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If you’re writing Historical Fiction you’re most likely in love with the past. While writers adore research and taking notes, diving into costume templates and other delights, it’s important to remember that unless you’re writing a text book there’s Story and there’s History. Don’t confuse the two.
Historical facts are like backstory. Their there to enhance, not overwhelm. A delicate hand is needed to spice up stories if we’re going to transport readers to the world we are recreating. It’s rich details, the little bit of this, and little bit of that we can use to enliven stories without dumping a lot of unnecessary, dry facts on top of readers who will turn away.
Because history to me is so enjoyable, when I approach a project in the early stages, I give myself a time limit to do research. It helps keep me centered on story, and prevents a trip far off field that will prevent me from actually writing the story and over-researching. In fact, I under-research. In the beginning. When I get into the draft, I leave blanks if I haven’t read deeply enough and go back after my first draft is done to read more on the topic so I can flesh out the scene first. Always remember, story first. I typically limit my initial research to two weeks to a month, depending on scope and familiarity with subject matter. I watch documentaries, read primary and secondary sources and research costumes. I do not research technical aspects yet, such as weaponry and language. Once I start writing the draft, I review notes and let the story guide me. If something needs more research, I’ll note and go back. The old Stephen King Cleveland trick. These things are usually things I want also to see in person. I’ll watch a YouTube video first, then schedule an appointment with a local expert. That’s it.
It’s crucial not to get overwhelmed with details. If you’ve loaded your draft with too much detail or find your characters speechifying-teaching history-you’ve gone too far. History like backstory is a spice. While I want readers who enjoy that time period to be charmed and delighted, I know I’ve done my job when I’ve transported a reader who knew nothing about the era. Those are the ones you should be aiming at. Don’t be afraid to use foreign words with elan, these are the things that bring your world to life.
If you don’t know how to do it, try something like, “I wrapped the rich uchikake around my shoulders for warmth. It was always welcome to have padded kimono on a night like this.” You’ve defined the item once, now be free to use the word again without having to define and the effect is seamless. The reader gets it.
How do you like to research? Do you dive in or do you do just enough to sprinkle the story?
I was chatting the other day during my errands. Writing came up, and they grew wide-eyed and interested as they asked, almost conspiratorially, “You’re a writer? How do you get published?” I realized then, that the novice who dreams of writing, is all too interested in putting cart before horse. It was only after I was slugging bundles in the back seat that I wished I could have said more.
I vaguely recall that place. Where the drive is nascent but not yet crystalized enough to carry them through the long days night. They really have no idea what they are doing. It’s dangerous, and kinda exciting too. Pull up a chair, or a bed because it’s not easy and it’s not over night. It’s not even next week, maybe not even next year.
1.) Forget publication. For now.
So often when we start thinking the world is ready for our stuff. If you’re just starting out, the world is not ready. You’re not ready. Develop your craft. Take classes through Writers Digest or local extension schools. Write and write some more. If you’ve written a novel or have a Nano project that was never EDITED TO DEATH, forget about subbing. You’re barely out of the gate.
2.) Get in the habit.
Write every day. If you want to write a novel, make an outline first. I started out years ago as a panzter. It made the editing process extra-long and while the book got better with every draft, I knew there was a better way. There are great books on craft out there. Story structure will save your life. You can’t hope to plot out a novel correctly without some form of road map.
3.) Get an obsession.
If you find a higher reason to write all the better. Figure out why you want to do this, not money. Not fame. And when you do, don’t talk about your work. Keep your novel close while you’re in writing phase, don’t show it to friends and family. Trust me, your enthusiasm will wane. It always works for me. This will help you through the endurance phase, when your writing buddies quit, but you have the chops to stick it out.
4.) Speaking of writing buddies.
If you can’t post your work because you can’t take it, you’re not ready. You need good critique partners to swap with. They are your only line of defense in a tough industry. Getting editorial help is a good if you can afford it, but it WILL NOT GUARANTEE success. Why? You pay editors. They have a pecuniary interest in your work. They also take too many projects, if they are in demand. You need unbiased truth here, the kind you will only get from friends who want you to succeed and who play a valuable role helping you along the journey. You help them, they help you. They are the best help you will get, and you will learn hugely by critiquing their work.
5.) Read often.
Writers read. It’s that simple. You can’t learn the craft if you don’t read what others do. Read wide, in your genre and read outside your genre. If you’re trying to get published, read as many debuts as you can to crack the code.
6.) Believe in yourself.
Not everybody can write, despite the old saw that everyone has a story inside. If you can’t write, you’ll find out sooner or later. But if you learn the craft and stick to it, you may be able to get better. It takes grit and a thick skin, those who would give up at the first rejection letter will give up. They won’t believe in themselves or their story. They’ll be swayed by one agent’s opinion and won’t realize that while they can always improve, writing is subjective. Not everyone will love their story. But someone will.
Here’s a great link to K.M. Weiland’s site on Story Structure. I highly recommend the book.
If anyone is interested, e-mail me I have great Theme/Structure Chart you can use to help plot your novel. It’s copywrited by a well-known agent so I will not post. But it helped me immensely.
When I was researching my book, The Secret Life of Concubines, I was interested in setting the story in a portion of Japan not as well known. I had seen the movie Silk, and my imagination was immediately captured by snow on pine. Hokkaido was that outpost that I chose to set my series. When I was looking around for inspiration for my daimyo-antagonist character, Matsumae couldn’t have been more perfect.
Though the character of Matsumae Yoshinobu is fictional, his backstory is one of rebellion and going it alone. The Matsumae ruled a portion of the island of Hokkaido, “Ezo” as it was known in the 1600s, and were given a unique fiefdom from the shogun. Most of the territory was wild, impenetrable forest. The native peoples called Ainu had settled it for years and were down as far as the Kuril Islands. The Ainu were tribesmen, completely different to the Japanese. They lived off the land, hunted and were considered unkempt and inferior. In exchange for protection of the northern borders against Russian and Ainu incursions, the daimyo were given a free hand. This was huge. It meant that the Matsumae didn’t have to travel every other year in a costly tribute journey like most other daimyo. They were left alone and they developed a thick skin.
The life was hard. Rice didn’t grow, they had to import their rice because winters were long, and the Matsumae relied on trade with the Ainu, of which they ran several taikin outposts as they began to subject the native peoples. Historians have noted that Matsumae daimyo are weak, inconsequential and occupied an anomaly in Edo’s otherwise centralized system of daimyo management. The shogun needed them. He was across the Straits on another island, Honshu, and that made administration of the hinterlands difficult. The northern borders were extremely important especially when Russia began to make more trips into Japan, and by the 18h century, there was real fear that they meant something more sinister.
In 1792, a seminal voyage from the Russians convinced the Edo government that the Russians were up to no good, that they had reason to suspect conquest. A Russian ship led by an officer of Finnish-descent, Adam Laxman landed in Hakodate and wintered at Matsumae castle. They demanded trade, and needed supplies. They pulled out papers signed by their Empress giving them authority to offer trade with the shogun. They had Japanese castaways with them that had washed up on Russian shores. They wanted to return them as a sign of goodwill. Europe was in flux. The French Revoltion infected the Russian Empress with paranoia who suspected the castaways as spies, but that was beside the point. The Russians meant to leverage them. It was all for naught. What started as a “friendship mission” was viewed with disdain and hostility. The daimyo met with the Russian ship, but told them they were unwelcome to trade. He gave them a paper that said they should go to Nagasaki if they wished to return and one ship a year would be recognized. This paper has been debated for centuries. The truth is, the Japanese were really calling the Russians bluff, and didn’t expect they would return.
The trip was considered a disaster. The Russians lingered through a never-ending winter with meager supplies and no trade treaty, but as the first Russian voyage to step foot in Northern Japan, they were treated somewhat decently. They didn’t help themselves to the women of Matsumae, and they behaved when they were told to leave in spring. But the threat was there. It was real and the Matsumae daimyo performed a valuable service in keeping the Russian bear from marching on Edo.
In Siem Reap there’s a magical little restaurant where the ferns part and the lanterns sway in the tropical breezes. At night, the lights go on and the place twinkles charm. It’s called Madame Butterfly.
I’m not sure when it happened, but through the years the story of Madame Butterfly has become embellished and turned into a Mikado-esque fanfare. If you google “Madame Butterfly”, “Madame Butterfly Geisha” pops up. These two subjects have merged, and in many people’s minds are the same.
Both subjects offer plenty of mystique, glamor and pique our interest in the exotic. I believe it’s a result of this misunderstanding that the two are so often confused. I know. Opera is dramatic. It’s supposed to be. I get that. Puccini’s is one of the most beautiful ever written. Despite the superiority of the score, the opera is still a sentimental favorite, due to the potent mix of tragic love and gorgeous sets; parasols swaying, silk rippling and falling blossoms, all the trappings we’ve come to expect. Those who have attended a performance, or read the backstory know Cho-Cho-san and her horrible ending.
We feel her love for Pinkerton and we go with her on her naïve journey, as she waits, ever faithful, scanning the horizon line for him to return. Touching and poignant. If you’ve done you’re homework, or poked around my blog you’d know the story is largely made up, a myth the Nagasaki Tourist Board shamelessly exploits. It’s based on scant historical evidence. An old photograph and a kimono. The book, Madame Butterfly was published in 1903 by an American lawyer who was influenced by Loti’s famous Madame Chrysanthemum. Are you following me? Because here come’s the geisha connection.
It seems Loti’s story too chronicles a naval officer married to a Nagasaki geisha. Bingo. The novel was so influential in it’s day that it shaped western views of Japan. Or, more precisely of kimonoed Japanese women sitting around all day, emoting for officer lovers. But it did little to promote the truth about the real geisha as artist who studied her craft from an early age. In other words, a story that had no real basis in truth-the Glover House-the photograph of one of his many women wearing butterflies-and a novel became the image we see today; Madame Butterfly the Geisha.
Of course, this is largely due to ignorance and perpetuation of early 20th Century stereotypes of Asian woman as exotic sexual object. To be fair, some includes admiration for La Japonaise style, a craze for everything Japanese, albeit through western filtering at the time.
The geisha and the woman purported to be Madame Butterfly, if she existed at all, are not remotely connected. Period. But through the magic of cinema, novelists and dreamers they will likely be intermingled for a long time to come. And, I guess that’s not such a bad thing as long as people have the opportunity to learn the history and appreciate the craft of the geisha without being confused or sidelined by stereotypes and misinformation. One of the problems is that the geisha community itself, shrinking every decade is closed and guards it’s secrets well. I wonder how they feel about Madame Butterfly, and whether they are annoyed by the morphing of a fictional character into their realm?
It’s still a darn good story that refuses to go away and that’s okay by me.
As a writer of Asian fiction, I am drawn to Cambodia’s famed Angkor Wat temple. I can’t get enough of it. It’s so mysterious and incredibly beautiful that I have multiple pictures in my home, writing space and office. It uplifts me. It makes me chillax and it reminds me how something great can be brought forth from ideas and stone.
But first, there was the jungle.
Angkor Wat is a Buddhist temple complex. The largest ever built in the word. It’s a 12th century Khmer king’s dream come to life. It’s still standing. The temple broke from Shavism tradition and instead celebrated Vishnu, and there is a legend that holds construction happned in a single night by divine help.
The temple’s gradual focus shifted from Hindu to Buddhism. This amazing place was abandoned over the years, as regimes came and went but never completely. And it had protection. The jungle prevented destructive encroachments. The vines and the snakes actually preserved the jewel inside.
Our drafts. Just like this magnificent temple, they are laid out scene by scene, page by page from nothing. They age. They take shape and they become overgrown. Time to prune.
The writing process can feel as if we are enveloping our beautiful words in a morass of vines. So we put the book away. The proverbial shut the drawer moment. Maybe we write something else because we grow bored. Can’t sell it. Can’t fix another scene. Can’t face it.
But it’s when the vines are at their worst tangle that we know some hidden jewel awaits us. Some books can’t be fixed, and some are meant to teach.
Here come the Ifs.
If you can’t get that story out of your head, if you followed a linear path, if each scene flows from outward progression, if you follow goal-motivation-conflict, it’s all there. You just need to edit. Cut back. Combine scenes that don’t work. Try cutting anything that’s boring. Odds are cutting will save that book.
So, if you’re still haunted by the book in the drawer, there is hope. Think of the temple in the jungle, because it’s true. Greatness comes from drawing out the bits that excite and entertain us. Nothing great came from the easy path, if that were true we’d all be living in log cabins.
I’ll take the temple and the jungle, please.
So I actually committed and made it through the Blog A-Z Challenge. To pat myself on the back, I’ve written two books but this was different. Blogging is different.
I had a lot of fun. I loved the camaraderie, meeting new peeps taking the challenge and seeing how they came up with inspiring content. I hope they’ll still come around. I hope when the excitement wanes, they won’t too. I will visit my new friends, and often.
The numbers shot up too. Nice. There were moments. After a few in the restaurant, I had to really pull myself to the Surface to get it done. Tax night? Yah, reason why the Ikebana Post was not getting much love, I was literally doing turbotax and the post at the same time. It wasn’t my best, but I didn’t want to quit. And hey, it was “I”.
Some posts were surprisingly popular.
Cherry Blossom C. Kyoto K. Good eye candy. Everyone loves cherry blossoms.
Life of Oharu, okay that was X but it got good comments and it’s a fantastic film.
This one was close to my heart.
The Real Madame Butterfly M.
Zelda in the Shadow Z.
I can see the value of blogging often. I feel energized. Great challenge with like-minded people. Wouldn’t have missed it.
I’ve always thought a duel biography of Zelda and Nora would be interesting. Both married literary giants, Fitzgerald and Joyce. Both were incredibly unhappy. But since this is the last night of the A-Z Blog Challenge, Zelda gets the honors. After all she was the original flapper.
Zelda goes down in history for being the model of Daisy Buchanan, in Great Gatsby. But she was a frustrated writer, largely misunderstood who suffered in the shadow of her husband. It’s ironic that she was the quintessential It Girl, rebellious, hip and bohemian enough to break the rules of society yet she struggled with identity. It nearly destroyed her.
She seems not to have much confidence in her own abilities, but much of her witticisms made their way into her husband’s books. As a product of post-War America, she was the embodiment of woman who turned away from traditional roles of wife and mother. She was not domestic in the least. She contributed to a column of favorite recipes, this is what she wrote, and I quote:
“See if there is any bacon, and if there is, ask the cook which pan to fry it in. Then ask if there are any eggs, and if so try and persuade the cook to poach two of them. It is better not to attempt toast, as it burns very easily. Also, in the case of bacon, do not turn the fire too high, or you will have to get out of the house for a week. Serve preferably on china plates, though gold or wood will do if handy.”
They had a difficult marriage. Unconventional, he, raging alcoholic who expected her to bask in greatness, she who suffered bouts of depression, commitment and suicide attempts. Hemingway did not like her. It was mutual. He thought she was crazy. She detested his “faux machismo”. The marriage issues stemmed largely when Zelda was left at loose ends while Fitzgerald was deep in his manuscripts. She wanted what he had, but on her own terms.
One of the more bizarre attempts at carving her own way was her obsession to become a ballerina. At 27. She practiced all hours of the day. It’s a bit like deciding to become an Olympic skier at age 32. She had a minor talent, and was invited to study in an Italian school. But she never went. She dropped the whole idea, just as it seemed she had got what she wanted. Or did she?
Zelda wanted to write. Can you imagine being married Fitzgerald, yet he never encouraged her, one suspects he was jealous and fearful of sharing the limelight. She was hospitalized in 1932, yet in that time she was able to complete an entire novel, Save Me The Last Waltz She sent it to her husband’s editor, the great Maxwell Perkins. Fitzgerald exploded. He accused her of using intimate details of their marriage, yet he was more angry because she had beaten him to the punch; he was planning on using the same martial for Tender Is The Night, a novel that took him years while she banged Waltz out in six weeks. There was no pride, no encouragement. Her efforts, met with suspicion.
Fitzgerald forced her to edit out the scenes, though the novel was published by Scribner. Ah, connections. It wasn’t a success, though today her writing has been described as more sensual and verbally rich. It is best remembered, as one woman’s attempt to stop being a “backseat driver” in her husband’s life. Fitzgerald called her a Third-Rate writer. This broke her heart and she was never the same. She made about $120. And that’s why no pictures of him appear in this post.
This is about Zelda. Not F, or S. Those letters have been done. And I dedicate the blogs in this A-Z Challenge to her memory. Over and out. It’s been fantastic.
I remember in college a professor suggested I work on a paper with another student. I knew the subject matter like the back of my hand, in fact I was passionate about it and could write it cold. 35 pages. I knew the other student didn’t know half as much as I did. To prove it, she went to the library and checked out all the books. It didn’t matter. I wasn’t going to collaborate. I owned half of them anyway. I would go it alone. I got an A, while she got in the lower end of the alphabet I recall.
Writing is an intensely personal experience and sometimes we feel me vs. the rest. The way we see life is just so different. We need refuge away to make sense of the world around us. We need to write. Even if we don’t enjoy it, it’s just who we are.
That’s why it’s important to understand the journey we take is a long, lonely one and to most of our non-writer friends and family, it seems masochistic. A waste of time. Incomprehensible. But they don’t see the inner flame inside that keeps shoveling coal into the furnace of despair and insecurity. They never had a dream. Some don’t, you know. They’ve told me. Many people just never had a dream, and I don’t mean to get all MLK but think about it, as hard as it is, and as windy and twisty and bumpy as this road is, you can say, you’re living your dream. And you did it by yourself, because no one but you is going to sit down when the ice cream man rolls around, to tempt you with his treats. You’re going to keep sitting down and getting the writing done. You’re going to edit the work over and over. Because if it was easy you wouldn’t do it. Because it’s a dream. It’s all yours and you did it alone.
Now go hit the keys.
It’s just sometimes, I know that’s the way I’m supposed to go….I say someday I will.
This was a hard one for me. I looked up a bunch of words beginning with X. I even consulted a Scrabble prompt but they all seemed a variation of Xylitol, Xanthium, or other pseudo-scientific sounding names that gave me no inspiration. I’m stumped, as I am “Xausted” but Blogging A-Z has been so much fun.
So I’m moving on. Back to Japan. If you are looking for a wonderful Japanese film that explores the world of the concubine, look no further than the 1950’production, Life of Oharu.
It stars the famous Kinuyo Tanaka in the title role who was considered the Bette Davis of Japan. The movie adapts Saikaku’s Life of an Amorous Woman, and opens on a down and out old woman. As she recounts her story, we see her as a young daughter of court nobles, a great beauty but through her own nature, spoils her rise through the ranks as a daimyo’s concubine by a life of pleasure and rebellion.
It is a cautionary tale of what can happen to the courtesan when beauty runs out in this world that prizes beauty above all else. It is Mizoguchi’s most important film that actually made him some money. Interestingly, the film almost never got made. It was a crazy idea. To bring a lush, historical, 17th century tale of a courtesan’s exploits when such dramas were forbidden by the American occupation. It had everything going against it. Accept passion.
The director wanted greatness and he reeled in his leading lady, Tanaka to stake their reputations on the film. It was like the Japanese Gone With the Wind. In this post-war austerity, the country had never seen anything like the drive and scope it took to get the picture made. The film went over budget and the critics complained that Oharu was being treated too sensitively. Both the director and his leading lady soon grew exhausted.
The film shut the critics down and won a major festival in Venice. There are so many moments to this film that are brilliant. The silent recognition when Oharu sees the son she gave up as a child on the road and a later glimpses him as a man. One of the most poignant moments-Oharu overhears an aged courtesan singing a tune, and she herself will sing this in the same circumstances as a mendicant nun, showing how difficult it is to escape one’s destiny.