Month: April 2014

Fukuyama Castle Matsumae’s Ghost

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Japanese winter. Pagoda tiles dripping with ice. Sleeping cherry blossoms encapsulated under snowy blankets busting to flower. There’s nothing like the contrast. On the island of Hokkaido, in Northern Japan, there sits a beautiful little castle on the Matsumae peninsula. It’s quiet, a sentinel in a stark landscape where the wind blows across the stormy Tsuguru much of the year. This castle is nothing special compared to the grand dames Edo and Himeji. It might even disappoint.
Matsumae castle

Don’t be fooled. This castle began in a place a castle had no right to be. It’s the only one of it’s kind in Northern Japan and once functioned as the single way station into Edo from the North. The jo began life as Fukuyama castle in 1606 built by Matsumae Yoshihiro. The Matsumae as a clan were tough and pragmatic. They had to be. An offshoot of the mighty Takeda, they were given exclusive rule over the northern island across the Tsuguru Straits.

In exchange, they controlled and subjugated the native Ainu and kept Honshu safe as a bumper. This was unique. Not only did the Matsumae get a rare, free hand, they were not required as most daimyo to make the galling tribute every other year to Edo castle. This allowed the clan to grow wealthy and develop autonomy when most of the other clans were being absorbed.


The life was hard. No rice grew in a landscape that was white most of the year, so the Matsumae adapted. They traded with the Ainu and amassed a vast koku of herring and furs. They were isolated and had little interference from the shogun-until the Russians came down and changed everything. What they found was a clan unlike anything else in Japan. Fukuyama stood less than 100 feet in it’s heyday, with three turrets, and took the name of the clan who couldn’t be frozen out, burned out or defeated easily; Matsumae.
Matsu Castle

I was so taken with this setting, a castle in perpetual winter and the black diamond clan that I set the action at Matsumae castle in my novel, The Secret Life of Concubines.


Editing and Such

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I’m eclectic. I don’t adhere to this way or that way blogging. Today is the letter E in the A to Z Blog Challenge and I don’t have a particular theme. That’s okay.


It’s who I am. At least as a blogger. I like history. I like art. I like culture and fashion. But when it comes to story structure and getting the edits and reedits done, there are no shortcuts. No magic wand, no a little of this and none of that. More like a lot of this and much more of that…and more…and more…and you may be asking how much more? Much More.

Writing is talent for sure, but endurance and sticking to the plan and cranking out the edits are where the writer will stand or fall. When people come to me about writing and ask questions I get excited. I love to inspire newbies with ideas. I listen and watch. I look for the glaze in their eyes when I talk structure. I look for scales falling as I tell them writing is hard and the easiest thing they can do for themselves is learn structure on the front-end.


If they slink away or enthusiasm dampens, I know they won’t make it. If your obsessive enough to stay the course, you’ll get there. Take editing. As new writers we think finishing the manuscript is the end-game, but it’s the first step. If you haven’t taken formal writing classes or workshops, you’ll quickly find that no matter how great your idea, the structure is off. So you begin the arduous task of editing your novel. You learn structure on the back-end.

Writer crying

Maybe you make the draft sparkle with successive passes. You get some guidance under your belt. Maybe you’ve joined a critique group (yeah!), and you’re CPer’s see the makings of a good story.

writer happy

You’ll have to rewrite that novel, especially if you’re a panzter, over and over many times to get it right. It can be done. The old adage, put the first novel away in a drawer and write another is sound. IF you have no hope of revisiting the manuscript, grow bored with the story (it happens), or didn’t write the thing linear in the first place. But if you love you’re first novel, are committed to reworking it, rewriting it perhaps five or six times, experimenting with POV and flipping viewpoints, you can make that first novel shine. Guess what, it then becomes a third book, a fourth book and a fifth. Only if you study structure and approach each draft as a surgeon.


Resources on Structure

James Scott Bell’s Revision and Self-Editing is a great place to start. Plot and Structure is also a must. What I love about Bell is the ease with which he presents quick fixes and tips that anyone can overcome. The hurdles of learning structure and editing the novel become lighter. Much of what I learned about structure came through the editing process, and seeing what works. Bell’s challenge is the quickest, fast and dirty way to learning story structure that I know. I did it and it was a game-changer.

The Challenge

It’s not easy. Few will have the patience to do it. You might want to give up. Don’t, I promise it works.

Take 6 books you want to read that you admire. Look for a range of works. Ones you’ve read before are fine but read critically. First, read for pleasure. Note what works, what doesn’t. Read again, but this time, deconstruct each scene with an index card, again making note of what worked and what didn’t. You’ll be amazed at how fast you begin to get it. How quickly you apply these principles to others works, how critical you will become and how you will see the flaws in your own story. Now arrange all the index cards novel by novel. If that doesn’t infuse story structure in your mind, if you don’t see behind the curtain, you never will.


Daimyo-Japan’s Lord of the Manor

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As a fierce warlord and a ruler, the shogun ran feudal Japan with fear and respect. He was not a king, for Japan had an emperor who held separate court in Kyoto, the ancient religious capital. But the emperor had little power over day to day affairs, and lived a life cut off in genteel seclusion. After years of internal warfare, a leader emerged as the first shogun in 1600. The Tokugawa would go on to rule until the Meiji Restoration in 1868.


But how did the first shogun tame the warring clans into the longest internal peace that would lead to the decline of the samurai? He did it with a road.


A daimyo was a lord. He served under the shogun and swore fealty in much the same way a knight swore obedience to his king. The daimyo, a samurai warlord in his own right, would be given a vast land grant, or han, in exchange for that loyalty to the shogun. Under him would be his personal armies, members of his clan, high-ranking samurai-all at his disposal. This could be worrisome to a shogun who wanted to keep his minions in check. He instituted an ingenious, exhausting system, ensuring the lords would be too busy to concoct sedition. All daimyo were required to travel along the great Tokaido Road in a monstrous procession with everything they owned, from their wives to the last pot and pan. This compulsory trip to Edo Castle took place every other year. All lords were expected to spend the year in service to the shogun at his court-in essence they submitted to becoming hostages.

Toka samurai

It was a kind of forced-tribute. The cost to transport an entire household including armies was horrendous. Soon, the daimyo were hemorrhaging money. It took immense planning, many didn’t want to leave their han open to enemies. They resented the shogun’s intrusion and feared consolidation by Edo around the corner. The journey was slow. The main road leading to Edo, called the Tokaido was clogged on any given day with a stream of clan flags waving in the breeze. The servants who could not afford to ride in boxy palanquins walked on foot. No time to plan a war. No time to do anything but go back and forth to Edo, in a slow processional crawl.

It worked. Japan enjoyed peace and the daimyo had other things on their mind like courtesans and pleasure.

Samrai and courtesan

With no wars, and no fight, the samurai soon fell upon hard times. The daimyo fortune’s dried up with so many trips to Edo. But a few held out.


Tozama clans-considered outsiders rose up one last time to give the shogun a run for his money in what would become the Boshin war.

Cherry Blossom The Flower of a Warrior

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My heart belongs to Kyoto…..

It’s that time again. Kyoto, lovely Kyoto is blooming with Hanami, the kimono are out in droves and the viewing parties are in full force. Oh to be in the Land of the Rising Sun now.


I always get a little weepy at this time of the year. The cherry blossom is as important to Japan as the kimono once was. It’s an enduring, iconic symbol, delicate, long admired for a transient reminder that the beauty of life is all too fleeting.

Cherry B

During the feudal age of Japan, the samurai chose the cherry blossom as the flower of contemplation. They wrote haikus and death poems devoted to flower that fell in a gossamer stream for a few short days every spring.


The Way of the Warrior is death. The samurai knew life was brief. Because the samurai code-the Bushido, The Way-preached readiness for death, when they looked at the five-sided blossoms thin as paper or held one in their hand they felt deep affinity to the beauty and the shortness of life.


“An old Edo proverb hold’s whoever find’s a three-sided cherry blossom, will always have love in their lives.”

The sakura, or cherry blossom is the flower of the Geisha. When the young Maiko come out to showcase their spring matsuri dance, they are always waving the cherry blossom.

Geisha CB

Cherry blossoms are so revered that they are floated in tea or served with dinner and desert.


The best kind of snow to fall in Northern Japan’s Hokkaido is perfumed snow.

Matsu Castle

Fun Facts

Washington DC’s Cherry blossoms came from a gift in 1912 from Japan.

Cherry blossoms come in a range of colors from pinks, to deep magentas to whites and peaches.

The cherry blossom is hardy enough to bloom in the snow covered lands of Northern Japan.

Cherry blossom viewing parties are called Hanami and everyone get’s out to enjoy the scenery.

Cherry blossoms are edible.


Boleyn Family-A Story of Pride and Extreme Predjudice

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I’m a sucker for the Tudors. I love that period of history. I’m half English myself so it cuts deep. I love costumes and the velvets and rich damasks and the tales of courtly love when Ladies were Ladies and Gentleman got down on bended knee for a whiff of their heart’s desire. Today, the men I see on trains would push me away for a seat. Sigh. But I wonder if I could really hack it at the Tudor court. All is not what it seems. Soft velvets won’t break your fall if you happen to be born on the wrong side of the blanket.


Whether you prefer the old English Bullen or the fancified Boleyn spelling, they were a family to be reckoned with. They came, according to the genealogy from Norfolk County, England. We’re concerned with the Fifth generation. Sometime between 1500-1504 Mary was born. She was the eldest of the family trio who landed at court and became embroiled in a scandal that destroyed the Boleyn name and the family reputation. Next to nothing is known about her-except she was schooled in France like Anne and became Henry’s mistress. She bore him a son. She seems to have quietly faded into the background, rather than stepped aside for Anne as Philippa Gregory suggests in, The Other Boleyn Girl.


Whether the two were close or rivals is unknown and pure speculation. But that’s fiction, right? Brilliant. Gregory came under fire for her historical inaccuracies, and her portrayal of Mary as innocent bystander. What Gregory was doing was putting a fresh spin on a story that has been told over and over (and keeps us coming back!). The story is written first POV through Mary’s eyes, the perfect showcase for a new telling of the Anne and Henry saga. Nothing particularly new to add. Nothing that doesn’t fall lock-step with what we’ve already heard. Great story though. If you understand story, you understand why Gregory had to make Mary the perfect-root-till your drop protagonist and Anne the selfish, if a bit unbalanced antagonist. Story. Not history. I love the book. It’s well written and one of my favorites, but if you’re a history-lover you’ll take umbrage with the main premise. There is no evidence Anne Boleyn was guilty of any of the crimes she was convicted of, much less incest with her brother George. Not one man would dare to go against the king. Not even Anne’s uncle.


Now that we’ve moved away from story, I’ve always hated that particular incest charge, because it’s so unbelievable, it’s overkill and once again we see George’s name dragged through the mud. Unimaginative. Give me a George who is heroic. He was born around 1503, not much is known about him either but he has gone down in history as the most hated Boleyn because of what he may have felt for his sister. I don’t buy it. It’s too bizarre.

AB mini

Now we come to Anne. All too often, history has portrayed Henry’s second wife as a termagant and a shrew. Well, she did persuade a king to divide his church and cast off his wife. She was born sometime around 1501. Sent to the French court as a young girl, she came back a woman of intrigue. She was not an English beauty with thick blonde hair and rosy cheeks or a well-formed bosom, but possessed a sallow complexion, with sleek dark hair that matched her keen, black eyes. She was confident and dressed well. No gable hoods for her. She wore French. Witty, and quick-minded, she was bound to attract attention.


Eric Ives, preeminent historian accuses Thomas Cromwell as the architect in Anne’s downfall. We know that she didn’t get a fair trial-her own uncle, the Duke of Norfolk sat in judgment of her. The charges against her. Adultery. Treason. And, Witchcraft. The confessions extracted by torture from the men accused of committing adultery. Remember, this is an era where one’s religious life was of the utmost importance, and Henry wanted to get rid of Anne. He saw he could do it before with Katherine, and he wanted out. What better way to absolve himself of a woman he despised by claiming he was bewitched?

Eliz and AB

Anastasia The Lost Grand Duchess Still Grabs Us

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It’s the kick off of Blogging A-Z yeah! It’s a few minutes past midnight-officially April 1st.


The Last Russian Imperial Family. One of the most enduring mysteries of the 20th Century. Following the turbulence of the Russian Revolution Tsar Nicholas II abdicated. Following house arrest, after a lengthy imprisonment in Siberia, sometime during the night of July the 17/18, 1918, the family was ushered into a dark cellar to await their fate: death by firing squad. And as the Bolshevik guard who took part in the carnage boasted, “The world will never know what we did with them.” We didn’t until the remains were found in a remote forest, near an abandoned mine shaft in the 1990’s.


They were an appealing family in so many ways; the four sisters, The Big Pair, The Little Pair went by a variation of their first names when signing autographs-OTMA for Olga, Tatiana, Marie and Anastasia. But it was the youngest Anastasia who was destined to grab hold of history.


In the 1920’s a woman was pulled out of a canal in Germany claiming to be the Grand Duchess Anastasia of Russia-she was vague, didn’t want to talk about it and had an uncanny memory or certain details only the real Anastasia could know. Her supporters pushed her claim but still her grandmother the Dowager Empress of Russia refused to receive her. This woman was the infamous Anna Anderson.


In the late 1980’s, I became absolutely mesmerized by the story of Anna Anderson when I read Peter Kurth’s book that was adapted into a mini-series. That show ignited my love of Russian History. I read everything I could get my hands on. I felt like I knew each member of the Imperial Family. I wanted so badly to solve the mystery.


Though I wanted to believe, fantastic as it was, this young girl survived a hail of bullets and bayonets by hardened revolutionaries. So I compared photos of the real Anastasia to Anna Anderson. No one changes that much. I saw NO resemblance whatsoever to the Romanov women or the Grand Duchess Anastasia. I knew I should see a glimmer, a shred. I looked at my own photos through the years, and I saw a lot of changes as a young woman from a child. But I saw something that made me see I was the same person, and I’ve read the German court cases, seen the plaster casts of Anderson’s ears and feet. People saw what they wanted to see. She was a fraud. Ten years before the DNA evidence unmasked her as a Polish factory worker. I knew through my study of Russian History that one sees pretenders over and over that this was nothing new; Tsar Peter III, Pugachev and a host of others. People have also popped up through the years pretending to be the other sisters, there was a Grand Duchess Olga of Lake Como who recognized a false Grand Duchess Marie.


One thing we know, the real Grand Duchess Anastasia who loved to pull gags on people and was a quick study, will continue to capture our imagination long into the future.