[GUEST POST] Travis Heermann on World Building in a Fantasy Novel


Travis Heermann has been a freelance writer since 1999. Publishing credits include dozens of magazine articles, role-playing game content for both table-top and online MMORPGs, short fiction. Travis’s latest novel, Rogues of the Black Fury, is now available at online booksellers, select bookstores, and libraries. He has also been putting the finishing touches on the second book in his Ronin Trilogy, Sword of the Ronin.

Rebuilding a Ronin’s World

World-building a historical fantasy novel is considerably different from a secondary world fantasy. Historical fantasy has a few more rules, unless you want to venture into alternate history or steampunk. Writers are free to play around with the fantasy elements, but to still call the story ‘historical’ means adhering known historical events and creating a compelling narrative around those events. But that is not a limitation; real historical events are often crazier and more dramatic than anything a fiction writer can conceive.

Growth of an Idea

For those who might not know, the word ronin means “masterless samurai”. The literal translation is “wave man” or “man tossed by the waves.”

There was no moment where I decided to sit down and write a trilogy of samurai novels. The Ronin Trilogy came about as an organic growth from a central idea.

I’ve been a lifelong fan of Akira Kurosawa’s films, and of Japanese culture in general. I am also fascinated by the myths of King Arthur, and by the ubiquity of that mythology embedded in the Western psyche, in particular the love triangle of Arthur, Guinevere, and Lancelot.

I was in a period where I was thinking about what kind of book I would write next, and I wanted to write a samurai novel. Two of my favorite Kurosawa films are Throne of Blood, which is a samurai-style adaptation of Macbeth, and Ran, an adaptation of King Lear. I am also life-long fan of fantasy stories. So from those likes and thought processes came the idea of merging the Arthurian love triangle with Japanese history, complete with monsters and folklore woven in.

From Idea to Writing the First Chapter

Everything from that point was an organic growth process, the conception of the hero who became Ken’ishi, the good and wise ruler, defender of his land, who became Lord Tsunetomo, and the beautiful but naïve princess who became Kazuko.

Before these characters even had names, I had to decide what era of Japanese history to set the story, and the first thing I discovered is that the richness of Japanese history, some 2000 years of it in all its meticulously documented glory, overwhelmed me. I thought I knew a few things about Japanese history, but I was wrong. Japan did not experience any European-style Dark Age where civilization itself was lost, so tremendous volumes of information have come down through the centuries, thousand-year-old chronicles of the breakfasts of emperors, the amorous liaisons of courtiers, endless feuds between powerful clans, and brutal wars and duels between men of honor, pride, courage, and incredible martial prowess.

A deluge of research buried me for a couple of months. If you’ve ever done historical research, then you’ve likely experienced the exponential growth of the “Holy Crap I Have to Read This Next” pile.

In my research, I quickly discovered accounts of the two failed Mongol invasions of Japan in the 13th century, and I knew I had my backdrop of epic scope. I also had an era on which I could narrow my research focus, which went a long way toward getting my head above the flood of information.

Every time I discovered new cool facts, legends, stories, or strange creatures, I was drawn off for a while reading about those things.

In the midst of this research, a series of early scenes jumped into my brain and I wrote those. It was a satisfying, exciting start.

From Chapter 1 to Volume 1

Then I reached the point where, for all my research, I was still frustrated by my outsider-ness. I just did not quite fathom how the Eastern mind functioned, what underlying values created incidents and practices that Westerners find incomprehensible. Often when I watch Japanese films with friends, they say things like, “I don’t get why he did that.” Therefore, to help myself understand the culture even more deeply, I enrolled in a Japanese conversation class, which proved to be one of the major turning points in my life.

It ultimately led me to quit my job and move to Japan for three years as part of JET Program (Japan Exchange Teaching).

By fate or sheer good fortune, I was assigned to live in Fukuoka prefecture, which happened to be the exact location the Mongols invaded in 1274 and 1281. And nothing, for a writer, beats first-hand research. There have been many alterations in the land and in Hakata Bay since the 13th century, but it was still an invaluable resource to be able to walk the beaches and see the coastline.

Throughout the course of all this time, some five years from start to finish, the story evolved from one book, to two books, to three books. While I was in Japan, I finished the first book, Heart of the Ronin and landed a good agent in New York who was able ultimately to sell it. As a promotional measure, I podcast the book in serial audio form alongside the release of the published title in 2009. Ever since, readers and listeners have been begging for the second book. Unfortunately the series was orphaned when the original publisher, Gale-Cengage’s Five Star imprint, phased out their fantasy and sci-fi line, so I wrote a couple of other novels and screenplays in the meantime.

Now What?

I returned to 13th century Japan and completed Sword of the Ronin in 2012, and now that the second volume is finished, I’m ready to move on to the final one. More about Sword of the Ronin in a minute.

Building a World That Once Existed

From a world-building perspective, this whole process was more about uncovering, assimilating, and digesting the vastness of what was already out there, combining second-hand research in both English and Japanese, and first-hand research around northern Kyushu. Rather can constructing a new universe from whole cloth, it was my job to recreate that world as it once existed, with folkloric twists around what might have been. Shape-shifting animals and bizarre creatures such as tengu, kappa, and oni contribute heavily to the plot, mixed with the real historical timeline of events. I have to say that drawing thematic and story connections between the historical and fantasy elements was tremendous fun, all without losing sight of the original idea.

If you’re considering a historical fantasy project, the biggest thing I can recommend is a library card. The sheer weight of material to sift through will be daunting; the cost of buying all those books on Amazon, staggering. You’re going to find yourself skimming through tons of materials that might be interesting but is not immediately useful. Moreover, the most useful sources are often out of print and/or difficult to find.

Even if you’re doing research for a Medieval European story, do not rely on what you think you know from modern novels. It is always better to go back to early sources, first-hand accounts if possible; that stuff is often found in scholarly sources, which are dry reading, and hard to find, but meticulous and most likely to yield the most accurate information. Go to museums where artifacts of your intended era can be found. In my case, I studied Japanese swords and armor from various eras in museums both in the U.S. and Japan.

Remember that your job is not to memorize every single little detail. Such a thing is impossible and would consume your time such that your story would never be written. Your job is to create a sense of verisimilitude that readers can buy into. To do that, you have to learn all you can, certainly, but you can also look for ways to include little nuggets of historical information occasionally, such as typical foodstuffs, or dishes unique to that region at that time, clothing, folksongs, games, building materials. The more you can assimilate about the day-to-day culture in which your story takes place, the more those little details will arise naturally in the course of your writing.

It’s easy to get lost in thoughts resembling “Dammit, I did all this research and I’m going to include everything I found!” But doing that raises the danger of the story being lost in a slew of facts that do not contribute to the string of moments and scenes that become a plot.

Back to the Present

There might be better ways to do all this, but my experience with re-creating the world of the Ronin Trilogy has been one of organic growth driven by endless hours of research, innumerable pearls of history and folklore tied together with silver webs of thematic connection. At least in my brain. More than ten years in, I’m still not finished. But I have a firm footing, and characters I want to love and torture.

And there’s this kick-ass hero in a love-triangle. And a magic sword. And barbarian invaders. And…

You get the idea.

If you want to see what’s happening right now, January 2013, with Sword of the Ronin, if you like samurai and ninja and monsters and Mongols, click here. I need your support.