Home    Workshops    Members Only    Contests    Join    Contact us                       RWA Chapter

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Choose Your Setting Wisely (or You Might Live to Regret It)

by J. Kathleen Cheney

Back in 2009, I set out to write a novelette set in the early 1900s in Venice but, to make some plot elements fit better, I blithely switched the location to Porto, Portugal. 

At the time, I had no idea of the ramifications of that choice….because the novelette went on to spawn a series of novels that ended up selling to Penguin (Ace/Roc).  What did that mean for me?  Well, it meant Research.  Tons of Historical Research

It turned out to be a wonderful choice, but that choice also had its drawbacks.  I'd previously researched stories set in the same decade in Saratoga Springs, New York, so I had a bit of a leg up.  However, Portugal is a completely different setting than New York. 
As I began to research the country, it became clear to me how very little I knew of Portuguese history, literature, and culture.  I dove in head first only to discover that many of the resources I needed were not even available in English.  Since machine translators are iffy at best, I had to start learning Portuguese just to do my research.  Imagine the difficulty of doing a Google search in a language you barely understand.  I had bitten off more than I could chew...but I stuck with it.

Now I know there are things that I got wrong.  There are some that I intentionally changed to make the books more readable to an English-speaking audience.  But I have spent the last three years immersed in Iberia's history and came out of this experience with some hints I'd like to share about picking a historical setting:

1) The more familiar a place is, the more research materials will be available…
If you're writing about England or the U.S. in 1900, there will be ample sources of information available to you.  As the setting becomes less familiar, information about it becomes harder and harder to find.  If I'd stuck with Venice, I would have had a plethora of travel guides (in English) to help me research that city because it's a common tourist destination.  Porto, on the other hand, regularly gets skipped in tourist manuals.  Travel writers like Rick Steves or Rudy Maxa?  For their TV shows featuring travel in Iberia, neither of them has stopped in Porto. 
2)…but an obscure setting gives you some leeway.

One advantage of 1900 Portugal is that most English-speakers don't know much about the setting.  My early readers missed mistakes I'd made simply because they had limited familiarity with the place and the culture.  My general guideline is that if I can't find a fact after an hour's diligent searching on the internet, it's unlikely that the average reader will know the fact either…and I can safely extrapolate an answer from what I do know.

3) Be aware that you may hit a language barrier.
When I started researching Portugal, I had no idea that so few of their great works of literature had been translated into English.  Oddly, it was easier for me to find Chinese poetry for stories set in 1200 China than Portuguese poetry for a book set in 1900.  This is definitely something you should consider before selecting a setting.
4) History has hot spots.  Be cautious about stepping into one.
There are a lot of times, places, and people in history that need to be handled with kid gloves.  The holocaust in Germany?  The great depression in Oklahoma?  Regency London?  There are far more people who have expertise about those settings than there are experts on my 1902 Portugal setting.  You're more likely to strike a nerve if you're not very careful how you handle these settings.  If you get table manners in Regency London wrong, you will get emails about it.  This is even more true if there are people alive who have personal connections to that time and place (for example, 1980 Chicago), so be aware that you might run into opposition with some settings.
My final advice?  Once you've picked your setting, go ahead and fall in love with it.
I chose Portugal on a whim, but what I found when I began researching my setting was a complex and fascinating country that had once controlled half the world, left their language and religion in their wake, and contributed far more to my everyday life than I had ever suspected.  I fell in love with that country.  In 2012 when we took our first vacation in five years, my husband was kind enough to travel around Iberia with me to see it firsthand. 
And all I can hope is that my love for that setting comes through in my words.

J. Kathleen Cheney is a former teacher and has taught mathematics ranging from 7th grade to Calculus, with a brief stint as a Gifted and Talented Specialist.  Her short fiction has been published in Jim Baen's Universe, Writers of the Future, and Fantasy Magazine, among others, and her novella "Iron Shoes" was a 2010 Nebula Award Finalist and PRISM Finalist.  Her debut novel, "The Golden City" will come out from Penguin, November 5, 2013.

Her website can be found at www.jkathleencheney.com


Anne Lyle said...

"My general guideline is that if I can't find a fact after an hour's diligent searching on the internet, it's unlikely that the average reader will know the fact either…and I can safely extrapolate an answer from what I do know."

THIS! I was unwise enough to choose Elizabethan London as my setting - thankfully I live only an hour from the modern-day city, so research wasn't too hard. Venice in the same era was much harder, owing to more limited resources in English.

On the plus side, it was a good excuse to go back there for a holiday :)

Anonymous said...

Another good thing about Porto: you get to drink port wine!

Anonymous said...


I agree...I do need to write something set in Italy just so I can go there ;o)


Yes, we had some good memories of the Port wineries in Porto!

Kate C. said...

Liked and tweeted. Made me want to travel to Portugal :-)

Anonymous said...


Portugal is a gorgeous country, and quite friendly for English Speakers!