Why I don’t write fiction set in Portugal – A blast from the past – October 2007

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*Okay, the cold is lingering but on its way out. However, yesterday I developed strong lower back pain, which I’m hoping really hard is not another fargin kidney infection, but just a side effect of many hours on plane. It’s better today than yesterday which would indicate that I hope. If it’s not gone by tomorrow, I’ll go see doctor, yes.
I hope to be well enough to resume instapundit duties tonight.  I also hope to get at least SOME fiction done today. Yes, there will be another Blast From The Past post later today.  This series is being revived because I want to go into “why people write” and the different results thereto and having this in mind first will help. So, bear with me – SAH*

Why I don’t write fiction set in Portugal – A blast from the past – October 2007

For those of you who have no idea why I’m answering this — there is a rather long (if polite) question in Portuguese a few entries back and because it is a polite question — for Portugal almost excruciatingly polite — it deserves an answer.

Considering I write historical fiction and that, if history were oil, Portugal would buy and sell the rest of the world, I imagine this looks odd to people from Portugal or of Portuguese descent.  Unfortunately I have many reasons not to write fiction set in Portugal — and this is not strictly true.  I sold a Portuguese History story to The Book Of Final Flesh and I sold a Henry the Navigator story to the Mammoth book of Historical Detectives (#3, I THINK.)  And one, very recently, to Universe.  And I’ve written several others.  I’ve just never published them.  But no, I haven’t tried to sell novels set in Portugal.  Unfortunately because, of course, if Portuguese History were oil, I’d have a fast track to becoming a multi-millionaire.

So, this post will set out, in generality, the reasons I don’t write fiction set in Portugal.  I will expand on this in other posts.  In fact, this post is little more than an outline.  There will be a post immediately after this expanding on point 1.

1 – Because no one will buy it.  And no, it’s not those racist Americans.  (First of all, get a grip on reality.  Which self-respecting racist sets out to hate whites belonging to the Mediterranean sub-race.  Gee.  Latin is a culture, not a race, something that gets obscured because once a group is bureaucratically set aside, it’s immediately considered racial. See for instance believers in Islam, who are also in many cases of the Mediterranean sub-race, btw. There are cogent reasons it doesn’t sell in the US, unless literary or small press and they would apply to practically any other country not Portugal.  Well, maybe Portugal too, but I doubt it.  You could knock me with a feather when I found out recently Portuguese are a protected minority.  To anyone out there intending to protect me, kindly stop it.  I have hands and feet and a nasty disposition.)

2- Because sources of reference for Portuguese history purely SUCK.  They’re better in the US than they are in Portugal as are most purely historical scholarly books — unless you’ve tried to buy in both countries, kindly shut up — but they still SUCK.

3 – I don’t write things set in Portugal in general because I know nothing of current day Portugal.  I’m fairly sure my parents think I abandoned the country.  I’d like to submit to them and you that the country left me behind.  I truly don’t recognize most of the places I grew up in — they’re paved and covered in stack-a-prole apartment buildings.  The only way for me to go home would be a time-traveling machine.  If anyone has one of those speak up.  I’d give ALL my current worth and a good part of my future for another hour with my grandmother.

4- I don’t generally write about past Portugal because I know nothing about past-Portugal.  I don’t mean historical.  One of the advantages of historical writing is that no one can pop up and say “I lived through the Spanish takeover, young lady, and the Spanish takeover was nothing like that.  We didn’t FEEL like that, and that’s not what it was like in Freixo de espada a cinta.”  They CAN do this for my lifetime — the last almost half-century.  And they would be right and I would be wrong.  Part of this is that i left Portugal very young — 22 — and never lived in it as a self sufficient adult.  Part of it is that, while still in Portugal, I bought Heinlein’s Stranger In A Strange Land on the title alone as “Oh, Lord, that’s how I feel.”

Okay, part one after I shower and have coffee.  Part one I’m afraid will have to go into “What a writer has to do in terms of where you set up the story and themes for it to make cogent sense and sell.”  Or “Sarah’s little book of secrets about marketing to editors.”  Mind you, given my track record of marketing to the public, the well-informed will take it with a barrel of salt, but this has been my experience as a professional writer.  Your mileage may vary.

64 responses to “Why I don’t write fiction set in Portugal – A blast from the past – October 2007

  1. I’m a little surprised that part of the answer wasn’t “Because Portugal isn’t anywhere near Ganymede”, but then I took a moment to think, and remembered that you write more than just science fiction and fantasy!

  2. Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard

    I suspect that if you did write fiction (historical) set in Portugal, some “I know better than you” type would criticize it especially if you got the facts correct. 😈

    • Well, of course, what would a white Mormon male know of Portugal?

      (I recall that a couple of the LDS youth were noted in my birth town paper for doing their missionary time in Spain and Portugal. That was back in the late sixties or early seventies, though.)

  3. there will be another Blast From The Past post later today.

    Not to be unappreciative, but why not save it until tomorrow? Focus your energies on recovering from your travels (it should not go unnoticed that the main difference between “travels” and “travails” is the later involves “I”) and on writing fiction (lots more of that, hey?)

    Sure, promoting the brand is important, but restocking the inventory is essential. We can knock about a single BftP sufficiently for a day.

  4. And then you went and did it anyway.

  5. I don’t know. I mean, I can write about living in Upstate New York in the ’60’s and ’70’s. I can extrapolate with how it is today; but even with research, would my extrapolation be accurate enough? Or worse, would it be too accurate, so any story I write would rapidly become outdated?

    There are a lot of stories out there where the characters are using cell phones. But will we be using cell phones 50 years from now? Or even only 20? Those stories might be outdated before we’re even dead.

    • In general, I think it’s better to allow stories to become unintentional period pieces than to try to keep updating them to match “now.” A lot of stories are simply products of their time, even there’s a universal message.

      I’m reminded of the novel I read as a kid where the entire plot of the second half of the novel is that the heroine is trying to make a phone call. If she could get a message to anyone outside her immediate circle, the story would end. It was written in the 70s, so the fact that there’s only one phone in the entire building, and it’s behind a locked door, means this is a challenge. However, the Powers the Be wanted the novel updated for the 2000s, and as far as I can tell, the “update” pretty much consists of the author saying, “Yes, of course she has a cellphone and an email account and Facebook and Twitter; let me give you one excuse after another for why she can’t use them.”

      • I get a kick when re-reading Space Cadet by Heinlein. The shoe phone. Sure was ahead of the game in that for the time when written. When most people top of technology had party lines, wall connected, MIGHT be dial; a lot still had party lines with crank phones … But, to ONLY be a phone. What today we’d call a brick phone. No computer or even calculator capabilities at all. Computers were still massive items. “Calculators” were still slide rules.

        • I would happily accept a return of crank phones if it meant being rid of today’s phone cranks.

          • It’s bad enough calling someone and getting a recording, “Please call again later”. But when the “Please call again later recordings” are calling you…, it’s become ridiculous. Then there’s the time I got a call purportedly from my own phone number. Robocallers that just call and don’t even have a canned recording to respond with if someone does answer the phone (what are they doing, harvesting automated voice mail responses they can plug in as fake identifiers for the next batch of automated sales calls?) What with robots calling robots, threatening to tie up the phone lines so that no human can get through…there’s an SF story in there somewhere.

            • There are some phone scams that need you to answer “yes” to a question. At that point, they’ll splice that “yes” to a question that can get you billed a good chunk of money (think 900 numbers or phone service swaps).

              We broke down and got Caller ID. Currently, the spam calls are either from “NRA” or totally bogus. We used to get calls supposedly from our exchange (ABC-WXYZ), but the W*** series isn’t in use. Life with telephone is slightly less annoying with Caller ID.

              • This is why I not only avoid using obvious affirmatives (except: Known Parties. Immediate relatives, and such.) but avoid “Hello” as it seem to trigger the automation. “Are you there?” “Start talking, it’s your nickel.” “Cloramphenicol” or other things… if I even attempt to vocalize at all. And if even suspect spammer/scammer, then then get to deal with “moo” and it’s not MY problem if they don’t speak moo.

            • Feather Blade

              harvesting automated voice mail responses they can plug in as fake identifiers for the next batch of automated sales calls?)

              This is why I’ve taken to answering unknown numbers with a flat “What” or “Who is this.”

  6. And that’s a pretty picture. It looks like a thousand-piece puzzle.

    • We spent a lot of time there this trip. About 20 minute train ride from where I grew up, but well… it’s changed less. (It’s also changed, but less.)

    • One to drive you stark raving mad…

      • Oooh. Me wants… I have a 1000 piece puzzle of this species: Bologne, Italy, seen from above; an endless vista of block buildings and red tile roofs. From its cover pic, it looked all but impossible, but proved only moderately difficult. (Then again, I do ’em all the time, so my idea of “difficult” is a couple orders of magnitude beyond average.)

  7. So file the serial numbers off, jump into the time machine that is your brain and write the Village Portugal that lives in your imagination. You could just call it…

    Oh. Never mind.

  8. c4c

  9. I know nothing of current day Portugal.

    A moment’s reflection (admittedly, that is something few people indulge in these days, and almost never in public) will make clear that few people actually know much of anything about the society in which they live, much less one which they’ve left. America is a large place, with many cultures and sub-cultures and it would take years of real and serious effort to get to know any significant portion of those. And even then, much of what you knew would probably be wrong; superficial awareness of the portions of those cultures they’re willing to let outsiders see.

    Each of America’s Big Cities has its own character, one which tells you almost instantly whether you’re in New York, Boston, New Orleans, Seattle or wherever. And in each of those cities there are neighborhoods and pockets that are similarly distinct, even if only known to those who’ve lived in that city. (Beloved Spouse, who grew up in Philadelphia, can’t stand Chris Matthews because his accent reads as a certain neighborhood yobbo … even before she has processed the nonsense he spews.) Suburbs, small towns, Rural America all differ from and contribute to the mainstream culture — just as television, movies and books contribute to an imagined America.

    I’ve never been West of Milwaukee (and thre for only a couple days) but I’ve “walked” the “mean streets of LA” with Sam Spade, Harry Bosch and innumerable others, just as I’ve prowled Chicago with Harry Dresden and sauntered New York’s scenes with Archie Goodwin.

    But that is only an illusion of knowledge, held with a familiarity that obscures my actual ignorance of the world I inhabit. Truth be told, there are parts of my own city of which I am wholly ignorant and others of which I’ve only scant understanding.

    Humility is required to required to grasp how little we know and how much of our knowledge is illusory. Attempting to write in any culture would surely bring home how tenuous our hold, how superficial our ken, how mistaken our thoughts are.

    Not that that stops many people, all the same.

    • “I know nothing of current day Portugal.”
      But then again neither do the vast majority of your readers.
      Present them with solid characters in a believable setting then go ahead and tell them an entertaining story. With lots of blood and gore and suspense of course, but that’s a given.

      • Blood and gore optional. Suspense, not so much!

      • But then again neither do the vast majority of your readers.

        Then again, a lot of the most obnoxious about it REALLY know jack-all; my favorite Japanese restaurant after leaving the country had a HUGE list of folks complaining on Yep about how it was not “authentic,” basically because it didn’t taste like expensive Japanese restaurants rather than Japanese Denny’s.

    • My Vienna is still as it was in 1992. Not as I know it to be today. Why? Because I like it better then. Because that’s what imprinted. Because I could roam without worrying.

      My Vienna is very different from Vienna of _The Third Man_, or of Prinz Eugen, or others. The place never stops changing because the people don’t stop changing. There are a few places that have had their clocks stopped for tourist reasons, but even then you have to know when and where to look. Medieval Bruges had the enormous trade hall at the end of the canal. That’s long gone. And it didn’t have masses of killer* bicycles.

      *Yes, I’m biased. When you yell at me because you don’t want to stop while riding on the pedestrians-only sidewalk, and I don’t care to be run over by a car so that you can roll unimpeded, it biases me.

  10. I’ve lived in Eugene since 1963, with a break from fall ’74 till summer of ’85, what I know of anything outside of the small portion of Santa Clara section i grew up in and now live, could be inscribed in large print on the head of a pin. Drives my husband nuts.

    Yet I too have walked with: Dresden all over Chicago. Seattle with JP Beaumont. Willamette Valley with Mike and Juniper; Walked across from Willamette Valley East to Nantucket with Rudi and company (both Emberverse). Roamed Tri-Cities, Columbia Gorge, and remote of Montana with Mercy Thompson. New Orleans and the hills of Tennessee with Jane and company. These and others, including the environments our host chooses to write in. BUT for most, have never, ever been there. I’d have no clue if it is accurate or not. Question when it comes to reading … does it make sense for the story, not is it 100% accurate.

  11. Well, this sets up a followup post on why Guardian and the zombie story (in Voices of the Fall) *are* set in Portugal…

  12. I bet the ‘protected minority’ status has to do with the large Cape Verdian Portugese population in Massachusetts. I grew up summering nine mile from the old Whaling city of New Bedford, which is full of Cape Verdians, probably from the fishing industry originally. Lovely people, whose major problems would probably be solved in a generation or so if the Peoples’ Republic of Boston would quit screwing up the Massachusetts economy. But they’re dark, speak (originally, anyway) a non-english language, and otherwise fit the profile of the kind of people the Progressive Left likes to inflict its unhelpful help upon.

    To give you some idea of the Cape Verdian character; whenI was entering my teens my older cousin Ellen advised my folks that if I wanted to wander around the seedier areas of New Bedford I COULD get knifed….but I’d have to work at it. This was in the ‘70’s, when all you had to do to get shived in most bad cities was be white and breathe.

    • No. Not really. It’s just Latin culture.
      I lived next to Cape Verdians at my last house. Huge neighborhood to the east of us.

      • I’m not saying they’re a Race. I’m saying they LOOK like one to the stoneheads in Boston and environs. I’m also saying that those ninnies are so ignorant that they can’t differentiate between mainland Portugese and Cape Verdians (who are basically African with the usual smattering of Colonialist genes). A distinction I knew about before I entered middle school.

        Why anyone takes any non-hard-science pronouncement coming out of Harvard seriously is beyond me. Their hard-science is getting wobbly, too, from what I hear.

        • Actually Cape Verdians are so mixed that a family with two black parents can throw out a blond child and vice versa. Astonishing people. But very nice, really.

  13. richardmcenroe

    Hm. I know it’s Portugal, not Spain, but the Captain Alatriste novels were pretty well received over here. And the notion that there’s this weird little corner of Europe THAT NO ONE TALKS ABOUT is frankly, kind of a tease in itself…

  14. Just like “Good always wins and evil always loses” is a load of patooey in real life. BUT it is the way we all wish it were. And at the same time it is a message repeated from all the churches and institutions catering to the young since there have been churches and institutions.

    • Do said churches mention that it’s only true if you take into account 1) invisible intangible rewards and 2) a postmortal balancing of books? Because Jesus never promised his followers an earthly reward for doing good. Rather, he told them to expect hardship, persecution, torture, and death.

      • Not sure what happened to the rest of the comment, was supposed to be a statement about how it’s true– it just takes a much longer time than most folks are looking at.

    • This absolutely requires this:

  15. stack-a-prole apartment buildings
    I love that!

    • It’s a very apt image, really, and speaks to the ‘replaceable widget’ mentality that the Left favors. Sure you can decorate the inside as much as you like (barring the apartment complex’s rules for renting people) but you ‘look the same as anyone else outside.’

      • That’s part of my issue with HOA’s. The boring sameness (there’s much more – to the point that I outright told the Realtor an HOA was an automatic deal-breaker) might mean no visual atrocities… but it also means only boring sameness.

  16. BTW, Sarah, I absolutely love your writing about Portugal here – your childhood, your feelings of oddness, and so on. 🙂