Yamabuki’s poem at the Barrier Strait


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RedPineThe Tale of Genji was written in the late 900s C. E. by a woman known to history by the name Murasaki. The work is considered by many to be the earliest novel ever written. The author was believed to have been a lady in the emperor’s court and her observations are said to be a thinly disguised fictionalization of the people she knew. Most people who are familiar with Japanese literature will say the work is one of the greatest, if not the greatest, work in Japanese literature.

It is interesting that the greatest work in Japanese literature would have been written by a female. But this was in part due to the circumstances of the time. Scholarly men were taken with things Chinese and with Chinese calligraphy. Although the story of the adoption of Chinese characters is more complicated than space permits here, what happened was that women (who usually were not “allowed” to study Chinese) wrote “Japanese,” that is to say, not in the Chinese script or manner.

In keeping with this tradition, Yamabuki translates poems from the Chinese into the more decipherable and accessible characters used to write Japanese. The Yamabuki series seeks to honor those early writers and writings which often came from the brushes and ink stones of women.

The night before Yamabuki crosses the Kanmon Strait, she translates a Chinese poem and modifies it for her purposes. The poem upon which her translation is based is an actual poem called Shengkuo Temple and was written by the 9th century Chinese poet, Ch’u-mo. The original can be found here: http://books.google.com/books?id=ctjhRx28qDgC&pg

Her translation is:

A winding overgrown trail
Leading down from soaring peaks
Ageless trees at the Barrier Strait
Blue skies merge with churning waters

The first four chapters of Cold Blood take Yamabuki down a trail at the foot of soaring peaks. There she stands at the Barrier Strait looking at the blue skies and waters that separate Kyushu from Honshu.

Who is the woman hero?


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Cold Blood cover comp draft 20141122The Yamabuki series is inspired by a 12th-century woman chronicled in historic writings of the times. It is said Yamabuki was beautiful and that she accompanied Yoshinaka, The Rising Sun General, and Tomoe Gozen, a more famous woman warrior on their adventures and into battle. Some accounts even say she was a general who led troops into ferocious battles.

In writing I hoped as much as possible to avoid setting the action in Tokugawa era, which is familiar to many fans of historic Japan. The 12th-century Japan was very different from the 17th century. This required leaving behind fond images of geisha, two-sword samurai with shaven pate and wearing hair in a topknot, ritualized harakiri, Japanese baths, tatami mats, tea ceremonies, and a host of other things–which Ivan Morris warns us about in his “World of the Shining Prince.”

But mostly, I wanted to write about the humanity of my main character, Taka Yamabuki. Though she says she is not a Buddhist, in some ways hers is a warrior’s version of the Buddhist story. Born in riches and the easy life of the palace, she chooses to go out into the world, not as a nun in search of truth, but as a warrior in search of herself and the meaning of life. I have deliberately not made her into a scantily clad hot bad-ass, but a woman who survives through her wits, resorting to fighting only when faced with no other options.

The story arc of all the Yamabuki books I have planned will take her from a very young woman all the way to her old age and how she grows, changes, loves, triumphs, suffers, grieves, and loses those she cares about in this sad world–a veil of tears.

Lancelot and Tammy

Yoshitoshi-Kuzunoha-fox-woman-leaving-her-child-W200-TNFor those of us who are writing historical fantasy, naming characters can be tricky.

Take King Arthur. Getting the name right to get the right feeling across. Mixing up contemporary names with ancient names can end up in a loss of authenticity. Romeo and Juliet works, Romeo and Janet does not.

Writing about Heian Japan, looking back a thousand years, the names of Japanese people are not the same as they are today, or even a hundred years ago. Perhaps only purists will catch this.

The late Anthony J. Bryant writes about Lady Murasaki, the author of The Tale of Genji, a novel of 1000 years ago. Some say, the world’s first novel.


…the true name of Murasaki Shikibu, author of the Tale of Genji, is unknown. The latter seems to have been called Tô no Shikibu in earlier sources; the “Tô” is the first character from the name “Fujiwara,” into a cadet branch of which she had been born; the “Shikibu” comes from the title of an office held by her father and brother; the “Murasaki” was a nickname given her owing to the lead female character in her book, Genji Monogatari (The Tale of Genji).


He goes on to say that women’s names in the era are a bit of a mystery, to say the least.

Even Margaret Mitchell’s heroine, Scarlett O’Hara, was originally going to be called Pansy O’Hara.

As my current novel is undergoing my own final edit, prior to being sent to a professional editor a week from now, I comb through my characters names, review, recheck, and hope I get it right.

Tokyo Shorty Writes About Star Festival in Japan


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StarFestivalTokyo Shorty (aka Alex Hurst) wrote about the celebration of Star Festival in Japan. Her article is very informative and caught my attention. Her post on Goodreads has excellent details and graphics and was of particular interest to me. She also posts it on her blog.

I am working to a deadline of two weeks from today when my first full length novel, Haru, subtitled, Broken Swords, will be going to the professional editor for an line-by-line read with feedback.

Star Festival, also known at Hoshi Matsuri, or Tanabata, plays a key role my the plot. In fact, most of the major sections are based around Japanese celebrations and festivals. I had already written this section when I came across her description referenced, above. Thus, I took special pleasure in reading her post and reflecting on the festival. I looked at what she had written and what I had written many months before.

In Broken Swords a multi-year drought has gripped the land and the crops have failed. Thus, in my writing, we read:

As the sun settled into the Western vastness, the market day finally ended. A nearly palpable sulk lingered even past the dusk.

The day had not been lucky after all.

And why would it be lucky? A second monsoon time come and gone without much rain.

Nevertheless, this was the night of Risshū: when the stars had moved to their preordained places in the River of Heaven, marking the first day of autumn. The Buddhist monks had proclaimed it was a time of celebration: Hoshi Matsuri, sometimes also known as Tanabata, the evening of the sevens. The bonze had explained that it was called by the second name because the festival fell on the seventh day of the seventh month, but no matter when it fell, or what it was called, or why, none of them could explain how in drought times there was anything to celebrate.

Yet, what else could the people do? The holy men had spoken. Grumble though the people might, celebrate they would.

I looked at Tokyo Shorty’s detail about the festival, then compared it to the graphics in her post. Again, from Broken Swords, sword master Ushi has reason to celebrate. He has a mysterious patron.

The sun was fully down. Only the final faint glow of the day remained as Ushi made his way back to the living quarters.

He was out of wine. Every flask he had was empty.

This problem provided him with his next goal, more saké, and though he felt light headed, he more or less walked straight down the main street to the saké house.

Ushi’s thoughts wandered far away, although his feet knew the path to Umé, an easy walk under the uneasy shadow of the ruins of Kuróishiro.

He looked up at Black Castle’s massive sheer walls, directly north, that rose above the town like a mountain, and whose feet disappeared into the nearly dry moat that separated the town from the fortress. Though Hōzuki had fallen into the dusk’s penumbra, the top-most roofs of the mountain that was Kuróishiro still caught the last of the sun’s orange glint, looking almost as it did in the days of Lord Inari. Still, Ushi knew, it was but an illusion. The shattered fortress was dead, its heart torn from it. Its walls crumbling in places.

He had always felt invulnerable in its shadow. The fortress, a ghost of itself’s once proud self, now seemed foreboding on this autumn evening.

“Ah!” Ushi chided himself. This was no way to feel or think. He was rich! He remembered where he was going. To Umé! At the saké house he was sure to find plenty of good company. With his windfall he was sure to find plenty of saké, too. And there would be plenty of women who were willing, especially during Hoshi Matsuri.

He was not sure exactly why, but suddenly he longed for Mitsuko. Perhaps it was the memories in the workshop. Maybe it was the mention of his brother, Ichi, and Heian-kyo, but he picked up his pace.

Children merrily ran down the street chanting for clear skies: “Tenki ni nari. Tenki ni nari.” Clear skies meant the Herd-boy star could see the Weaver-maiden star across the River of Heaven.

And for once everyone was happy with a sky that held no rain, for it mean that tonight would be a time unrequited love would be quenched.

“Unrequited love,” Ushi mumbled, again picturing Mitsuko, remembering her in her youth, before she left Heian-kyo, in the Year of the Goat.

Ushi further picked up his step as the stars began their show.

Braziers burned all along the street. Bamboo cuttings graced the doors of even the most lowly of dwellings. The more affluent householders placed small bamboo trees near their entry ways. Everywhere pieces of paper hung from the bamboo. The papers carried love poems cut into the shapes either of a kimono or cattle. And it mattered not whether one was a gifted writer. Rather it was the intent that counted. Even the illiterate, and that was by far the majority, could get a poem penned by an itinerant priest who also gave a lucky-love blessing upon receiving a coin. If a person had no coin, the priests also cheerfully accepted a donation of food, or even a swig of saké.

But Ushi was literate and very rich. He smiled at his circumstances; smiled at everyone and at no one; smiled at passers-by, and waved even to little children, something the sour-faced sword smith was never known to do.

The townspeople smiled back and laughed after him for they dismissed all his grinning as a combination of his usual saké habit combined with the chanting, dancing, and songs of the  festivities of the evening. Even bitter old Ushi could smile on Hoshi Matsuri.

Ushi claimed to enjoy Umé for more than just its saké and women, though there were those who snickered at this claim. For Ushi, Umé still preserved the refinement of the Inari times. Umé’s gates and grounds were invariably well tended so that one always sensed prosperity even in the worst of times; especially in the worst of times.

Many a lonely soul sought solace at Umé. Star Festival brought farmers and artisans from every nearby settlement. And on this festival night, the women of Umé hung wind kites with streamers of green, red, yellow, white, and purple. Although the air was still, and the kites drooped vapidly, this did not dampen the festivities in the least. More love poems hung at Umé than at any other structure in Hōzuki, for if someone did not have a true love, one of the nine women of the saké establishment would be more than glad to serve as a surrogate, at least for a modest price.

Umé’s wooden screens were open wide owing to the muggy evening and the crush of patrons. Only the interior screens remained closed and it was an open secret why this was so. One patron would exit one of the inner chambers and before long another would be granted entrance. The comely women of Umé were nowhere to be seen, except for Mitsuko, the Mistress of Umé, its one-time Abbess.

Ushi’s purse held thirty-seven copper coins, enough for sixteen flasks of saké with five coppers left over to share the pleasure of a lovely Umé girl’s company. The Umé girls charged two coppers, except for Mitsuko who expected five, a trifle…

But things do not go as well as he had hoped, and Ushi returns to his shop, alone to observe the night of carnal love.

In the third quarter of the Hour of the Mouse, long past midnight, Ushi stumbled, flask in hand, homeward through the darkened streets he had negotiated so often before, and drunker than now.

Nonetheless, this night seemed especially ominous. Perhaps it was the chill that suddenly fell upon him. When the waxing crescent moon set, Ushi knew the haunted hour approached, the Hour of the Ox, when ghouls and demons rose from the depths of the fearful jigoku. Perhaps the fortress fires gave him pause. Perhaps it was the well-founded suspicion that someone might have followed him; perhaps greedy robbers watched his every move. Ushi imagined hungry eyes hidden in the shadows. His hand slid to his long sword’s hilt. He stole a backward glance, but saw only the darkening dusty street.

The clear night sky shone bright with the stars. He pondered: the deserted street proved that those destined to find carnal love had already found it, while those had not, staggered home alone.

Ushi looked upward—the Herd-boy star stared across the River of Heaven at the Weaver-maiden star. And despite all his money, for the first time in a long time, Ushi truly felt lonely…

He lit the small red jade-brazier that had been shaped into the form of a fox, the last gift from Lord Inari to his Kokaji. The coals crackled and hissed as a thin wisp of pungent smoke rose in the dim light thrown off by the tiny flame. It lit his way to the household Kamidana where he paused, putting the unfinished katana to rest on the kake.

He reached up toward a small folded scrap of aging rice paper and its calligraphy. Slowly his strong fingers opened the delicate creases that revealed it was cut into the shape of an ox. His once young hand had effortlessly and unabashedly penned the kanji in a single flourish.

I waited in the autumn wind

To ask you

When will we walk again

Across that bridge of red leaves?

He had meant to recite his poem to Mitsuko at their first Tanabata in Hōzuki, back in the time when Umé was still a women’s monastery, but then, as now, he lacked the courage. It would have revealed too much to her.

He carefully refolded the paper, putting it back with the eight successive Tanabata poems he had written to her, one each year, until tonight.

For all his dismissiveness, he well remembered how Hoshi Matsuri was to be observed. People arose at the Hour of the Tiger for it was said that night’s sweet dew from succulent leaves made the freshest ink. It was at dawn that he should have set down his vow of love. Now, only under brazier light, he poured saké onto the ink stone to mix it with the ink. “That will have to do,” he thought to himself.

Try as he might, he found it difficult to say anything, let alone confess what was in his heart. Still, he picked up a blank sheet of paper and set it down, staring at it. Its stark whiteness, even under yellow brazier light, stared back at him.

At once his hand, as steady as ever, flew over the paper.

She is near

And yet so far

With only a broken oar

I cannot cross even the smallest rill

He waited until the ink dried, folded the paper he would never share with her, and placed it away along with the other poems and set the ink and ink stone aside.

His love for Mitsuko was as hopeless as the herd-boy’s love for the weaver-maiden. Ushi extinguished the coals. As always, they especially smoked while dying, giving off an odor he associated with endings.

In Japan, Tokyo Shorty reminded us, that Tanabata is being celebrated at this time. However, my date stamp is,

Last Half, Hour of the Bird

Waxing Moon’s First Quarter

Risshū—First Day of Autumn

Seventh Day of Poem-Composing Month

Fourth Year of Shōan

Year of the Snake


Yellow Rock Province

The Northern Oku


6:00 PM

August 6, 1174 C.E.

Why was August chosen as the 7th month? According to my charts of Japanese Chronology, in 1174, the year of the action, the first day of the year was (as reckoned by the Western calendar) February 1, 1174. That would have been Dark Moon’s Night. This is under the lunar calendar, which was used until the Meiji times. Hence, the seventh month starts on July 31, 1174 (Gregorian calendar).

My own swords


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Three wooden practice swords

The wooden practice swords used by author Katherine M. Lawrence.

Writing about sword fighting comes from having taken some fencing lessons, Japanese style, and sword fighting has led to the writing about a Japanese fencer.

Hazard Sensei suggested using walnut oil (available from most supermarkets) to keep the blades moist, especially for the shinai (the one in the middle).

Although I do not re-enact the sword fighting scenes from Yamabuki, I do use them to remind myself of the reach of the katana (long sword).

Currently I am reworking a scene for “Haru.” Fighting from horseback, sword-to-sword, does not allow much reach, especially if the horses brush up against one another.

I try and keep in mind my father’s recollections of his days in the horse cavalry and just how far horses could and could not be trained, pushed, and utilized in combat.

S is for Shakespeare


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SMy first experience with Shakespeare was a good one.  It was Hamlet. As a fifth grader much of it was over my head, but the ghost carried the day. Black and White, the film adaptation starring Lawrence Olivier sparked my interest.

Recently I ran across video about Shakespeare, the first having to do with original pronunciation (OP) and the seconds having to do with Shakespeare in Asia.

Having grown up in the West in an English-speaking country, Shakespeare is expected. Mostly we hear Shakespeare in BBC English and its lovely, indeed. I wrote about OP Shakespeare, and now add one additional link https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gPlpphT7n9s

Shakespeare in Asia is different. I have read about literal translations of Shakespeare, but there are some productions who make it look like Kabuki, while others give it the touch of Chinese Opera

Lear, a multicultural amalgam, gives me goose bumps. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NB_-03iOk04

A Korean version of Hamlet, Hamyul, brings similar excitement with its dancing https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AM9OMXBg4bw

And then a Kabuki version of the Twelfth Night. http://prezi.com/wnk06di9weba/modern-shakespeare-in-japan/

Even after Shakespeare leaves the English language…even Indo-European languages, it seems to endure because of the themes, psychology, and stories.

The mighty letter “S” for the mighty Shakespeare.


“J” is for Journey


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JLife is a journey, not a destination.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.

Joseph Campbell

The journey of 1000 li begins beneath one’s feet.

Lao Tsu

And so, beneath my feet, the first words I write go down on the printed page:

A faraway temple bell tolled five times—each reverberation almost dying away between beats. Whoever it was who struck the large bronze bell—probably a senior monk—observed a set cadence as he drove the hanging wooden beam against the side of the sacred ōgane—setting it to ring—sending out sound, which it was said could be heard all the way down to the underworld.

When silence fell again, Hanaye had no remaining reason to pause. Razor in hand, she gasped, “…all your hair, Lady Takagi?”

“Yes. I believe that that is what I asked. Cut it all off.” Yamabuki tried not to let Hanaye’s emotions infect her own.

Nodding grimly, the handmaiden kept back her tears, distracting herself by looking fixedly at the young warrior’s tresses, not letting herself look at anything else, determined not meet the warrior’s gaze for fear her own feelings about the tonsure would take over.

Yamabuki sighed, “You do know that it does grow back, no?”

“Yes, my Lady,” Hanaye methodically began to cut the long strands of silky black hair.

And so, after years of working on the Yamabuki story, the first words of the first novel are set down as the alpha manuscript takes shape–the final first step on a journey of 1000s of words.

This has been as much a journey for me as for Yamabuki, the female samurai, whose life I have fictionalized in this project. Starting off as a 20 page short story that took place over the period of an hour, it has morphed into a multi volume saga that spans the runup and action of the Japanese Civil War–the Gempei War.

For years I steadfastly wanted to start at the same place where the short story opened. Yamabuki comes across some ruffians who torment an innocent young woman. She stops them and saves the day. This is where my journey began and where I wanted to take my reader. Soon, however, I realized that my alpha manuscript readers did not know Yamabuki–not like I did.

Who is this Yamabuki, who stops to help the innocent young woman? Why is Yamabuki there? What drives her? What makes her tick?

What happened was that I ended up lifting pieces of books three and four (manuscripts in-progress) and shifted them to the very beginning of book one as a prologue.


Because I had already gone on the journey with my main character, learning over time what she was like and what she wanted and needed. Yet, that journey that I had with my character cannot be replicated (credibly) in the novel structure available to me, no more than an introductory book on chemistry should devote pages and pages to alchemy before it finally (back toward the end) hits on the atomic theory.

My own journey to discover my character is not the journey the character experiences when she discovers herself. Once I understood and accepted this reality, it freed me to tell the story from Yamabuki’s perspective (even when I write 3rd person omniscient) and not from my own.

I look back at the manuscript and its growth–like a small sapling that’s grown into a flowering tree in spring bloom. The description of the burning farmhouse from the 20 page short story manuscript survives virtually intact. It reads:

In just a few steps Mochizuki took her to top of the ridgeline where the orchard ended and the trees thinned, though not completely. From the partially shrouded overlook she looked down onto an open shallow river basin where the floodwaters had prematurely drowned the fallow rice paddies. Dark waters churned past a farmhouse sensibly built on the high ground of the opposite bank.

Fire now claimed what the waters spared. Orange flames shot from yawning windows. Smoke spewed from the thatched roof. An entry door hung askew. The fire threw off so much ash that the sky poured down a steady snow of black cinder.

I thought my readers would want to start in the thick of the action, and so I wrote it that way. Instead the readers wanted to know more about the character, which moved the initial action to an earlier time on Kyushu, when Yamabuki gets ready to undertake her mission.

And in that the readers reminded me of something I had forgotten in all the massive writing–they were interested in her journey, not her destination.


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