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Fantastic History #4: Researching in a Foreign Language by J. Kathleen Cheney

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!

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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

Social Media Links:
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Website: www.jkathleencheney.com
Twitter: @jkcheney

***

For two years, Oriana Paredes has been a spy among the social elite of the Golden City, reporting back to her people, the sereia, sea folk banned from the city’s shores….

When her employer and only confidante decides to elope, Oriana agrees to accompany her to Paris. But before they can depart, the two women are abducted and left to drown. Trapped beneath the waves, Oriana survives because of her heritage, but she is forced to watch her only friend die.

Vowing vengeance, Oriana crosses paths with Duilio Ferreira—a police consultant who has been investigating the disappearance of a string of servants from the city’s wealthiest homes. Duilio also has a secret: He is a seer and his gifts have led him to Oriana.

Bound by their secrets, not trusting each other completely yet having no choice but to work together, Oriana and Duilio must expose a twisted plot of magic so dark that it could cause the very fabric of history to come undone….

April 2018 Update

I hope you are all enjoying the weather. At least in my part of the world, spring is finally here. We’ve been waiting a while.

April has been a quieter month overall, which was needful after March. I’ve been writing Abigail Rath Versus Mad Science, and in a surprise twist, I’m getting Abigail Rath Versus Blood-Sucking Fiends ready to send out and about. The Ankeny Book Fair went well, I did my stint with the flu, and we’re ready to move into May.

Thanks to Catrina Horsfield, an artist friend from my Sugar Quill days, we’ve designed a logo for those of you who might consider yourselves Team Octavia. Team Lucy is in development. I’ve already got a t-shirt, and I suspect this will ultimately be on bookmarks and stickers as well. Maybe, taking a page out of Jim Hine’s book, tattoos?

***

May has a couple of events:

Demicon in Des Moines, Ia, where I’ll be reading, signing, and on panels for Saturday, May 5th.

Wiscon in Madison, Wi, my annual trip with my good friends Dan, Lisa, and Yolanda. I will be attending the whole convention from May 25-May 28, and I’ll be signing, reading, and on panels.

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As soon as I get a viable draft of Mad Science out to my readers, those of you who have been waiting for The Pawn of Isis, well, I’ll be back at it. Stay tuned.

Fantastic History #3: Researching Historical Fantasy–A Dilettante’s Reminiscence by Caroline Stevermer

A large part of the joy of writing historical fantasy, for me, is the research. Although I also read letters, diaries, and newspapers from times and places equivalent to the historical setting I hope to use, the research tool I most enjoy using is obsolete travel guides. They have helped to spark my imagination and to improve my world-building.

Some travel guides had life and death importance for travelers. The Green-Book, written, published, and revised by Victor H. Green from 1936 to 1963, helped African-American travelers survive the dangers of travel in the United States. Some travel guides are centuries old. The Periplus of the Erythraean Sea may date from the first century CE. To clarify, I don’t intend to get into the use of such important historical resources here.

Instead, I plan to reminisce about the origin of my fascination with travel guides published to help their intended audience to negotiate travel for pleasure to a particular place for a particular year. My very first obsolete travel guide was a Ward Lock guide. This particular edition of The English Lake District, or to be exact, A Pictorial and Descriptive Guide to the English Lake District, with an outline guide for pedestrians and a special section for motorists, was published in U.K. in the early 1930s.

I found the battered red book in a bargain bin at the excellent used bookstore nearest my college campus. I had no plans to write anything set in the Lake District, nor to travel in the Lake District, and at that point I sincerely doubt I knew where the Lake District was. As an avid reader of The Lord of the Rings, I had devoured many of the other titles Ballantine Books published in their fantasy line. Among them was E.R. Eddison’s The Worm Ouroboros.
I found Eddison’s deliberately antiquated prose style difficult to read at first, but I think there was an element of the Ikea effect at work. Because I worked harder than usual to read that book, I connected with it more than the other titles from Ballantine. My love for Worm was cemented when I went to college and made friends* based on our shared passion for such novels.

The Worm Ouroboros begins with these words: “There was man named Lessingham dwelt in an old low house in Wastdale, set in a gray old garden where yew-trees flourished that had seen Vikings in Copeland in their seedling time.” Wastdale is in the English Lake District. The index to the travel guide showed a reference to Wastdale, two for Wastdale Head, and two more for Wastwater. Intrigued, I read those entries, then went on skimming the guidebook.
I was eighteen. At the time, the travel guide, which seemed antique to me then, was about thirty years out of date. Perhaps because it was missing one of its maps, it only cost me 75 cents. Its true cost was the time I took to read it, as I should have been studying instead.

The guidebook had maps, photographs, detailed itineraries for hikers, and down-to-earth advice for the cyclists and motorists who were its intended audience.

[“…at this point is the Devil’s Elbow, a sharp double turn down a steep slope. (Cyclists, dismount! Motorists, crawl!)”]

The true reason I bought the book was its ads. The guidebook begins and ends with pages of advertisements to defray the cost of printing. One of the first pages is an advertisement for United Kingdom Credit, placed by the Westminster Bank Limited. “Motorists, tourists, and others traveling in Great Britain run no less risk of theft or loss here than they do abroad.” The ad goes on to say, “A customer of the Westminster Bank who provides himself with the Bank’s Letter of Credit may tour the Kingdom with no more loose money in his pocket than he wants for meeting his needs from hour to hour. By this means, he reduces his risk of loss and is sure of being able to obtain cash in any town throughout England, Scotland, and Wales.”

The hotels advertised had names straight out of Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers. As I read, I began to get a feeling for what it would be like to journey in this lost world. As a single woman, I thought I’d be more comfortable staying at a temperance hotel. I didn’t know how to drive, but that would present no problem. Walking holidays were popular enough to be catered for, so I could probably get a lift aboard one of the motor coaches that provided transport to the most popular sites. I would certainly obtain a letter of credit from a suitable bank. No travelers checks, or cheques, would be necessary.

In addition to providing help envisioning concrete details of daily life, it is a great source for names. Place names can make good names for people, too. Most of all, the obsolete guidebook can inspire. This is from English Lake District again: “Another feature of the by-roads are the gates, which are generally kept closed to prevent sheep from straying, and which form a real danger to the unwary motorist.” I’m sure I could have imagined a chase scene on a rural road. I might even have imagined the sheep, but I would never have thought to imagine a closed gate across a road suitable for motoring.

In Baedeker’s 1914 edition of Russia, the section on traveling in the Grand Duchy of Finland begins with this useful information: “In Finland Helsingfors (Helsinki) time is kept. This is 22 min. behind St. Petersburg time, 39 min. ahead of Central European time, and 1 hr. 39 min. ahead of W. European time.” I knew that time zones originated when scheduled train travel required such a thing, but not that the time intervals weren’t given in hours. It’s a world-building detail that would never have occurred to me.

When I was writing A College of Magics, I found period guidebooks helpful when considering such vital questions as which hotel in Paris my protagonist would choose and how she would get to the railway station (and which railway station should it be?) when she needed to leave the city. Many years after that, my vintage copy of Baedeker’s United States told me what coins and currency were in use, common and otherwise, in 1905. When my protagonist decided to ride the elevated railway in New York City, I knew how much the ticket would cost her (and what she should do with it), because my Baedeker explained that useful information in detail.

That first 75-cent guidebook has led to my current shelf of battered Baedekers, fragile Satchel Guides, and other out-of-date handbooks for travelers. In recent years, I’ve been happy to find modern reprints, which let me use a book without ruining it (and also contain every single map). I may think I know precisely what I’m looking for in an obsolete guidebook, but I never know exactly what else I’ll find.

* Ellen Kushner, I am thinking of you!

***

Caroline Stevermer (b. 1955) is known for her historical fantasy novels for young adults. She published her first book, The Alchemist, in 1981, and before collaborating with fellow Minnesotan Patricia C. Wrede to create a magical version of Regency England. Stevermer graduated from Bryn Mawr College with a degree in art history and currently lives in Minnesota.

Fantastic History #2: What the Well-Dressed Woman Wore in 1837 by Cath Schaff-Stump

When one is writing a family saga that takes place over 90 years, from 1837 until sometime in the 1920s, and one has been, in a previous life a costumer, one finds oneself interested in what people are wearing. Rather than dressing every one in pseudo-Victorian, I went out to do some research regarding fashion for men, women, and children, and take a look a fashion silhouettes of the various times I would be writing in. The Klaereon Scroll series starts in 1837, with two well-dressed gentlewomen, Octavia and Lucy Klaereon.

1837 is an interesting time in fashion. The Neo-Classicism of the Regency with its minimalist structure has given way, twenty years later, to a less basic shape as women embrace the ideals of a tiny waist and a larger skirt. In the evolution of the silhouette, we can see our way toward the giant hoops of the 1850s, as the skirt ever widens, and toward the constricting corsets of the 1860s-1880s, as the waist narrows. The resulting hourglass figure would continue to become more exaggerated until the first bustle brought in some variety around 1870. The foundation upon which this silhouette was built consisted of a chemise, covered by a corset, which cupped the breasts. Petticoats padded the skirt and held the corset in place.

Of particular interest at this time in fashion is the evolution of the sleeve. The sleeve of the early 1830’s was full at the top, but as the decade progressed, the fullness of the sleeve moved down the arm. The necklines emphasized a feminine sloping shoulder, and gowns around the neck and bust were increasingly fitted, while lower arms were plumped out and supported by sleeve plumpers. Points tailored toward the waist emphasized the sloping shoulders and smaller waist. Necklines were lower for eveningwear than daywear.

Hair was parted in the middle and coifed in ringlets on the sides and sometimes the top of the head. Rakish hates of earlier in the decade gave way to primmer, more feminine bonnets. Slippers completed evening ensembles. Button boots with elasticized insets appeared for daywear.

As fashion goes, these clothes were less prohibiting than some of the silhouettes that would come later, but women were losing ground on the way to some of the most constricting fashion choices that would not be modified until after the first world war.

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Cath Schaff-Stump writes speculative fiction for children and adults, everything from humor to horror. Her YA Gothic fantasy The Vessel of Ra is available from Curiosity Quills. Catherine lives and works in Iowa with her husband. During the day, she teaches English to non-native speakers at a local community college. Other recent fiction has been published by Paper Golem Press, Daydreams Dandelion Press, and in The Mammoth Book of Dieselpunk. Catherine is a co-host on the writing and geek-life fan podcast Unreliable Narrators. You can find her online at Facebook, Goodreads, Amazon, @cathschaffstump, cathschaffstump.com, and unreliablenarrators.net

March 2018 Update

Woah. March. So much to tell you about. Let’s start with the readings!

First, we had this wonderful reading at Kirkwood Community College. There are three of of us at the college who are science fiction writers, so Dennis Green, Jed Petersen and I had a wonderful event. It was great.

Next, I journeyed to California. Chris Cornell, Karl Dandenell and I read at Fogcon and at Book Passage. I also had a good time hooking up with my agent Mary C. Moore.

As I write this, I’m at the TESOL conference in Chicago, so it has been a month of much traveling, and while I’ve been having a wonderful time getting out and about, I’m ready to stay home for a while.

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Writing-wise, I’ve been pinning down my first draft of my middle-grade hopeful Abigail Rath Versus Mad Science. For those of you who have encountered Abby before, you can expect more encounters with the supernatural. Some of you also might remember Dr. Lila Blake from…places, and yes, she does make an appearance in this book. I am making steady progress. My fine beta readers are sending me feedback on The Pawn of Isis, which I’ll work on as soon as the Abby draft is in hand.

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So, April. What’s happening in April? A whole lot of writing, and this event:

If you’re in Ankeny, Iowa, please come and see me. I’ll be selling The Vessel of Ra, and copies of The Abandoned Places Anthology from Shohola Press. Good stuff.

Fantastic History #1: What’s Different and Who Knows About It? by Kate Heartfield

Chopping books into finer and finer categories of sub-genre should never become a dogmatic exercise. But sometimes it can be helpful, as writers and as readers, to have a sense of a book’s internal logic. When I sit down to start planning a new historical fantasy, I ask myself: What’s different about the world, and who knows about it?

There’s something askew about the world I’m writing about, or it wouldn’t be speculative fiction. It’s our world, but different.
Next question: Who knows about this?

Option 1: Secret history. Only certain people know about the existence of magic or the supernatural element. It is not reported in the newspapers. World events unfold largely as they did in our own history. The fantastic element doesn’t change the course of our history, it explains it. The author’s invented plots happen behind closed doors, off the official record.

Option 2: Alternate history. Everyone knows about the fantastic element, whether it’s magic, or dragons, or sentient IKEA furniture. People talk about it at the breakfast table. The historical record is already different from our own, so anything’s possible.

An example of an alternate-history fantasy is The House of Shattered Wings by Aliette de Bodard, which posits a 20th-century Paris that has been ruined by a long magical war. An example of secret history is Hide Me Among the Graves by Tim Powers, in which the existence of vampire-like creatures explains real events in the lives of the Pre-Raphaelite poets and artists of the 19th century.

You can have alternate history that isn’t fantasy. Alternate history answers the question, what if? What if the dodo never went extinct? What if Berlin was never divided? One great example of alternate history that doesn’t contain any supernatural elements is The Yiddish Policemen’s Union by Michael Chabon, which considers what would have happened if the United States had provided land in Alaska for Jewish refugees during the Second World War. All the laws of physics still apply, in this kind of alternate history. The only speculative element there is at a meta-level, in the positing of a different timeline.

You can also have secret history that isn’t fantasy. In fact, most or all of what gets shelved as “historical fiction” falls into this category. All the big, documented events are unchanged, but the behind-the-scenes conversations may be invented, and to some extent, the characters and their motivations are the product of the writer’s imagination. If a minor plot point deviates from history, it’s for reasons of artistic license, not speculative world-building. Hilary Mantel’s brilliant book Wolf Hall is an example of secret history without fantastic elements. It tells the story of Thomas Cromwell and the court of Henry VIII.

I write both kinds of historical fantasy.

My first novel, Armed in Her Fashion, is coming out in May, 2018. It is very much an alternate history; early on, this line appears: “In the year of our Lord 1326, a woman drove the beast called Hell up to the surface of the Earth.”

My second novel, The Humours of Grub Street, is a secret history, scheduled for 2019 or 2020. It posits that real historical events in London in 1703 can be attributed to witchcraft, and that the true history has been kept secret.

Both approaches to historical fantasy—alternate and secret—have their appeal. Both explore the uncanny valley between the familiar and unfamiliar. In both cases, writers have to wrestle with how the supernatural affects the world. In alternate history, that often means applying the changes to the world itself. In secret history, that means coming up with reasons why the wider world hasn’t changed, despite the existence of the supernatural within it.

Alternate history reminds us how fragile history is. It illuminates the strangeness of real history by showing that our world might not be as different as we think. Take the magician Jonathan Strange’s rather fraught declaration (in Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell) that while a magician might be able to kill a man by magic, “a gentleman never could.” Even in a world where everything’s different, everything’s the same.

Secret history reminds us that the causes that move history are sometimes private and unseen. It illuminates the strangeness of history by showing that supernatural explanations are no weirder than real life: take, for example, Dante Gabriel Rossetti opening his wife’s grave to retrieve a book of poems, a real event that figures in Hide Me Among the Graves. Is it weirder to imagine that there was something supernatural going on, or that there wasn’t?

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Kate Heartfield is a writer in Ottawa, Canada. Her first novel, a historical fantasy called Armed in Her Fashion, is coming from ChiZine Publications in May. Her interactive fiction based on Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, The Road to Canterbury, is coming this spring from Choice of Games. She has two time-travel novellas on the way from Tor.com, and is the author of one novella in the collection Monstrous Little Voices: New Tales from Shakespeare’s Fantasy World, from Abaddon Books. Her short fiction has appeared in places such as Lackington’s, Strange Horizons and Podcastle. Website: heartfieldfiction.com. Twitter: @kateheartfield

Unreliable Posts through 2-23-18

It’s been a while. I’ve been writing a book.

Here are yer podcast updates for a couple of months.

Author Spotlight: Damien Angelica Walters

To MFA or Not to MFA

Flash Fiction Online with Anna Yeatts

Things to Come

Nerd Fitness 101 with Ransom Noble

Author Spotlight: Caroline Stevermer

Who Said It?

Game Spotlight: Rosemary Claire Smith

Reading Challenge Results

Author Spotlight: Molly Tanzer

Riverdale and Sabrina