GUEST POST: Researching Historical Fantasy (when it's set somewhere other than England) by J. Kathleen Cheney

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Risingshadow has the honour of publishing a guest post by J. Kathleen Cheney.

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.  Her novel, "The Golden City" was a Finalist for the 2014 Locus Awards (Best First Novel). The sequel, "The Seat of Magic" came out in 2014, and the final book in the series, "The Shores of Spain" will come out July 2015.


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Blurb for The Shores of Spain

A brilliant new chapter in the Novels of the Golden City.

Even as the branches of peace are being offered, there are some who still believe those who are not human should be used as chattel. And they are willing to go to great lengths to retain their power.

Newlywed siren Oriana Paredes has been appointed Ambassador to her home islands now that communication between Northern Portugual and the magical races has been restored. But convincing her people that the new Portuguese Prince’s intentions are honorable after years of persecution is difficult. And her husband, Duilio, faces his own obstacles among the sirens where males are a rare and valuable commodity with few rights.

In addition to their diplomatic mission, the two hope to uncover the truth behind Oriana's mother's death. Evidence suggests that Spain — a country that has been known to enslave magical beings — may have infiltrated the siren authority. Unable to leave their post, Oriana and Duilio must call on Inspector Joaquim Tavares to root out the truth.

But even his seer’s gift cannot prepare him for what he will discover.

GUEST POST: Researching Historical Fantasy (when it's set somewhere other than England) by J. Kathleen Cheney

I get a lot of people who are surprised at my choice of setting--Portugal. I'm certainly not the first person who set a book there, but I don't think it's terribly common. A high percentage of Historical Fantasy in English is set in English-speaking countries.  (I'm certain someone has researched this before to find the exact numbers, but I've no idea where to find the results.)

One reason for this is pretty clear to me. It's harder for English speakers to research a setting where the language isn't English.

Now, for some countries and locations, you can find a lot of information about the country in question that has been translated into English over the centuries.  At one point, I researched Chinese history for a series of short stories set in 1200. I found plenty of information online. I found books available via various booksellers. I picked up a book of period poetry from China at a second hand store.

Strangely, finding that sort of thing in Portuguese proved much more difficult.  There simply hasn't been as much demand from English speakers to have Portuguese works translated. I looked for a book of poetry by Ana Plácido--a writer from the city and about the time my work was set in--only to discover that none of her work has ever been translated into English.  In fact, I kept running across things I wanted to read…only to learn that they didn't exist in my language.

Although I learned some Portuguese during my research, my command of the language isn't sufficient to read poetry or novels. I can translate the words, but not always the meaning. I managed to communicate well enough while visiting Portugal, but I certainly don't speak the language with anything approaching fluency.

Because of that lack of fluency, I had trouble with research. Imagine tackling an internet search when you're not sure what to put into the search engine. Here's an example: I searched for a long time for the name of a department store in Porto circa 1900.  In an urban area of 400,000 or so, there must have been department stores. I even tried searching in Portuguese, translating the term 'department store' and searching with that--loja de department--for 1900. I devoted an undue amount of time to this search, all for a single line in the first book. In the end, I had to admit defeat. I turned in the final edit of the book with that line filled with a market's name rather than the department store that I desired.

The next day--the very next day--I stumbled over my answer. I spotted an old catalog page on a Facebook group that focused on historical photographs of Porto (Porto Desaparecido.) Turns out that the appropriate term is grandes armazéns. That translates as big warehouses.  I had been looking with the wrong search term because a word-for-word translation between English and Portuguese didn't work.

It's a single example, but it illustrates the problem pretty well--it's simply harder to research in a language you don't know. Why not stick with London? After all, there are plenty of books about the city, more videos than you can ever watch, and vast amounts of English language literature from every period that you can read for atmosphere.

But if you're up for a challenge, it can be quite rewarding. I've enjoyed the time I've spent writing about Portugal. I've loved learning a new language, and learning about a different culture. If you're a new author looking for somewhere to set your story, try finding a place that you've never read a book about. Pick a place that will challenge you, where you will learn something with every page you write, and where you can be the one to introduce people to your new treasure.