Friday, December 25, 2009

From the Land of Sunshine--A Bright Thought

Saturnalia—the ancient Roman festivities that took place in mid-December—may be the earliest verifiable ancestor of our Christmas/New Year festivities. Evergreens and holly probably have more to do with this tradition from frosty Europe than with the events in Mediterranean Bethlehem, as they symbolize faith in the return of the sun’s warmth and the regeneration of all that is green and growing, not to mention edible.

Japan has a tradition of reverence for the sun, too. Just look at the national flag—a red circle on a white background representing the rising sun. One of Japan’s preeminent geographers, Tsunesaburo Makiguchi, wrote in one of his works that this showed a certain ecological wisdom. The American environmentalist Hazel Henderson would agree. Asked to place an economic value on solar energy, she replied, “Should we figure in the value of pre-warming the planet?” Without the sun, we might as well be Pluto.

Japan, too, tries to celebrate Christmas, but the festivities are more like Saturnalia—a way to brighten up a cold season that contains the shortest day and the longest night. Frankly, I like it. I like the idea of taking the given circumstances and making something out of them.

Makiguchi, the Japanese philosopher who gave our ancestors credit for recognizing the worth of solar light and warmth, didn’t advocate worshiping the sun as a god/goddess. Instead, he advocated a philosophy that asked, “Given your circumstances, what are you putting forth? What are you creating? What value are you adding to society?”

I like that thought a lot. Joy, cheer, an appropriate gift, breaking bread together! There are so many ways to put forth creative contributions out of our own particular circumstances.

Happy Holidays to All!

Friday, October 30, 2009

A Real Life Scary Story

Japan is a country of islands, and it is impossible to overestimate the influence of the sea. When a typhoon strikes, the coastal areas shudder. Wherever possible, the fishing boats are hauled up onto high and dry land for the duration.

Last week, a boat with a crew of 8 tried to get back to port before the typhoon, but didn't make it. When it capsized, 5 crew members got themselves off the boat and into a lifeboat. Three were below deck, in the sleeping quarters, when the boat capsized. To make matters worse for them, the refrigerator broke loose and fell on top of the hatch covering the sleeping area.

They were well and truly trapped. They made a promise to each other to drink a toast together when they met again in the afterlife.

With wind and waves raging, the 5 who escaped didn't have a choice: the sea knifed the lifeboat away from the ship in an instant.

Who lived to tell the story? After four days, the missing fishing boat was found. Coast Guard divers knocked on the upturned hull, just in case, and guess what? Their knock was answered.

The three who were trapped were the only ones saved. The boat's name was "Lucky", and for them, it surely was. The toppled refrigerator kept the hatch closed with just enough air inside to keep the men alive until help arrived.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

A Dog's Life (2)

What do you think of stories about talking dogs? Yep, my thoughts exactly. With the possible exception of Walt Disney's Goofy, who is not only allowed to talk but also gets to wear white gloves while poor Pluto has to walk around on all fours barefoot and say nothing but "Arf!", dogs haven't got the proper vocal anatomy, so why should they suddenly have the power to talk in stories?


Dogs DO know how to communicate.

When they look at you in that certain way, and make their unique whimpers and groans and barks and grunts, you know they are doing their best to make contact with the human species. And you do your best to figure out what it is they would say, if only they could talk, which of course they can't.

Sometimes you get it right. Sometimes, you just don't know.

What makes J.F.'s dog detective stories fun is precisely that. Randolph does his best to communicate in his doggie way, and sometimes the human catches his drift and sometimes he's way out in left field.

When Randolph gets really desperate, he does what any good dog would do: he tries and tries again. And when he absolutely has to communicate a name or a date, well, he has his methods.

Books I've read on how to write a great book cover this topic. They say your story premise doesn't have to be a hundred percent believable. What they say is, it's your job as the writer to make people feel that just this once, the unbelievable is believable.

Having read two of J.F. Englert's Randolph books (A Dog at Sea will be number three), I can clap my hands in total honesty and say that I believe in Randolph.

Friday, October 16, 2009

A Dog's Life

The first dog that stole my heart was a black lab named Nick. Nick lived with my grandparents and was the next best thing to having a dog of my own. A writer friend in NYC also has a black lab as part of his family, and that dog (Randolph) has become the hero of his own mystery series.

Yes, series!

I was so thrilled to finish and publish one novel, and here before my very eyes is someone who not only completed and published his first novel, but wrote another one, and then another one--and his stories keep getting better.

The newest in the series is called A Dog at Sea, and it is written by J.F. Englert. It should be in the stores by Christmas.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

The Next Challenge

Katsuren features a heroine with two much formal education and not enough life education. The next novel in my Okinawa series stars a hero who is the exact opposite. Sam Ryder's formal schooling stops at the junior high level, and that's when his real education begins.

As someone who didn't especially enjoy school, this is a tempting avenue to explore.

For instance, who ends up with the better body--the kid who goes to gym class or the urchin who teaches himself parcour? I think I'll let the urchin win that one. But how about the kid who goes to school and is inspired by a great teacher--can the urchin's life, populated by people whose personalities might not win the Good Housekeeping Seal, provide as good a jumpstart in life?

As the old catch phrase goes, we'll soon find out.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009


Part of the fun of writing a novel is naming the characters. Since Katsuren is set in Okinawa, I wanted the names to sound authentic. One of the most common surnames there is Shiroma, and it includes the kanji character for a castle like Katsuren.

Other choices were not so obvious. One is the surname Ganaha. It, too, is very common, though quite difficult to write in kanji. However, if an ethnic name is to be used, it should be easy to pronounce. Ganaha, with three rhyming syllables, fills the bill nicely.

But---if the character's last name is a long one, his first name needs to be short. Thus, the hero of Katsuren gets a two letter first name, Yu. Some readers may be surprised by a name that sounds like a familiar, but totally unrelated, English word. That's good.

In reading Katsuren, it is a good idea to be prepared for the fact that things are not always what they seem.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Watch Your Step

This is a scene from cliff terrain in a place called "Stray Dog Point" on Tokunoshima Island, near Okinawa. I thought the name came from the formation's resemblance to the open mouth of a snarling dog. Alas, it has a more sinister connotation--stray and dangerous dogs were eliminated from society by being pushed from the cliff onto the razor sharp rocks below.

Katsuren Castle is located at a cliffside location with similar terrain. A rocky cliff just like this one figures in the story.

How to Read a Novel (2)

Fiction is, by definition, something that is made up. It doesn't have to be real events or the way things really happened, and it doesn't have to be about real people. It's the author's way of telling people something new, something that might have happened, something that--if it happened--shows you how the author looks at life.

That is Katsuren.

The place is real. The people could be real, but they're not. What IS real is how this author feels about the beginning of love.

You have to make a choice. Do you stick to the well traveled path, or do you follow the road that most people wouldn't choose to follow?

Friday, August 7, 2009

Me and My Promotional Bookmarks...

... are going to Hokkaido. Be back in a week!

Saturday, August 1, 2009

My Poem: Hope is a Fisherman

I saw an engimatic message on a popular networking site. This was just after William Shatner's bongo performance on another site. I just had to write the following poem:

They say clarity is at the Jersey shore,
and if I were clarity, that’s where I’d hang out,
where Nature does her finest work.
But I’m not that sweetheart, Clarity.

So I’m going to Hokkaido.
That’s way up north (where hope lies, in the gospel of Sarah).
I know.
Hope lies there, and here, and everywhere—
the biggest, fattest, juiciest lies come out of Hope’s mouth.

She dangles them in front of you, and beckons you through doors
that weren’t there before.
You follow, and there’s another one, a lie so bright and shiny
you reach for it and fall flat on your face.
How cool is that? At least you fell forward.

Hope is a fisherman.
She trawls your heart and finds your secret wishes.
She wraps them in tinsel and calls out, “Here they are!”
You run like an idiot, to grab them back from her hot little hand,
to hide them safe in your heart where they belong.

Hope runs faster, around corners and up blind corridors and through
the mists that ordinarily you’d run from screaming.
You’re hot on her heels.
Hope is one step ahead of you, dangling the biggest lie of all.
“You can do this!”

“It can all be yours,”
she whispers seductively as you make one final lunge.

Guess what?
You’re there.
Hope was right, all along.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

From an Exuberant Reader...


(I think she likes what she's read so far.)

Friday, July 17, 2009

The Secret is Out

Kathryn Mallory. Thanks to an alert reader who found the titles by our Donald, ("our" means my critique group has adopted him as our totem agent) another reader was able to find his pseudonym.

Kathryn Mallory. Hmmm... I wonder what they did for an author photograph.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Prepare to Laugh Out Loud

Donald Maass writes the best books about how to write. He is also a hotshot literary agent. He is my hero---but then I found out he got his start writing (probably cheesy) romance novels. No one knows his romance pen name, so we will never know how good (or cheesy) they were. Here is my version of his salad days. I am sure it has no resemblance whatsoever to the truth, but it was fun as heck to imagine.

The Secret Life of The Donald: The Romance Version

Chapter One: Donald is cold and shivering, living over a subway grate on the mean streets of the city. A mustard and pickle stained McDonald wrapper flutters toward him driven by the icy wind. He picks it up, smells the spices in an ecstacy of hunger, then resolutely wipes it off on the knee of his torn and tattered jeans. He reaches into the paper bag on his lap containing all his worldy goods and pulls out a battered Bic. Donald starts to write his first novel on the back of that wrapper.

Chapter Two: Surprise! Donald realizes you cannot write with a Bic on a piece of waxed paper. He carefully folds up the wrapper for a future, as yet unknown use, and stuffs it into the paper bag. Wait! Bag... Paper... He upends the bag, discarding all his treasures, and slits it through the seams. He begins to write again on the smoothed over brown paper.

Chapter Three: Donald trudges off to Grand Central Station, where he is almost arrested for indecency as he shows off his pecs while washing away the filth of the streets in the public restroom. Using origami techniques, he fashions a shirt and necktie out of paper towels and toilet paper. The now spiffy Donald heads downtown, whistling a happy tune. He is a man with a plan.

Chapter Four: Our Donald stands in front of the door to the grandest publishing house on the planet. He is twiddling a piece of wrinkled brown paper. In his skillfull hands, it begins to take the shape of a bouquet of long-stemmed roses. His eyes light up when a certain woman approaches the door. He knows that face! Donald has done his research. It is the agent of agents in the romance writing world.

Chapter Five: When the woman is almost at the door, Donald springs into action. He sweeps the door open before her, bows, and hands her the paper bouquet. Tears fill his eyes when he sees her sniff the paper as if it held real roses. Such is his power to reshape mundane reality! He slips through the doorway right behind her.

Chapter Six: Donald can barely contain his excitement. This is the moment, the moment she will see that the rough brown paper is not merely paper, nor is it roses. It is what it is. But will she notice?

Chapter Seven: The black moment--she tosses the paper roses into the recycle bin, washes her hands, and disappears into her plush corner office, closing the door firmly behind her.

Chapter Eight: Donald is undaunted. He pretends to be the cleaning guy, collecting the trash and cleverly pocketing the brown paper bouquet. When no one is looking, he taps on her door and tangoes into her office. Really tangoes, paper bouquet gripped between his teeth.

Chapter Nine: "Who are you? What do you want?" she shrieks.
"Your dialog is cliched," the Donald admonishes. "I'd expect better from a pro such as you." Seizing the moment when her eyes widen in surprise and words fail her, Donald segues into his elevator pitch. He almost faints when her eyes reveal a twitch of interest. "Read it," he says as he sets the bouquet on her desk, unfolding it to expose his riveting first sentence.

Chapter Ten: "You want more, don't you. Much more." The Donald flashes his movie star grin. "Everything you've ever wanted from romance is right here. Buy it. You'll like it." She laughs. "Isn't that a cliche?" she chides. "Cliche, smishay. It is what it is. Admit it. Isn't this the wildest pitch you've ever experienced?" He pulls out his battered Bic, and she responds by flashing a contract. He leans in to sign it, but she puts a daintily manicured hand over the dotted line. "There's just one thing to do first..." she murmurs seductively. Donald arches a brow.

Surprise Ending: "You need a pen name," she says. "How about..." They both look down at the pen and the paper bag manuscript. "How about Bic Browne?" he suggests. "Rose Papiere?" she counter proposes. Unbeknownst to both of them, an elf is hiding beneath the desk. "Aha!" chortles the elf. "If I learn the secret of the Donald's pen name, my fortune is made!" Donald lifts the lady's hand, and writes. "It's the perfect pen name!" she exclaims as she swoons into his arms. "Auggghhhh," moans the elf. "Why did I never learn to read?"

The End

Monday, July 6, 2009

A Character in Search of a Home

This old house--now a bar and restaurant--is only a block off the main shopping street, about 2 minutes from the prefectural capitol buildings, the monorail, and an upscale department store. My next novel features a character named Sam Ryder who works for a computer service outfit called Rent a Geek but whose heart belongs to Okinawan music. He needs a colorful place to hang his hat, and I'm sure this is it.

The house is an anachronism, and so is Sam. I think they belong together.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Flame Tree in Bloom

Here come the blue skies! The rainy season is officially over in Naha, Okinawa.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

And the winners...

... of the sanshin qualification contest include my student. Hurray!

When people ask me how much of Katsuren comes from my real life, I have to say all of it and none of it. There is not a single incident that actually happened and not one character has a real-life model. But somehow, the things I love, like playing the sanshin, made it into the story somewhere.

There's a scene in Katsuren where the father of the hero wants to keep his family together, hard to do when his sons are grown men with minds of their own. He tries to seal up the cracks with music as the glue. In the end, it's not the music but the images the music conjures that reach out to join their hearts and minds.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Time Out, Again

This time I'm going to Okinawa for the annual sanshin qualification concours. I'm not competing, but one of my students is. She has to play the song called Asadoya Yunta. As a beginner, the qualifications are not so hard: get the words right, get the rhythm right, keep the sanshin in tune, and play the right notes.

I'll be back in about a week.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Beautiful Blue Sea and Sky

An Okinawan word for beautiful is chura. I looked at this scene and decided that the resort hotel in Katsuren has to be called the Chura Sea Hotel.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

How to Read a Novel

Do you think writers record their lives in their novels? Some do, but only the amateurs. The rest of us write what we think about life, and we make up characters that illustrate our thoughts.

If I just rambled on about what I thought about this or that, you might not enjoy reading it. But if I make Yu Ganaha, Dr. Karen Holt, Mr. Shiroma and Daichi Tomori act out my ideas on life and love, you can have a lot of fun with the story.

There's even a butterfly who makes a point.

Have fun!

Thursday, May 21, 2009

This is Fun!

Amazon set up the "look inside" feature for my novel, Katsuren. Anyone who clicks on it can see the front and back covers and read the first few pages. To make it easy on the eyes, I left a lot of white space on every page, which makes the free sample a little shorter than most...


Here's the good part. I've been reading Donald Maass's books on how to write better stories, and I really think he would like these first few pages.

There's my heroine, fresh out of grad school, eager to jump into her new life with both feet but boy, is she going to be surprised when she turns the page and gets to Okinawa.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

What a blurb this would make!

This is something Christina Wible (In Between Goodbyes) wrote in her Amazon review:

"Celine Nisaragi makes a world I'd want to walk into and an adventure that I would, in my younger years, liked to have taken on."

Boy, I would love to see that on the cover of my book (and maybe I will) in its second edition.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Oboy, this is fun!

The best thing about finishing a novel is simply that--finishing the manuscript.

The next best thing is when someone reads it and tells you they stayed up late, reading by flashlight, to finish it without waking up the sleeping hubbie.

What's next best after that?

The publisher sends you a sales report. Yes! Sales! Katsuren has been on sale through Amazon since mid-April, and I just got the first month's sales report.

In these very trying economic times, readers are parting with hard earned money to buy a mini-vacation in beautiful Okinawa where they can hang out with Dr. Tomori, Yu Ganaha, Big Kiichiro Sagara, and my plucky heroine Karen Holt.

Thank you!

PS: Because of your support I will be able to donate $50 so far to the NPO supporting Yonaguni underwater exploration.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

What is a novel?

This is from my hero, the writer James Michener, who answers a popular question from novel readers: Did the events in the story really happen?

He says: "Yes, but only in the mind of the writer. And, of course, in your mind too. That's what a novel is: the exchange of dreams."

I hope that Katsuren, too, is that kind of novel--as vivid as a dream, one that you'd like to linger in.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

How to Write your Novel (3)--and Why to Write It

A friend from my writing group sent a quotation from Nick Hornby. I love it. It's about my novel Katsuren, too. Maybe it's also about your book. Here it is:

"... it's also the job of artists to
offer warmth and hope and maybe even an escape from lives that occasionally seem
unendurably drab."

The "..." part is where he bemoans the tendency of writers who call themselves "literary" to be unbearably depressing in their world view. I'm sure he's right.

Optimism makes the world go round.

Optimism keeps Okinawa afloat, too. It's an island that lost one third of its population in war and took a beating that changed the actual, physical landscape. The people of Okinawa have a right to be depressed, but they chose optimism instead. Maybe that's why they have the longest natural lifespan in the world.

The theme of Katsuren is an optimistic one: We make our own histories by our thoughts and deeds, and through who and what we choose to love.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

How to Write your Novel (2)

Ya gotta have heart! The human heart (some might call it soul) is a one size fits all kind of gadget--it can stretch or shrink, according to the demands we make on it.

Two years ago, when I was facing painful and complicated surgery, my heart (soul) was in danger of shrinking to the size of a dried up pea, or maybe even smaller. It had room for only one thought: survival.

Then I asked myself, if survival were a given, then what? What would I most like to do?

Take a moment. Ask yourself the same question. Are you answering, I really want to wash more dishes and vacuum more floors, ride the commuter train more hours and spend more downtime playing internet solitaire?

I didn't think so. Neither did I.

That's when I really made up my mind to finish my novel and publish it. When you ask a lot of yourself, it's amazing how you can find the heart to accomplish it.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

How to Write your Novel (1)

You know what makes it really easy to get started? Being part of a writing group! Inspiration is infectious, and when you're around people who live to write, you'll find yourself wanting to write more and more.

What's more, when you've got something down on paper, you'll have enthusiastic readers to show it to. Here is some of the feedback I got from my writing group on my first draft of Katsuren:

"You have put into play some of the most powerful dramatic themes: love, belonging, a sense of place, and the contrast between cultures."

"You have an amazing story. Do not ever think otherwise."

"Send it out. See you in print!"

"I am totally in awe of your ending!"

See? With feedback like this, you can't help but want to write.

Friday, April 17, 2009

The Story

Katsuren is a story about a doctor of archeology working in exotic Okinawa who needs to learn the one thing she didn't study in college--how to trust her own heart.

Karen Holt is the holder of a brand-new PhD in archeology and a woman who needs a vacation from herself. When she takes on a project in a dusty village in Okinawa, events--and a taste of romance--grab her and turn her image of herself upside down. The ultimate challenge comes from Mother Nature in a fierce, Okinawan incarnation that forces Karen to believe in herself and add a new page to the romantic legends of Katsuren Castle.

Monday, April 13, 2009

That Okinawa Feeling

Naha is a big city, but being there feels very different from being here in Hino. Naha feels like a village, and it feels close to nature. This is in spite of Hino being a much smaller city with much more open space. (Naha: almost 300,000 people; Hino: almost 150,000 people)

Why? I don't know. It is part of the Okinawan mystique that pervades my novel, Katsuren.

* You know you are in Naha when you are never more than a few steps away from a beautiful tree or shrub in bloom.

* You know you are in Naha when you see and greet people who know you by name, even though you do not live in Naha.

* You know you are in Naha when sky and clouds form a major part of the landscape.

* You know you are in Naha when you are overcome by the urge to walk, and walk, and walk. Even when it's hot.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Deigo in bloom

If you were a tree...

Why not be a deigo?

This is Okinawa's official tree.
May is a good time to see deigo in bloom.
In spring, first the leaves fall off. Then the flowers bloom, and when they are almost done, new leaves start to appear.

These are blossoms that know how to present themselves in the best possible light--red against a bright blue sky, red against its complementary green.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

There has to be a butterfly

What is Okinawa without butterflies? I had to write one into the story of Katsuren. You will see her picture on the cover when the book comes out.

Her name is Princess, and she is a tree nymph, a lady of the south seas, or, in Japanese, an o-go-ma-da-ra.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Starting with a Place

Saaa... as they say in Japan when they mean "hmmm..." How do you start writing a novel?

I knew mine would have Okinawa for a setting, but Okinawa is a pretty big island with a lot to offer. Every island--even Antarctica--has sea and scenery, so what does Okinawa have that other islands don't? Short answer: it's own kind of people.

* You know you're in Okinawa when you hear someone play a sanshin.
* You know you're in Okinawa when you see the exotic seafood in the central market. In Okinawa, fishermen and "men of the sea" are heroes.
* You know you're in Okinawa when a taxi driver offers you a full day tour, a half day tour, a ride around the block.

For starters, I decided to match up my main character with an Okinawa taxi driver and put them on the road to Katsuren.

A View of Katsuren Castle

The remains of Katsuren Castle

Saturday, April 4, 2009

At the Central Market in Naha, Okinawa

Music is part of what makes Okinawa Okinawa. The signature musical instrument is the sanshin. What sounds and rhythms can be produced from only three strings!

PS: Yes, one of these sanshin is made from an empty cookie tin and another is made from a piece of tupperware.

Welcome to Katsuren

Katsuren is a real place.

Beautiful. Spooky. Dusty. Scenic. Scary. Mysterious.

Katsuren is the kind of place where stories happen. Stories have been happening there ever since the castle at Katsuren was built, way back in the 12th century. From the moment I first laid eyes on the place, I knew I wanted to write a new story and have it take place at Katsuren.

I thought I would name the book containing my Katsuren story Okinawa: Land of Stories, and that it would be a collection of very short tales set in various places in beautiful, lush Okinawa. Many years after the idea first occurred to me, the very first story turned out to be a novel of more than 55,000 words set at the castle site in recent times.

Of course I named it Katsuren.