Wednesday, July 28, 2021

Building a Book: A Learning Experience

Because The Toki-Girl and the Sparrow-Boy series is set in a real historical period, the first thing I have to do when I start a new book is find some history!

I had some really interesting history in mind for Book 9, Next on the Agenda, but COVID happened and I can't get to the places I need to go in the ways I need to get there. So I looked for something else. We're cruising through the 1870s, the heart of the Meiji Era, the center of the Industrial Revolution worldwide, and an era of phenomenal social change around the world brought on by the shift from an agrarian economy to a manufacturing economy throughout, particularly, the Western world. Since Japan was both eager and determined to position itself in the company of the Western first-world powers rather than among their colonies or puppet states, Japan hurried to quickly exceed anything going on in Europe or North America. 

The Tsugaru Shamisen, with both changes in the instrument and the way it is played, dates to 1877. Perfect. That's why I went where I went, with a few little ideas noodling around in my head. I think that I now have an overall story. But so much more is going on in our little corner of Kyushu and in the lives of our characters!

That means I need to think. Every day. All the time. I need to pick up characters where I left them and find out -- I suppose you could say "figure out" -- what happens to them, what their problems are and how they solve them.

When I have enough information swirling around in my head, I will open a file. I will write "CHAPTER ONE." 

And I'll be living in the Meiji Era, with my characters' trials, tribulations, joys, failures and successes, chasing the elusive "what comes next" until I can once again write, "THE END." During this time I will be cranky, grumpy and entirely unwilling to return to the twenty-first century unless compelled.

Some people make notes. They have bulletin boards covered with index cards and sticky notes. They have computer versions of those, sometimes more than one. They have storyboards. They have drawings of characters and costumes. They have pages and pages of notes, either on paper or in some electronic format, about people, problems, solutions, issues, factoids -- so much data. There are literally dozens of computer programs that help organize all of this. I've tried some that other writers seem fabulously enthusiastic about.

To me, however, those produce a stilted kind of work, overthought, over-planned, and without the spontaneity that life itself brings to the table. It feels joyless to me, excessively structured and controlled. I prefer to live with it as it happens, difficult though that may be. And it is difficult. Thoughts dash through my brain with the speed of light, and sometimes I don't catch them. Then I can only wait and hope that they return for another pass. I must dig into yet more research as I find there are things I just don't know, but I need to know to make the work as accurate as possible. Working in a real history and with real folklore, I can't just make things up. At least, not all the time.

Japan is different. Even how gardens grow is different, something that is taking me years to figure out. Steam Bath Summer means early crop plants are at the end of their life cycles. My cucumbers and tomatoes have gone. I will look for autumn harvest varieties to plant. Cabbages, broccoli, potatoes and onions -- which have already had one season -- can also be planted for a second, if you have the room. I'll be looking for bush beans, too. 

I live, I learn, and I hope to share with my readers this country that never ceases to provide me with new and interesting experiences.

A visitor!  Neither I nor Google Image Search are quite sure what, exactly, this large presumptive moth is.

The pimans are still coming, with many more on the way.

Most of the last of the tomatoes, at least, the early crop. Maybe can find a late crop plant.

The nasu eggplants, though, show no signs of giving up. I have capers waiting for more caponata!

Tuesday, July 20, 2021

Tiny Trains And Serious Music

The Shadows of War is getting great reviews, like the rest of The Toki-Girl and the Sparrow-Boy series, but the very hardest part of reaching readers, for me, is determining "genre."

Sure, I finally figured out that it's basically magical realism colliding with historical fantasy in Meiji-era Japan, but that means little to people looking for Swords and Sorcery in Fake Medieval Europe or Romance in Odd Situations in Contemporary Life, with Commentary by the Ghost in the Laundry Room. 

That means I spent yesterday trying to come up with "comparable titles" for the advertising people to use in targeting audiences who might just like these books. Because it's incontrovertible: when people read these books, they like them. What we are trying to do is find a group of people to wave a "hey, look over here" flag at. It's the most frustrating part of what I do.

Although racketing around the Oga Peninsula on regular buses can come close. Supposedly, there was a Museum Shuttle. Supposedly, according to the Website, for this week in July one didn't need to make reservations, which are usually required on weekdays. But...not true. I had no reservation. There was no bus. The kind Tourist Information Center attendant pointed me to a local bus, for which I had to wait an hour. Things don't happen as often as one might wish in the country.  She was nice enough to tell the driver where I was going, so he could tell me where to transfer, and to what, and the second driver told me where to return and when, and, following a transfer, the final driver delivered me to another station where I could catch a train back to Akita. Here's the little unstaffed station. There's an indoor waiting room because it snows here. A lot. 

If you're not using a pass, you can drop your ticket in the green box when you arrive. You can also buy a ticket you will surrender wherever you get off. This train was full of high school students going home from various schools. It was fun to see them meet and mingle and get off at various stations, some of which were as tiny as this one. Comparably, Akita's is enormous. 

The next day I was off in search of another museum, this one technically in Goshogawara. First I had to go to Hirosaki, several hours from Akita. This is serious agricultural territory, commercially mostly fruit, though every house boasts a garden. Beautiful country.

I had the afternoon to explore the home of Japan's Big Apple, plus, like just about everyplace in the region, the home of a summer festival featuring huge lighted floats, of which I have spoken before. These festivals will all be limited or virtual this year, because of COVID, but you can see the floats. 

These are MUCH bigger than they look and beautifully crafted, usually illustrating classic stories or historical events. There are acrobatics, music and dancing involved. I hope to find them on line. 

One REALLY big apple! Everything is all apples, all the time, around here. 

There is a famous castle and an interesting museum showcasing lacquerware -- and apples -- but my phone ran out of juice. I did learn how to operate a public coin-powered charger, as well as use the little local circle bus. Hirosaki is ready for visitors! For me, the Fujita Memorial Gardens were a real treat.

That's Mount Iwaki in the background, from the upper level of the garden. You go down to the pond, but reach this viewpoint via, you guessed it, stairs! It's a peaceful, lovely place.

The next day I was off to Goshogawara, and from there, by a tiny, single car, separate train line, to Kawagi, home of the Shamisen Museum. This is the area where the Tsugaru Shamisen style of music originated, including changes to the instrument itself as well as the way it is played. 

Among many other attractions, musicians like this young man give regular concerts, participate in competitions and even give lessons! This is a fantastic experience. 

What's so interesting about this seemingly simple instrument is -- oh, just Have a listen!

How do these two experiences fit into the next book? We'll all have to see. I'm not quite sure yet myself!




Sunday, July 18, 2021

Starting a Book, with Oni

 The Toki-Girl and the Sparrow-Boy series is set in Meiji-era Japan, and features a continuing cast of characters, specifically Toki-Girl Azuki and her brother, Sparrow-Boy Shota, as they, their family and friends do their best to survive and prosper in a wildly confusing time in history while preserving their dual identities as humans and birds.

The Shadows of War, Book 8 in series, just released and is garnering really excellent reviews. It's available on Amazon and everywhere else through the website above. Publicity is ongoing, of course, to let lots of people know about this fine book so they, too, can enjoy it and the series.

But for me it's time to move forward and start another book. I had a book planned for "what comes next," but I can't go there yet, because I literally can't go there yet: there is no passenger service on the boat I really need to take due to COVID.

Fortunately, Japan has a lot of fascinating history and I have plenty of interesting characters to catch up with. I know where I am in time. With the wonder of the Internet making it easier to do this from the comfort of my office, I searched for interesting happenings in the years in question.

I found one. I found several. I found something I can tie into a major theme (that's sophisticated writer talk) that speaks to Japanese culture, past and present. 

And it's really, really fun!

Right now, we're in State of Emergency Part 4 in Tokyo, even as the Olympics loom. Other parts of the country aren't so badly off. Everybody is still very, very cautious even though we're vaccinating upwards of a million people a day. We do not want variants spinning out of control. 

There's a special rail pass deal going on for holders of foreign passports. I am one of those people. So I grabbed a pass and headed north. I want to find out about Oni at the home of the Namahage festival, Oga, near Akita. What are Oni? Where do they come from? Why do they come for dinner?

Of course, this museum is very far out of the way. It would be much better to have a car, but there are buses. It takes a long time to get there, and a lot of back-road touring of very beautiful countryside. But it's worth it. 

This museum is very small but it has over 100 costumes and masks that are wonderful! Next door, there's a show featuring classic storytelling and an enactment of the Oni coming on their annual visit and harassing the householders and audience to exhort all the children to good behavior and all adults to diligence in their work and domestic duties. 

The museum has classic costumes!

Here are classic masks! These two are red and green, but often they're red and blue.


It's the night the Oni visit. Let's see if they'll be satisfied with the householder's report on the family!

They dance, they drum, they are plied with food and drink and then they leave, wishing all concerned a good new year! This is all adjacent to the huge shrine that holds an ancient and classic festival every year on this occasion. I got to attend that virtually this year. But in person? Those Oni will frighten you, and that's the point!

Have a little more sake, Oni-san! We've all been good, I promise!

Let's check out those people in the audience! Are THEY good? How about their families? The Oni stomp and dance, growl and shout. I was happy to report that my grandchildren are very diligent. I think they were a little surprised I could do that in Japanese, but it satisfied them. Whew! Up close, they are very scary! They were presented with special mochi, and, satisfied, left, slamming their way out to go back up the mountain for another year!

Monday, July 5, 2021

A New Review and Dancing Trains

 "As in the previous Toki-girl and Sparrow-boy adventures, Youmans crafts a powerful history-based fantasy atmosphere that will attract both fantasy readers and those interested in historical accounts." 

Diane Donovan, Donovan's Literary Services (full review to be published in August and more will be quoted) and Midwest Book Review (September) on The Shadows of War.

     I had to mention this wonderful review first off, because I've mentioned how very much reviews mean to me. It's great when somebody understands what I'm trying to do and thinks I'm doing it.

     But sometimes life isn't so sure that I have any kind of clue at all.

    July 3, I was poised to go to Taisekiji on a pilgrimage for the weekend, something I do most months. I had train tickets, I had a hotel reservation and my Tensho -- permission slips from my local Temple to attend certain services for which that is required. 

    It's the rainy season in Japan, and it's been rather a dry one. Until right now, when it's acting like a heavenly firehose is pointed right at Japan and turned on full blast. Saturday morning was awful. Raincoat, hood, umbrella, boots -- at least it wasn't windy. By the time I got on the train for Shinagawa, where I would get the Shinkansen, I was drenched around the edges as was everybody else.

    Then, just outside of Shinagawa, the train advised us that the Tokaido Shinkansen had suspended service. It's a quarter past 7 AM, and the Shinkansen, bastion of punctuality and beacon of reliability, had stopped running.

    In Shinagawa station, I stopped to pick up a couple of drinks and rolls, as my train wasn't scheduled to leave until 8:30, and surely they'd have things running by then. Helpful graphics on the monitors showed the stoppage was between Tokyo and Shizuoka, with everyplace else delayed. They're dedicated. They're organized. They'll get things going soon.

    But they didn't. And at about 10 AM, whispers started circulating about a slide near Atami, a very bad one. Missing people, houses washed away, bridges out, roads flooded. There is, of course, a TV in the waiting room, but it wasn't showing the news.

    My phone decided it would not connect to WiFi via the cell network and free WiFi exists only to give you something to do trying to make it work while you're waiting. I could find out no more.

    Then the announcer started asking people to rebook their tickets or cancel their trips. All train lines heading in the direction I wanted to go were shut down as well. I did determine that once the trains began running again each Shinkansen would proceed in the order originally scheduled and one would board one's original train, using one's original ticket, and sit in one's original seat.

    About 11:30, trains started coming in. Shortly thereafter, trains started leaving. In order, starting with the one originally scheduled for 7:04 AM, when service stopped. There was almost no delay at all between trains regardless of their originally scheduled times. They came in from Tokyo Station, their terminal, stopped long enough to pick up passengers, and took off. One after the other. In almost no time at all, my train came in, scooped me up and was off.

    There are three kinds of Shinkansen on this line: the Nozomi flies to Nagoya or Osaka with very few stops. The Hikari takes a slightly slower pace, and stops more often. The Kodama, still about three times as fast as any local train, stops at all Shinkansen stations. My station is a minor one; I'm on a Kodama. 

    As we rushed through the pouring rain, trains passed, pulled over, pulled off, stopped, shot by, traveling at ferocious speed and with incredible coordination. Sitting at Odawara watching this show, it seemed to me they danced, with an incredible display of the high speed organized choreography that only Japan could pull off in the best of normal times. Now, in a massive effort to catch up and get everything rolling again, I thought of people in control rooms watching, guiding, directing the trains as if by magic, as they danced.

    I missed the Saturday service, but I stayed overnight, glued to the TV in my hotel room, and made the Sunday one. I got home on time Sunday night and got to my vaccine appointment Monday morning. In another stunning display of efficiency, that went quickly and well and I am now fully vaccinated. I got directed the wrong way and ended up at a subway station rather than the shuttle bus stop, but that was OK, as it also worked for me. It worked even better when I realized the train went by Omotesando, where there is an Apple Store, where I had not been able to book a Genius Bar appointment Sunday night to get my phone looked at. I stopped off. They took me. We found out the error was on the part of my carrier and we FIXED IT! My phone is now working again. I ran several more errands on my circuitous way home, and while it's still raining, and seems to plan to do so for the next week or so, it's not dumping buckets. And this was in my email this morning to warm my heart.

..."a fine addition to the series that also holds the possibility of proving a satisfying, epic stand-alone read to newcomers."

    Diane Donovan, Donovan's Literary Services (full review to be published in August and more will be quoted) and Midwest Book Review (September) on The Shadows of War.

On my porch, protected from the firehose effect.

This gorgeous hydrangea is like no other I've ever seen. Outside the Tozan office at Taisekiji.

Also protected on my back porch.