My journey through the world of writing and everything that lies in between…

Archive for the ‘Research’ Category

Research Time: Round 1

Since I have the bulk of my summary done and all my character bios completed well ahead of my self-imposed deadline, I decided in the two months before NaNo, I’ll do as much research as possible. I won’t get it all done–not even close–but at least I can do basic research about the culture, at least the everyday life of a farmer.

So far, I’ve done some research on the area where I’m setting the story. The village is going to be based after Shirakawa-go and Gokayama, remote villages in Gifu and Toyama prefectures. The area is very unique among Japan, most renown for their gassho-zurkuri type houses (named such because the steep angle of the roof is similar to praying hands). The houses were large and often held extended families up to 30 or 40 people. (For the purpose of my story though, there will only be around 9 or 10 in the house and they’ll be minor characters).

The culture of the area is unique too because the villages were so remote and often cut off from the world because of the heavy snowfall during the winter. It was this way even up to the 1970s when the main roads were developed. It’s often said this is one of the last remaining places in Japan to go “undiscovered”.

Perfect setting then for my book. A place cut off from the rest of the world and a place where winter is especially brutal. What better place for my Yuki-onna to live? 🙂

Here’s a picture of the types of houses that are in the area:

Gokayama_Japanese_Old_Village_001

There used to be hundreds of these scattered throughout the Shogawa river valley. Unfortunately many succumbed to old age and modern progression, especially when the dam and man-made lake Miboro were developed. I’ve read that some of the houses were dismantled and moved in order to prevent their destruction. Thank goodness for that!

There’s still a good number of these houses in the area, and quite a few allow visitors to spend a night. There’s also a few houses turned museums too. Ah, to travel there…that would be a dream!

Here’s a panoramic view of the village of Shirakawa-go:

SHIRAKAWA_GOU

I’ve even found videos on YouTube of tourists traveling here as well as a few good ones of the house interiors (one is in Japanese and I can’t understand it, but the visuals are great).

Sometimes I just love research 🙂

Legends and Myths

I’ve recently found that I’m becoming more and more fascinated by mythology. I think part of it has to do with what I’ve recently read (Silver Phoenix and Wings), and I’m one of those people that will obsessively research and read up on something of interest. Inevitably this leads to me coming up with a plethora of story ideas too 🙂

I find it very interesting how different parts of the world have their own myths, but what’s more intriguing  is how similar some of the myths are, especially in opposite corners of the world. For example, the common myth of fairies is present in many cultures, from Europe to Asia. It makes one wonder what sort of common phenomenon people attribute the existence of fairies to whether that’s ghosts or demons or something completely unknown to us. There’s just so much of our world that I believe we’ll never know or understand.

Anyway, since I have such an interest in Far Eastern cultures, I ended up finding a huge Wiki article on the legendary creatures of Japan. Some of the little creatures are quite comical, while others are beyond terrifying.

Some of the ones I’ve found particularly interesting:

Akaname – the spirit who licks the bathroom. It looks like a frog type critter. I don’t know about you, but as creepy as this sounds, I wouldn’t mind a critter cleaning my bathroom 😛

Bakezōri – a sandal spirit (specifically the zori sandals that are similar to flip flops). The Wiki article has a picture of a stature of it and it looks very similar to the cartoon character of Plankton from SpongeBob.

Gashadokuro – a giant skeleton, the spirit of the unburied dead. One word for this: FREAKY. It’s what nightmares are made of.

Hone-onna – a skeleton woman. She’s more of what is called an “energy vampire” or a succubus. She preys on men and drains their life from them in order to live. I’ll leave it up to your imagination on how exactly she does that.

Yuki-onna – the snow woman. One of the most intriguing in my opinion. She’s often seen in a snow storm and there are varying stories about her, from leading lost travellers astray and killing them with her icy breath to entering a mountain family’s household and killing them as they sleep (most of the time she has to be invited in, according to legends). But other legends depict her as a bit more human, although conflicted.

Anyway, I’m thinking that after my current book is done, I’ll be working on something concerned with mythology. I’ve already got a few short story ideas for some of these legendary spirits.

Travel Back in Time

I was doing a bit of research on the town much of my book takes place in and every time I look for info on it, I’m overcome by the desire to actually travel there.

It’s easy to see why the town of Kakunodate has captured my imagination. I have such a clear picture in my head of what it would have been like for my MC to come there, a small village then, after living in busy Tokyo her entire life. It would have been like stepping back in time, to a place of living history, much like it would be now more than a hundred years after my book is set.

I long to go there and do research and take my own pictures. Alas, traveling to Japan from Ohio is not exactly cheap.

Maybe someday. 🙂 For now, I’ll be content looking at my array of online pictures.

Pieces Falling Into Place

Don’t you love it when pieces of your story begin to fall into place? Especially if you’re doing historical fiction and you find something that just would be a great fit into your storyline?

Where does this come from, you ask? Well, after my initial idea was found to be quite inaccurate  (see Pitfalls of Historical Fiction entry for more details), I decided to try and make a decision on the path of my novel by doing a little research.

And I think I’m going with path #1.

I know most in the comments were leaning towards #2 but Kaiyo is so firmly established in my head as half Japanese and American that I feel that changing her appearance would essentially be changing her entire character. I really tried to picture her in the second option, but I just couldn’t see her without some other aspect of her personality changing with it. (That and Kaiyo pretty much began to throw a tantrum at me trying to “change” her. Gotta love these tempermental characters.)

So I went looking for something that would make #1 plausible and came across something. Instead of a politician, her father would be the head of a zaibatsu, or a business conglomerate of the time, often family run and operated (See the Wikipedia entry on Zaibatsu here). An example of a zaibatsu is the modern day company  Mitsubishi. They first developed in 1870 as a shipping firm. Of course they eventually expanded into coal mining, shipbuilding, banking, real estate and eventually the auto manufacturer (as well as many other industries today). They were also the same company that developed the Mitsubishi Zero of World War II as well as other famous Japanese bombers.

Anyway, enough of the history lesson. 😛 This information makes it more plausible for my character’s parents to meet. If Kaiyo’s father is the head (or at least someone close to the head of the company) in a similar fictional zaibatsu (loosely based after Mitsubishi) that was a shipping firm, it’s more likely that they would interact and work with American entrepreneurs coming in to “modernize” the country in the late 1860s and 1870s, thus providing an opportunity for her American mother to be introduced to him. Though mixed relationships were still uncommon (especially for an American woman and Japanese man) I do know that the possibility of such is historically accurate as I read about a real, though unnamed, married couple in Clara’s Diary: An American Girl in Meiji Japan.

Also, by 1890, the zaibatsu had significant influence on politics as they would often give substantial amounts of money to the party they supported. This could play a role in the antagonist’s arrival (a member of the terrorist organization Genyosha) and the reasoning behind using Kaiyo as leverage and blackmail. Books and film have portrayed these organizations as often involved in shady dealings and have connections to the yakuza (which would also tie into the novel, although at this point in history the yakuza were still mainly involved in gambling and street peddling).

I have to do more research on this, but I’m thinking that this makes things more realistic and accurate for my book without changing my character and trying to morph her appearance in my mind’s eye. Who knows, it may not work after all and I may be forced to go that route anyway, but for now I’m going to try and make this one work.

The Pitfalls of Historical Fiction

Historical fiction can be incredibly hard to write and master, as I’ve recently discovered. You may have an idea or storyline and then realize that historically, it’s not accurate.

I discovered this last night.

No, it wasn’t at my critique session–that went remarkably well actually–but it was after I came home and decided to do a little research reading. I picked up my copy of Confessions of a Yakuza, a memoir of sorts about a yakuza boss pre-WWII. This has been the only book thus far that’s given me any idea of what the yakuza were like before the movie stereotype of loan sharking, drug lords in modern Japan. Pre WWII, they were mainly (if not solely) focused on gambling as their main way of operating (there were two types of yakuza, the bakuto, who were the gamblers, and the tekiya, who did more peddling/scamming type things).

I realized reading further into the book that it would be highly unlikely, if not impossible, for my MC’s American mother to have EVER crossed paths with a yakuza member.

Initially, I thought that they would meet because of the “front business” (which would have been real estate). But reading further into the book, I discovered that these gangs had only the pretense of a front business (the gang in Confessions used theater props in their store fronts as they were pretending to be a business of making these props) but wouldn’t have actually been involved in that market.

I also highly doubt my MC’s American grandfather would have been allowed at said establishment.

Don’t ask me why I didn’t consider all of this before. I suppose I got caught up in the modern image of the yakuza before I did my research (major bluff on my part). But now I need to come up with a slightly different plot line.

There are a few different ways I can approach it:

  1. Kaiyo’s father is no longer a yakuza boss but someone high up in politics. He would be close to the foreign minister Ōkuma Shigenobu, who was nearly assassinated in 1889 because of his position with the unequal treaty revision plan (basically, he was a foreign/Western supporter and the Genyosha, an ultranationalist terrorist group, used members of organized crime to terrorize foreigners and liberal politicians). If her father is among this group, they could use Kaiyo as leverage against him to sway his power and position towards their more ultranationalist leanings. I would also use an actual historical figure, Toyama Mitsuru, who was a leader of this terrorist group, as a major character (or at least the power behind the other antagonist). The yakuza would still be involved, though her father would not be part of this.
  2. Kaiyo would not be half American and half Japanese. This would be a major change as part of the story is her struggling to find her identity. However, if I were to change this, her father could still be a yakuza boss and her mother could’ve been someone involved with him. Kaiyo, however, would have never known her and perhaps she is raised by a Western missionary couple instead. The conflict would then be that though she is full blood Japanese, she acts more Western and hardly knows her culture because of how she was raised. This would be an interesting storyline (and would be fairly similar to the whole “fish out of water” storyline I currently have going, only that she would be fully Japanese, but only in looks) 

So I have some decisions to make. I won’t have to start over or anything, but I would have to change a few plot angles to make it flow better. I’ll still be able to write the ending this weekend like I planned on doing–it hasn’t changed that at all.

Ah, such is the life of a historical fiction novel: always changing and evolving especially when research suggests another path to take.

Anyway, if you’ve been patient enough to read this, which story angle–#1 or #2–sounds better or more appealing/plausible?

Making A Fictional World Come Alive

I’ve been working on editing my chapter for my critique session in a few weeks and realized there’s a great deal of research that will be involved in making this world–a remote village in Northern Japan in the 1890s–come alive.

Being a historical fiction writer, this is extremely important. Of course every story, whether set in another place or time or Main St., U.S.A. in the 21st century needs to clearly convey the world so the reader can sense it. But with historical fiction, the writer has to convey the time and place accurately. Historical fiction that is well done will make the reader feel as if he/she stepped into a time machine and was placed back in said time. They must see the world–smell it, touch it, feel it–for what it was. It’s crucial to the story.

This is where obscene amounts of research on my part are neeeded. More often than not, I find myself surprised at some of the facts I discover and many times I find myself “lost” in the research process. But the writer (and this is for myself as well as any writer) must be sure that the prose isn’t overly saturated with research. All too often I’ve read historical fiction pieces where the author went a little overboard in description, talking about some mundane fact for a page or two, which then interrupts the flow of the story.

It’s tempting as the writer to do this because we want the reader to see all of the awesome facts we’ve found. But it’s not necessary to let the reader know what exactly the roof tiles were made of in 17th century London unless for some odd reason it’s integral to the story (and I’ve yet to find a story where that’s the case!). So it’s important to maintain that balance–enough description and research that the reader can feel as if they are walking alongside your characters through the muddy streets of a medieval village or on a chaotic Civil War battlefield in the heat of the summer–yet not so decriptive that it feels like a history lecture (unless of course you’re writing non-fiction, but that’s completely different).

I know it can be difficult to find that balance. Personally, I know I struggle with not giving enough description, which can alienate the reader too. It’s a long and sometime arduous process (especially if your story takes place in another culture and research material is hard to find or in another language), but finding those little tidbits can help make your book something that readers turn to for escape.

The Insurmountable Task of Researching One’s Novel

I’ve discovered very early on that it’s incredibly challenging researching for a novel that takes place in a culture and in a place completely different from your own.

Since my book in set in Japan in the mid-Meiji era (1890), it’s posing to be a challenge. For one, as an American and “westerner” I’m not experienced in the Eastern culture, so I really have to immerse myself in books, videos and other sorts of research to put myself there and not make any major cultural gaffes.

And then there’s the language barrier…I don’t exactly speak Japanese (although I’m hoping to learn at some point). I know a few words and phrases; I know how people are addressed (-san, -chan, -sama, etc.). Still it’s difficult creating what I would think is semi-accurate dialogue.

And of course, it’s really hard setting my book in a real town that’s basically remained unchanged since that time and can only rely on pictures online and descriptions of it to put it in my book. Unfortunately, with limited income, I can’t really afford a two-week trip to Northern Japan to do the really great research I’m dying to do.

Oh and I can’t forget the whole aspect of involving the yakuza in my book. Finding detailed information on this has been frustrating at best. I’m thinking it has something to do with the fact that it’s still a bit of a taboo talking about this vast and incredibly complex “underworld.” I have found a few books and some information on the Web out there but not enough detail for the time period I’m needing. Most of the information comes from part of the Taisho period (1912-1926) and then a great deal during the Showa period (1926-1989). Mine takes place in 1890…I know it existed then–they’ve been around since the Edo period. And I also know it probably vaguely resembled the modern yakuza. All I can ever find for my time period is a page or two at most of info…

I’m not giving up though. I just have to find another way to go about it. And I will not sacrifice historical and cultural accuracy–books like that make me extremely annoyed as a reader; I do not want to put my readers in the same boat.

I suppose this is part of the fun of being an aspiring novelist!

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