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Honoring the History in a Historical Fantasy Novel: Part I

By: Natalie Jacobsen

group of geisha and maiko sitting on a rooftop in kyoto with lanterns hanging around them

It was a hazy summer in the middle of the pandemic, and I had 185 tabs open across 4 open web browsers on my laptop. I was toggling between learning about the black lacquer that geisha used to paint their wigs, reading which types of wood would have been used to build houses and shops in 19th Century Japan (and how they differed, including the corners of the roofs, the grooves, the thinness of the planks, etc.), trying to figure out a succinct reason for why Japan and Korea were at war for hundreds of years, flipping through booklets of kimono prints for various classes of citizens for specific festivals, and nailing down the actual history of sushi, all at once.

Was I cramming for a final in a Master's program? Adding notes to a thesis for a PhD? Or was I preparing for a niche Trivia Night at the local brewery?

None of the above. I was writing a book. Specifically, I was writing a historical fantasy novel. I had, quite literally, given myself homework. I could have stopped at any time. Nobody had given me this assignment; nobody was waiting to grade it. Or, I could have turned this book into a full fantasy, and created my own world with its own rules and history, and avoided learning these minuscule details.

But that's just not who I am.

So, why go through all of that work? Most of those aforementioned details I gathered and learned aren't even directly referenced in the book at all. Why do I now remember the names of monks from the 13th Century who summited Kyoto's mountains during a war to defend a temple? Why do I know the origin stories for dozens of folklore figures? Why bother learning the exact weeks certain genera of cherry trees, wildflowers, and other trees that are native to Kyoto will bloom and bear fruit? Why read about what was happening in Hokkaido and Tokyo, even Britain and Korea, hundreds or thousands of miles away from Kyoto if the story is set solely in Kyoto?

Context. Accuracy. Dedication. When trying to rationalize the answer myself, those are the first three words that come to mind. All of that research was probably not necessary to the extent at which I did it. But it is knowledge that is far from useless, and has been absorbed and is now part of Ghost Train even if it hasn't been mentioned or shared explicitly. All of those details and bits of research accumulated into a story that is now readying to debut and release to the world, and I want my investment in this project to be a rewarding experience for readers everywhere.

I have no inclination to write things without a purpose; it's not my style. I want to learn something in the process and come out the other side as a writer who inherently understands their source materials and their stories at their cores. I believe that all of these things are the case with Ghost Train.

Since 2020 (and off and on before then), Ghost Train has been a passion project for me, and I can't wait to share it with you. I always want to impart something in my work to give readers a sense of accomplishment when they finish reading; I want you to learn without even realizing it. It's why I love reading and writing historical fiction. A writer can take a real event, imagine the reactions of characters, and recreate how scenes may have played out. It brings the past to life and helps us understand how we came to be who we are today.

Retaining the history in the historical fantasy is the key to ensuring that some of that knowledge gets preserved and passed on. Breaking down our borders and barriers through literature is one of the quickest ways that we can learn more about humanity, without traveling at all. In Ghost Train, my goal was to retain as much accuracy as I could—and yes, it was a chore. But it was a worthwhile chore.

Here is my process for how I honor the history in Ghost Train, a historical fantasy.

a vintage photo of the golden pavilion in kyoto surrounded by a bamboo forst and a lily-covered pond with a fisherman standing in a boat

. ݁ Context ₊ ⊹˚

Knowing where to put puzzle pieces starts with knowing the bigger picture. I had the makings of a story, but I needed to know how they all fit together.

To start writing Ghost Train, set in 1877, I needed to go further back in history by another 300 years. To understand the how the characters would manage their relationships, what kinds of decisions would be made. To see their vision for the future, I needed to understand their past, and how a series of events led to the Meiji Restoration era, and the subsequent social revolution.

Reading materials by various historians, near and far, about global events, offered a multitude of accounts and accumulations that formed the bulwark of necessary context for later events. Reaching out to Japanese historians and subject matter experts offered illuminating insights to the mindset, opinions, and ideals around the seismic shift that was felt worldwide. The motives for the characters became clear once their foundation was established and the picture surrounding them was painted. It became easier to write the story once I understood where everything was meant to go and why.

The search for a greater understanding of context is why and how I found myself even reading up on historical events in other countries in the same era. Knowing the decisions other leaders were making, and influences trades and wars elsewhere were having, related directly to the response and events taking place in Japan. The fascinating part of diving into history is learning how interconnected humanity has been, long before modern globalization. I had to drop my European and American-centric view of world history. Sure, Japan's borders were closed for years, but it was because of the growing influences of Christianity and missionaries that drove the shogun to seal off the borders. A few countries, namely Portugal, continued trading in secret. Why Portugal? They were dominant in the seas at the time, and boasted one of the largest fleets of ships that served one of the largest trading routes.

And why did Japan reopen their borders? Because an American sailor, Matthew Perry, was tasked to do so, by President Lincoln in the 1850s, as the United States was on the brink of a Civil War. Matthew Perry sailed around the world, gathering information about Japan from other countries, translating documents and letters before demanding it reopen to the world. Upon arrival to Japan, Americans demonstrated their force, technology, and shared news about the rest of the world. Negotiations led to agreements. Dignitaries from Japan began trekking country to country, even to the Vatican, to reintegrate and find their place among diplomats, education, and the world at large.

All of these events happen off-page in Ghost Train, but knowing the simultaneous events and movements gave me a greater sense of the context of my scenes and what the citizens depicted in the story may have known or been grappling with at the time. That information increases the tension, and underscores the fears and questions they would have held at the time. As I learned more, I interwove those considerations into the story with the aim of increasing the authenticity.

In fact, my original draft of Ghost Train had annotations and citations for every scene, fact, name or setting. Those annotations and citations were omitted several drafts later. However, they served as references for myself when I needed to go back and research further. It was useful to have this trail of work supporting the story that I could return to, from time to time.

As one reads and consumes more materials, the full tapestry takes shape. Details about the overall history, scenes, settings, the milieu, the historical change makers, every-day folk, and even certain personal affects are sewn together. Thread after thread are intertwined seamlessly. The sinews come together in a way that feels natural.

☾⋆ Accuracy ⁺₊⋆

kyoto riverfront houses in the early 1900s at sunrise

I am a student of journalism who has dedicated myself to years of following facts, reporting stories as they unfold, and finding ways to accurately tell a story.

Why? Because my goal is always to give you the tools and resources you need to make informed decisions. I want you to walk away from my writing and my articles feeling empowered, and armed with new information that has either taught you something or given you something to think about.

Of course, in writing a novel that is fiction, the majority of the characters are also going to be fictional. Ghost Train certainly has some names people will recognize, including Emperor Meiji, a very real historical figure and leader of Japan who revolutionized the country upon his ascension to the throne as a teenager. But characters by and large needed to be imagined. That said, their voices still had to be authentic to the era and the place, which is when accuracy in the language, setting, and time period came in to play.

Thankfully, Japan was, and continues to be, prolific when it comes to recording history and accounts. In fact, they have one of the oldest weather and oceanography trackers in the world (another fun tidbit I picked up. Yes, that's correct, the weather is accurate to the day in Ghost Train).

Therefore, giving voice to these characters was a delicate process, but not impossible. I worked with many reference materials, readers, and editors to see that the dialogue sounded natural. None of us were alive back then to be sure, but the imagined conversations were inspired by many literature and academic works which were read thoroughly.

Language has changed greatly over the last 150 years, and still the dialogue needed to be accessible to readers today. But there were still some opportunities to showcase how some conversations may have flowed. There are instances in Ghost Train in which the main character has difficulty understanding someone from another prefecture, and there are demonstrations of how some characters would use other terminology that does not make sense to her. The reader gets to learn about new words, phrases, and technology right along with the main character, watching the country and history change day-by-day with each new law and policy. Some words that we would use today, such as "volley" or "automatic" or even "anxiety" were not words in 19th Century Japan, and therefore were omitted from the book's vocabulary, and described in other ways. Older figures of speech were included, along with outdated jokes to make it more accurate to the time.

In order to maintain accuracy, there are several Japanese words and phrases—over a hundred—used a thousand times throughout Ghost Train. Don't worry, there is a glossary. These were kept in Japanese rather than translated to more accurately fit the context of the scene or character and keep the specific nuance they serve. It wasn't that their concepts didn't exist in English, but they were essential to stay true to the time, culture, and setting.

The setting was the easiest to establish. There are photos dating back to the 1870s in Kyoto that showed just what it looked like. Additionally, with so much of the medieval city preserved today, my own firsthand experiences and visits fed directly into my writing. Feeling the humidity beading on my skin, walking on the streets beneath the old willows, and seeing the marks of samurais' swords still carved into stones from two hundred years ago became synonymous with the story. Maps and books were cited to follow streets and see the layout of the city, to calculate walking distances for the characters, learn where they could catch a rickshaw, and note the temples and shrines they would've passed by.

Battles and historical events are also well-documented in Japan, making it relatively easy to follow the progress of wars, palace announcements, and changes of laws day-by-day. It is much easier for me to see how the country went through their Revolutionary Period (1868 - 1912), than it was to live through it; without technology and readily available information, it left many citizens confused and unsure of what was happening. The entire premise of Ghost Train hinges on that fact: so much was happening all at once, that misinformation became rampant and birthed ghost stories.

Knowing the movements of the palace and its army, comings and goings of foreign dignitaries, coinciding with summer festivals, and how trades were affected all played a role into telling this story. Trades and health of crops dictated which foods would have been available at the festivals, and which materials the markets would be short on. I describe which foreign and innovative items were introduced in the summer of 1877 thanks to logs of imports and train delivery schedules.

Why be this accurate? Because if I'm going to do something, I'm going to do it right.

I won't bother making up information in lieu of an existing fact. Characters can be figments of an imagination, while living through an accurate and very real setting and time period pivotal to a culture and country. There are Easter Eggs throughout the story, and while I hope you learn something along the way, you may also spot things you already knew. That's my aspiration with Ghost Train: to complement your knowledge of Japan and expand on it. This story is a fantasy take on historical events that unfolded in the summer of 1877. You, too, can feel the stifling air; hear the cicadas, one of the largest hatches in years; and smell the wafting temple incense and charred chicken legs. Japan is a real place—a beautiful place—and has been subject to many interpretations and fantastical stories throughout the ages.

It is only right that I try to do it justice, and accurately.

✩࿐ Dedication

the towering pagoda in kyoto in the 1800s with shanties surrounding it

With situational context and accuracy, a story can have its bones. But it's dedication to the craft that fleshes a story out so it stand and run on its own.

In 2010, when the story idea first came to me, I wasn't equipped enough to write Ghost Train the way it deserved. I very well could have written something; it just wouldn't have been the same story I am able to tell today.

Through my years of living in Japan, I gained a deeper understanding and respect for the language, culture, and people. Ghost Train is a reflection of those years and my observations and findings. Just as I would prepare to write an article as a journalist, it takes time for me to interview subjects, conduct greater research and reading of other sources, and requires firsthand experience.

Those years abroad also gave me something else I couldn't have obtained had I stayed in the United States: another perspective and dimension to who I am. I spent my twenties "growing up"; had my first career (then many more!); got engaged and married; made my first film; volunteered and fostered life-long friendships and relationships in Japan. The country has become a deep part of me.

Therefore, I couldn't help but honor the place I'd called home for years. That sense of attachment turned into a responsibility, which birthed my passion to get things right. It drove me to dive into the past, seek out historical resources and subject matter experts to grasp the context, and comb over materials to capture the full scope. I became committed to the story and the responsibility I bore as I took it on.

While I can't be sure of who the readers ultimately will be, whether fantasy readers, historians, or those curious about Japan, I realize there is an element of authority when it comes to publications. I am liable for what readers would takeaway from the story. This liability and responsibility is why I pored hours over the source materials and collaborated with a number of historians and experts to ensure I got as much as I could right. It became my duty, albeit self-imposed. With every word written, I felt my duty fulfilled.

As for the fantasy elements...well, that will be covered in the Part II blog post. But to tease a little bit of it: yes, even the folklore and paranormal that appear in Ghost Train are inspired by real events and tales from Japan. In fact, you can get a head start and read up on some of the creatures, ghosts, and lore here at my Folklore Friday blog, which updates every week.

Remember how I promised you'd learn something in every article, blog, or story I wrote? Well, if you're still wondering what you learned from this blog, I reckon the main takeaway should be that I am neurotic hell.

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I am champing at the bit to read your book, Natalie! Your website is hugely entertaining and informative, and I imagine your book will be as well.

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