P is for Pirate

Perhaps only vampires are more romanticized in literature than pirates, but it must be a rather close race. For those who crave the dangerous bad boy types in their books (and in their hearts) heaven forbid if anyone ever writes about a vampire pirate. We may never put those books down again. It’s probably already been done, come to think of it. Probably for the best. My vampire loving days are well behind me and it’s probably best that they stay there.

I don’t hold out much hope that The Robberies & Murders of the Most Notorious Pirates will be that much of a romantic tale. For one thing, even though the work is attributed to self proclaimed pirate Captain Charles Johnson, there’s no record of such a person ever existing, and by and large the literary world tends to attribute this book to Daniel Defoe. That being the case, this is probably less a tale of swashbuckling lust on the high seas and more an account of the day to day, scurvy riddled life of sailors who happen to make most of their income from making off with whatever is on board the nearest underprotected ship. After reading Robinson Crusoe I don’t hold much hope for any of Defoe’s writing to be anything other than a sleep aid.

Robberies and murders

 

O is for Ottoman Warfare

Obviously this is a rather specific choice for the letter ‘O’ but I only have one book on the Ottoman Empire (so far) even though it plays a large role in much of my writing. Every fantasy writer I think has a go-to civilization, country or people when in need of a bit of cultural inspiration. As much as we all like to think of ourselves as special, creative snowflakes, the truth is that ideas don’t pop out of nowhere. They have to be seeded, and from the seed they must be cultivated, added to, given nutrients from outside the writer’s head as much as from inside. Living in Japan gives me a great deal of inspiration, but beyond that, I pull a lot from the Turkish as well, from clothing to language to whole sections of history.

The only historical fiction I ever wrote was set within the Ottoman Empire, specifically in the last days that it held Athens. I knew nothing about this time period, the history or the people, and Ottoman Warfare in particular was a bit of a blank (thanks Wikipedia). Wasn’t it my lucky day, then, when I happened to find this book? It remains one of my favorite little research treasures for all sorts of fiction writing, long and short.

Do you have a favorite place to pick from when researching? Let me know!

ottoman warfare

N is for Nature

Not to suggest that I don’t like the modern conveniences of living in a city, but I really do like being surrounded by nature. Living in Kyoto affords me the opportunity to not only have everything my city dwelling heart desires, but the lush, changing colors of the trees, the chirping of the birds and the occasional home invasion via weasel that my soul craves.

Japanese aesthetics are especially tied to nature and the changing of the seasons. It is a particular item of pride among Japanese people to say that they have four separate seasons. I’m not sure how exactly this came to be such a bragging point. Every place I’ve lived has had four separate seasons. I think it’s because in Japan the seasons are very vividly marked in color: in spring it is cherry blossom pink, in the summer, vibrant, lush green, in the autumn, the flaming red of momiji and in the winter, the calm ice blue of snow.

Of course, actually getting all of these colors year round depends on where in the country you live. In Kyoto where the year is dominated most by the bitter cold of winter and the impossibly hot and humid days of summer, some of the colors last for a preciously short time.

Ecclesiastically speaking, all of Kyoto’s temples and shrines incorporate nature in some form or another. Many have carefully tended gardens to instill a sense of calm in visitors. The larger temples and shrines have large, walk around gardens that guests can enter for a small fee. Places like Heian Jingu Shrine have gardens that one can get lost in for hours they are so large. Other places like Kyoto Iwakura Jissoin take such pride in the colors of the seasons that their interior decor literally reflects the changing colors. Guests aren’t permitted to walk on the black lacquer boards, but the sight from just behind them is beautiful nonetheless. Some places, such as the Kitano-Tenmangu Shrine specialize in one sort of plant or flower. Kitano specializes in plum blossoms, which can be viewed between February and March, depending on the weather. This is such a specialty of theirs that later in the year they also sell umeboshi, pickled plums, that are harvested from their garden. Mt. Hiei Enryaku-ji Temple, an important historical seat of Tendai Buddhism in Japan sits at the highest point in all of Kyoto: Mt. Hiei. It isn’t possible to see all the temple complexes sprawled across the top of the mountain, interspersed between towering cedars and beautiful cherry and maple trees. Fortunately there’s a hotel up there too, if you want to spend a couple nights to take in the whole thing. Walking Shisendo Temple Through the Four Seasons is especially delightful for me, not only because the temple is so close to my house that I hardly have to plan the trip at all, but because the open temple terraces provide a lovely place to sit and reflect on the beauty of nature.

In essence, I Love Kyoto for all that it has given me, and all that I will take away from it. It is a city in its conveniences, but at its heart, it is still very much married to nature.

 

 

M is for Martial Arts

Might be that I have a bit of a reputation among my friends and co-workers as “that girl who could kick your ass if you’re not nice to her.” It’s a bit of an irritating bug to have hanging over one’s head because it both vastly overestimates my abilities and suggests that the only reason anyone learns a martial art is so that they have the ability to ‘kick the ass’ of anyone to pisses them off. But the point of martial arts is not to start fights–it’s to avoid them. Although I’ve studied different martial arts at different times in my life, I’m much more likely to write something scathingly passive aggressive about you if you get on my nerves, rather than whip out a stick and knock you over the head with it.

Japanese budo especially focus much less on the violence of the art and more on the internal or spiritual road of learning and reflection that one takes while studying. The ‘do’ at the end of kendo, kyudo, judo etc. means ‘path’ or ‘way’, so that when one says ‘I practice kendo’ what is meant isn’t, ‘I’ll beat you black and blue if you look at me funny,’ but rather, ‘I learn about life and myself via the sword.’ Poetic, huh?

Kendo is my Philosohpy, and I’m not alone. When Miyamoto Musashi wrote The Book of Five Rings in 1643, sword arts were a very real and deadly skill, and yet he still wrote about them as a meditative lifestyle, along side his descriptions of the best state of mind to be in before setting out to kill a man. The Heart of Kendo and, I’ve found, the heart of all of the martial arts I’ve studied is that the only real opponent you ever have is yourself. If you cannot first overcome yourself you cannot overcome anyone else. If we have One Arrow, One Life, traveling straight and swift toward our final destination, why waste time crying over the obstacles we build for ourselves?

What I’m getting at is, when the zombie Ninja Attack finally happens, I will be fully prepared and ready to kick ass.

L is for Literature

Likeminded people will understand my fascination with the power of the written word. Literature in all its forms, both fiction and non-fiction, paper and electronic, has been a cornerstone in my life for as long as I can remember. As soon as I had a decent grasp on this thing called reading, it was all I ever did. I had my light bulbs taken away from me as a child, because if given the chance I’d stay up until two in the morning reading Nancy Drew, which is not a recommended sleep schedule for a seven year old. My premature eye bags will attest that my parents’ strategy didn’t work; I learned to read by moonlight. I won’t draw you an Infographic Guide to Literature throughout my life–you get the picture.

As a child, despite consuming books like candy, I told myself stories through pictures and doodles rather than words. It wasn’t until high school when the romantic poets, Shakespeare, Literary Terms and Dragonlance entered my life that I took the evolutionary leap forward into writing down the scenes in my head. It was a creative revolution. I sought the old stories, old books from my mother’s old maritime trucks, handed down to her from the time when my great-grandmother came to Canada from Scotland. I read and fell in love with fairy tales all fairy tales, western and eastern, Russian Fairy Tales and Chinese Fairy Tales and Beatrix Potter who I read again and again and again to soak up the magic of her words.

What I learned most from this time, I think, is that it’s not necessarily what’s on the pages that matters. It’s not what the author intended to say when they wrote a certain thing. The magic that comes from literature is what it makes you feel in the moment, and what you and your experiences bring to the act of reading, adding your story to that of someone else.

K is for Korea

Keeping in mind that I have only ever extensively traveled in Asia, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that I have been to Seoul. Those who were with me on last year’s A to Z challenge may remember my brief Visitor’s Guide to the city, and indeed, my first trip to Korea, ever. Alex and I both got our fill of what we always look for when traveling: history and nature. While Seoul is undoubtedly a major city, it does have its share of scenic parks and historical landmarks. While visiting some of these landmarks we got to see how Korean Temple Motifs differ from those in Japan. The biggest difference are the wide use of a variety of colors, but architecturally they differ as well in more subtle ways.

One of the other big differences between Japan and Korea is that the Korean national museums have free admission. This was a huge shock, and a welcomed surprise, as the museum buildings were quite beautiful and had a lot of stuff inside them to see. We got to learn about Joseon Royal Court Culture and Women in Korean History through interactive dioramas and themed rooms to explore. Pictures were allowed and we came away with many Treasures of Palace life preserved forever in memorable photographs.

J is for Japan

Just in case you thought that living in Japan for five years has made me fluent in Japanese, this post is here to prove you wrong. While Living Abroad in Japan has indeed improved my Japanese ability beyond what I had learned in high school, and in spite of Japanese being the easiest language I have learned so far (yes English included) I have yet to come anywhere near to mastery of it. At best I can hold a casual conversation and buy my groceries. Complicated things like talking to the folks at Immigration is completely beyond my abilities. (Speaking of which, I have enough paperwork piled up from my trips to Immigration to make A Japanese Visa Handbook.)

One of the things that makes Japanese so hard is learning to read again completely from scratch. With each Chinese character having several potential readings and meanings depending on which other character it is paired with, even reading Japanese Names can be impossible if you haven’t memorized you Basic Kanji Book.

If you’re thinking that you don’t need to read, or even speak Japanese to be able to communicate, I have to burst your bubble of optimism. Even a simple look at A History of Japan will show you that social communication that has been evolving in this country for thousands of years is a great deal more different than what we are used to in the west. There are a lot of potential missteps to Making Out in Japanese, but if you think you can hack it, I invite you to give it a try. Take a Womansword for it, though; it’s a lot harder than it looks.

I is for India

I-6ncredibly, India contains one of the oldest regional cultures in the world, if not the oldest, depending on how you measure these things. From the Indus Valley Civilization to the birth of Buddhism to British colonialism to today’s rising economy, India has always, in one form or another, been. Because of this incredibly long life, India has a lot to offer the world culturally. Coming from a large area that has seen and adapted many outside influences, Folktales from India comes from a wide array of traditions, and in dozens of languages. But perhaps the most well known of India’s spiritual folklore comes from The Hindus. A vast wealth of cultural and religious knowledge is contained within the Vedas, but the Mahabharata, which contains the epic The Bhagavad Gita is the most internationally well known of the Indian texts. The story follows Arjuna, on the eve of a war against his own kinsmen as he struggles internally against his moral duty and his moral loyalty. The god Krishna councils Arjuna through his dilemma, until the warrior prince can ultimately fulfill his dharma. One of the wonderful things about this story, and about Hinduism as a whole, is how accessible it is. One doesn’t necessarily have to be religious or spiritual to understand the story, or take from its message. Add to it the character of Krishna being, in my opinion, one of the more animated and human of any of the world’s deities, and you’ve got a pretty awesome story to read.

H is for Horse

History was written on the backs of horses. Only dogs have shared more of our successes, our failures, our triumphs and our humiliations. I can think of no other animal which has so profoundly impacted our development as a species, and our changing cultural history. Horses & Ponies are nearly as essential to what makes us human as our primate ancestors.

Being a city girl, my interactions with horses have been very rare treats, but I’ve always held a love for them. Riding, especially, whenever I can get the opportunity is a joy, but any chance to see a horse in person has always been an awe inspiring event. There’s something about horses–the look of their eyes especially, that speaks to me. Maybe it comes from the number of times I read Black Beauty when I was a child.

Over here in Kyoto, the May equestrian trails are something I look forward to every year. Yabusame in particular is an event I don’t like to miss. It is archery on horseback, a statement which fails to live up to how awesome the sport actually is. It’s shooting three arrows in succession at wooden boards 2 square feet across, while galloping at full speed down a track, in traditional costume. That sentence still doesn’t appreciate how badass yabusame is. You really have to see it for yourself.

Horse Breeds of the World are many and varied, and naturally bred for different purposes and climates. This vast diversity in selection makes it a joy of learning when I’m filling in world details of whatever story I’m writing at the moment. Picking the right horse for the right region, or people or individual is as fun as creating a whole new character herself.

G is for Gemstone

Greatness is defined by many people as the amount of zeros one accrues in life, set against an arbitrary standard of collectively agreed upon value. Yet, for most of us, no  amount of dollar signs is ever going to earn us the immortality which the lack thereof makes death so terrifying a prospect to begin with. For those of us without the money to have our names laser etched into the moon from Earth, the best we’ll be able to hope for is that some decades after our death our descendants will be able to recognize our image in the digital family photo album, before photographs and selfies disappear from history in favor of rapid DNA recognition and 4D printed images of individual growth. I mean, what are the odds that anyone is going to take the time and money to wrap your body up in gold, silver and an ocean’s worth of pearls to display you for all time above the family fire mantel? Things like that just don’t happen. Not these days, anyway.

Before the sixteenth century, blinging out the dead was all the rage. If you were a Catholic saint, anyway, you could expect the sort of glitzy funeral to rival Egyptian kings. For the price of dying horribly for the church and their faith, these Heavenly Bodies could take the wealth of the world with them, all the way to the grave. Or the tomb. Or the glass encased alter. Whichever way you chose to terrify the message of God into small children attending Mass for the next couple hundred years. In the catacombs of France and Germany, particularly macabre gemologists could fill The Jeweler’s Directory of Gemstones ten times over with all the glittering discoveries painstakingly wrapped around dead Catholic saints and martyrs.

Of course, much of what is left of this beautiful tradition is fake. Many of the originals gems were stolen or repossessed when the practice of bejeweling the dead was labeled blasphemous and obscene, and the bodies that were once chilling in an eternity of cold, hard capital were subsequently destroyed. Still, it may be worth something to drop a couple hundred dollars on costume jewelry on your death bed, just for the opportunity to confuse the hell out of some future archeologists. That is, if we don’t some day consider the art of dying itself to be too obscene to take part in.