Fantastic History #34: An Interview with J. Kathleen Cheney

Cath: Your body of work is a dream for historical fantasy readers! There’s so much of it, and in so many richly researched historical periods. What draws you to writing historical fantasy?

J: I think there’s a two-fold draw here. When I consider a time period/place, I am often entranced by the external look of that setting—the clothes, the technology, the culture. The second part happens once I start researching a place or time and discover it’s far more interesting than I’d imagined. I’ll run across an interesting tidbit here or there, and I’m off on another tangent that might be a completely different story.

Cath: Can we talk about the world of Hawk’s Folly in Iron Shoes? What’s the premise of the story? How do you continue the story in the sequel? Were there any challenges in negotiating the time frame change between the two books?

J: The initial premise of the story came to me—honestly—in a dream. I woke up and recalled it all, but immediately thought I would never be able to sell it because it’s a version of the ‘widow saves the farm’ trope. However, I loved the idea of purchasing a horse only to discover it wasn’t a horse at all, so I wrote the story anyway—Imogen Hawkes must win the big race at Saratoga Springs (1905) in order to keep her farm out of the hands of an unscrupulous neighbor. She has a plan, but things go awry, and she ends up relying on magic—which her mother always told her was bad—to help her win the day.

There have been two sequel novellas (Snow Comes to Hawk’s Folly—1908—and Snowfall—1909) and I’m working on a novel now (Snow Haven—1933). Although most things about farming and horses stay the same, the town/city of Saratoga Springs changes fairly profoundly between 1905 and 1933. Many of those changes concern horse-racing and gambling, including periods where betting wasn’t allowed at the tracks and gambling was forbidden in the town’s hotels. Those rules changed even between 1908 and 1909.

Whenever my own research failed I could contact the Public Library in Saratoga Springs, and the research librarian in the history room always helped me out. I stumped her only once—on that question of gambling rooms in the hotels, but later found the answer in a column in the New York Times. Turns out the town council of Saratoga Springs outlawed gambling completely in 1909, even in private homes!

Cath: I am a fan of the Golden City series, and I love books that reflect generations of family. I know the first novel came from a short story which appeared in Apex and Abyss. How did you build a novel from that short story?

J: Well, in true-to-myself fashion, I wrote the sequel before trying to convert the novella to a novel. I pitched that second novel (The Seat of Magic) to my eventual agent, but she could tell it was a sequel to something. However, I had already started fleshing out the novella “Of Ambergris, Blood, and Brandy”, intending to make it a novel. That process allowed me to start the story in the novel a couple of days earlier and expand more on the backgrounds of the main characters. Later in the process, my editor asked me to make a couple of additional changes that took it farther from the original novella, but overall I’m happy with the final product.

Cath: The Golden City has selkies and sereia in an alternative Portugal. How did you adapt these stories to the historical and specific culture of Portugal?

J: The sereia were the easier in that sirens are actually mentioned in Os Lusíadas, the 1572 epic poem by Luís Vaz de Camões about Vasco da Gama’s trip to India and back. On their return journey to Portugal, the Portuguese sailors are ‘rewarded’ by Venus when they land on an island, chase the local nymphs (ninfas), have sex with them, and then are treated to a great feast where a sereia (siren) sings their praises.

In my works, that first interaction with Portuguese sailors colors the sereia’s relationship with Portugal. The sereia have their own epic poem called The Rape of Amado, rape being both literal and figurative. Their interactions with their neighbors (I placed their islands not too far from the Azores) are tense, even given that many of them bear Portuguese blood (via either rape or through the handful of sailors who stayed), use their language, and in some places follow their religion (thanks to Catholic missionaries). The Venus-incited betrayal also broke their ties to the Greek gods, leaving a mostly-agnostic populace behind.

The selkies were another matter. I only knew I needed after I began writing. (OOPS!) Therefore I had to research seals in the Atlantic. There are few seals on the northern coasts of Portugal, so my selkies are more closely related to the Caribbean Monk Seal (now extinct). They don’t interact with humans as much save in their human form, so having a selkie slip in and out of ports (as Erdano does) isn’t problematic. Because they generally don’t live among humans, the only adaptation they make is learning the local language… if they feel like it. They’re a race that is easy to transport from one culture to another.

Cath: Can we talk about the sereia matriarchy? How did that come about? Why is there such a shortage of male sirens?

J: Mumble, mumble, mumble… Okay, I worked that out when I started these stories, but that was almost a decade ago! And I didn’t write it down. I’m sure there was something in there about sex-linked traits, x-y sex determination, and recessive and dominant genes, but essentially, they simply don’t birth as many males. Fish are more likely to have a disparate gender dichotomy as well, so I didn’t feel too bad about that. (Fish have very interesting and changeable gender genetics.)

Cath: Where did you decide to make the important deviations in the story to create the alternative history of the Golden City series?

J: I looked at important points in the history of Portugal and asked myself how might magic have changed this. The two best examples of this are the disappearance of King Sebastião and the 1755 earthquake that destroyed Lisbon.
King Sebastião disappeared on a battlefield in Morocco, fighting a crusade. I would like to think that if there were seers among the Jesuits who helped raise young Sebastião, that one of them would have warned him to not go to Morocco. So… I changed that and kept the same royal family, the Hose of Aviz, instead of the newer one, the House of Braganza, which required inventing a totally new line of succession.

The earthquake that destroyed Lisbon, though, could not have been stopped by any form of magic. Seers might have given warnings and saved lives, but the city itself couldn’t be saved from the earthquake, tsunami, or the subsequent fires, so that series of events still happened in the world of the Golden City.

I mean, we honestly can’t grasp how much the world would change, but we have to try, right?

Cath: Can you talk a little bit about witchcraft in the books? It seems to be both accepted and not at the same time.

J: In this series we have two types of magic: magic that’s natural or inborn (witches) and magic that’s artificial or acquired (witchcraft). (Magical creatures such as sereia, selkies, and fairies are generally regarded with suspicion, but lumped in with the first group, since their abilities are inborn.) Each country decides how much it’s willing to accept the first group, but everyone frowns on the second because you have to sacrifice to acquire that power. Devices, tokens, and charms are a gray area because sometimes they’re created by witches and sometimes by sacrifice or demons.

Given all that, I actually try to keep all the historicals linked together. So the rules in The Dragon’s Child stories are the same as the rules in the Golden City and Saratoga Springs. It’s the level of acceptance that changes, given the culture and the church.

Cath: Perhaps my favorite character in the book is Gaspar. Trying to avoid spoilers, what can you tell us about how you conceived of the Meter, and his many lives?

J: I’m so glad that you like him!

When I started the Golden City series, I considered the group of Gaspar, the Lady, Anjos, and Vladimirova my competency porn. They were extreme experts who worked in the background, a combination of Leverage and Torchwood.

Gaspar was the one who would know everything about the witches and non-humans, but to have acquired that knowledge would take lifetimes, so he has lived over and over again, along with a partner who has been one kind of witch after another. (For example, the Lady was a healer in her most-recent previous life, giving him an intimate familiarity with that gift.) But for him the lines between his senses, between the past and present and here and there are all a bit blurred, as if worn thin by overuse, so he’s constantly living with input that normal people don’t get.

Cath: Miss Nadezhda Vladimirova is another character who comes from an interesting background. Am I right that you’ve written about her before these books? Can you talk a little bit about your research into Russian culture to come up with this character?

J: Although I haven’t written about Nadezhda Vladimirova herself, I’ve written about her ancestors. She is a direct descendent of the characters in The Dragon’s Child, and shares abilities passed down through them.
Russian culture is interesting to research because very little was recorded before the arrival of the Orthodox Church and writing. After that point, most writing was done from the perspective of the Church, so it’s slanted, and most research written in Russian is not translated into English, making it inaccessible. However, I originally did a lot of research to set up the Russian aspects of the world of The Dragon’s Child, and my three favorite books to use then were Dr. Eve Levin’s Sex and Society in the World of the Orthodox Slavs: 900–1700, The Domostroi, and The Englishwoman in Russia. (I also read a lot of journals and biographies to get more of a feel for daily life.)

That all served as a distant backdrop for Nadezhda Vladimirova (and indeed, my other novella set in 1815 Russia, The Sparrow in Hiding.) I also spent a great deal of time looking into Russian folklore—like the rusalki. Russian lore seems charmingly inconsistent at times, but that allowed me more room to mold the characters to my will. Rusalki share their tendencies to call and influence humans with many other mystical races, along with their aquatic tendencies, and I ended up putting both of those skills to a more practical crime-solving use in this case.

Cath: You have written many rich fantasy novels as well as these historical ones. Do any particular periods of history influence your fantasies?

J: Honestly, I love that time period between 1860 and 1910 the best. Due to widespread industrialization, the technology level was changing quickly, so it’s an age of new inventions. Trains! Motorcars! There’s an increasing awareness of the rights of men (and more slowly, women), and a shift in influence from the state and the Church to the common man. There’s a rise in literacy and improvements in medicine. So many changes happening so fast make it a wonderful time-setting.

At the same time, it’s long enough ago that we can look back and spot some things that didn’t work out so well—like eugenics and the miasma theory of disease—and avoid those things. We get to create our idea of what a world like that would be like. (I always leave out the mosquitos.)

Cath: What is your next project, and what research are you doing for that project?

J: I’m one of those weird writers who have a lot in progress at the same time, but the main historical project that I’m working on is the story set in 1933 Saratoga Springs. I’ve planned to write this one for quite a while and knew I would need totally different research for 1933. In November of 2015, when World Fantasy Con was held in Saratoga Springs again, I took an extra day of vacation there and met with the research librarian at the Public Library. I did a great deal of my research for this project then but have been sitting on it ever since!

Most of that research involves how the town had changed (for example, when were the cast iron lions removed from the steps in front of the city hall?) and how the fortunes of the city suffered under the depression. So at this time, I’m working on integrating some of that into my plot. (Gangsters! who want magic!) So this will be an interesting stretch for me.


When your research drags you into foreign places…

When I chose the setting for my Golden City series (way back in 2009), I did so without a great deal of consideration. For the most part, that was because I was writing a single novelette. I was supposed to do 15,000 words and get out. Instead, I was still there, almost a decade later, regularly researching stuff on the Iberian Peninsula, Brazil, and Cape Verde.

One thing I didn’t realize at the time, though, was that Portugal, despite being England’s oldest military ally, does not end up with much of its literature/writings translated into English. I don’t know why.

Now, when I was working on a single novelette, that was acceptable. I could use Google Translate to work around some of the sections of various webpages and use my workmanlike Spanish to hack my way through other bits, but when I started working on novel-length fiction set there…I knew I was in trouble.

Big trouble.

Why Do It, Then?

I get asked this question regularly: Why did you choose to set this in Portugal? Above I noted that I did so without a lot of consideration. I saw that Portugal had tons of coastline, and that was what I needed.

But along the way, I also learned there are some advantages to working in a culture people haven’t often seen before.
1) It’s fresh for readers.
2) It leaves lots of room for mistakes.

WHAT? Number 2 was an unplanned benefit. What I’ve learned from my decade of writing for American readers about Portugal is that they know very little about Portugal.

Basically, the more commonly used a setting is, the more ‘experts’ there are on that topic. If you set a book in NYC, in London, in Paris…a gazillion readers will point out every little thing you get wrong. If you set a story during WW1 of WW2, during the American Civil War, during the Napoleonic Wars…enough readers will know that era to spot any glitch.

1901 in Porto? An unintended benefit of this was that I had very few readers who knew enough about that setting to argue with me about…anything.

But also, I simply came to love the setting. I dove into researching the history (although I changed a lot of it) and found a rich culture, a fascinating past, and centuries of relationships with other cultures, often very fraught (and often deservedly so.) And I think that all the effort I’ve had to put in has been worth it.

So how do I tackle researching in a foreign language?
In the course of the first three novels, I did a ton of research online, often using sites that were in Portuguese. Or Spanish. Or Catalan. In fact, I used sites with two difference dialects of Catalan. Am I an expert in any of those languages? No. I started with mild familiarity with Spanish and worked from there.

Here are some of the steps I took:

1) Use machine translation: A good example of this is Google Translate, where you can simply paste a paragraph into a box and it will give you a -passable- translation. There are major flaws in this, but if you’re looking at something simple, that’s the fastest way to read it. Also, some browsers (I use Chrome) have a popup or toggle that offers to translate entire pages for you into your regular browsing language. This has proven incredibly helpful, especially when I don’t know whether I want to try to read the whole page. HOWEVER, machine translation is not entirely reliable, so I strongly suggest having other sources…

2) Get a language buddy: When I hit a real snag with something I absolutely had to get correct, I turned to some of my friends. Christopher Kastensmidt (author of The Elephant and Macaw Banner series) lives in Brazil and is a fluent Portuguese speaker, so when I had a complex question, I went to him for help and he got me the answers I needed. I hit up Sue Burke (author of Semiosis), who lived in Madrid at the time, for questions in Spanish. I even had someone I could contact for Galician, although I ended up not using them. So use your writer buddies to your advantage. Ask around and find out who can help you.

3) Ask your writers group: I’m a member of a large online group, and when I needed something specific, I could always post the question there, and someone would know the answer. (This is a subset of #2).

4) Learn the language: Now, some of you will be saying, “This should have been point #1”, but I disagree. I know we would all love to be diligent researchers, but that takes time–time we won’t spend writing. We need to research efficiently. Therefore, this step came along later in my process, when I realized I was doing far more than just one story. I got a set of Portuguese learning CDs (I used Pimsleur), popped them in my car, and listened to them everywhere I went. To this day, I am NOT fluent in the language, although I managed to get around in Portugal well enough. What the lessons provided instead was an understanding of the framework of the language. That helped me to grasp all the things that the machine translations were doing wrong, so that I could use the machine translation better.*

5) Use Wikipedia as a portal: I’ve done this a gazillion times now. I go into the English Wikipedia to look at something about a city in Portugal, discover that the English version has almost no data, and switch over to Portuguese Wikipedia, which not-surprisingly seems to care more about Portugal than the English version does. I’ve written about this a lot online, so I’ll just insert a link to that information here Once you’ve got a handle on machine translation and its foibles, this can be incredibly valuable.

6) Use social media: Take this one with a grain of salt. If your desperate for a quick translation or have a simple question about the language, ask on social media. I’ve used Facebook this way and have had some great results. Just be warned that you will get a lot of dross along with that bit of gold. Don’t assume the first answer is the correct one.

Admittedly, some languages are more different than others. I’ve recently started work in Finnish, and it’s absolutely unlike any language I’ve studied before (but in my first Finnish lesson, I quickly learned why speakers of that language often sound ‘depressed’ to outsiders.) I have studied Russian, which helped with my work set in Russia, but I have never tackled any other Asian language. I admit, I’m a bit lazy for that. As much as we enjoy researching, we’re writers instead of anthropologists for a reason. Most of us want to concentrate on the writing.

But if you find yourself lost in a different culture, don’t back away. There are a lot of things that you can try to help you wade through the unfamiliar. It’s worth trying.

*Machine translation often struggles with things that a language does differently than English. For example, Portuguese and Spanish are null-subject languages, which means that their sentences do not have to have a subject. She is an astronaut simply becomes Is an astronaut. Because the machine translation wants to put in a subject, it sticks in HE most of the time—He is an astronaut–creating confusion when you’re researching a woman. In addition, formal names are often baffling to the machines and end up being translated into nouns. (The name of the city, Porto, was constantly being changed to the port.) Learning a bit of the language helped me know which issues to watch out for in the translation process, and I could glance back at the original language sentence to see what should have happened instead of the gobbledygook that came out the other end!


J. Kathleen Cheney taught mathematics ranging from 7th grade to Calculus, but gave it all up for a chance to write stories. 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). Dreaming Death (Feb 2016) is the first in a new world, with the books of The Horn coming out in 2017, and the books of The King’s Daughter and sequels to Dreaming Death in 2018/2019

Fantastic History #33: Setting Fiction in the Long 18th Century by Kate Heartfield

Historians of British history talk about the “long eighteenth century.” It’s a phrase that comes to my mind often when I write fiction set in 18th century Europe. I have found that the key to writing in this period is somewhat paradoxical: you have to understand your setting as part of a vast context that covers a century and a half and several continents, but you must expect dramatic differences from year to year within that period, and even from month to month.

My next novel, The Humours of Grub Street, is set in London in 1703. I found pretty quickly that you can’t really understand the events of that setting without understanding the Glorious Revolution in 1688 and even the Great Fire in 1666 and the plague year that just preceded it. At the other end of the period, my Alice Payne time-travel novellas are set mainly in Hampshire in 1788 and 1799. Even though (some of) the characters don’t yet know how the French Revolution will unfold, or about the Napoleonic wars, it’s impossible to write well about that period without understanding the forces that were moving in Europe. The future for those characters has to inform the way we write; so does their past. We can’t understand the internal European political situation of the 18th century without having some sense of the impact of the peace of Westphalia back in 1648.

It’s also impossible to write well about the 18th century in Europe without understanding that the European powers were engaged in a massive campaign of imperialism, slavery and genocide throughout the rest of the world. It’s a century of trade and travel and migration. No country can be taken in isolation. One cannot understand any European country at the end of the 18th century without understanding the American and Haitian revolutions, and their causes.

All of those forces had a dramatic effect on the arts, science, literature, manners, food, and fashion. Let’s take fashion as an example.

Dressing one’s characters in the 18th century requires great care. Again, it’s all about context: If you’re writing a European woman in a “grand habit” or court dress in 1775, you need to understand that its heritage is a design decreed by Louis XIV about a century before, which was itself a deliberate homage to the gowns of his youth in the 1640s. Much depends on which country the woman is in, of course, and her class and even her political opinions.

As in any period, the fashions of the 18th century were always changing, from the lengths of stomachers and sleeves to the design of petticoats and stays. If you want to dress a woman in the 18th century, the first question to ask is: How many pieces does her dress come in?

This is also, for many cultural and economic reasons, a century of extreme and even ridiculous fashions, which are catnip for writers: the real world was stranger than fiction in many ways. You could write a woman with mouse-fur eyebrows, or ridiculous panniers jutting out from her hips. You could write a man with a crescent-moon beauty mark or a high powdered wig. But all of these things were particular to certain classes and certain places, and in many cases, the extremes of the fashions only lasted a few years. Put a woman in a ridiculous pannier in 1785, and you’ve made her an outlier. You’re saying something about her, whether you intended to or not. By 1795, the anachronism would be glaring.

Not only do you have to dress your characters in a way that would make sense to them, but you have to communicate all this to a modern reader, who might read a different connotation into an apron, or be thrown for a loop by someone handing someone else a pocket.

This can be a daunting setting to write, but it’s also a rich and interesting one, and the research is a great way to guard against ever writing a static, homogeneous culture, in any world.


Kate Heartfield is the author of the novel Armed in Her Fashion (ChiZine 2018) and the two Alice Payne novellas ( Publishing). She was nominated for a 2018 Nebula Award in the novella category for Alice Payne Arrives, and in game writing for The Road to Canterbury, published by Choice of Games. Armed in Her Fashion was a finalist for the 2018 Crawford Award, and the 2018 Aurora Award. Her novella “The Course of True Love” was published by Abaddon Books in 2016. Her short fiction has appeared in Strange Horizons, Lackington’s, Escape Pod and elsewhere. A former newspaper journalist, Kate lives in Ottawa, Canada.