by Claire Youmans
I write historical fiction/fantasy adventure. I can’t just make it all up. The Toki-Girl and the Sparrow-Boy series mixes the history of the Meiji era in Japan with Japanese folklore, so I can make some things up. Japanese folklore tends to be short, simple and fluid. What I’ve discovered through 4.5 books (I am writing Book 5 now), is that if I start with the basic folk tale, no matter what I make up, somebody’s grandma somewhere told it that way. While I tell the history through the characters and am limited by their perspectives, their stories need to be both plausible and possible given the history of this incredible time period. I can’t write something that clearly never could have happened and claim my fiction is historical. Rifles, for example, existed nowhere in the world in 1629*. The cotton gin was not a fact in 1406. Research is necessary. Accurate details lead to trust on the part of your reader, who will more readily suspend disbelief and accept your fiction happily.
Right now, I am in Korea, absorbing even more culture and history, waiting for my Japanese residency visa. This is not without peril and comes with a lot of expense. Yet, since I write a series, I like to get out a book a year. Book 5, working title, Noriko’s Journey, will be late and there isn’t one darned thing I can do about it. Moving halfway across the world is no easy task! So, Japanese Immigration Office or no, I have to keep on plugging, and that leads to research.
While I’ve spent about 6 weeks a year in Japan, on average, for many years, and written 4 books set there, much of my research has been conducted on line. As I sit in a Seoul hotel room, which both interestingly and oddly, has no window**, I have reached a time in the story when I have to make sure I have Noriko’s past absolutely clear. Lady Satsuki is coming! The Dragon Queen has granted Noriko a title, and will be very hot under the collar if Noriko doesn’t use it! She must register her marriage! I had plans to visit a few more places and use that information. Visiting the places I have has been beneficial. But now, I have to make something up and use the Internet to make it plausible rather than on the ground research. The two are different.
If you’re writing fiction, it’s not only OK to make things up, but necessary. Is is also necessary to make them plausible. The sights and sounds and tastes and smells, the way the wind chills or warms your skin and where it usually comes from at any given time of day are things best found at the place you’re writing about, or a place very like it. That’s sensory information that can best be obtained on the ground. A family history can be researched on line, and if it is confusing to the point of ridiculousness, more the better for me, because I can create a plausible story within the framework of that family history and not step on anybody’s toes. I can do that on-line.
If you are describing a journey on foot, it is better to travel that path than omit the fact that there is a big and very real mountain in the way and your character can’t just skip around or over it without even alluding to it! Oh, it is possible to research it, but you need to know you have to — and you do.
A popular author lost me for all time when he described a sport and a journey I know extremely well — incorrectly. He could have looked it up on line, but he didn’t. If he’d ever visited the area he wrote about he would have noticed that very big mountain. It’s hard to miss. I lost trust in that writer. I have never read another thing he’s written. I can’t believe anything he says.
Research is all about trust. You can make small mistakes. It’s fine if you miss something that your POV character couldn’t and wouldn’t have needed to know to do what the character wanted to do or did. It’s when you miss Really Big Mountain (which is how the native name for Mt. Rainer translates) that you lose your reader’s trust. When you do that, you’ll lose that reader and may never get that reader back. Do your research, both online and on the ground. It matters.
*Yes, there were guns in 1629, but both rifles and the cotton gin were invented in the mid-ninteeth century.
** I pretend I’m on a space ship to avoid claustrophobia.
Besides writing 6 published books, poetry and an anthologized short story, Claire Youmans has sailed oceans, owned horses and taught skiing. She recently moved to Japan in furtherance of writing more in the well-reviewed Toki-Girl and Sparrow-Boy series of historical fantasy and adventure books set in Meiji-era Japan. She’s currently working on Book 5. These charming books have a following among college students and adults because of the exciting mix of history and folklore, leading to sometimes fantastic adventures, but are also loved by children, fourth grade and up. Writing The Toki-Girl and the Sparrow-Boy series is a passion she fully enjoys. She’ll stay in Japan as long as they’ll keep her, writing more books about this fascinating culture and its incredible history in this very readable series. Of course, there are dragons.
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