Reading the Obituaries for Book Inspiration? Yes! Try It!


            When writing my novels, one of the sources for my inspiration is the Los Angeles Times section that is entitled, OBITUARY NOTICES. These are not obituaries of famous people, but of ordinary folks. Daily, I scan these notices, looking for true lives, but which sound like novels.

            Recently, the summary of the life of Lillian C.W. caught my eye. This lady of Chinese ancestry was born in Los Angeles in 1911. In 2018, she died in a Baptist “home” in Alhambra, California, at the age of 107. She attended Los Angeles High School and graduated from USC in 1933. Her father, Dr. Y.H.C., “was an herbalist in Chinatown,” who encouraged his children to learn Chinese and pursue higher education. Lillian met D.W., a student from China, who was studying engineering at CalTech. Soon after they both graduated, they married and went to live in China. As a civil engineer, he worked on building roads, including the Burma Road, bridges, and airfields for the Flying Tigers. Lillian accompanied her husband, living in rural parts of China before and during World War II. After the war, they moved to Hong Kong, where she taught English and he continued in his profession, civil engineering.

            With this sparse information as a starting point, I began to imagine the lives of Lillian and D.W., beginning in 1933, when he took her back to his troubled homeland. He must have been sent to study in the U.S. by Chiang Kai Shek’s Nationalist Government and must have been extremely patriotic to return home instead of remaining safely in the United States.

In 1931, Japan had invaded the Chinese province of Manchuria. By 1932, Japan had conquered it, setting up a puppet government and was fighting the Chinese armies around Shanghai. In January 1933, Japan occupied the province of Jehol in North China. Thus, in the summer of 1933, D.W. and his new bride returned to a country at war with Japan from one end of the country to the other.        

He worked on the Nationalist military’s Burma Road over the Himalayas, which was built 1937-1938. He helped construct airfields for the American Flying Tigers, when they arrived in 1941 to help the Nationalist Chinese against the Japanese. Apparently, Lillian was beside him all during this time, and then through to the end of the civil war in China in 1949, when the Nationalists were defeated by the Red Communists. Somehow, she and her husband managed to escape to Hong Kong, which was then still under British rule.

The tales Lillian must have had to tell the elderly ladies in the rest home in Alhambra! They probably thought she had dementia and was making it all up. I imagine myself sitting and listening to her, as she recounted to her friends in the home the remarkable events that she had witnessed in China during the first decade-and-a-half of her marriage.

D.W. passed away at the age of ninety-eight, after more than fifty years of living with Lillian. When Lillian died in 2018, she  was survived by two children, six grandchildren and one great-grandson. I try to imagine what it was like for her as a young mother to be raising two children, which I assume were born in China, in the midst of the brutal warfare between the Nationalist armies and the Japanese armies, and then Mao’s Communist armies. Later, she and her family’s escape to Hong Kong in 1949, when the Communists defeated the Nationalists, must have been harrowing, to say the least.

All of which would make for an incredible novel! Lillian must have loved her husband very very deeply, to remain with him in China—while caring for their children—in the midst of the unbelievable horrors of war.  A true romance!

As I said, OBITUARY NOTICES, brief as they are, can indeed provide inspiration for a novelist who has a good imagination, which I hope I have.


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