On writing

How to write historical fiction

Writing a novel set in another time period can be challenging. Lesley Downer, the author of The Shogun's Queen, shares her advice for penning historical fiction

Choose a clear starting point

The Shogun’s Queen begins with the most dramatic and momentous event in Japanese history. It was far more earth-shattering even than 1066 was for us, for it sparked massive upheaval and the complete transformation of Japan from a feudal society to a modern western country, all in the space of fifteen years. Unlike William and his Normans, these invaders were an alien race, huge as well as hostile. They were in fact Americans - Commodore Matthew Perry and his fleet of four heavily-armed Black Ships.

Before their arrival Japan had been almost entirely closed to the west. Once it was prised open, westerners poured in and many wrote of their experiences in what had been a hermit kingdom.


Hit the books: research, research, research

When I started my research I found a wealth of marvellous books in English, full of detailed descriptions of this jewel box of a country. These pioneers knew that few westerners had ever visited before and they also knew that their own presence was changing it before their eyes, so they recorded in great detail everything they saw. Many of these obscure old books have now been reissued in photocopied form by the British Library and - this being my fourth book set in this period - I’ve stocked my bookcase with them. With the help of Japanese friends I also studied books written in premodern Japanese which was all there was about the Women’s Palace when I started writing about it.

 

If possible, visit the places you are writing about

The Imperial Palace in Tokyo now occupies the place where Edo Castle, where Atsu ended up, once stood. I paced out the lawn where the Women’s Palace used to be and was amazed at the vast size of it and worked out exactly where Atsu’s wing would have been. I walked around the outer bulwarks and across the bridge over the moat, all pretty much unchanged from her time.

I also went to Nijo Castle in Kyoto. It’s vast with extensive grounds but in comparison to Edo Castle it was tiny, just the shoguns’ pied a terre in Kyoto. It’s a sort of Edo Castle in miniature - splendid coffered ceilings, walls panelled with gold screens painted with tigers and leopards and giant pine trees, creaky floors so that no assailant could enter undetected.

I spent a long time in the women’s quarters with its quieter, more feminine decor, imagining the peace which the shogun must have enjoyed there.

 

Remember that the story is always important

When I write I want to take my readers on a journey to an unfamiliar time and place, but I also want to keep true to the history. For me the point of research is not just to gather information. I also want to immerse myself in the place and the period until I live and breathe it. I want to see all the places with my own eyes - taste the flavour, feel the atmosphere, breathe the air. When I travel I keep a diary and note down every tiny feature. Some I can’t immediately see a use for but once I’m home an unexpected detail often inspires me.  I immensely enjoyed both researching and writing The Shogun’s Quartet - it was a chance to step into another world and in my writing I’ve done my best to take my readers there too.
 

More about the author

The Shogun's Queen

Lesley Downer

The year is 1853, and a young Japanese girl’s world is about to be turned upside down.

When black ships carrying barbarians arrive on the shores of Japan, the Satsuma clan’s way of life is threatened. But it’s not just the samurai who must come together to fight: the beautiful, headstrong Okatsu is also given a new destiny by her feudal lord – to save the realm.

Armed only with a new name, Princess Atsu, as she is now known, journeys to the women’s palace of Edo Castle, a place so secret it cannot be marked on any map. Behind the palace’s immaculate façade, amid rumours of murder and whispers of ghosts, Atsu must uncover the secret of the man whose fate, it seems, is irrevocably linked to hers – the shogun himself – if she is to rescue her people . . .

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