Monday, June 26, 2017

Writing Setting, Writing Tokyo: Guest Post by Michael Pronko

Michael Pronko’s Tokyo-based mystery, The Last Train, was released May 31, 2017. Michael is the author of three collections of award-winning writings on Tokyo Life, Beauty and Chaos, Tokyo’s Mystery Deepens, and Motions and Moments, the latter won twelve indie press awards. He is a professor of American Literature and Culture at Meiji Gakuin University, in Tokyo, where he has lived for the last twenty years. He also writes about jazz on his site Jazz in Japan. He is currently working on the next mystery in the series, Japan Hand, due out in early 2018. @pronkomichael 

Michael Pronko:
Writing Setting, Writing Tokyo

Setting is one of the trickiest parts of writing a novel. It can enrich a scene or dampen it, act as a springboard or a wall. When I set my mystery, The Last Train, in Tokyo, I wondered how much readers would have seen of Tokyo, if anything. “Lost in Translation” maybe? I knew the setting was integral to the story, but how to get that across to readers with only a few telling, or rather showing, images?

I had it easy when I wrote columns about Tokyo life from a foreigner’s point of view for Newsweek Japan. The readers of the Japanese-language column were mainly Tokyoites, so I could skip a lot of description. If I wrote, “ramen shop counter,” everyone in Tokyo knows just what that looks like and what happens there. If I wrote, “large sake bottle,” people know what the size and shape and color is, how one pours from the big bottle into a teensy cup. So, how to choose the right details for readers who have never been to a sake bar or to Tokyo at all? That was the challenge.

Action helps immensely. When I write a Tokyo setting, certain actions make sense: taking trains, looking up at the buildings, weaving through the crowds. So, I included those actions as part of the overall setting, and integrated them into the story. Typical, everyday action adds to the static descriptions of setting to make it come alive. Tokyo without the ceaseless trains, blinking neon and fast-moving crowds would not be Tokyo. The dynamism of each setting keeps it from becoming static description and helps the reader feel that this action—and this story—could only take place in this setting.

When writing about Tokyo for people who may have never been there, it is hard to know which details work best, and in what proportion. Too much detail and the setting sinks like a dead weight. Too little detail and the story could take place anywhere. I’ve lived in Tokyo for twenty years, so when I started working on the settings, I spent a lot of time thinking back to my first impressions of the city. I also watched tourists (there’s been a tourist boom recently) to see what they were looking at, and imagining what grabbed them. When I write the first draft, I always slather on way too many details. I jam in every color, object, smell, size and sound I can. But then on successive drafts, I ask myself, what is quintessentially Tokyo? With that in mind, I peel off and discard what’s unneeded. It’s more chiseling and whittling than writing.

Another way I think of setting is cinematically. When visualizing a scene, I try to think like a cinematographer. (Check out the documentary “Visions of Light” on cinematography.) Lighting, framing, angles, distance should all be part of the description of a setting. Most importantly, a setting should create the feeling of motion. I think in two ways, long shot and close-up. I try to look around a scene to find both a sweeping detail for the big picture (“Lighted signs listing the clubs zipped up the sides of buildings from sidewalk to rooftop.”) And then small, pointed details bring it up close, like the name of a club, “Black Moon, Kingdom Come.” That doesn’t have to be like a helicopter over the city kind of shot, or a long, lingering shot on the face of the heroine, which is a bit outdated, but just a sentence or two that moves the reader’s mind’s eye over the space and then onto a central focus.

To get setting right, I close my eyes a lot when I write, and often go back to places I want to describe. Tokyo is big so that takes a lot of time. I go there and let my emotional response direct me towards details and words. And sometimes I google things. What does a metal lathe look like? I kind of know, but since it’s a key object in one setting, the main character hides money below the lathe, pulling up a few images of lathes and looking them over helps decide how to present that part of the setting. All of this is aimed at making the reader not just see the lathe, but smell the machine oil and dust of the factory floor, to not just see the glass holding cold sake on a humid night, but to taste it. When I wrote: “The sake flowed gently over the top of the lip of the glass into the box, arousing the aroma of cedar and fresh rice,” then the first sip of sake is anticipated. Or, at least, it is for me.

In working with the setting of Tokyo, I am lucky, I feel. The city is photogenic in all kinds of ways, and endlessly diverse. It’s also a huge place, so I’ll never run out of settings. I’ve lived here writing and teaching for long enough to know the city well, but that’s not enough. I always re-view and re-imagine Tokyo from the reader’s point of view. In The Last Train, I wanted to be sure readers could not just see Tokyo, but feel they were in Tokyo, or want to be.

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