Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Taking Inspiration

For my new story, I'm challenging myself. The story is set in Heian era Japan, which is a much more real, explicitly historical setting than I've done in any story previously (those occur on alien worlds, or fantasy worlds, even some of those are fantasy worlds informed by historical elements). Of course, this involves a lot of research - but as I remarked in my post on insiders and outsiders, I don't think research in and of itself is enough. I'm trying to get into the mindset, consider the criteria that people used to judge one another, and stuff like that.

For that purpose, I've officially started reading The Tale of Genji, which my hubby recently finished. I thought I'd just share a couple of things I've picked up so far, and compare them with some of the ideas and principles I'd already come up with before I started reading.

Things I decided about my story before reading The Tale:

1. The protagonist will be very aware of clothing, nature, seasons, and relative social position.
2. The narrator will care less about social rules than the protagonist.
3. The narrator will receive letters (actually, discarded ones) from the protagonist, and these will contain poems.

Things I decided about my story while reading The Tale [with the source explained]:

1. At least one of the characters will not go by his own name, but by title only. [No one in the Tale actually goes by name, but instead by title, residence, or poetic association.]
2. The narrator will dislike court business and the Chinese language used there, and have much higher opinion of the women's language (Yamato language) which he feels is closer to nature. [Genji and his young friends discuss whether it's ladylike for a girl to be overly educated in court language and Chinese characters]
3. At least one letter that the protagonist sends to the narrator will have been discarded because it makes too much metaphorical reference to current events and places, and too little to the traditional metaphors of classical poetry. [the key words of most poems are in fact allusions to poems from earlier collections]

I find that all the decisions I made before I started reading can be made more concrete and more appropriate to the setting now that I've got explicit examples from which to take inspiration. The other thing that's been happening is that I'm starting to pick up the rhythm of the writing and the way these people talk about one another. I can feel it influencing me a little on a subconscious level, but I haven't really analyzed it to try to put it into my own style more thoroughly. This is because I want to make sure my narrator is "free" from that explicit style, so he can do some sneaky things with his narration that I have planned (it's a secret for now).

Going back to real source literature (in translation if needed, particularly in a good translation) is an incredibly valuable tool for creating a realistic historical feel. After all, the source literature can give us a sense of how people used words in the period we're working with - and since we're rendering that period in words anyway, it can be extremely relevant and useful.

I hope you've found that gives you some ideas for taking inspiration in your own stories.

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