By Alan Gratz
Flipping wistfully through a travel guide to Japan, I came across a photo of a man in a kimono throwing out the first pitch at a 1915 Japanese baseball tournament. 1915? I thought American GIs had introduced the sport during the Allied Occupation after World War II. I learned instead that Japan had baseball as early as 1872. The end of the samurai era had overlapped the beginning of the baseball era. Baseball? Samurai? This could be the idea that would get me published! There was only one problem: how to manage the mountain of research it would take to write it.
With little more than a title—Samurai Shortstop—I began reading about Meiji-era Japan and the beginnings of Japanese baseball. Then, fortuitously, I got a freelance job writing for A&E’s City Confidential, a true-crime show with a documentary format. For each episode I was handed an enormous binder filled with hours of interview transcripts, and given one month to create a 40-page television script. Out of necessity, I developed a simple way of organizing the source material.
City Confidential had a formula for each of its five “acts”: teaser, characters, crime, court case, resolution. I set up a separate document on my computer for each, then read through the transcripts just once. Every time I came across a good quote for the teaser, I typed it in my Act 1 file. An eyewitness account of the crime? Act 3. And so on.
Now when I sat down to write an episode, I wasn’t staring at an enormous binder of transcripts and a blank screen and thinking, “OK. Forty-page TV script. Go.” Instead I opened my notebook to Act 1, and there were the quotes I needed to write just that section of the script. Outlining helped me meet my deadlines, and provided the answer to my fiction-writing problems as well.
What I learned
Historical fiction is easier if you prepare to be creative. To write Samurai Shortstop, I created a chapter-by-chapter outline, and, just as I had with the transcripts for City Confidential, I went back through my historical research line by line. Every time I found information about ritual suicides, for example, I moved it to the chapter where one occurs. What did Shinto shrines look like? What did people eat for breakfast? I moved the information for each to the appropriate chapters, just beneath each synopsis.
The result was an outline of 50 pages—one page for each chapter synopsis, plus all the research notes that followed. When I was ready to write, I opened my notebook to Chapter 1 and there on the page was what happens, and all the research I needed to make just that chapter come to life. Two years, four drafts, 17 slush-pile submissions, and one terrific phone call later (from an editor), I sold Samurai Shortstop to Dial Books.
When researching, start broadly, then narrow your focus as your story comes together. Look specifically for sensory details—the sights, sounds and smells you will use to bring that world to life. Avoid inadvertent plagiarism by being sure to record your research verbatim—that way, you’ll always know to use the information, not the wording, from the passages you’ve collected.
Outlining is also a great tonic for writer’s block. Separating what you’re writing from how you will write it allows you to worry about words, sentences, images and motifs, not where your story is going. Only have an hour or two to write every day? An extensive outline lets you sit down and start right away, not stare at a blank screen wondering what happens next. Don’t be a slave to your outline, though; outlines are road maps for putting you back on course if you decide to take a short side trip along the way.
Taming the paper tiger helped Samurai Shortstop become my breakthrough young-adult novel. I’ve published three more books since, and have contracts for another three. Samurai Shortstop is also finally taking me on that trip I was daydreaming about when it all began: This year I’ll be spending six weeks at a school in Tokyo, teaching middle schoolers how to—you guessed it—write historical fiction.
-Article originally published here in The Writer Magazine
Alan Gratz's debut novel, Samurai Shortstop, was a 2007 ALA Top Ten Book of the Year for Young Adults. His latest historical novel for children, The Brooklyn Nine, is out in paperback. Web: www.alangratz.com