STRANGE GIRL IN A STRANGE LAND
Guest post by Thomas Randall
Written for Lectitans
Confession time: I've never been to Japan. The absolute best thing about the early feedback on THE WAKING: DREAMS OF THE DEAD is that I seem to have convinced people otherwise. But I'm not going to lie to you, my friends. The Miyazu City that exists in the pages of this trilogy exists only in my mind. Sure, a great many things that you'll encounter in the book are real--landmarks and shrines and even street names--but this isn't the real Miyazu City.
Though that shouldn't come as a surprise. Most writers invent versions of the cities in which they set their stories, even cities they know well. You take what is useful, discard what you don't need, and do your best to get the sense of the place...its atmosphere. When it's a place you've never been, a place you're unlikely to be able to afford to visit on your own dime, what makes the presentation of a setting feel realistic are the details you choose to include. And details, of course, require research.
If you live in Miyazu City, you'll certainly know that the version of the place that exists in THE WAKING is fiction. But if you live there....sssshhh, don't spoil it for everyone else.
When I set out to write THE WAKING trilogy, I knew the basic story. American teenager Kara Harper and her professor dad are still mourning the death of Kara's mother two years after their loss. Her dad has been teaching Japanese language at an American school, and Kara has grown up with the dream of someday visiting the country. Her father has not only taught her the language, but instilled in her a fascination with the nation and its culture. In the aftermath of her mother's death, Kara and her father begin their life anew in a Japanese community where few gaijins visit. She is the only non-Japanese student at her new school, and her father the only non-Japanese teacher.
Sometimes research feels like a chore, but not on these books. I jumped right in with both feet. My first job was, of course, to figure out where it would all take place. I thought of inventing a city (as Kara's school, Monju-no-Chie, is invented), but as I surfed page after page online, printing up dozens (at first) of pages about schools in Japan, I ran across an article about the three most beautiful places in the country. One of them, Ama-no-Hashidate, immediately caught my interest. A long spit of land that juts out into Miyazu Bay, its white sand beaches are striped up the middle with a dense wood of black pines. From certain vantage points--scenic overlooks--visitors turn their backs to the bay, bend over, and view Ama-no-Hashidate through their legs. Upside down, against the blue water, it is said to look like a bridge across the heavens.
It seemed a peaceful place, and I liked the idea of the beauty and tranquility there. The shore of the bay, in view of Ama-no-Hashidate, seemed the perfect place to set the story of this American girl trying to live in a new country, and adapt to a new culture. And the perfect place for evil spirits and curses, among other things.
The research only began there, of course. What followed was a crash course on Japanese education, school uniforms, fads and hobbies, and behaviors in a culture so different from my own. I had always known that traditions would be different in Japan, but so many things surprised me. Japanese students have a period of time at the end of each school day (and before mandatory club meetings) when they clean their schools. Every day. When they enter the school, they remove their shoes and place them in small cubbies, donning slippers that are worn at all times while in the building. I loved learning about what Japanese parents put in the bento boxes their kids take to school for lunch and the details of various festivals, such as Toro Nagashi, during which lanterns are set afloat in the bay, each representing a loved one who has died the year before. I wanted to know what they might eat for snacks, what their traditions are when going to the beach, how boys and girls behave together, how they celebrate their holidays--and I wish I *didn't* know what they put on their pizza.
Seriously. I hope one day to visit Japan, but I will not be eating pizza there.
I enjoyed every moment of discovering life in Japan with Kara Harper, and I hope you'll enjoy it, too. It's the perfect thing to lull you into a false sense of security before the really creepy stuff starts. After all, THE WAKING: DREAMS OF THE DEAD, begins with murder. You'll understand, I hope, that I didn't do any first hand research on that.
Learn more about the new thriller The Waking: Dreams of the Dead at http://www.thomasrandall.net