Category Archives: historical fiction

5 Reasons Why Readers Give Up


by Lillian Csernica on July 9, 2018

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First, my apologies for the drop in the frequency of my posts. I’ve been having technical difficulties with both my laptop and daily life.

Keeping readers entertained and loyal is essential in today’s marketplace. I get a lot of free Kindle e-books thanks to BookBub. Given how much I read, I can plow through two or three novels a week depending on my schedule. Doing so has sharpened my sense of what will make me stop reading a book. Life is too short to read bad fiction. I have such a library built up on my Kindle there’s no reason to go on reading a book that can’t hold my interest.

These are the Five Storytelling Flaws that will make me give up on a story:

0f7398a5-6eed-4f57-b412-757fa49d8849Talking Heads — The dialogue might be witty. It might be well-crafted. If it doesn’t move the story forward, what’s the point? Dialogue can be a form of action, yes. If all you’ve got is characters having lengthy conversations, that’s going to try your reader’s patience and make them lose interest.

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Redshirts — These are the minor characters who take a bullet for the hero or heroine. I once read a fantasy novel where the redshirt problem was so blatant it became more and more aggravating with every predictable death. The novel was clearly meant to be the first in a series. It did not surprise me to learn the sequel never saw the light of day.

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Low Stakes — The majority of mystery novels are about murder because the stakes don’t get any higher than life or death. The higher the stakes, the more the main character has to risk in order to solve the problem. More risk means tougher choices and that creates more reader sympathy. Make sure the stakes in your story are high enough to keep the reader turning pages.

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Too Much Thinking — This is the internal narrative equivalent of Talking Heads. Yes, the reader needs to know how the main character feels and what thought process leads to the next attempt to solve the story problem. Too much thinking means too little action. The pace of the story suffers and the reader will lose interest.

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Purple Prose — If the reader can tell the writer is trying to impress, then the writer is trying too hard. This results in convoluted syntax that breaks the suspension of disbelief and makes the reader aware of the act of reading. I must confess that I do walk a fine line when I’m writing romance. Purple prose is very nearly one of the protocols of the genre. Keep it simple. Clarity and precision are your friends.

For more tips on avoiding these mistakes, I recommend reading:

How to Write A Damn Good Novel series by James N. Frey

Scene and Structure by Jack Bickham

Beginnings, Middles, and Ends by Nancy Kress

Revision by Kit Reed

Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott

 

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How History Books Will Make You a Better Writer


by Lillian Csernica on June 27, 2018

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Why do I write about history?

History gives me an opportunity to get the big picture on how different countries have tried to make different strategies work. Economic strategies, military strategies, and the more cultural and artistic strategies that come under the heading of fashion.

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A good example is Scotland, which has a long history of internal clan conflicts and the border wars with England. The weather in Scotland tends toward clouds and rain. Sheep do well on the landscape of Scotland, so you see a lot of wool in their clothing styles, notably the kilt. I know a lot of people who have spent a great deal of time looking up their family tartans. The truth is, clan tartans are an invention of the Victorian period. This is one of those annoying facts that bursts the romantic bubble of many an amateur historian.

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I’ve written often about my fondness for Japan. Feudal Japan was an era of strict social classes, laws about fashion, and precise rules about social etiquette. While the tyranny of the Tokugawa Shogunate was eventually its own undoing, I must confess I would find a certain comfort in having so many matters of culture spelled out for me. Modern Japanese also enjoy the two-edged sword of knowing exactly who they are and where they stand in whatever social context they find themselves. In the time of the Tokugawa, clothing, hairstyles, personal ornamentation, and weaponry were the indicators of social position. Today we see all that grandeur reduced to the common everyday business card. That has become the crucial indicator of status and context for the Japanese. Westerners are advised to bring plenty of their own. Otherwise there are businesses available which produce cards very quickly with one side in English and the other in Japanese.

It was Eleanor who paid her son's ransom when he was captured

I write romance novels, so I get to take a close look at the techniques of wooing in various times and places. Medieval Europe had the concept of the Court of Chivalry. Eleanor of Aquitaine was largely responsible for this idea. Knights were measured against the Code of Chivalry to see if they met the beau ideal of those times. The real purpose of the Courts of Chivalry was to keep the women occupied while the men were off on Crusade or fighting battles closer to home. Bored noblewomen can be dangerous noblewomen, as Eleanor of Aquitaine herself proved on more than one occasion. In our present time the High Court of Chivalry deals with matters of heraldry.

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Novels from the Regency and Victorian periods entertain me because they’re all about clothes and money. Social position is the bottom line, and so many of the characters are looking to trade up. Finding someone you can love for the rest of your life is nowhere near as important as finding someone with a respectable income of so many hundreds or thousands of pounds per year. It’s possible that I’ve become a tad cynical regarding romance. When you’ve been married for thirty years, the starry-eyed honeymoon phase is a rather distant memory. That’s probably why I enjoy recreating it in my stories.

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Oddly enough, ancient history holds little appeal for me. The mysteries of ancient Egypt focus so much on the afterlife. I know more than I ever wanted to about the process of mummification. I find it interesting that the Egyptian gods have animal heads, which also occur in the Hindu pantheon. What does this similarity mean? What exchange of culture might have gone on that modern archaeologists have yet to discover? As with so many cultures, the most noteworthy people are the upper classes, especially the royalty. The lower classes, especially the slaves, had a hard life. 

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One of the most fascinating aspects of history is food. For the first novel I ever wrote, I had to go looking for Basque cookbooks because the novel was set in Navarre. It took quite some doing, but I finally discovered what my heroine would have for breakfast: chestnuts boiled in milk and sprinkled with nutmeg. Compare that with the necessity in Egypt of having many festal days where the upper classes distributed beer and bread to the lower classes. If not for that, many of the commoners and slaves in Egypt would have starved to death.

In Medieval Europe, bread, watered wine, ale, meats such as venison, game birds, and roast pork, and large wheels of cheese made up the main meal. You can find a number of cookbooks online that provide recipes from the Middle Ages. The key difference in culinary art between the Middles Ages and the Renaissance came down to the use of spices. The Middle Ages saw lots of spices thrown in for rich flavors. Renaissance cooking became more selective, creating unique dishes centered around particular flavor combinations. My research in this area taught me the pleasure of chicken prepared with cinnamon.

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Then there’s jewelry. I could go on and on about the delights of dressing up my heroes and heroines in the bijouterie of their particular time periods. From the hair ornaments of the geisha to the mourning rings of the Victorian period, from the jeweled inlays of the Egyptian pectoral collars to the prayer ropes of the Middles Ages called paternosters made from ivory beads or garnets or even pearls, the treasure chests of history are overflowing. I once had the pleasure of visiting the Smithsonian Institution and seeing the earrings of Marie Antoinette. Given that their total weight was more than 35 carats, it’s a wonder she didn’t end up with earlobes stretched like King Tut’s!

History is full of fascinating details. There are so many ideas out there just waiting to inspire you. Read those history books, those biographies, those memoirs! You never know when you’re going to find the one detail that opens up a world of inspiration.

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#blogchallenge: Fortune Cookie #27


by Lillian Csernica on May 27, 2018

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Today’s fortune says:

Past inspirations and experiences will be helpful in your job.

WRITE WHAT YOU KNOW

Ellen sat at one round marble table. It was just big enough to hold her laptop and a cup of overpriced coffee. As she surveyed the earnest faces clustered around the grouping of three little tables, she wondered if she should have ordered a double espresso. Three women in the fifty-plus range. Two men, one a retired welder and the other a skinny, twitchy fellow in his thirties. She knew better than to make assumptions, but these people looked about as exciting as the smell of boiling brussel sprouts.

The mission in St. Petersberg had been way too exciting. Two assets dead, a safe house blown up, and bad blood with the other agencies involved. Ellen came out of it with a concussion, internal bruising, and eight weeks’ mandatory leave while the investigation tried to sort out who screwed who when. Her agency’s psych team recommended she take up some quiet hobby.

Birdwatching had felt too much like surveillance work. On the plus side, Ellen had called in three drug deals, two stolen cars, and the beginnings of a home invasion.

One quilting class convinced her that she’d become a chess master before she got the hang of all the patterns and pieces.

Knitting was right out. As Ellen’s supervisor had put it, “Anybody who puts a pair of needles that long into Ellen’s hands better bring a big stack of body bags.”

So here she was, at a local writing group.

Felicia, the group’s “facilitator,” tapped her spoon against her coffee cup. She beamed a perfect PTA Mom smile. “I’d like to welcome you all to the first meeting of this session. Why don’t we start by introducing ourselves. Tell us your name and you preferred genre.”

Ellen let the names wash past her in the general noise of the coffeehouse. The ’60s rock on the PA system combined with the bean grinder to trigger the beginnings of a headache. A fine excuse for more caffeine. Her turn came.

“Ellen. Nonfiction.”

“Any particular kind?” Felicia asked.

For a moment Ellen was tempted to say forensic archaeology. At the agency she’d developed a reputation for being able to guess time of death to within half an hour on a fresh body, and to within a week on anyone they had to recover.

“Oh, you know. Household hints, Martha Stewart stuff.”

She’d looked up various women writers, hoping to work up some kind of profile she could match. Back of the book photos qualified as glamor shots among the literary intelligentsia. Ellen had found the genre writers more to her liking, especially the fantasy and mystery people. With them in mind she wore jeans, a T shirt with a Dashiell Hammet classic cover, and a gray cardigan.

“Let’s get started,” Felicia said. “Fifteen minutes for our first writing prompt.” She tapped a few keys on her laptop. “Here we are. ‘Journeys end in lovers’ meeting.'”

Everyone grabbed their pens or bent to their keyboards. Ellen stared at the blank page. Her journeys ended in meetings, all right, but not with lovers. There was no love lost between her and the people the agency sent her to “meet.”

“Ellen,” Felicia murmured. “Remember, keep the pen moving.”

The man lay there on the sidewalk, surrounded by pieces of the shattered window glass. It was almost pretty, the way the streetlights’ sodium glare reflected off all the shiny bits, giving the man a halo in death he’d surely never earned in life. Did he have a wife somewhere? Would she miss him? Time would pass. Sooner or later she’d realize he was never coming home. Would she cry? Would she miss him? Or would she heave a secret sigh of relief? So many problems solved, so many arguments that now would never happen. There were loose ends. There were always loose ends. That’s why God invented scissors. A few discreet snips here and there and everything would be nice and tidy. She’d always been an independent woman. Now she could enjoy a more complete freedom.

Ellen smiled. Maybe this writing thing would work out after all.

END

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bloodymurder.files.wordpress.com

 

 

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BayCon 2018: Where to Find Me


by Lillian Csernica on May 23, 2018

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Friday 1:30 p.m. The Perfect Poison

Is it possible to create a poison that will kill only the target, no matter who else is exposed? Genetic engineering and personalized medicine may well collide in a perfect storm of individually targeted weapons rather than cures. What genetic markers would be most useful? What if you can target families or ethnic groups?

Saturday 1:00 p.m. Getting the Point

Understanding the pros and cons of the various points of view available to the storyteller.

Sunday 1:00 p.m. It Began with a Monster

200 years ago, Mary Shelley published the singular novel that set the stage for modern genre literature: Frankenstein: Or, The Modern Prometheus. In the two centuries since the full-novel’s publication, Shelley’s Frankenstein has flourished as a touchstone for authors and filmmakers across the spectrum, carving out a mythos and a creative playing field to rival the legends of antiquity.

Sunday 5:30 p.m. Religion in Fantasy & Science Fiction

Where are the Gods and churches and when they exist, what purpose do they serve?

Monday 1:00 p.m. Creative Writing for Kids

Come and learn the six basic elements of a good story. Plenty of fun examples and some exercises to help new writers experience professional writing techniques.

 

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#blogchallenge: Fortune Cookie #23


by Lillian Csernica on May 23, 2018

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Today’s fortune says:

A single conversation with a wise man is worth ten years of study.

 

Here are the Top Five Pieces of Advice I’ve received thus far:

“Keep the pen moving.” Andy Couturier, top notch writing teacher.

“Remember, it’s not about you.” My mental health pros explaining what motivates other people’s hurtful behaviors, especially Narcissistic Personality Disorder. Oy!

“Why is this happening NOW?” Darrell Schweitzer on the problem that starts a story.

“To combat depression, count your blessings every night by keeping a daily list in a journal, notebook, etc.” I can’t remember which of my therapists first suggested this idea. It’s advice I pass along frequently when I meet someone else struggling with depression.

“If your pain is getting in the way of your writing, maybe you need to make room in your writing for your pain.” The LCSW who was my therapist for the longest stretch, which included the worst disasters of my benighted life.

Yes, I have Major Depressive Disorder. Yes, I’ve been writing ever since I could hold a crayon. And yes, I’ve spent most of my life in cognitive behavioral therapy, starting at age 11 when my parents divorced and starting again in a big way when I was 28. I’m now 52, and frankly, there’s no end in sight.

So I follow Stephen King’s advice. “Read, read, read. Write, write, write.” Because, really, stories are what make life worth living.

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#blogchallenge: Fortune Cookie #22


by Lillian Csernica on May 22, 2018

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Today’s fortune says:

It’s all right to have butterflies in your stomach.

Just get them to fly in formation.

 

And now, a little something from the True Story Archives.

Way back when I was a freshman in high school, my English teacher liked the way I gave my presentations. He had a talk with the coach of the speech and debate team. When my sophomore year started, I joined the team. This proved to be one of the smartest and most beneficial decisions of my life.

Public speaking is the number one phobia for three out of four people. Worse than spiders, worse that going to the dentist, people live in fear of getting up in front of an audience for the purpose of giving a speech. I understand this. When I first started putting together expository speeches and practicing in front of my coach and teammates, the absolute terror of doing a bad job and being laughed at for it was crippling. Knowing that everybody else who was in training shared my fear didn’t make it any easier.

If there’s one thing I can do well, it’s talk. Thanks to my coach training me and my mother, who listened to me practice over and over and over again as I memorized the ten minute speeches I gave, I got past the anxiety in my determination to remember how to use cross-focus, the precise gestures, and the right variations in tone and pitch. Giving a speech is a performance. Maybe I wasn’t doing Shakespeare, but that’s only because I didn’t spend much time in the Dramatic Interpretation event. (I did break Varsity there, but after that I concentrated on my stronger events.)

In my first year of competing at speech tournaments, I went down in flames a number of times. The competition was better, more polished, smoother in their delivery. OK. I just had to work harder. What I also had to do was find my best event. That’s when I discovered Impromptu speaking.

At the junior varsity level, we had five minutes to prepare, then five minutes total for our speech. At varsity level, we had only two minutes to prep. Talk about a strain on the nerves! What we had to base our speeches on varied widely. Most often we were given slips of paper with three famous quotations. We chose one and built our speech around it. At some tournaments, we were given fortune cookies, paper bags that held some random object such as a calculator, or even plastic Easter eggs with the Surprise Topic inside. The event required mental agility, flexibility, a vast pool of random knowledge, and a mastery of the different presentation structures one could use.

The first time I competed in Impromptu, I think I had a full blown anxiety attack. There I was, about to receive my slip of paper with the three subjects on it. With sweaty palms and my heart pounding, I almost had an asthma attack. And then I saw the two words that told me I was home free:

Horror movies.

As I’ve mentioned more than once, my grandfather helped build the set for the laboratory in the original Frankenstein movie with Boris Karloff. I’m a big fan of classic horror movies. The judge for this round was an older gentleman. When I started mentioning names such as Elsa Lanchester from Bride of Frankenstein and Lon Chaney from The Hunchback of Notre Dame, apparently I won the judge’s respect as well as his vote. His comments on the voting card I received after the tournament reflected his approval of someone my age (fifteen at the time), knowing those names.

Once I learned to get my butterflies flying in formation and overcame my fear of public speaking, I acquired a skill that has helped me in every aspect of my life.

 

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Reflection–How the #AtoZChallenge Took Me Deeper Into My Fictional World


by Lillian Csernica on May 7, 2018

This year I dedicated my A to Z posts to exploring the world of my Kyoto Steampunk series. I made some valuable discoveries as I worked my way through the alphabet, some creative, some more on the practical side.

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Take a step sideways. A short story is by its nature limited in length. Every detail needs to be an essential detail. Once you get into a series of short stories, you have to keep developing those details, adding depth, bringing new information. Fujita-san is a regular character in the series, but the reader has so far never seen him outside of his function as Dr. Harrington’s translator. Devoting a post to Fujita-san’s background and qualifications made me think through aspects of his character that no story had yet required. That will greatly enrich Fujita-san’s next appearance.

Be sure to link your posts to other related posts. As the A to Z Challenge progressed, each additional blog post I wrote became an active link that expanded on references made in previous posts, and vice versa. It made for extra work, but it also gave me a wonderful sense of providing a more three dimensional experience. People who read the posts could chase the links back and forth, gathering lots of information and insights into how and why I’m writing the Kyoto Steampunk series.

Avoid the obvious, but keep in mind what’s popular. Some of the more difficult letters required brainstorming before I chose the topic I thought most useful and most entertaining. There were more Japanese words I might have used, but less is more in that regard. The Kyoto Steampunk series is about a British expatriate family living in Kyoto during Japan’s Industrial Revolution, facing difficulties both social and supernatural. I didn’t want to narrow the focus to Japan itself.

Reveal your process. This is where I really had the most fun. I’m always interested to learn how other creative people go about making their art. To be able to talk about how I made certain choices and why this or that story element is important to me gave me plenty of satisfaction. Just telling the story about how the character of Julie Rose came to be made a lot of people laugh!

Stay at least five days ahead. Absolutely essential. Some people manage to get all of their posts written before the challenge even starts. I stand in awe of such organization. Me, I need some pressure to do my best work. I also need breathing room. Staying five days ahead lets me stay relaxed while enjoying the daily challenge of each letter. It also means I have more time to go visit the people who visit me, along with roaming around chasing links to new blogs.

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thepandorasociety.com

 

And now, my favorite blogs from the 2018 A to Z Challenge!

The Old Shelter

Sarah Zama is an amazing writer, author of Give In To The Feeling. Last year she wrote about noir films, one of my favorite subjects. This year her posts about the Weimar Republic opened my eyes to a cultural revolution that was just a name in the history books.

Diary of a Dublin Housewife

Bernie Violet is a hoot. Her posts are written like bullet lists, providing bare dialogue back and forth between Bernie and one of her family or friends. You can hear the lovely Irish lilt that is authentic, not just some writer trying to fabricate a dialect. What’s more, Bernie’s sense of humor never fails to make me laugh.

Sharon E. Cathcart

Winner of much deserved awards, Sharon is a wonderful woman who devotes a lot of time to volunteering at animal shelters. Her latest novel Bayou Fire is well worth a read.

Sally’s Smorgasbord

For variety, entertainment, enlightenment, and laughter, you can’t do better. The sense of community there is strong and supportive. Go and sample some of the delights of this smorgasbord. You’ll be glad you did!

Atherton’s Magic Vapor

A time travel story with each letter of the alphabet being an entry in the mission guidebook. This is an exciting adventure with a unique style and some splendid graphics. I’ll have to read it again, now that I’ve gotten a better grip on the story!

Iain Kelly Fiction Writing

Every letter of the alphabet takes you to a new location. Every location is the setting for short piece of fiction that is rich and compelling. Some of the stories made me cry, partly from sorrow and partly from just how touching they were. Iain Kelly’s writing style is strong, admirable, and a pleasure to read.

Book Jotter

Paula Bardell-Hedley is a reviewer from Wales who keeps up with an impressive amount of reading. I’m impressed by the organization of her blog and the sheer volume of information she provides. Stop by and discover a treasure house for book lovers!

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#blogchallenge Fortune Cookie Says:


by Lillian Csernica on May 6, 2018

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Hellokids.com

Today’s fortune says:

Love in its essence is spiritual fire.

 

PLAYING WITH FIRE

Olivia sat in the passenger’s seat of the dull gray sedan where it blended into the concrete shadows. Dan sat in the driver’s seat, chewing on an unlit cigar.

“You sure about this?” he asked.

“Positive. Raymond has had more than enough warnings.”

They both looked up at the fourth floor window of the Marquis Hotel. Not the best in the city, but closer to the top than the bottom. Olivia’s full lips curved in a bitter smile. That was Ray all over. Shadows passed by the window, one with broad shoulders, one with curves that startled Dan even through the filmy curtains.

Three police cars pulled up, crowding the valet stand. An unmarked blue sedan arrived from the opposite direction. Two men in overcoats and fedoras climbed out and checked their shoulder holsters.

“Anonymous tip?” Dan asked.

“Not hardly.” Olivia huffed. “Lt. Henderson deserves a good collar. Besides, he likes me.”

“I’ll bet he does.”

The uniforms hurried off to their assigned positions. Lt. Henderson spared one glance across the street. He looked into the concrete shadows, straight through the windshield into Olivia’s eyes. They exchanged a single nod.

Five minutes later, all hell broke loose on the other side of that fourth floor window. The curtains flew apart as Raymond scrabbled at the window catch. Rough hands caught his wrists and twisted his arms up behind his back, dragging him away from the window.

Quite a parade came out through the front door. Two uniforms had Raymond, who wore nothing but his wife beater, boxers, and mismatched socks. The bottle blonde with him had been allowed to throw a flamingo pink lounging robe over the lacy bits of nothing she wore underneath. Stuffed into two separate police cars, the happy couple looked anything but.

Lt. Henderson stepped out of the hotel onto the pavement. Again he looked into Olivia’s eyes. This time his nod came with a smile. A good collar. Prostitution, drugs, and money from somewhere that would lead to further charges.

Dan lit his cigar. “I don’t know why Ray kept chasing those stupid tarts. You’re smart, you’re gorgeous, and you even got an education.”

Olivia gave him a light kiss on the cheek. “Thanks, baby brother. A Roman senator named Seneca once said, ‘Love in its essence is a spiritual fire.” She sighed. “Somebody’s mother once said smart boys don’t play with matches.”

End

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#atozchallenge: Z is for Zaibatsu


by Lillian Csernica on April 30, 2018

zaibatsu

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Zaibatsu means “financial clique.” When the Tokugawa Shogunate was in its last days, a few far-sighted samurai families positioned themselves to take the best advantage of the changing political and financial landscape.

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erenow.com

With the help of key Western advisors such as Thomas Blake Glover, “the Scotsman who built Japan,” these families were the leaders in Japan’s Industrial Revolution. That some of these family names are familiar right now in the 21st Century is a testament to the success of their business strategies.

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The zaibatsu form the backdrop against which my Kyoto Steampunk series take place. Just as fairies don’t like cold iron, the yokai of Japan resent the presence of steel and concrete. So much of the natural splendor of Japan has been destroyed thanks to the greed of industrialists.

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tunza.eco-generation.org

Thank you for joining me during the A to Z Blog Challenge for 2018. I hope you’ve found every letter both informative and entertaining. There is so much to know about Japan, yokai, and all the historical factors at work during the Meiji Restoration. I can’t wait to write the next story!

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#atozchallenge: Y is for Yokai


by Lillian Csernica on April 28, 2018

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tvtropes.org

The yokai of Japan are many and varied. They go from humorous to horrifying. Some arise from the animistic principle in Shinto. Others are born from the angry, vengeful passions of the human heart.

These are a few of the more unusual yokai.

 

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Dodomeki, the spirit of the pickpocket or thief.

 

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Oni-no-Nenbutsu, the Demon who chants Buddhist prayers

 

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From Ancient Origins:

The baku, otherwise known as the ‘dream eater’, is a mythological being or spirit in Chinese and Japanese folklore which is said to devour nightmares. The baku cannot be summoned without caution, however, as ancient legends say that if the baku is not satisfied after consuming the nightmare, he may also devour one’s hopes and dreams.

 

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yokai.com

This is the Kawataguruma, a tormented naked woman riding on the wheel of an ox cart that’s ablaze. If this reminds you of the wanyudo, you’re right. Apparently the Wheel Monk has a female counterpart who rolls around collecting impure souls and putting curses on people.

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