World Building and the Samurai Novel

The really hard part about writing a samurai novel in English is that you must remain within the historical context of what you are writing, yet not spend too much time explaining.

Most Western readers have a much clearer image of what a Victorian tea party is than what a Japanese tea ceremony is. So, while you can just say “tea party” when describing the former, you have to fill the page with an array of explanations when describing the latter.

Imagine two Victorian gentlemen, out in the garden on a sunny day, wearing colorful waistcoats under black tail coats, their hats in the hands of the maids in the background, sitting down to tea to discuss a sinister political plot to which one of the gentlemen may or may not agree to cooperate.

Now imagine a samurai and a tea master, plotting something similar, in a quiet tea house, the tea master is wearing a short black haori and is quietly stirring green tea in a bowl. The samurai, in his kariginu, has left his sword on the shelf outside and quietly contemplating what he is about to say.

In the above example, you might picture an English manor, maids in black uniforms, flowers in the garden, perhaps a butler, or other background material. You might also sense, since I mentioned a tea party, these two men may not be alone, or are soon to be interrupted by the entrance of other guests.

The second example, I am sure you will find more difficult to picture. Unless you have extensive knowledge in historic Japanese apparel, you would not know what a haori or a kariginu would look like. You probably do not know that tea masters generally shaved their heads like monks. How bright is it inside a tea house? How does the light get in? What colors are the walls? How large is the tea bowl? More importantly, can you anticipate what will happen next? Perhaps the writer should explain everything.

But when you picture an English manor, the building is usually yellowish grey stone. You see some accents and decorations carved in the stone with perhaps a gargoyle here and there. There would be tall windows, twice the height of a  man, opening from as high as the ceiling down to about waist height, with drapes hanging to the floor. Indoors is not very bright, but you can walk out into the garden which is sunny. And the green lawn covers the grounds.

How about a tea house? Do you know that the walls are usually brownish clay? Do you know that it is often no bigger than a walk-in closet? You do not sit on chairs, you sit on the floor. The light comes in through windows sealed off with paper and the ambient light is a departure from the stark brightness of the world outside. Did you know that tea houses were often deliberately built using crooked wood to give it an aesthetic feeling?

Following the principle of “show, don’t tell” becomes difficult when you know the reader will be unable to see any of the things he might be able to see had the story been set at another time at another place.

There is only so much world building you can do in a limited number of pages. The patience of the modern reader is short. You cannot expect them to follow long passages of exposition. It would be easier if you were writing about a completely fictional fantasy world. Things get tricky when you have to show a clear picture of something taken from an actual time period.

It is important to remember that the point of world building is not exposition but atmosphere building. Sure it is cool that the Ring was made by Sauron, and that Superman came from the planet Kripton, Ironman has Palladium in his chest, Wolverine’s claws are made of Adamantium. But those are just names. World building is not just the act of giving names to imaginary objects. It is the act of building atmosphere. Since only a limited amount of words can be expended on world building in the modern novel, we must focus on the target, the meat of what we want to express. We do not need to tell the reader the color of the jubjub bird or the sound of the frumious bandersnatch. If we succeed in projecting the atmosphere, the work is done.

So let’s get back to that tea room. Do the readers need to know that the walls are plastered with brown clay? Do the readers need to know that the room is small? That the place is quiet? Is that what you want to project? When a tea ceremony is performed to perfection, the tiny crater that forms in the powdered green tea when the tea master spoons out a scoop is supposed to become a work of art. How the napkin is folded into shape, how the spoon is placed on the ivory lid of the natsume, is each an act of artistic expression requiring a measure of originality and creativity, not just a matter of good manners or proper etiquette. Yet you are not allowed to place the spoon anywhere outside the two inch circle of the ivory lid. This is why the surface of the powdered tea is smoothed like fresh snow prior to the tea ceremony, so that you can see clearly the footprint of the spoon when the powder is scooped out. This is why the ash in the furnace is smoothed like fresh snow. There are rules dictating the size, shape and number of the pieces of charcoal to be placed in the furnace. If you deviate even slightly from the standard, using a slightly longer piece of charcoal or placing the shorter piece in the foreground instead of the background, it will be judged either your daring act of originality or a sign of your ignorance. Hold your breath before you put down that spoon, you are taking a risk.

Furuta Oribe, a sixteenth century samurai tea master, once placed a spoon on the ivory lid in such a way that is remembered to this day. Putting two men in this tiny universe, where the placing of a spoon can make or break your reputation, or even make you immortal, is building a stage. Having them perform this ceremony in an era when thousands of people were dying in battle every day, not only soldiers but women, children, monks and priests, is building a world. Having the two of them plot the overthrow of a warlord in this time and place, thereby connecting the isolated artistic space and the gritty reality of the world beyond, is building a story.

Does it matter that the coat the tea master is wearing is called a haori?

I believe that the same principle applies when you are writing a fantasy or science fiction. Whether your story is set in a world of fairies and elves, a dystopian future, or an alien planet, when you are world building for the impatient modern reader, you must focus your expositions on exactly what you want to project. It is the nature of the world you build, not the artifacts, that matter.

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