by Julian Sedgwick
It’s often not at all easy to get a story – or a character – up and running. (At least that’s the case for this writer!) Sometimes you get a beautiful idea for a setting, but don’t have the characters yet to dash around in it. Or you dream up a beautiful plot mechanism, but can’t work out where that device should be deployed. Or you have an intriguing beginning, but can’t propel the thing forwards with enough energy to reach home.
With Ghosts of Shanghai I knew I had an exciting and resonant setting (1920’s Shanghai), a theme that inspired me (overcoming childhood fear through creative, questing use of imagination) and enough thrilling background detail to swamp ten or more books – but or a long time I couldn’t find the character who could carry the weight of the story.
The seed for this series was sown more than twenty years ago when I got a lucky break from my job as a bookseller (in the Oriental Dept of Heffers, Cambridge) and started doing research for a couple of feature films and a TV series set in or around Shanghai. One feature was never financed, one was filmed with a huge budget and big stars and never made much impact (Shanghai, 2010, John Cusack, Gong Li) and the TV series came and went – but quickly I became obsessed with the idea of writing my own story set amidst the glorious, dangerous and beautiful world that had captured my imagination.
Shanghai back then was as modern and cosmopolitan as it is today – lit by neon and featuring exotic shops and clubs, it attracted adventurous spirits from all over the globe. Many Westerners brought up families there, attempting to recreate home for their children amongst the million or more native Chinese. What really interested me were the kids who were magnetically drawn to the Chinese world around them. Often brought up by local nannies, or Amahs, these children became fascinated with local culture and stories, and often spoke the language well, allowing them greater insight into their surroundings than their parents. From Pearl Buck to J G Ballard, many grew up to leave fascinating accounts of their time in Shanghai. And whilst their parents tried to live that Far East version of the Home Counties, their children would romp the streets with Chinese friends on the look out for adventure.
Adding to the potential for storytelling, the Shanghai of 1926 was a very dangerous one: gangsters had many parts of the city stitched up, a vicious civil war was raging beyond the metropolis and spilling onto its streets, spies from a dozen nations were keeping check on each other on every street corner, mingling with an incoming stream of refugees, economic migrants, revolutionaries, con-men and shady figures. As the parents of Western children struggled to maintain normality they had to contend with all this, along with rampant disease and medieval food hygiene. It could be a precarious childhood . . .
I’m always drawn to a child’s journey to work out what the adult around them is all about – and also to stories of children who look to ‘the Other’ for inspiration. (Always I was drawn to the Far East to get my bearings as I struggled for understanding aged 11, 12, 13…) So the Shanghai of the 1920s had everything I needed for a series. And I knew from the start it would be about a child dealing with their own personal demons, and how that reverberated against the wider world around them. There was so much I wanted to say . . .
But I couldn’t make it work.
For two or three years I bashed at early versions of the book without success. The start flowed, but then, despite having a decent skeleton plot involving gangsters and ghosts and adult failure, it kept grinding to a halt. Eventually I shelved the first book (originally called The Shanghai Terror) and started on an idea that became the Mysterium trilogy. I even borrowed my hero from Shanghai – a spirited boy called Danny – and set him into motion in the world of alternative circus . . .
After Mysterium I returned to Shanghai with greater experience of children’s writing. With a few years’ gap some problems were immediately obvious. In my urge to share the glory of 1920’s Shanghai I had overloaded early chapters with detail. Stripping that back to essentials helped, but still my (renamed) central character seemed unable to move forwards.
One morning I woke up with the blinding realisation that more than a change of name was required: my central figure was demanding to become a girl. Named Ruby (for 1920’s and present day familiarity) this character immediately came to life. She started to tell me what she needed to do, what she believed, who she trusted, who she loved. And quickly the series was up and running. The odds stacked against an adventurous female in both the Western and Chinese worlds of the 1920’s were obviously much, much higher. And with more to face, Ruby carried greater energy and punch as she tried to find her way forward through bewildering times and information overload.
Finishing the series some ten years after writing its first words, I hope Ghosts of Shanghai achieves some of what I want children’s writing to be: a machine to inspire readers to look to other worlds, other people, other times, and, through the use of imagination, to stimulate wonder and a little understanding.
Return to the City of Ghosts is published by Hodder Children’s Books.
This is a guest post and the thoughts expressed do not necessarily represent those of the FCBG.