Resources for Writers
Dinah Jefferies on Building Characters in The Silk Merchant’s Daughter
The Silk Merchant’s Daughter is all about the search for identity – a theme I often return to, because it is a part of who I am. People often ask if my characters are a part of me and of course they are in the sense that I create them. I was born in Malaysia and grew up there until I was nine. When I came to live in England the shock left me feeling like an outsider. Who was I, this blonde curly haired girl with a tan? I’m pretty sure that’s what the other kids were wondering and the answer to that question is something I return to by way of the challenges my characters face. In my third novel, The Silk Merchants’ Daughter, it is Nicole Duval who seeks the answers. In fact Nicole is a ‘seeker’ in many ways, as indeed was I. She wants to know who she can trust in a world where nobody is what they seem, and she wants to understand why she doesn’t fit in.
So while Nicole is not very much like me, I did have to dig deep within myself and use my own feelings and experiences to write her. I don’t go very deep in the first draft, as it’s really just me telling myself the story. In the case of The Silk Merchant’s Daughter, most of the real character work came later and the biggest challenge was in writing Mark. He’s a mysterious American and it took a couple of drafts for me to see that I’d really only outlined him; the result was I had to find out more about him and I did that by asking myself questions. What does he really want? What frightens him? What does he need more than anything? And so on, until I’d built enough layers to his character.
Nicole’s questioning is a result of being a mixed-race French Vietnamese girl at a time when being mixed-race could be uncomfortable. The story also deals with the theme of sibling rivalry – in this case focusing on the mistrust and jealousy between the two Duval sisters. It doesn’t help that they both fall in love with the same man. They enjoy that incredibly close bond that sisters often have, but one of them looks French, the other Vietnamese, and this division is echoed in the story. The challenge here was to find a way to make both sisters convincing, but also quite different without being too black or white. At first their relationship was way too dysfunctional, so I had to soften both their characters to make their relationship more subtle and believable. So in the second and third drafts it was about adding layers to them both so that they became multi-dimensional.
The story takes place in the 1950s during the war between the French colonial masters and the Vietminh, nationalists (and later communists) who were fighting to regain control of their own country. Another of my challenges was how to write characters who believed in the rightness of their cause but in absolute opposition to each other. The way I did that was by having Nicole caught between the two and unsure of who she can trust, who to believe and how to decide where her loyalties lie. That way I was able to explore both points of view. Nicole has to figure out who she believes is right. Is it the French, who her father insists have done so much for the country with their mission civilisatrice (civilising mission) or is it the Vietminh who want their own country back? Nicole loves Vietnam and hates to feel that the country she considers her own really is not. That too echoes my experience. I felt that Malaysia was my country, not England, but in fact Malaya was not my country and when we had to leave it I felt like a displaced person.
When people ask about where I get my ideas. I usually say from inside my own head but, when it comes to the themes and characters, I’d say they are from inside my own heart. I think writers often use their own experiences and issues when they write fiction, except that a kind of alchemy takes place so that they become something different: no longer the author’s story but the characters’ instead. You use your own understanding, knowledge and also your research to create a story world. For me it’s not so much ‘write what you know’ but ‘write what you feel and what you have felt’.
So for me, above everything else, I try to ensure that whatever my main characters experience, it feels authentic. While some characters arrive fully formed – I can hear their voices, see how they walk, understand their motivations – others take more work, but by the time the book is finished they feel so real to me that they have become ‘people’. And then it’s time to say goodbye and begin all over again the wonderful process of discovering some new ones. There are an increasing number of stray characters hanging around in the back of my head. A woman wrote to me recently saying she’d love a sequel to The Tea Planter’s Wife. She wanted to know what Gwen would be doing twenty years later. Now there’s a thought! It would be like writing a whole new character but, who knows, I might just give it a go.
(c) Dinah Jefferies
About The Silk Merchant’s Daughter
Dinah Jefferies’ stunning new novel is a gripping, unforgettable tale of a woman torn between two worlds…
1952, French Indochina. Since her mother’s death, eighteen-year-old half-French, half-Vietnamese Nicole has been living in the shadow of her beautiful older sister, Sylvie. When Sylvie is handed control of the family silk business, Nicole is given an abandoned silk shop in the Vietnamese quarter of Hanoi. But the area is teeming with militant rebels who want to end French rule, by any means possible. For the first time, Nicole is awakened to the corruption of colonial rule – and her own family’s involvement shocks her to the core…
Tran, a notorious Vietnamese insurgent, seems to offer the perfect escape from her troubles, while Mark, a charming American trader, is the man she’s always dreamed of. But who can she trust in this world where no one is what they seem?
The Silk Merchant’s Daughter is a captivating tale of dark secrets, sisterly rivalry and love against the odds, enchantingly set in colonial era Vietnam.
The Silk Merchant’s Daughter is in bookshops now or pick up your copy online here!
Dinah Jefferies was born in Malaysia and moved to England at the age of nine. She has worked in education, lived in a commune and exhibited work as an artist. The Silk Merchant's Daughter is Dinah's third novel; her previous novels, The Separation and The Tea Planter's Wife, a Sunday Times bestseller, are both published by Penguin. She is a contributor to the Guardian and other newspapers and lives in Gloucestershire with her husband.