The Brazen Shark, my latest novel from Sky Warrior Books, tells the story of a couple whose honeymoon in 1877 was interrupted by samurai air pirates who hijacked a Russian airship, hoping to overthrow the Japanese emperor and restore the shogunate. This plotline posed a particular challenge for me as a writer living in the desert southwest of the United States since I wanted to portray Meiji-era Japan as accurately as possible. Even if time and money would have allowed me to make a research trip to Japan, I’d still have the challenge of capturing the historical period. This is, of course, where library research comes in, but the challenge was what kinds of books to read?
My research for the novel started with a book about the history of the samurai. It was a great book full of illustrations and information about living conditions, armor, and fighting techniques. The problem was that there were samurai from the thirteenth century through the second half of the nineteenth. Even a very in-depth book such as the one I had could only devote a few pages of each section to the period I was interested in. So, I asked my brother who had traveled in Japan if he had any books to recommend. He introduced me to Lafcadio Hearn.
Born in Greece to an Irish father and Greek mother, Hearn immigrated to the United States in 1869 where he became a newspaper reporter. After spending several years in New Orleans, where he wrote about Louisiana’s Creole and Voodoo cultures, he immigrated to Japan and changed his name to Koizumi Yakumo. He wrote several books of essays about Japan including Gleanings in Buddha-Fields, which I found particularly useful. Through Hearn, I got to see Japan through the eyes of a westerner at roughly the period I was interested in. Rather than be presented with cold facts, I got to travel with Hearn as he visited a Shinto shrine, admired Japanese art, and listened to children in the streets singing songs.
When doing research, it’s important not just to look up facts, but where possible, to read accounts from people who have had experiences similar to what you describe. If you’re writing about space travel, read accounts from astronauts about their experiences. If you’re writing about gunfighters in the old west, you can read books such as Pat Garrett’s The Authentic Life of Billy the Kid. Some historians might debate Garrett’s “facts” but the book does give you the Old West experience through the eyes of someone who lived it. The further back in time you go, the more challenging it might be to find those kinds of accounts, but even a little snippet can help you gain insight to what was important to people living at that time and place.
The fourth novel in my Clockwork Legion series will have scenes set in New Orleans. I’ve been fortunate enough to spend some time in the Crescent City, but you can bet I’ll be looking to my old friend Lafcadio Hearn for his insights into what the city was like over a century ago.