid Google while I write as research can be such a HUGE distraction from the actual writing! Then after that, research would be more about looking up or reconfirming relatively minor details, such as, “Has paper money been invented yet?” or, “Are they still using incense clocks or water clocks?” during which I will divide up my days of researching and my days of writing.
What is your favorite thing about research?
Travel! Although I probably won’t get to do that for every book I write, research is a legitimate and great excuse for traveling! While I was writing THE CRYSTAL RIBBON, I lived in Harbin, China for 5 months and worked closely with a professor at a local university. It was an unforgettable experience and enriched me and the book in ways I didn’t think possible.
What’s your least favorite thing about research?
Decision-making. I am very bad at that, especially when I try looking up something and Google comes back to me with many different versions of the same thing and I then have to decide which ones work better than which, or hey, maybe something that’s a mix of both if I gave myself enough leeway. And in the process, I’ll probably give myself a huge headache. But that can also be helpful because that’s usually the point where I decide, “Yup! It’s time to ditch the research for a bit and go back to writing!”
Because life isn’t always clear cut, the motives behind our actions don’t always make sense. But stories need to follow a logical path. What sorts of decisions have you had to make about “muddy” historical figures or events in order for your book to work?
One of my work-in-progresses is supposed to be set in the politically chaotic era of the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms (around 907 to 979 AD), where the Tang Dynasty ended in great upheaval during the Huang Chao Rebellion and its lands subsequently divided into more than ten kingdoms. If that’s not muddy, I don’t know what is! So in order for a story about a fictional warrior princess who plays a central part in politics to exist, I have had to decide how much tweaking I could get away with on the historical part of the setting, and if I am unable to, how much of the actual historical era can I borrow to fit into the story I have weaved for my protagonist. And if that happens, the story would technically be an alternate reality rather than historical. Ah, decisions, decisions. 🙂