Writing What I Don’t Know

Specifically, Japanese and Chinese traditional culture. I am working on a novel where the hero is from a space-faring culture based in East Asian cultural traditions and genetics, and the heroine is the equivalent of Japanese-American or Chinese-British. The more research I do, the more I find out exactly how much I don’t know about Japanese and Chinese culture.

I’m ethnically Irish, which means I have light hair, light skin, and round blue eyes. So, what do epicanthal folds feel like? Nobody who has them can tell me, because they don’t know what it feels like not to have them. At least I can figure out the hair — my mother had hair so vehemently straight it rejected poodle perms in about four weeks.

I’m culturally American, specifically Western American, which means I have one of the largest personal-space bubbles in the world. You get closer than four feet without a good reason and I’m going to be uncomfortable and backing away — just because of where I grew up.

Compare that to the Tokyo subway system, where they employ people to cram commuters into the trains with the personal space of, say, canned sardines. Shakiro (Our Hero) isn’t going to equate physical proximity with intimacy. Well, there goes that scene. He’s also part of the imperial security clan, which means researching the Samurai Bushido, the ninja/shinobi Oniwabanshu, and multiple schools of Chinese martial arts philosophy. Good stuff (Sun Tzu was fascinating), but still…that’s just the deep background of his world.

Because of my day jobs in technical writing and localization, I know that Japan has three different writing systems, one of which was co-opted from Chinese writing (kanji), one of which looks like Gregg shorthand (katakana), and one of which looks like a cursive version of Gregg shorthand (hiragana). And you read it from top to bottom, right to left. Yesterday, I had to look up the name of the Japanese short sword often used as a left-hand weapon by the Samurai class: wakizashi. Or at least that’s the Romaji for it (phonetic approximation using the Roman alphabet).

How would that shape someone’s brain? Does Shak trust written language at all? Would you?

It’s a good thing this is fiction, so I can make stuff up.

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