I believe that imagination is like a muscle group in the body. With the application of even a casual amount of motivation, regular exercise and persistence against natural resistance, that imagination – or muscle group – will be flexed, nourished and steadily grow both in strength and endurance.
We can work our imagination simply through the way we observe daily life. Watch items of news, events great and trivial, people famous and obscure, and regularly pose an imaginative hypothesis about each person or situation. Try this in any environment you find yourself in. So many exciting thrillers and mass media novels have surely begun with a writer sitting on a hard bench under a flashing ‘Flight Delayed’ sign and musing to themselves, ‘What would I do next if I heard gunfire and the airport suddenly went into lockdown?’ So life, and its chance happenings, is all grist for the imagination’s mill.
When you read history, let your roaming mind look instinctively for the ‘What-ifs’ lurking in the wings. History is full of untold stories and untaught lessons. Whenever you stumble on an intriguing historical clue, ferret out more, and keep thinking ‘…so, therefore…’
While training in Japan for the Iaido World Titles in Kyoto in 2007, I broke off from the Australian team to stay with some Japanese friends in Kyoto. They kindly took me to a ninja museum in Iga-Ueno, hometown of Basho, the great Haiku poet, and also of the Iga shinobi clan. There, in an underground gallery of a 470 year old preserved ninja safe house, I read a number of translated scrolls about the early years of the reign of Tokugawa Ieyasu and the role the Iga clan played in his survival.
It seems that the ninja’s own historical records detail an ambush launched against the new Shogun in the mountains of Honshu and thwarted by very young – teenage, in fact – ninja from Iga village, who were effectively part of the Shogun’s Secret Service – his eyes, ears and protectors, lurking in every glade and shadow. Fascination gripped me. So many of the real ninja of history were children! Among them, teenage spies who actually saved the ruler of the country. And more than once, as it turned out. Their amazing story deserved to be told to a young modern audience… but in a legendary, epic way, blending elements of folklore – such as the ninja’s alleged power to influence animals, and the dreaded Kunoichi (girl ninja) hypnosis weapon – with detailed, accurate spy craft. For the ninja of medieval Japan were arguably the most advanced spies in the world of their time. They used dyed rice grains to leave coded messages for each other in shrines. They reared their own children as the next generation of operatives, teaching them disguises, acting, explosives, poisons, trap-building and martial arts. The secrets of exactly how and just why they did this, I reasoned, would really engage readers, as long as the story was also fast moving and rich in twists and surprises.
In terms of overall plot, I should show a young ninja on his first real mission: his skills, doubts, inner conflicts, mistakes, duels, triumphs, hard lessons and his first major moral dilemma! Perhaps involving a powerful Kunoichi – a girl who is the opposite of himself. A competitor? So the idea grew.
From that short cascade of ideas, Moonshadow: Eye of the Beast was born.
Random House Australia published it in 2008, and it went bestseller and straight into reprint, plus a US print run with Little, Brown in New York (the publishers of the Twilight saga) and foreign language versions in German, Bahasa Indonesian and Turkish. It was short listed for an Aurealis Fantasy Award and has spawned three sequels so far. I was even invited to go on Saturday Disney to talk about the book and demonstrate Iaido sword fighting in full samurai costume.
All this came from one simple but little-known historical fact that really fired my imagination. Is there one waiting just for you?
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