Fantastic History #10: Come and Write with Me–When the Fiction Becomes the Source by Christopher Kastensmidt

Reading through the articles here at Fantastic History, I can relate. I’ve been working with The Elephant and Macaw Banner universe for twelve years now, and I’ve certainly faced every challenge mentioned here along the way: historical fidelity, anachronisms, researching in a foreign language and all the rest. The Elephant and Macaw Banner (let’s call it EAMB for short) is a series based on sixteenth-century Brazil: a period marking the beginning of European colonization and a massive clash of cultures along the coast.

Similar to what Tim Powers does in his works, I rigorously follow historical events, while at the same time mixing in the supernatural. In this case, my supernatural elements include creatures from Brazilian folklore and miraculous powers associated with pajés (native shamans) and religious characters (like Jesuit missionaries).

The Headless Mule, a well-known Brazilian myth (artist: SulaMoon)

About 90% of my research is in Portuguese, with the other 10% English and Spanish. The sixteenth-century is by far the least-documented period in Brazilian history. For one, Brazil had no printing press at the time (they were, in fact, illegal in the colony until the nineteenth century). That means that works from the period only got published if they somehow made it back to Europe—a rarity. There are about a dozen relatively reliable first-hand accounts from the period and not a lot of in-depth secondary works. While that has made my research a challenge, it has also created an interesting reverse effect, where the fiction itself has become a reference.

To support that conclusion, I’ll have to provide a little bit of history. The series has passed through multiple stages over the last twelve years, which I’ll try to summarize here.

Phase One: Prose

I started work on the stories in late 2006. I read some 20 books before I wrote the first story, a number that would quickly surpass 200 as I made my way through the series. That first story was published in Realms of Fantasy in 2010, and after a Nebula nomination in 2011, the stories soon reached an international audience. They were published in several languages, including a series of pocket editions in Brazil.

To my surprise, the stories were quickly adopted in schools as an alternative method of introducing several cultural elements, including: folklore, slavery, colonization and others.

A school play based on A Parlous Battle Against the Capelobo, the second story in the series (school: E.E. B. Professora Erica Marques)

Phase Two: Adaptation

Parallel to the stories being launched, I began working on adaptations. The first of these, a graphic novel, came out in late 2014. Thanks to sponsorship through a government program, the graphic novel was donated to hundreds of public school libraries in the states of Sao Paulo, Rio Grande do Sul and Santa Catarina.

A flashback to the Kingdom of Ketu, in modern-day Benin, from the graphic novel adaptation (artist: Carolina Mylius)

The graphic novel format is extremely accessible to young readers and helped the series reach an even greater audience. In 2015 alone, I participated in over 30 events and school visits in the states where the donations had taken place.

Phase Three: Interaction

In late 2017, I launched a table-top RPG based on the world of the stories. It was a success beyond my greatest expectations, selling out in just four months. Half of the copies went to public schools in eight states. The RPG gave me a chance to synthesize my (at the time) eleven years of research into an accessible and interactive format. I was able to present historical details such as measurements, currency and professions alongside statistics for fantastic creatures.

Pages from the RPG (art by Marcela Medeiros and Cássio Yoshiyaki)

Just seven months after launch, I know of dozens of schools which are already using the RPG in the classroom to teach students about folklore and sixteenth-century history. I receive almost weekly messages of people telling me how they’re studying history for the first time in their lives, so that they can create their own adventures in the setting.

The Elephant and Macaw Banner RPG in the classroom (school: Dom Walfrido Teixeira Vieira EEEP)

Phase Four: Community

The biggest surprise has been adoption by the community. The RPG is quickly becoming a reference in the area and has brought many readers back to the source material. It paved a clear path for people to tell their own stories in the world, in turn giving them a sense of ownership. That feeds back in a loop, with the community creating material for itself, thus expanding the universe and inspiring new creators. The fans are actively participating in every aspect of the future of this universe, providing feedback and ideas for future products. It has been a marvelous and humbling experience.

Examples of fan-written content for the EAMB RPG (content by Jan Piertezoon, Gustavo Tenório and Arthur Pinto de Andrade)

For those looking to know more about ABEA, the stories are available in individual editions at the moment on Amazon, but I recently signed a contract with Guardbridge Books (yeah!), and we’ll be replacing those with a definitive, revised edition in electronic and print formats. That edition will be launched at the World Fantasy Conference in November. Catherine’s Comment: !!!!

The stories are also available in Spanish, through Sportula, in Chinese, through Douban Read, and Portuguese, through Devir. The RPG should be out in English in 2019, and other products are on the way, such as a video game based on the RPG.

My thanks to Catherine and Fantastic History for the chance to publish this article. Congrats on the wonderful blog!

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!


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:
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….