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[GUEST POST] Travis Heermann (THE RONIN TRILOGY) On Falling Down the Rabbit Hole of Research

travisheermannFreelance writer, novelist, award-winning screenwriter, editor, poker player, poet, biker, roustabout, Travis Heermann is a graduate of the Odyssey Writing Workshop and the author of the Ronin Trilogy, The Wild Boys,and Rogues of the Black Fury, plus short fiction pieces in anthologies and magazines such as Fiction River’s How to Save the World, Historical Lovecraft, and Cemetery Dance’s Shivers VII. As a freelance writer, he has produced a metric ton of role-playing game work both in print and online, including the Firefly Roleplaying Game, Legend of Five Rings, d20 System, and the MMORPG, EVE Online.

He enjoys cycling, martial arts, torturing young minds with otherworldly ideas, and zombies. He has three long-cherished dreams: a produced screenplay, a NYT best-seller, and a seat in the World Series of Poker.

The Other Side of the Research Rabbit Hole

by Travis Heermann

I often hear writers ask some variant of the question, “How much research should I do?”

I suspect these words are uttered by people who have started research for a story, gazed into the abyss yawning at their feet, and drew back saying, “Whoa…”

Because here’s the scary part: research is a wonderland rabbit hole with no bottom.

This story begins with a farm kid growing up in the middle-of-nowhere Nebraska. He was scanning through satellites (you had to turn the dish back then) and discovered a subtitled samurai movie called Miyamoto Musashi, starring Toshiro Mifune. Never having seen such a thing before, I was hooked. Two more episodes of The Samurai Trilogy later, I was gobsmacked in a way I had not been since the seminal event of my childhood in 1977, Star Wars.

Thus began a lifelong fascination with Japanese history and culture. Go figure, George Lucas was hugely influenced by samurai films.

Fast-forward a decade or so.

With three novels under my belt (two in the trunk), I was itching to write a samurai novel. I had recently seen Akira Kurosawa’s film Ran and wanted to do something in similar vein, juxtaposing a famous story from Western literature (in the case of Ran, King Lear) with a Japanese milieu. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized I didn’t know a damn thing.

So to rectify this travesty, I went to the library at the local university.

Oh, what a wondrous, terrifying, devastating Pandora’s Box the library is. As you walk in, you’re inundated in a vast treasury of the world’s knowledge, about most of which you know nothing. Feeling in your gut the profound depth of your own ignorance should give pause to any thinking person.

So I started reading, and that abyss opened up before me, that rabbit hole. I couldn’t see the bottom.

A few minor areas of my former ignorance about Japan:

  • How Japanese names and language worked
  • Construction of arms and armor, and the history thereof (A 17th-century katana is somewhat different from 11th-century swords.)
  • A culture so different from the modern West in its fundamental values that it practically defied description
  • The tenets, beliefs, and practices of Shinto and Buddhism (let’s not forget the history!) and how the hell they managed to coexist peacefully when religions in the modern world sure seem utterly unable to.
  • The bestiary of weird, head-scratching folklore critters that made Western legends of vampires and werewolves look mundane.
  • And, oh yeah, two millennia of meticulously recorded history.

Studying the history alone opened up endless opportunities for storytelling, fraught with wild tales of desperate last stands, unbridled loyalty and heroism, rank betrayal, triumph, defeat, endless intrigues.

But there was something about the fact that Japan had never been successfully invaded that struck me. The U.S. dropped two atomic weapons during WWII to avoid having to invade. In the 13th Century, the Mongol Empire had conquered most of Asia and swept all the way to Europe, tried twice to invade Japan, and were wiped out both times by typhoons. These typhoons tossed a stone called “kamikaze,” the wind of the gods, into the ocean of history and created ripples that propagated 800 years into the future.

Once I chose my era, the time of the Mongol invasions, I zoomed in my research efforts to that period and started writing a few chapters…

Only to find myself stymied again by certainty of my ignorance. Their culture still mystified me. Knowing about a few cultural practices such as festivals and cherry-blossom viewing, like what you can find in a Lonely Planet tourist guide, is not the same thing as understanding, assimilating, internalizing the reasons for those practices.

So then I took a night class studying conversational Japanese language.

And here is where my brain caught fire yet again with a stunning realization.

CULTURE IS EMBEDDED IN LANGUAGE.

In innumerable ways, language gives a place to everything both concrete and abstract, solidifies significance in our minds. Grammar and lexicon place people into linguistic social structures, hierarchies. Value systems emerge like a herd of gazelle hiding in the grass and they were there the whole time but you couldn’t see them because you were too deeply embedded in your own cultural grass.

This concept still underlies all of my fiction.

So, fellow writer, if you’re going to write authentically about a culture that doesn’t speak your language, it behooves you to learn theirs, even if it’s just the basics. Perhaps there’s a larger message there for people of this planet, but that’s another essay—a really long one.

But the story doesn’t end there.

While taking the language class, I heard about an exchange-teaching program, whereby I might actually live and work in Japan as an English teacher.

Fire #3 exploded like a gasoline blaze in my skull.

So I abandoned my soul-sucking engineering job and moved to Japan.

By the hand of fate, divine providence, or sheer dumb luck, I was placed in Fukuoka prefecture, which happens to be exactly where the Mongols invaded.

This unlocked the EPIC ACHIEVEMENT on my level of research. Not only was I living and assimilating Japanese culture and language, it was a day trip to see where the Mongols landed, visit the museums and shrines and fortifications. I had the great fortune to study iaido with a real-life swordmaster. I was living inside my own dream, and blissfully did so for three years.

The Ronin Trilogy is the culmination of all that research, all that knowledge, all that life experience. I’m now writing Book 3, Spirit of the Ronin, a book that springs from the fertile ground of all that research. I am coming out of the other side of that rabbit hole I entered more than fifteen years ago. My life has been profoundly changed, and I am immensely richer in spirit because of it.

Rabbit holes really do lead to other worlds, other lives. But only if you follow them all the way down. Just like the questions you must ask yourself about your characters, how far are you willing to go? It’s not up to me to say how far you should be willing to go, but how far you could go.

There is one thing, right now, however, with which I would appreciate your assistance: I am running a Kickstarter from now until February 24, 2015, to fund the publication of Spirit of the Ronin. Please visit the campaign on Kickstarter here and consider supporting it.

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