In 1961, author Irving Stone wrote a fictionalized biography of Michelangelo called The Agony and the Ecstasy. He was making the circuit to promote his book. He appeared on an afternoon talk show where he described his research into the life of Michelangelo. His aim, he said, was to be as historically accurate as possible and he wanted the setting to be correct. He said: I want to know the color of the bedspread in Michelangelo’s bedroom. Stone had a staff of helpers and he said this request stumped them. Stone went on to say that he suggested that the tax records of the era might still exist and to start there. He then announced with triumph: Michelangelo’s bedspread was red!
As a writer who has taken on historic fiction, wrapped in mythology, I took on Stone’s view and have never looked back, though I have sometimes gotten the facts garbled over the years.
Yamabuki takes place in the Japan around the year 1180 C.E. When we think of Japan of old, our list might include the Japanese bath, tatami mats, tea drinking, geisha, the nō drama, kabuki theater, flower arranging, samurai (with shaved pates) carrying two swords, a powerful Shogun, and suicide by harakiri. But none of this existed in the time of Yamabuki, my main character–not that her time wasn’t exotic and interesting in its own way. But her era was more like that described in The Tale of Genji, the novel written by a woman, Lady Murasaki, who lived about 1,000 years ago. Her novel, which is still vibrant today, is considered by most Japanese language scholars to be one of the greatest, if not the greatest, works in the Japanese language.
Though the history should be accurately reflected in an historic novel, in my case at least I strive not to let it overwhelm the human drama.
But there is one more pitfall that I wish to mention in this short essay and that pitfall is in projecting 21st century modes of thinking–across the board–on people not of the 21st century. People of ancient days, it turns out, thought in ancient ways. Classism, racism, paganism, and beliefs about sexuality were quite different from Western 21st century beliefs and these views are sometimes shocking.
And yet, I am not writing a biography of Yamabuki…even though she appears in stories retold in Japan and there is a place purported to be her gravesite that people can visit to this day. In the novels, I do have the chance to make her a bit more contemporary and therefore a bit more accessible to the modern reader, and in that way address contemporary issues–which is the way of sci-fi & fantasy.
It’s a fine line–telling a story and being true to the time and place.
History can be key in telling the story.