Tuesday, March 20, 2012

How Sashimi Led to My Novel's Setting

Welcome to "Case Files From Our Detectives." Every Tuesday, we take turns blogging on a particular topic relevant to the craft of mystery writing. Since launching this blog in September, we've discussed the following topics: How We Came to Mystery Writing, Writing in the Dark,"Book 'Em": Our Favorite Mysteries of 2011/Most Anticipated Mysteries of 2012, and Sleuths. If you're a new follower or just discovering us now, you can check out past Case Files in the archives; they're all listed in the upper right sidebar.

Today we're launching our fifth Tuesday topic: Crime Scenes, a.k.a. Settings. For the next seven weeks, we'll explore the following questions and more: What goes into choosing and researching settings? How can mysteries grow out of their settings? How do we bring places or time periods to life on the page, finding the right details? (And we might even offer behind-the-scenes looks at our personal settings -- our writing spaces!)

I've always been drawn to books with foreign settings, and mysteries are no exception. Growing up, my favorite Nancy Drews and Agatha Christies were the ones set in the most exotic locales. Murder on the Orient Express. The Mysterious Mannequin. As an adult reader with a fierce case of wanderlust, I still love learning about another culture even as I'm puzzling through clues or racing to the end of a fantastic story. But deciding to set a novel mostly in Japan was a mysterious journey that caught me off guard.

A few summers ago, my husband and I were traveling in Japan for our honeymoon. After some urban experiences, we ventured out to a remote countryside ryokan, or inn. Crucial to this story is the fact that neither of us eat sashimi. I know. It's sad. But my husband, for various reasons, does not eat fish in any form. And I, as a general rule, do not eat uncooked foods, particularly while traveling. (Bad experience with undercooked shrimp in South America. Vicious amoeba. Hospital. You get the idea). Anyway, we were traveling around Japan with our handy-dandy notes about food restrictions, neatly written out in Japanese, ready to present to non-English speakers at restaurants and inns. We'd even drawn a fish with a line through it for added clarity.

Of course, by the time we reached this remote mountain inn, the handy-dandy note had vanished. We were too fatigued from the long and confusing journey to attempt to communicate our food restrictions. But no matter, we decided; surely we were in a fish-free zone. This was a mountain inn.

To our surprise, that night the okami-san -- the inn manager -- came to our room and served up an amazing multi-course meal, with -- yep -- sashimi. And plenty of it. Glistening and pink, and no doubt very high grade. Everything else on the plate was divine -- artfully prepared, indescribably delicious. We hovered over the sashimi with our chopsticks. We visualized eating it. We poked at it. We debated. And yet -- and yet -- we couldn't.

The okami-san was so gracious and welcoming, popping in now and then to check on us. We couldn't politely reject the raw fish or just leave it untouched on our plates. Nor, we discovered, could we dispose of it. There was no trash can in the room. There was one in the common bathroom down the hall. But we could hardly leave raw fish in an open wastebasket there without it attracting some kind of attention in the sticky summer heat. Curious cats milled outside our window, but leaning out and feeding them the sashimi would definitely attract attention. We were the only gaijin in the inn. Any cultural gaffe would be attributed to us.

When she left the room next, we hashed out a plan. We would hide the fish and dispose of it in a public garbage can first thing in the morning. We shook plastic bags out of our luggage, popped in the sashimi, and snaked the bags up the sleeves of our yukata (standard-issue robes in Japanese inns), just one second before the smiling okami-san returned to clear our plates. We then transferred the fish to a corner of the room and hid it under more bags for the night.

The mystery of the non-existent trash bins. (Photo http://new2japan.com)

At dawn the next morning, we gathered our bags of rejected fish and stole out of the inn, in search of a public trash bin. Not that we'd recognize one if we saw it. What did trash bins look like in Japan? We had no clue. No potential garbage cans presented themselves to us. And yet, the streets were immaculate.

We drew curious stares from people walking or biking to work or heading to a farmers market. Two gaijin skulking around in semi-darkness, carrying reeking plastic bags? Yeah. Real subtle.

Then I remembered having read somewhere that it's very difficult to throw things away in Japan. There are numerous laws about what is trash and what is recycled, what type of trash goes out, and when, and where. The American urban landmark of an overflowing trash bin on every street corner wasn't to be found here.

But a powerful feeling seized me as we skulked around the mountain village. This is like being in a mystery novel. I became hyper-alert to my surroundings, zeroing in on small details I hadn't noticed before, and which -- in the context of our stealthy actions -- suddenly took on meaning. People emerging from the shadows were no longer innocuous passers-by; they were potential spies, or thieves, or detectives, or cops. I formulated questions in my mind: How does it feel to attract unwanted attention? How do you try to escape detection, when as a foreigner you completely stand out? What kind of a story could take place here?

We never did find a public trash bin that morning. But we did feed some happy cats down by a river. We'd disposed of the fish, and I'd gained an idea. I knew I would return to Japan in my writing. I knew I would set a novel there. I strongly suspected it might be a mystery.

The novel that has resulted, years later, contains no foreigners trying to dispose of sashimi. (In fact, all my characters eat raw fish and love it!) I don't even have scenes in the mountain village where we were. But the feeling of being exposed and confused and lost in Japan became integral to my eventual story. I tapped into those feelings for many scenes. Instead of the facts of my experience, I have characters who sneak around and try to solve problems when they don't know the lay of the land. Though I later researched setting specifics -- meticulously -- in drafting the novel, I tried not to. In drafting, I relied on my emotional travelogue to jog my memory, rather than my travel itinerary. I wanted a novel, not a Frommers guide.

I really don't think I chose my main setting, Japan. I think that it chose me. It popped out of an alley and grabbed me that day, and never let me go.

I've learned from that experience to pay attention to mysterious events and feelings that I might encounter anywhere -- while traveling in far flung places or just in my own neighborhood. I try to pay attention to that state of heightened alertness and see where it might lead me.

I guess I wasn't really looking for a trash bin that morning, in a mountain village in Japan. I was looking for a story. And I'm happy I found it there.


Diana was born in Seattle and now lives outside of Boston with her husband and son. She also works as a freelance writer and editor in educational publishing, and has authored several ESL textbooks (which is way more exciting than it sounds). TOKYO HEIST (Viking/Penguin, coming June 14, 2012) is her first nove


  1. Your covert sashimi-ridding operation is hilarious -- and even funnier that it led you to the setting of your first novel. Proof that ideas come in the unlikeliest time and places!

  2. That is a great story - hilarity combined with the sweaty anxiety of causing offense. I'm the same way re: settings - the more exotic, the better.
    So where are the trash cans in Japan?? Do they all have in-home incinerators??

  3. Thanks you guys; glad you enjoyed the read. Melodie -- the trash cans seem to vary in design and visibility depending on the city or town. Where we were in the mountains, I never saw them in public. But in larger towns and in Tokyo they were more visible. Compact and kind of blended into the surroundings. I don't know about in-home incinerators; that's a great question. There's a harrowing mystery novel (for adults, not kids at all!) called OUT by Natsuo Kirino which is all about garbage disposal in Japan... and it takes a grisly turn... great page-turner! Also a lovely novel (for older young adults, or adults) called IF YOU FOLLOW, by Malena Watrous, gets into this issue. And I'm now stunned that I know so much about trash disposal and have two book recommendations on the topic!!

  4. i just loved the blog.


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