Meanwhile, Back at the Emperor’s Palace…

Opinions are divided about series, both at the novel and short story level. Readers love spending time with characters they already know and like, but some purists think they’re the death of the genre (in which case sf/f has been dead for a loooong time). One accusation that’s leveled at series, novel and story length both, is laziness. “Once the background is established and you’re familiar with it, that’s half the work. You’re doing paint-by-numbers after that.”

Yeah. Right.

I’ve done three story series so far: The Laws of Power (incomplete), The Eli Mothersbaugh Cases (done, I think) and the Lord Yamada series (current). Let me fill you in on what is not at all atypical for working on a story in that series, and I’ll use the example of the third one, “A Touch of Hell.”(Realms of Fantasy, April 2007)  My hero had to leave Kyoto for the region around Mount Oe, legendary home of ogres. At the start I knew just enough to get him where he needed to be and do what he needed to do. But before I could call the story done I had a pack of fact-checking to do. In addition to the books I already owned, I had to order the following reference books:

AS I CROSSED A BRIDGE OF DREAMS: A WOMAN’S RECOLLECTION OF 11th C. JAPAN
THE TALE OF THE HEIKE
GOSSAMER YEARS: THE DIARY OF A NOBLEWOMAN OF HEIAN JAPAN
THE CONFESSIONS OF LADY NIJO

ALready owned:

THE DIARY OF LADY MURASAKI
THE TALE OF GENJI
THE PILLOW BOOK OF SEI SHONOGON
A HISTORY OF JAPAN TO 1335

And while we’re on the subject, did you notice the common thread in most of those above? Right. A large fraction of the first-hand accounts of life in Heian Japan that have come down to us were written by women. There are exceptions but not many, which is a fascinating subject all by itself. But be that as it may, I had to check the story against all these references to make reasonably sure that I haven’t violated known history of the period. And that history is, frankly, very well known.

While we may not know a huge amount of what life was like for “ordinary” people in 11th CE Japan, most of the upper classes of the time were educated and literate, and a significant number of contemporary sources exist. So. What was the name of the primary temple on the slopes of Mount Oe? Who was the abbot at the time this story takes place? I had to know, because it was a safe bet someone else did, and would be only too glad to point out what I got wrong. What about the Tamba Road? Have I got it in the right location? How heavily was it traveled and what sort of people would my hero and his companion have met along the way? What villages and border barriers existed in the region circa 1055? Was the name of the provincial governor known? Tons of fiddly bits to go through, and none of it trivial. The Yamada series may be set in a fantasy version of Heian Japan, but the only difference between his world and the actual one is that, in his version, all the ghosts and spirits and divine and demonic forces the Japanese of the time believed in were literally and very actively factual (I almost said “true” but that’s a different kettle of fish). The point being that I have to stick to the facts as known, or I’m cheating or worse, getting it wrong.

Okay, fine, I admit it–I love doing this sort of research. Maybe that’s why I do series now and then. But I’m here to tell you It sure ain’t because they’re so #$!@# easy.

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11 thoughts on “Meanwhile, Back at the Emperor’s Palace…

  1. “…I had to know, because it was a safe bet someone else would did, and would be only too glad to point out what I got wrong…”

    Readers *really* do that?
    🙂

  2. Would you mind describing what conditions were in place, and the other influences active then and in later eras, that so many of the accounts of this one are written by women?

    Thanks!

    Love, C.

    • I’m no expert, Amiga, but there were two very important conditions, to my way of thinking. The first was opportunity–many if not most accounts that have survived were written by Ladies of the Court, women in attendance to a member of the royal family. In a large court there was a fair amount of free time for the women to amuse themselves. Music and poetry were popular but so were diaries and “made up” stories, which is the form much of this writing comes to us.

      The second was kind of an historical accident, caused in part by men’s attitudes toward women of the time. While women did have some freedom–they were able to own and inherit property in their own right, something beyond the pale even in Jane Austen’s time, they were still under the control of the head of their clans (extended family) who was always a male. Japan was still in the process of assimilating the culture it had inherited from China, including Chinese writing. “Official” written documents were in Chinese script, and only men were allowed to learn this. Native script, “kana” and the hiragana syllables were seen as somewhat inferior (by the men) so women used them almost exclusively instead. (And yes, there were exceptions on both sides, and many if not most women knew at least some Chinese, and some men wrote in hiragana for anything other than records).Here’s where the Rule of Unintended Consequences comes in–Pure Chinese script is not well-suited for expressing the Japanese language, so most Court documents are deadly dull and unexpressive. “Women’s writing,” by contrast was very lively and used the language better. And people were more interested in Court gossip and personal diaries and stories (monogatari) than offcial records anyway. Thus these are the writings that have both survived and been widely disseminated.

      At least, that’s my amateur take on the subject.

  3. Ah! This particularly is very interesting:

    Here’s where the Rule of Unintended Consequences comes in–Pure Chinese script is not well-suited for expressing the Japanese language, so most Court documents are deadly dull and unexpressive. “Women’s writing,” by contrast was very lively and used the language better. And people were more interested in Court gossip and personal diaries and stories (monogatari) than offcial records anyway. Thus these are the writings that have both survived and been widely disseminated.

    Thank you!

    Is the Heien era considered to be something rather equivalent to the European feudal eras, or more like the English Regency era? Or ….? Not that these can be true equivalents, of course.

    Love, C.

    • You’re welcome.

      The Heian Period is usually regarded as Japan’s “Golden Age.” What we think of today as Feudal Japan didn’t arise until the Kamakura period in the early 13th century and the rise of the Samurai class.

    • A better comparison would be to Rome in the Late Republic or Early Empire, only without nearly as much wealth pouring into the capital from conquests.

      —L.

      • They couldn’t even figure out how to collect taxes in any orderly fashion, never mind conquests (no military organization, just military families not always quite under control).

  4. What were the laws concerning rape? And prostitution?

    Since, of course We Know that all the women in all the European Middle Age eras were all raped anytime by anyone and tortured too, and are prostitutes so all the women getting raped all the time (and tortured! particularly if they’re lesbians! And anyway the only job all the womens had was to be whores!) BECAUSE THIS IS HISTORICAL ACCURACY AND WILL BE LIKE THAT ALL THE TIME EVERYWHERE.

    Like the Romans too! See — Spartacus.

    It seems to me though, as a farmer’s daughter on a small family WORKING farm, that cultures that figure wealth in actual food — rice, for instance — can’t afford to have that many women off in cities as whores (and bein’ raped and tortured lesbians). In fact, those cultures can’t even afford that many cities ….

    I dunno ….

    Love, C.

  5. As one working on a series that will eventually circle the globe in its action,I can affirm that 1) the author needs to LOVE research;and 2) it is not at ALL easy! But the dream is out there, and sings to me a most alluring siren song!

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