Wednesday, May 25, 2011

characters and plot

I've been working on thinking about characters that might be in this book, in addition to Seikei and the Judge. The original thought I had was that Seikei would be entrusted with the care of a Dutch boy about the same age. I'm thinking that the Dutch boy won't speak Japanese, and Seikei, of course, won't speak Dutch.
First thought I had was that the boy might be the son of a ship's captain. They are guests of the shogun, who did frequently like to see the Europeans, more as curiosities than anything else.
Conflict comes when the captain is killed--but why?
[If I don't have a solution to that problem, I go right on jotting down notes. Usually I find the answer eventually.]
Are there other non-Japanese guests? One of them might kill the captain because he wants to take over the lucrative trade with Japan. Maybe a Chinese, who also came into the port at Nagasaki.
A death in the Shogun's palace is serious, a blow to his honor if a guest is killed there. Death will have to come by poison, or some other method where the killer is not immediately obvious.
So the Judge is called on to solve the case. Maybe he and Seikei are already there, to see the foreigners, whom Seikei has heard are "red-haired devils." He's surprised when they don't have red hair.
Maybe one of the things the foreigners are displaying to the Shogun is Western-style food. The poison comes in that.
The judge cannot hold the other foreigners for long, so he entrusts the captain's son to Seikei, who will escort him back to Nagasaki. Maybe they leave a day or two before the others. The Judge wants to see who will pursue them?
Have to find a route that a traveler took through Japan. [That was Shiba Kokan, the scientist and artist that some call the Leonardo of Japan.]
Along the way, Seikei and the boy will meet interesting people, some helpful, some dangerous. Like to work in a Zen monk. He shelters them along the way? Helps them? How?

Anyway, this shows you how starting to think of characters helps you to form a plot. It works for me. Maybe you'll find a better way that suits you. Kurt Vonnegut once told me he had big charts on the wall where he tried to outline plots before he began to write. But he admitted that he hardly ever finished the story with the plot he had at the beginning.

Monday, May 16, 2011

hunting for ideas

People always ask me how to get ideas for a story. I mentioned last time that you have to create a world, and the world I'm creating is the world of 18th century Japan, where Seikei lives. Now for the past week and a half I've been writing down ideas that come to me from reading about that world. Some people find this boring. To me, it's like fishing. You sit there a lot of the time with your line in the water, but no fish are biting. But you keep your line in the water.

I'm not going to put down here every idea I jotted down. That would be REALLY boring. But here's a page of notes I wrote while looking through a book written by a Dutch trader in Japan.
The Dutch were all thought to have red hair like the demons portrayed in Japanese art.
Some black men from India and Africa sailed with Dutch traders. Maybe first time Seikei sees one, he thinks the man has suffered terrible burns.
Chinese ships also docked at Nagasaki--maybe a Chinese character?
Bird painted on the sterns of ships to speed the journey and avoid shipwreck.
When ships approached the port, they signaled port officials with flags.
The ship fired a gun salute when arriving or departing. This was a signal to furl or raised their sails, done under cover of smoke. Seikei would never have seen this before
Komo-Ryu (school of Red Hairs): the Dutch
Namban-Ryu (school of the Southern Barbarians, the Portuguese, who originally arrived from their colonies to the South.
Dutch doctors were sometimes in the employ of daimyos.
Glass was rarely used by Japanese in Tokugawa times, but the Europeans used it in their "factories," or trading HQs.
Somebody is pursuing them--Seikei meets the boy from the theater troupe in Tokaido Inn book.

See how it goes? You don't use every idea, but you put yourself into the world, so you can write about it, and then (the last line) maybe you get a story idea.
This is just the way I'm doing it. You may find better ways for yourself.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

early steps

Sorry it's taken me more than a week to follow up on the last blog. You'd think I would have more time to write than I do. Anyway, as the process of writing a novel begins, I have to do research. Fans of our books about Seikei and Judge Ooka often ask: "Have you ever been to Japan?" Some seem convinced that we must have visited there many times. But the answer is "No, but nobody alive today has ever been to the Japan that the characters of our books live in." That is, Japan around the year 1700.
 We visit that Japan through books. So I've been reading and jotting down notes and ideas for the story. Here are the titles and authors of some books that are easy to get: Everyday Life in Traditional Japan, by Charles J. Dunn; Daily Life in Japan at the Time of the Samurai, by Louis Frederic; Daily Life in Early Modern Japan, by Louis G. Perez; Handbook to Life in Medieval and Early Modern Japan, by William E. Deal.
   It's important to note that Dorothy and I have read several of these books many times, but you always learn more when you're thinking of writing a new story. I'm also lucky enough to have access to the libraries at Columbia University, and since we're going to deal with the Dutch traders in Japan in this book, I went to Columbia's East Asian Studies Library to find some more books. I had heard about a Japanese man named Shiba Kokan, who lived in the 18th century. He was very interested in what the Japanese of his day called "Dutch learning," which meant the science, medicine, and art of Europe at that time.  Shiba was both an artist and a scientist, and for this reason some people call him the "Leonardo da Vinci of Japan." He made a long trip from Edo to Nagasaki and wrote about it. That gave me the idea of having Seikei take such a trip himself.
   I think the lesson here--if you're looking for lessons--is that by learning more about a place and time, you develop ideas that you might use in a story set in that place and time. Now some people write about imaginary places. Think of Lord of the Rings. In that case, you're creating your own world, but that world will take shape as you think about it and write down what it's like. All worlds have rules. They have to be consistent. If you have a character who can fly in one scene, for example, you can't have him unable to fly in another. At least not unless you have a magic charm that takes away the power of flight...
   I'll try to contribute to this blog more often. I always tell people you should make a habit of writing. Write every day, if possible. Good advice, if you can keep it. Usually, when I'm doing the writing part of writing a book, I do follow that advice. Right now, I'm building a world in my head.