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

Posts tagged ‘history’

The Meiji Era: The Perfect Setting

Samurai of the Satsuma clan, during the Boshin...

Image via Wikipedia

The Meiji Era lasted from 1868 to 1912. Until the arrival of Perry’s “Black Ships” in 1853, the country had been isolated from the world for 200 years. Once the country’s borders were forcibly opened, the country began to change rapidly.

The old feudal system was demolished by 1868, with supreme rule transferring over from the last Tokugawa shogun to Emperor Meiji.  Of course, there was some resentment from the samurai class, whose power was taken away during this time. The well-known movie, The Last Samurai (which is completely inaccurate with Tom Cruise’s character by the way) is set during this time and the last rebellion by the samurai in 1877.

It was a time of drastic change–in military, education and the general way of life. Some embraced the change, quickly adapting to the new Western clothing and ways, while many others still preferred the old way of life. By the 1890s,  a more conservative and ultra-national train of thought began to be adopted by many, with the rise of dozens of small ultra-nationalist (and often terrorist) groups. The main one, called the Dark Ocean Society, or the Genyosha, wished to expand Japan’s growing military power across the Asian continent. The roots of Japan’s ideology during World War II  can be traced back to this time.

With all of this upheaval in society, what better time to choose for a novel, right? Especially one where the MC is part of both cultures. I did this purposefully, to try to examine on a small scale the whole East meets West conflict. And of course, once I did more research and discovered that the late 1880s/early 1890s was a time when terrorist groups really began to take hold of the country, I found my antagonist (well, one of them anyway.)

Later this week, I’ll examine the Dark Ocean Society in more detail whom I base my fictional terrorist group off of.

This is why I love writing historical fiction; there’s so many interesting tidbits that you find when researching. Of course, it can be challenging, but it’s always exciting when you find something that can really work into the plot of your book. 🙂

Markers of a Time Forgotten

So, hand in hand with my love of history comes my fascination with cemeteries. I know that sounds morbid, but really it comes from that overwhelming sense of reverence I have when I see one, especially the old, forgotten ones.

You know the ones I mean–little family cemeteries from ages past, isolated in a farmer’s field or even right in the middle of suburbia (there’s one within a two-minute walk from where I work, right between a Walgreens and a Goodwill store). There’s something that comes over me when I walk through one, the markers all faded by the years, the people buried beneath long forgotten. But if you look carefully, sometimes you find some very interesting stories just from the inscriptions, especially if the family had a poem inscribed.

The ones that always move me are children’s gravestones–and a marker at the cemetery near I work has one for two children who died under the age of eight within three weeks of each other. What heartache the parents must’ve felt to lose their two daughters within mere weeks of another?  It humbles me, in a time where we often take life for granted, where we think we’re invincible and can “live forever.” These graves make me remember how fragile life really is, even amidst the busy traffic and neverending mobility of the 21st century.

Anyway, a few years back I actually wrote a poem about this for a writing challenge. It’s called “Markers of a Time Forgotten.”

Deep within an ageless forest
Where light and sound doth fade,
The passage of time seems to stem
To those who tread this glade.

Within this dell between time’s weeds,
Covered by countless years
Four faded gravestones catch the eye
A sight that one reveres.

Beneath a tree with sprawling roots
A tall white marker stands—
Enshrouded in a veil of moss,
Reflecting a life once grand.

Another stone stands tall within
The regal marker’s wake.
The only words that do remain:
“The Lord my soul doth take.”

Yonder within the shaded grove,
Two smaller stones still lie—
Akin in size, shape and shade
The two sit side by side.

One little stone is chipped and cracked,
A victim of the years.
The other fares little better,
Erased by heaven’s tears.

Four lonely graves within the grove,
Abandoned to the past.
Bygone memories, cherished lives—
Forgotten oh so fast.

Our lives are but a moment now
On this temporal sphere.
Seasons pass and memories fade
Relics of yesteryear.

These four stones will surely crumble
As time and years pass by.
But these four lives will surely wake
With the final trumpet’s cry.

Before the Silk Road

In a remote Chinese desert, scientists have unearthed Caucasian mummies that are thousands of years old. Where did they come from?

China’s Secret Mummies

This program definitely appealed to my love of history. What was really interesting about this was the fact that a previously unnoticed group of people settled in the Tarim Basin of China, along the far western edge, around 3000 years ago. It had always been assumed that East and West had little to no contact with one another this long ago…but the mummies prove otherwise.

If you don’t want to watch the show, this Wikipedia article about the Tarim mummies pretty much sums it up.

The Generations Project

It probably wouldn’t come as a surprise to you that I absolutely love anything related to genealogy.

I haven’t really started research on my own yet–I’ve been following my parents’ trail, when they did a lot of family history research about twenty years ago. Phil and I went up this past weekend and I spent a few hours going through the steamer trunk from the “old country” which had tons of photos and other family memorabilia (from a 70+ year old scrapbook of my great-grandmother’s, to my grandmother’s baby book and other little things).  I even got to see a picture of the infamous Frank Whetzell the man who was a moonshiner/bootlegger in rural Alabama and often caused a great deal of strife for local law enforcement and his wife, Aley, until he disappeared.

I saw other pictures too, of my mom’s side of the family, and of them in the “old country” in the tiny village of Hažlín, Slovakia (which still only has no more than 2000 people living there). There isn’t much on my mom’s side of the family since most of her relatives came over fairly recently, her mother’s side a little more than 100 years ago and her father’s side only about 80 years ago. Dad’s side is pretty well established here, some parts of his family going back to the early 1600s and the French Huguenots.

Anyway, it seems the genealogy fervor has caught on in the media as well. I’ve been watching on PBS the show “Faces of America” where celebrities’ families are examined (from cellist Yo-Yo Ma, to Kristi Yamaguchi, to Meryl Streep and Mario Batali). Another show is coming on NBC called “Who Do You Think You Are” where family histories of Lisa Kudrow, Sarah Jessica Parker and others are examined.

But I think the best show I’ve seen so far examines everyday Joes like me. It’s on BYU, but it’s also online. It’s called The Generations Project. I’ve been considering trying to apply for the show, even though I know it’s highly unlikely I’ll be chosen 😛 But now comes trying to figure out which story would be compelling enough to have researched on television. I don’t know if I will try it or not, but it’s tempting.

Anyway do you have any interesting family legends that you’d like to research further?


Developing a Vivid Story World

Bringing a world to life. That’s our job as writers–not only must we convey the actual story and develop 3-D characters, we must also bring to life our story’s world: whether that’s a contemporary or historical setting, set around the corner or on the other side of the world, or in a different realm entirely. You have to know about the clothes, technology, food, entertainment…these are all things that help breathe life into a book.

 Culture plays a huge part in developing our characters. I know I have to be incredibly diligent in being accurate to the Japanese culture instead of putting my own Western spin on it. It’s a different frame of mind that I have to be in to write that way. It’s so easy to slip back in to my 21st century Western worldview and it’s something I always have to be vigilent against.

 But this applies to any setting out side of our own, whether it’s a different time, place or a combination of both. We have to take off the 21st century goggles and accept certain aspects of a culture even if that means it calls for racial segregation or discrimination, or subjugation of women. We can’t put our worldview in a time or place where it doesn’t really belong. This is one the biggest issues I will find when I read a historical novel–someone who is “politically correct” in a time or place when that just wasn’t part of life.

This isn’t as much of a problem if you are writing a fantasy, but you have to know the ideals and mindset of the world. Readers are very quick at picking up contradictions. You also have to make sure the reader knows how the world is organized. I don’t often read fantasy, except for chapter segments I’m critiquing for my critique group. One of the biggest problems that I find (and that other members find too) is not knowing enough about the actual workings of the world. Sometimes as writers we often forget that the reader doesn’t have the all-access pass 🙂 This is why I can never write straight fantasy–I’m not creative enough to develop an entire world from scratch!

For me, much of my research, is done through books and online. Finding books can be frustrating when the library doesn’t have it (or it takes a month for the book to ship from another library…).

But then there’s the Internet 🙂 While I have to be careful to double check anything I read online, I’ve still found it helpful especially in the area of travel. I’m a very visual person, so I’ve been able to travel to Japan through pictures and videos and able to see areas that I have in my book virtually.  Of course it doesn’t beat actually traveling there, knowing the language and spending time amongst the people, but for now, it’s the best I have. Perhaps someday I’ll even learn enough Japanese to be able to read all the documents I’ve been missing out on 😛

Of course, it’s easy to want to put in your book all the hours of painstaking research. But you want to be careful not to overwhelm readers. It can be a tricky balancing game. Too much and the readers will get bored; too little and the world will feel like nothing more than a cheap cardboard cut out on a third rate stage.

How do you go about creating your story’s world?

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.

For the History Geek (And Anyone Else)

If you haven’t noticed already, I’m definitely a history geek. Any story in the news that even remotely resembles some sort of historical aspect instantly catches my attention.

Like this one:

Hidden Engraving in Lincoln Watch

I mean how awesome is that?! Something hidden away for almost 150 years, something that had become a near myth, finally confirmed to be true.

OK, geek moment over 🙂 But check it out–it’s a pretty interesting story even if you aren’t as nerdy about history as I am.

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?

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