The Object of Your Story


Occasionally it’s mentioned in workshops or books on the craft of writing, how effective a physical object can be when subtly weaving it through your story.  Recently I finished reading the book The Velvet Hours by Alyson Richman which uses a large 19th century portrait of a Parisian courtesan as an occasional object from beginning to end. Even without a picture to physically see, the author showed the reader the gilded frame, the woman’s posture, colors, and fabrics.  It easily came to mind whenever the painting was mentioned at various intervals of the story. It was a familiar object.  And, what I loved about this book was how the author wrote it as a fictionalized account of a newspaper article. It was a story of a family learning about their great-great grandmother’s apartment in Paris which was locked up for over 70 years. When the apartment was opened by family heirs in 2011, it was as if time stood still and they walked into 1940s Paris. I remember reading the newspaper article and posting it on Facebook.  I was fascinated by the story and thrilled someone wrote a book about it.

If you decide you want an object for your story, how do you discover what it will be?

As writers, we understand inspiration arises from unexpected places. You may be in a writers’ group when a new story pops into your head and the first draft is soon underway. Perhaps you are sitting at your desk or on a plane thousands of feet in the air when an idea for a new character is born. You can be anywhere.  That’s the beauty of being a writer.

It wasn’t long ago, as I was housecleaning, when an object in my home reminded me of someone I once loved.   I wiped dust off the Asian antique mirror and remembered a time, 43 years ago, when the man I loved looked at his reflection in this mirror, standing in my mother’s home.  I was across the room watching him when his reflection caught mine and we locked eyes. It was a moment which stood still in time for me. He’s been gone many years, but, oddly, his reflection and the memory of our connection remain embedded in  the wavy glass of this mirror.

My thoughts, as I continued dusting, trailed off to another time I could only conjure up in my imagination. It occurred to me my grandfather may have bought this mirror for my grandmother when they were first married in Shanghai in 1929. The mirror, with its new glass, survived WWII hidden in a Shanghai cellar. It was kept with other curios and precious objects out of sight and protected from the Japanese invasion and ensuing confiscations since these objects were in the cellar of a White Russian friend of my grandmother’s. If a Russian (or any nationality) was married to a citizen of an enemy country, they were sent to Japanese internment camps, which was the case of my grandmother and mother who spent 4 years in a camp because of the marriage between my  Russian grandmother and  a British man.

A couple of years after the war, in 1947, the mirror took a journey by ship to the United States and hung on the wall of my grandmother’s San Francisco flat well into the late 70s.  The mirror had additional journeys over the next 37 years when it lived in my mother’s home in Pleasant Hill, CA; Colorado Springs, CO; then to my home in Seattle, and eventually settling in Edmonds 11 years ago. I imagine one of my children and one of my grandchildren will take it from here.

And so it was a day of simple housecleaning which created my story-object. If I choose to do so,  I can carry this mirror through my book for almost 100 years of my family’s history.  I can write a historical fiction showing the reader many of the faces reflected over time, some known and some imagined; we have so much freedom as writers to create whatever we wish!

Stories and ideas pop up for writers from unexpected places and we are delighted when they pop up at all.

Vivian C. Murray








Eat, Wok, Stare – Just Another Shanghai Kind of Food

Full disclosure: “I am not a foodie.” I am not going to show you luscious examples of all the savory dishes I ate in Shanghai, mostly because I forgot.   And, I basically eat when I have to eat something to keep my energy up, but I do choose carefully so I don’t become ill. Fast food is not my favorite so it’s only out of desperation that I go to one of those joints. (I feel that way about coffee at a certain coffee chain started in Seattle, too.)  There is something ‘too corporate’ about these chains and I would rather give my money to smaller businesses.

I also prefer food brought to me at a table rather than buffet-style, and in a foreign country, it is helpful when a menu is in both English and the local language, but a few photos illustrating the dish will do fine, too. I’m not that fussy. Otherwise I take a look around at what other diners are eating or ask the server what they recommend if they happen to speak English. No matter what, you won’t starve if you can’t speak the language. You just figure it out.

With that said, I absolutely relish seeing different foods in other countries and it is common for me to take photos of food-related items which are different from what I am used to seeing. Like sculpted ice cream on a stick:


Terrible photo because I was being rushed by others.

Eating in China was not totally ‘foreign’ to me since I grew up in a family who went to Chinese restaurants in our neighborhoods as special treats. And San Francisco was full of awesome Chinese restaurants. As a bonus, I learned how to use chopsticks early on in life. Shanghai carried on in my mother and grandmother’s lives until the day they died.  And now that I think of it, oddly enough the last meals I had with them were at Chinese restaurants, 17 years apart.

Arriving at the Pudong airport in Shanghai in March of 2015, one of the first signs I saw was for  Burger King.


The next day, I had breakfast in the dining room of the Astor Hotel, where I was staying, with an elegant and scrumptious buffet.

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And on my first walk along Shanghai’s busy Nanjing Road, a colorful case of lacquered fruit popped into my sight.


These colorful fruits seemed to be lacquered with a thick clear icing. Sugar, I presume.










A day later, during the first of two personal tour days my cousin John and cousin-in-law Denise, and I had with Mr. H., we were taken for lunch in locally well-known, too expensive (we paid for lunch on top of his hefty daily fee, although I admit he was worth it), and well-established restaurants somewhere in Shanghai. These restaurants were never obvious from the general tourist point-of-view and I doubt I could find them again.

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The first restaurant (and only one I photographed) was this weathered and splendid building with flying eaves, and which was definitely old enough to have been a place my family ate in the 20s and 30s.  We arrived after 1pm when most customers (looked like all locals) were finishing up lunch and taking their time talking over desert.  It was a busy Saturday and we had an extremely long wait before we were seated.


While waiting to be seated, I looked at this wall for longer than I was interested.

In contrast to seeing the ‘real Shanghai’ neighborhoods that morning during our drive, it was obvious there was no poverty in this opulent establishment and it was far from being a working class restaurant.


fish in the floor

Koi swimming beneath our feet.


This shrimp dish was excellent.


Denise and I were picking leaves off our lips and out of our teeth as we drank our tea.


The little pond roped off in the center of the dining room. Seemed a bit weird since no one could drown. But, maybe they were afraid of ‘other things’ happening.


One of several dining rooms in this palatial building.

While we were eating our pleasant lunch, there was a young Asian boy, maybe 7 or 8 years old, who appeared to be fascinated with Caucasian people eating. I even ate with chopsticks which may have blown his little mind. I don’t know why, but he couldn’t stop staring and hovering, standing very close to our table, gravitating into my personal space to the right of my chair and maybe a step behind me. He openly watched our every move.  The boy’s family (presumably chattering away in some other area of the restaurant which I never could figure out) either never saw him to correct him about lurking or maybe he was the owner’s son? I have no idea.

In China, I noticed personal space is practically non-existent. This was my first time in Asia so if you have ever been in an Asian country you have noticed there is always the somewhat disconcerting feeling someone is looking over your shoulder or standing practically flush by your side.  I suppose with the high populations in these countries it is necessary and a non-issue to be so cozy with each other. It takes some adjustment to get used to the closeness of our fellow humans.

But, back at the restaurant, Mr. H.  finally barked out some stern Chinese words spurring the boy on to skedaddle over to the other side of the pond, closer to his invisible family.  I occasionally glanced around to find him in yet another corner continuing to keep his watchful eye on us. What was he so curious about, I wondered.

As we were leaving, I turned and looked back  to see the boy now standing at the edge of the dining room entrance, with a curious, almost wistful expression, watching us leave his familiar world. I smiled and sent him a small wave goodbye which prompted a sweet crooked smile from him as he happily waved back. It was kind of sweet in an innocent, stalking sort of way.

Later we went to another police station where my grandfather worked sometime during 1922-1942, and wandered through the imprisoned and creepy area which was down one of the alleyways I didn’t venture off of Nanjing Road. It was cordoned off by high concrete walls with a rolled barbed wire deterrent on top. The day had turned out to be very warm, which made me thirsty. As we were leaving to rush off to the next destination I saw the sugar cane carts outside the walls. I am not sure where the memory came from, maybe Chinatown in San Francisco with my grandmother, but I knew I liked sugar cane juice. I ground to a stop (Mr. H. was always in such a hurry!) and bought a cup of the juice while being reminded how refreshing it tasted.

Delicious sugar cane juice

Delicious sugar cane juice

During my 10 day stay, I ate at various places on my own. Most were a success, but not all. (During the 2 days with John and Denise after our time with Mr. H, we ate at the Subway on the Bund out of sheer desperation. Not my favorite place but it was close by when we were walking the Bund, plus we were hot, tired, and knew what to expect.)

One of the poor choices I made was ordering a burger from the bar in the Astor one early evening. I can’t seem to erase the taste of or the memory of the consistency of this so-called meat.

But to give the hotel credit, the little café in the lobby served excellent soup and the buffet breakfast served in the same ballroom where my family members must have danced at some point, tasted amazing.


The wonton soup in the Astor House café was excellent, the salad was sad, and they always served a banana with a meal.


Elegant way to have a cappuccino in the Astor House.












On the other hand, the little café across from another hotel not far from the Astor was another one of my random decisions which did not work out in my favor. Hope I don’t get sued, but this had to be my worse food experience in Shanghai. I thought I was being smart by avoiding the $12 for breakfast at the Astor by venturing up the road to what looked like a possible breakfast place. I had noticed the sign when getting dropped off at the hotel one night.

Unfortunately, another taste I can’t seem to forget was the ‘bun’ I ordered which also had some sort of indescribable meat inside. There was nothing fresh offered here and I should have known that if it was pre-packaged, odds were not in my favor. After one bite, I gave it back to one of the two women  saw working there and she started eating it with a big grin. Neither of them spoke English.  She seemed to be proving to me that it was delicious and I was the picky tourist.   I saw a cake slice which I figured would have to do as breakfast. That was tasteless. Perhaps that’s a good thing. The sad ending to this tale is it cost me more than what the breakfast at the Astor would have charged.  Not so smart, on my part, after all.

Overpriced restaurant

Overpriced restaurant




At another desperate moment, I saw an exterior Starbucks sign, walked the length of a enormous department store with individual stalls selling shoes, clothing, and cosmetics, only to fin this “Brewing Soon” sign. Luckily on the following block I found one already brewing and open.


Thinking this was milk with a ‘cute character’ on the bottle, I found that when there is a peanut, it usually means it is peanut milk. I have never heard of peanut milk and after one sip, I never need to hear of it again…


















There was an evening I found a 7-Eleven type market during a downpour, when I just wanted a glass of milk and a cookie to take to my room. (See milk bottle caption.)

And the day I wanted to sit and have a cup of coffee. (See Starbucks caption.)

To end my stay, I had dinner at the local restaurant just up the street from the Astor. I don’t know what happened, but I have no photos to mark this particular visit. It may be that I was distracted by the stares (again). This time it was a whole working family in this empty restaurant who seemed bored to death, so perhaps an old American woman having dinner alone was their entertainment. (It was late afternoon before most people went out for dinner. As I was leaving they were becoming busy with locals.)

Everything on the menu was in Chinese and no one spoke English, but there were some photos alluding to ingredients. I chose a soup with shrimp which was very good. And as I sat there being the center of attention, they were distracted for a little while by a delivery of  large plastic crates holding fresh fish (I could see them swimming inside when l stood up in my booth and glanced over the top of a couple of the crates.). This was obviously the catch of the day for their dinner menu.

This Shanghai journey was a time when it would have been helpful to know the Chinese language, but I got by and never got sick. Plus I learned something: I know to pay attention to a peanut character on a bottle of  milk.

Two Faces of Travel: Traveler and Tourist

During my travels, I tend to seek out less traveled spots, therefore these places are less crowded, which makes me feel less surrounded, and makes traveling feel less stressful, and much more pleasant. But on this Sunday in crowded Shanghai, I understood it was time to surrender to a day of jostling with other tourists to see the sites. And we were paying a pretty penny for the personal tour, so I should try to pay attention.

On Sunday, Henry took John, Denise, and I to a few of the tourist spots around Shanghai. 


Before entering the Yu Garden, you must negotiate the Yuyuan Bazaar, an example of sprawling commercialism contained in 10 streets. However, shopping was not on our itinerary so we were whisked through the modern-built-flying-eave-structures to the ancient gardens with barely a glance or clear photo. 

The classical Yunduan Garden was completed in 1577 by a government officer of the Ming Dynasty. Pan Yunduan built it for his parents to enjoy a tranquil and happy time in their old age. They lived only a short time after the gardens were finished, since there was a 20 year gap when Pan had to be in Beijing. 

Yu in Chinese means pleasing and satisfying.  The garden has gone through many different phases in 400 years. Some rich merchants bought it in 1760 during the Qing Dynasty and rebuilt the dilapidated buildings but it was severely damaged in the 19th century during the Opium Wars (1839-1842) but in 1956, then had a five year restoration period, and was finally opened to the public in September, 1961. The Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) partly destroyed it again but from 1986-1993, the government repaired the garden to what we see today. 

It’s only my assumption that during the time my family, The Sharrocks, lived in Shanghai, 1922 – 1947, it was nothing more than a park for opium addicts much like in the slums of any large city.

The 5 acres of Yu Gardens include 30 pavilions in six separate sections. Vaulted bridges and winding pathways lead the visitor through a world built for Chinese scholars, politicians, and wives with genteel lifestyles (imagine: women in cheongsams drinking tea, discussing politics, and gossiping in one of the gazebo-style structures with pretty birds chirping, water gurgling, and grasses swaying from frogs hopping.).

Hawker making too much noise selling what Henry said was a ‘peep show.’ I think he was being sarcastic…


New pavilion construction at Yu Gardens entrance.


Moon Gate

Moon Gate


It’s almost easy to forget there are hundreds of other people who have joined you on this contemplative walk.  Note the word “almost.”


Bridge leading to tea-house


Ancient and original Yu Gardens Tea-house


Moon Gate



“Good old boys club” in a Chinese Tea-house?


Dragon’s head rising…

Dragon Wall

Dragon’s Body Framing the Top of the Wall….



Meditative pool next to one of the wive’s pavilions

   It was a lovely place to see. Just try to imagine it is just you and a friend taking a Sunday walk.



Onward to Sun Yat-Sen’s former residence. “Sun Yat-Sen set up the Military Government of the Republic of China in Guangzhou and took office as the Generalissimo of the Navy and the Army in 1917.” The house was nice, he was quite a versatile and intelligent man who was not only a politician but also a medical doctor. It was somewhat interesting, but  if I had to choose, I would not have bothered. Unless you are into Chinese politics (he was a revolutionary, the first president and founding father of the Republic of China, and his 2nd wife’s sister, who was one of the 3 Soong sisters, married Chiang Kai-shek) or the fact that this 1924 European cottage style (he died in 1925 so he only lived there a year) was China’s first major government-protected cultural site, you may want to choose a temple or one of many gardens in Shanghai. Dr. Sun Yat-Sen’s former home in Shanghai is located at No. 7 Xiangshan Rd. (FYI: There is also a classical Chinese garden in his name located in Vancouver, B.C. and is purported to be the largest classical Chinese garden outside of Asia.)


Denise and I found this book display humorous. Dr. Sun Yat-Sen apparently needed some advice in the department of “women managing.”


Pigeon House in the backyard.


Dr. Sun Yat-Sen

Another residence we visited was the Shikumen Open House Museum at 25, Lane 181 Taicang Rd, Huangpu District. A Shikumen is the “most representative residential form in Shanghai, had the height of its popularity from late 19th century to the 1930s. The general layout resembles European terrace houses, but with the inside the structures of the residential style of South China.  Such buildings have a stone doorframe, which looks like a ‘Sui Gu’ (stone  hoop) over the dark solid wood door leaf, so it used to be called ShiGuMen (stone-hooped door). Due to the similar pronunciation of ‘Gu’ and ‘Ku’ in Shanghai dialect, it became Shikumen and is still in use today.”

The shikumen seemed to be a comfortable home and this display was nicely decorated for the 30s. It was a bit like visiting my grandmother!



Not a bad place for ‘grandma’ to sleep.




When I mentioned to Henry I’d like to see an original neighborhood, I wasn’t prepared for where he took us. The sprawling network of small living quarters and narrow passageways  seemed to be more in line of what was once called a “shantytown.”   Henry seemed  to even forget his manners by walking us through this neighborhood as if it was a living museum. At one point he even walked into someone’s kitchen with the tenant inside washing a pot. She promptly shooed him out of her kitchen and gave us all a look of utter shock and disgust; I didn’t blame her.  Henry was unfazed and carried on with the tour.  I felt uncomfortable and took less photos than I would have if these had been abandoned. It was heartbreaking to see how the people lived, and have lived,  for generations.  I would not be surprised if this neighborhood is slated for demolition very soon.  Many Shanghainese throughout the city have been offered compensation for new living accommodations as the Chinese government turns the country into a sprawl of high-rise and quickly made condos. The deal includes relocation away from Shanghai and into towns built miles away from other family and friends.





Myna Bird
Hair Salon

Hair Salon

Life Growing Up

Each water faucet is metered for the individual families.


Electrical meters for various families.


Crossed wires?


Lilong (alleyway).

Moved, No Forwarding Address

Moved and left no forwarding address…


Sometimes 4-5 families share one small apartment.


Shared outdoor sinks.


Statues for sale. I would have bought one for my garden if I could have fit it in my carry-on.


Interesting looking little guy.

Shanghai Library

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Henry took us to the library to vouch for me to be approved to carry a Shanghai Readers Library card.  This process involved forms, my passport, computer entries, and finally  my own card. I cannot check out books and physically remove them from the premises but I can read on site. 

From the main library, we were whisked off to the Bibliotheca, a library annex established by Jesuits many moons ago, and where they preserved and archived old newspapers and other historical documents. Taking photos of the outside would help me remember what it looked like when I returned on my own in a couple of days.  This was a very thoughtful thing for Henry to do; he did a similar thing for my other cousin 2 years prior.


Shanghai Library Bibliotheca Zikawei

Archival Building 

Exterior of the Archives Library

The Tour of the Traditional Tourist was drawing to a close (although the library doesn’t normally qualify as ‘traditionally touristy’) with a whirlwind walk of the Jade Buddha Temple (Yufo Si). This Buddhist Temple was where an enormous and quite beautiful white jade reclining Buddha resides as well as disciples of the Buddhist religion.

The temple was built in 1882 but moved to its present location in 1918. We caught part of a formal ceremony with all of the monks chanting, and which I love to hear. There were many Buddhist devotees lighting bulky wads of incense and praying before several of the Buddha statues in the Pavilion. It was a peaceful place to wander around; I could have easily spent more time finding a quiet bench somewhere. The temple is located at 170 Anyuan Lu, Puto District in the northwest section of Shanghai.

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Prayers to Buddha

To finish the day, we took a quick walk through the pretty and obviously well-used and well-loved  Jing’an Park, which, unfortunately for my family and many others, was once called Bubbling Well Cemetery. My grandfather, Sam Sharrock, had been buried somewhere on these 8.3 acres in January, 1942.  However, in 1955, all burial plots and headstones were allegedly moved to somewhere in the countryside, and maybe to other cemeteries, when the Chinese government decided to make the entire area a public park. The government put out notices to family members but if you weren’t on the list, you weren’t notified. Obviously, neither my mother and grandmother in San Francisco, nor my cousins in Northern England, were on the list. Trying to find my grandfather’s final resting place has been futile thus far. Plus, we are still trying to find written documentation about Sam’s assassination, and why he was killed in action on that fateful day of January 20, 1942, two months after Pearl Harbor. Was the story of my grandfather’s death, which was told to my mother and grandmother, true or was there some even more sinister reason other than the story he had uncovered an opium ring? In case there is something in writing to explain all this, at least now I had my Shanghai Library card to search.

 The Jing’an Park is located on Nanjing Rd (formally Bubbling Well Road).DSC01090

The former Bubbling Well Cemetery