Stranger In A Strange Land

(It might be helpful to read the entry previous to this and the one immediately before that, to understand what I’m talking about.)

I’m continuing to discuss why I don’t write things set in Portugal — or at least not long works and not with any true degree of involvement in it.  This post covers points  2, 3 &4 — all of which try to explain some degree of alienation from my native land.  For those readers inclined to be offended or upset by it, I want to make clear I’m not making broad inferences, here.  This is my life, it is how I perceived/perceive things and it is my relationship with the place where I was born and raised.  Some of it I have no explanation for.  Other parts I can make broad guesses at what caused them.  Most of al, though, this is my life and this is my relationship with two countries.  I’m telling you right now you have no right to be offended by anything I feel or felt.  If you do, take it up with yourself and your relationship with your own country.

Let’s start by establishing that I’ve always been a stranger in a strange land and, to some extent, I’ll always be one.  However, as far as I’m concerned, I’m home now, having not so much immigrated as returned to the place where my soul always belonged.  I have pinned to my corkboard the following quote, which says how I feel far more eloquently than I ever could:

“I have an idea that some men are born out of their due place.  Accident has cast them amid strangers in their birthplace, and the leafy lanes they have known from childhood or the populous streets in which they have played, remain but a place of passage.  they may spend their whole lives aliens among their kindred and remain aloof among the only scenes they have ever known.  Perhaps it is this sense of strangeness that sends men far and wide in the search for something permanent, to which they may attach themselves.  Perhaps some deep-rooted atavism urges the wanderer back to lands which his ancestors left in the dim beginnings of history.  Sometimes a man hits upon a place to which he mysteriously feels that he belongs.  Here is the home he sought, and he will settle amid scenes that he has never seen before, among men he has never known, as though they were familiar to him from his birth.  Here at last he finds rest.” — from The Moon and Sixpence by W. Somerset Maugham 1919

We’ll take that huge quote bit by bit, shall we?  “I have an idea that some men are born out of their due place.”

As far back as I can remember — and that’s pretty far back, as I remember lullabies sang to me only before I was one — I had that feeling.  I was one of those kids who invented elaborate fantasies to explain that displacement.  It wasn’t, mind you, that I felt above my environment.  I was born to a solidly middle class family in what was then functionally a village — a pretty one, with stone houses and vineyards and stretching fields, all surrounded by a pine forest which, from its name, dated back to Roman times at least — about an hour by bus and/or train from the center of the second largest city in Portugal.  (The city itself was quite beautiful, with percipitously climbing streets, reminiscent of San Francisco and stone buildings suffering from definite London influence.)

If you picture an idillic childhood, in what was functionally a small farm (though some of the fields were quite far away) surrounded by chickens and rabbits and ducks and cats and dogs; with the occasional trip — usually in a yellow trolley car — to the nearby city with its noise and excitment, you won’t be very far off the mark.

My family was educated — I don’t know if there was anyone who could not read in living memory.  If there was, no one told me about her or him.  This was unusual for the time and place, where the old generations often could not read — particularly the women.  And most of my family read for pleasure or edification.  Mom’s dad and my dad were both history and literature buffs.

There is no reason — none — that I felt I didn’t fit in.  And it wasn’t even that, really.  For the longest time, I didn’t have a name for it.  It’s just that body language and movement, ways of being in the world, things I thought of, all seemed to be slightly askew.  I had to exert continuous vigilance on myself not to give myself away.

It wasn’t till I was older and traveled to countries like Germany that I identified it.  I was a stranger, trying to meld in.  No explanation for it, realy.  A turn of the mind?  A recessive strangeness?

I tried to fit in — honest, I did.  I tried to love the country so much that I think I fooled a lot of people.  I never fooled myself.  I remained alienated and incompatible, envying the people to whom “fitting in” came naturally.

”  Perhaps some deep-rooted atavism urges the wanderer back to lands which his ancestors left in the dim beginnings of history.”

Considering where I ended up, this is highly unlikely — to say the least.  OTOH, there’s other subtelties there.  From very young, and before I learned it in school, I learned some English from songs overheard and from reading subtitles while watching the occasional movie at the home of family friends.  (We didn’t own a TV till I was eight.  Don’t picture economic deprivation.  Mom just disapproved of TV.)  But when I was fourteen I learned English in school.  By the end of the first year, I could think in English and — and this is hard to explain — my mind eased into it with relief.  Why?  I don’t know.  The feeling was like that of wearing a tight suit all your life, and then finding one that fits.  I started thinking in English when I didn’t strictly have to speak Portuguese or speak it fast.  I started writing — atrociously spelled.  Some things don’t change — notes to self in English, instead of Portuguese.

To the extent that America is a reflection of British culture — or an offshoot of it — it is possible old Maugham was onto something there.  That a Portuguese from the North should have English ancestry isn’t that difficult.  In fact, given the diplomatic and commercial relationships between the two contries stretching back 900 years, it is pretty much a sure bet.

However, I’d like to plead right here this is one of those notions that “even if true should be resisted.”  (more on that tomorrow, as I’m reading a book that ties in to it.)  There is this idea, enshrined in all of the “your political interest is the same as your gender/race” push these days to make us prisoners of our genes or body shape.  I happen to believe that while the flesh chains do influence us, we do have a mind and a will power.  Not all women are of necessity “oppressed” — I’ve known my share of them, my friends, who were very much oppressors.  Same goes for all skin colors, body shapes.  All of it can be overcome by the brain.  We are all human and humans are, to paraphrase Heinlein, all monkeys with an overgrown, aching brain.

So, sometimes a little Portuguese girl is born with a propensity to English, and that’s probably a quirk of the brain and not of ancestry.

“Perhaps it is this sense of strangeness that sends men far and wide in the search for something permanent, to which they may attach themselves”.

Here, I should point out that in every generation of my family — both sides — at least one child wanders away to foreign parts.  That at least might have a genetic component, although you’d think sheer genetic weeding out would have taken it out of the gene pool by then.  My grandmother Carolina said I simply took after my grandfather Alvarim, who wasn’t happy unless he was roaming the world and who — incidentally — loved English.  This is possible, or at least not unlikely.

” Sometimes a man hits upon a place to which he mysteriously feels that he belongs.  Here is the home he sought, and he will settle amid scenes that he has never seen before, among men he has never known, as though they were familiar to him from his birth.”

At eighteen I became an exchange student and met Dan.  We didn’t date and we didn’t decide to get married till four years later.  The story is too complex — and drastically unbelievable, in that way only reality can be — to tell here.  Get me drunk at some con and I will tell all. 🙂  It is arguable, at least if you squint, that I fell in love with Dan at first sight.  At any rate, when we decided to get married four years later, I’d been back in Portugal for four years, and it was possible — at least on paper — for us to live in either country.

There realy wasn’t a choice.  Dan was an American and I was at best a woman who felt a stranger everywhere.  So we married and moved to Charlotte North Carolina and, after Dan found out I had a bad habit of writing — something I’d never considered as a career, even in potentia — he encouraged me to try for the gold ring of professional authorship.  (Yeah, sometimes it DOES take a good man. <G>)

Faced with various how to write books and clue zero how to go about selling — and I made every mistake possible, not just in writing but in marketing.  I might have invented new ones.  It’s what makes me a good mentor.  There’s no newby faux pas you can make that will shock me.  Ever — I heeded the advice to write what I knew.

A spate of short stories with Portuguese settings, characters and supernatural underpinnings made their way to various magazines and came back just as quickly, rejected.

Now, part of this was sheer inexpertise in writing, natch, although I’d like to point out my very first short story, sent out, got me a personal rejection from Interzone, pointing out they simply did not publish THAT TYPE of story, and a free mag so I could see what they did publish.  (No, I never tried to submit to them again for years.  Stupid.  Very.)  So the inexpertise wasn’t that bad.

After a while I realized, from the tenor of the rejections, that I simply didn’t have the knowledge to make what I knew plain to other people.  Having grown up in Portugal I KNEW quite a few unlikely things were so, so I saw no point refuting what was already in the readers’ minds.  In fact, being new in the US, I had no idea what was in the readers’ minds.

(For my European readers — your picture of the US and what the Americans think and believe is al wrong.  Don’t argue.  I know you read American books and watch movies and all.  It’s still all wrong.  Furthermore, it would take you years in the US to see that it’s wrong.  Some things are pretty obvious — among the inanities of life that I cherish is a Portuguese shopkeeper telling us that she would never move to the US because the crime is so high here.  That in a country and area where houses windows are protected by metal shutters at night; there’s walls around every house; cars all have removable stereos so they won’t be stolen.  I tried to explain to her that the area I live in, near the center of a fairly large city, is so peaceful that my next door neighbor doesn’t HAVE a front door key.  I couldn’t.  She has seen movies you see?  And seen our statistics.  Eventually I will write about statistics and national character but that is a rant for another day.)

This brings up the other side of strangeness.  I feel at home in the US.  Very.  The first time I came back after getting my green card, coming through New Jersey, the customs’ gentleman who stamped my passport said “welcome home” and I realized it felt like home, all of a sudden.  It felt like it had never felt before.  So I started crying and hugged the poor man, and might have kissed him.  I’m not absolutely sure.  I just know he was very, very amused and patted me on the shoulder in a very paternal way.

However it took me years — years — to fully get the mental furniture of Americans who grew up in America.  In that, I don’t think I’m much different than a child of a military family raised abroad.  Or someone raised in a community out of the way, with no magazines and/or TV.  The truth, ladies and gentlemen, is that every country has the wrong idea about every other country.  Heck, some countries have the wrong idea about themselves, too.  American reference points and mental map in my generation are composed of a lot of shared mass media.  (If Alvin Toffler is right, and I think he is, this will be more splintered for the current upcoming, tech-computer generation.)  It took me years of reading and watching to build that picture.  I now do know it to an extent.  Enough to game the publishers/editors and sound native to them.  Do I sound native to the readers?  I don’t know.  This is one of the reasons I write a lot of science fiction, fantasy and history.  Any strangeness will sound like a function of the setting.

The other strangeness remaining is that I will never have an American childhood.  NOTHING can give me that.  For years I was afraid to write american characters.  I think the first one I wrote was the pov in my short story, Lost.  I felt better about that once I figured out Americans have such wildly differing childhoods that I was not exactly alone.  I also read enough biographies — of famous people, but also the self-published bios of nobodies (which were more helpful, really.) — to acquire a feel for what a stereotypical childhood was in everyone’s mind.  That’s what I would play with.

All this said — that feeling of being “not quite right” means I don’t know Portuguese mental furniture.  The Portuguese stories I write/could write are the sort that would infuriate “real” Portuguese.  The same looks of extreme shock I got when I was litle and said something no one else would say in that situation would pursue all my such stories.  To make it worse, to have them be accepted, I have to tailor them to American mental furniture.  The conjunction of what I don’t understand about Portugal and how I must tailor things for American taste is not pretty.  So to the readers wanting me to write stories set in Portugal — how much of a funhouse mirror do you want?  Really?  Because that I can do.  But I garantee you won’t like it.  And my American audience will take no more away from it, than if I set it in Medieval France, say.
Frankly, you’d be better serviced by having my husband write Portuguese stories.  He has in the past.  As a frequent visitor to Portugal, who already sees things through an American trained mind, he tends to perceive things superficially enough that they ring “true” on both sides of the Atlantic and offend no one.

Now, briefly, Portuguese History — I don’t know now.  As I pointed out in the first of these little mental excursions, I know next to nothing of Portugal in the last twenty years.  Oh, I visit, but not enough to even know what people are thinking, much less to replace mental pictures of how things were when I was growing up — at least when I was growing up was grossly deficient, at least at a level that the average person could read.  There were history books and manuals and, later in schol, the startlingly strange deconstrutionist views.  There was not the vast amount of historical books — history as entertainment — available in the US.

(This is not a complaint about Portugal.  The market is so much smaller, that of course, the small percentage of history buffs will have a much harder time supporting the market.  At the same time, to people like my brother — kindly believe me when I say that these books are available — in multitudes — in the States.  I don’t care if your media and a vast amount of our own tells you all Americans are stupid and ignorant.  Our public education might suck — I’m not impressed by my kids’ experiences so far, really — but the amount of knowledge available [and cheaply too] to the would be self-taught is massive.  You can make yourself an expert in just about any subject with time and a library card with perhaps a small addition of used books from thrift shops.  Recently I read somewhere that 4 million was the number of Americans who believed that they were receiving mental-rays from the stars.  That number sounds low to me.  In the same way, if you have an obsession with eighth century Tuscany, there’s probably a book club catering to all two million of you.  [This worries me considering some of the books I have — notably on Kit Marlowe — had printruns of 80])

This means that I often catch amazing insights into Portuguese history from reading books having very little to do with Portugal — for instance, glimpses into the ancestry of Phillipa of Lancaster  (Wife of John I for those of you who are Portuguese history buffs.)  Or reading a Roman History I find that Sertorius was one of Catalina’s followers, escaping that debacle.  All well and good, except that there isn’t ENOUGH and not enough background there to verify whether this is true or this author’s deranged view.  I simply don’t know enough about Portuguese history specifcally to write convincingly about it.

The most difficult time period I’ve ever written in is the Musketeers because poor Louis XIII was saddly overshadowed by his son.  I have a bio of Anne of Austria, a couple of Richelieu, the memoirs of a few noblemen, and a few general books on tech, innovation and society at the time which I ordered directly from France.

The best studied Portuguese period I could write about is ten times sparser than that.  I would have to rely on historical fiction (and long-dead writers’ research) and “gut feeling.”  And then I would have to explain every bit of it that wasn’t obvious to American minds — in a way that didn’t disrupt narrative.  And that… that… right now, is still a bit difficult.  Maybe the time will come.  I’m not saying it won’t.  G-d willing, I have another forty to fifty years of productive life ahead of me.  Maybe in twenty years I’ll have a great need of writing something set in Portugal.  Maybe I will tomorrow.  Who knows?

HOWEVER and this is very important, so listen up — I don’t feel guilty about not writing things set in Portugal.  Not even a little bit.  Not anymore than I feel guilty about not writing things set in Mongolia or Ubzequistan.

I am not ashamed of having been born in Portugal — I see no reason I should be.  If I hide it at times it’s because I’m tired of the two standard American reactions: 1) — and rare these last ten years — “Oh, my, you’re so lucky to have escaped grinding poverty.”  2) and more and more ubiquitous every day — “You are so lucky to come from such a culture.  Much better than ours.”

The assumptions there are both crazy.  1– not all the world is in grinding poverty.  Beyond that, my family surely wasn’t poor.  2) Yeah, sure.  Portugal is much better than the US — coff — Are you high or something?  If that were true, why would I choose to live here.

To avoid slapping total strangers I tend to evade telling people where I’m from or even that I was born abroad.  Besides I don’t FEEL as though I was born abroad, so it feels like false advertising.

OTOH, I’m not PROUD of having been born in Portugal.  Why not you ask?  Why should I be?  No, wait, before you puff your chest and blow the house down — WHY should anyone be proud of having been born anywhere at all?  What does that have to do with the price of potatoes?  Portugal is okay.  Lots of worse places to be from.

Oh, ancestry, you say?  race?  Very funny.  The Portuguese are a race like Californians are a race.  Portugal was the welcome mat of Europe.  For millenia every European, African and possibly alien, came by and wiped its genetic material before proceding to go into Europe.  Yes, this hodge podge once, through accident of genetics, history and geography, achieved some remarkable things.  (My friend Dave Freer would say that’s hybrid vigor for you.)  HOWEVER see above.  Genes and ancestry don’t make the person.  At best, they imbue certain tendencies, but tendencies can be exploited in good or bad ways.  The same compulsiveness that leads me to ruthlessly study a period of history before I venture to write in it could very well have turned to substance abuse, excessive washing of hands, or endless knitting.

I refuse to give the notion that my genes obligate me to some race or place more than a cursory and rather disgusted glance.  That way lies racial supremacy.  And we all know where that leads.  As for my ancestry — shrug — friends, I miss my grandmother Carolina and my grandfather Angelo.  I miss the look of my grandmother’s yard in the fall.  Some days I could kill — kill — for sardines grilled over charcoal.  Money and time permitting — as they haven’t — I’d like to see my parents again before we’re all much older.

But those great ancestors and heroic deeds that you allege are my patrimony for having been born in Portugal? I never met them.  I wasn’t there at their doing.   I’m going to misquote Heinlein again.  He said something like “The sad little lizard told me that he was a brontosaurus on his mother’s side.  I did not laugh.  People who are proud of their ancestry rarely have anything else to be proud of.”

I claim instead the deeds of humanity.  If geneticists are correct we’re all related no more than a blink of geological time back.  I’ll claim humanity as my patrimony.  And I’ll claim the US as my country — the land that I love, the blended, innovative, quarrelous and entrepreneurial people where I fit in, and which I will defend with my life, my liberty and my sacred honor.

“Here at last he finds rest.” 

The rest is history.

Why I Write The Things I Do

(You should read the post previous to this to know what the rant is all about.)

I’ve been accused — in fact, I’ve been accused recently and by someone who should know better — of writing to market.  This is not true, though it might not be immediately obvious.  What I choose to write — what I have to say in each short story or novel — I want to write.  Often desperately enough to do it — often — for the drawer.   And, hell, if I wrote to market, I’d write a lot more thrillers, romances and women in peril.

With one exception — my one write for hire book — I write a story when it chases me down, pins me to the desk and makes me type.  I write it because I must.

This doesn’t mean I’m writing Real Politik stories — all message no fun.  When I was a little kid I DESPISED the “goody-two-shoes” books that pushed the moral or religious POV.  There are no words for the level of bile and hatred I had for those so unsubtle as to have at the end something like — Moral: Good always wins and evil always loses.  Being who I am it immediately made me want to go out and write a story “proving” the opposite.

I feel exactly the same way about the politically correct pap the kids get assigned in school and half of what’s being cranked out by publishing houses, too.  It’s not, my friends, that I disagree with their contentions — I do indeed qualify a lot of them, like the whole men versus women thing, and others are so a-historical it’s not even funny, but in general — it’s that most of them are only repeating received wisdom and, furthermore, received wisdom that, disagree with it or not, no one will oppose.  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.

 In the same way the tenthousandth Empowered Woman Defeats Evil Males saga might posibly contribute to the self-esteem of some severely battered woman who SOMEHOW managed to avoid all other identical tomes rolling off the presses for the last twenty years at least.  For me they are just a “oh, heck, yeah.  Go sisterrrr.  YAWN” as I toss the book aside.  (This should not be interpreted to mean that all empowered women characters are a bad thing.  Or that you can’t have evil males.  In my upcoming DarkShip Thieves I have both.  In spades.  I mean a black-and-white dichotomy of women-good-because-they’re-women/men-bad-because-they’re-men.  And don’t even get me started on the men-as-supervillain school of same.  That’s where men are amazing beings who have kept all women enslaved for six thousand years, change history, suppress thought AND in their spare time display amazing mind-control powers.  “It was date rape.  He TALKED me into having sex, officer.  What could a poor woman do against his male mind-rays.”  {again this can’t be taken to disparage all cases of date rape}  But that’s a rant for another time.)  Most of them, these days, don’t even get me mad enough to want to write the exact opposite.  It’s just all too much of a muchness.

So, no, my books don’t have an obvious message.  They have messages, of course.  Usually several.  All of which fits into an overarching view of the world.  Mine.  I’m not preaching at people — there are things I just have to say and that I think are more likely to make an impact if you absorb them subconsciously through fiction.  Things like “Yes, you’re oppressed.  That doesn’t give you an excuse not to TRY.”  Things like “You’ll be much happier if you love others as well as yourself.”  And I’m sure quite a few more, if you look carefully…

All that said, and granted I’ve written things “for the drawer” which will not see the light of day till I’m dead or the kids put me in a mental institution and get custody of my work, whichever comes first, writing is essentially communication.  You write to be read.  Otherwise you’re just murdering a bunch of innocent Pixels and — if you print it — dirtying paper on one side.  

So when I write I try to maximize the chances that the books or stories will be accepted.  Much of this — at this point — takes place at a level I’m not even aware of.  Also — though it might not look like it — a lot of my writing planning is sub-conscious in the real sense.  Take Draw One In the Dark (advisable, really.  There will be a new cover for the paperback and that hard cover will be a collectible.  TRUST me.)  The characters — both main characters and Rafiel — came to me fully formed.  I have clue zero why Tom is short.  I just know I can’t change it.  I have no idea why Kyrie is KYRIE of all things.  (Not only does it mean Lord in Greek — apparently — but Kyrie Grace is the name of my friend Alyson’s daughter, which i did not want to steal.  The poor girl will grow up expecting to change into a panther.)  However, when I first vividly saw her in my mind I kept thinking that Kr was in there somewhere and and “i” sound too.  I tried Kris and Carissa and… you don’t want to know.  Finally it was borne upon me her name was Kyrie.  And from that moment on, I KNEW her.

Beyond characters, I often lack control over “voice.”  Each of my novels has a voice it wants to be told in.  Books in the same series have a slightly different voice.  Until I find the voice I can’t write the book.  This is responsible for 90% of my late deliveries.  (Health is responsible for the rest.)  I’ll find myself cleaning toilets, raking the yard and/or petting cats while I look for the voice.  Once it pops in my head — once the story starts speaking in its own voice, I’m home free, pretty much.

Given that, there are things I can control.  Above all, there are things I SHOULD control.  And those involve removing as many obstacles between story and reader as possible.

This is why I don’t write stories set in Portugal.  Without going into the other instances of it, let me point to you what “Portugal” conveys to the average American.

The first, and because of previous conditioning is “oppressed.”  If I’m not writing a story of someone (usually the US for these stories) oppressing Portugal, then I will have to consider very carefully whether to set it there.  (For those of you confused by this — every American has been conditioned by previous books to expect a book set in a small country to be a book of US oppression.  The editor who reads the book will expect it too.  If it’s not I’ll get a rejection telling me I dance around the point.  Or that they don’t understand what I’m getting at, or…)

Second, Latin country — and by this I mean that a lot of Americans — those not in the North East of the US at least — will assume Portugal is in South America.  Or that Portuguese speak Spanish.  Or that Portuguese are Hispanics.  This means that a book set in Portugal will NEED to be about Latin culture.  It will almost for sure have to feature a woman overcoming patriarchal society.  Or perhaps a book about the beauties of the Spanish language.  I simply haven’t felt like writing the type of book that would require this.  (Patriarchal society can be as well served by setting book in Victorian England.  And, oh, by the way, if I ever feel like writing a book about the beauties of the Spanish language, I’ll tell you. Don’t wait with sandwiches by the phone.)

[And here I pause to inform all those intending to deplore American ignorance to take a chill pill.  WHY should America know about Portugal?  Oh, the discoveries, you say?  yes, they should.  And the way the discoveries are taught in American schools is laughable, giving most of the credit to England.  That said, it’s still HOW it’s taught, and I can’t change it.  As for the rest, how much do my Portuguese readers know of small countries with which we haven’t had a war in forever?  If I say Outer Slovenia — without looking up in google, do you know if it exists?  And where would you place it mentally?  Requiring Americans to know geography impeccably is stupid.  It’s the corolary of men-as-super-villains.  As a proud American I’ll admit to many virtues.  But contrary to what you might expect, we’re not all assigned eidetic memories at birth or naturalization.]

Third, What do you mean, they’re not just like us? — The assumption in the US (and in the rest of the world, though Europeans travel more to other cultures by virtue of living in a geographical space where you can’t swing a cat* without hitting some poor peasant’s head in Outer Slovenia.  What Europeans don’t know about America and the American mind and way of life, otoh, could fill several books.)  Any book set in Portugal is immediately rowing against the current to get into an editor’s accept pile.  This is true of any book in an unusual location.  You can choose to beg exceptions in your characters lives to make them “almost American”, to stay “on the surface” so that the true differences don’t appear” (both of which negate the point of setting it in another country) or you’re going to have to explain every single thing, every step of the way.  And if you don’t, you risk giving the wrong impression of how you feel about some of these differences too.  One of my early stories set in Portugal got me a rejection accusing me of being a xenophobic American who’d never been out of the country.  This was based on one paragraph describing pastries kept not-under-refrigeration, but in glass domes on the counter top, in a deli in Portugal, which was normal in the early eighties.  (Though probably not now.)  It’s the small things, too.  I am sometimes still tripped up by this, as my own mind is still set for “what do you mean they’re not like us?” and my childhood and early adulthood was spent in Portugal.  At a workshop I almost came to cuffs with other writers over a scene in which someone makes a big bonfire with the photographs and letters of someone who just died.  “But why would anyone burn antique stuff,” was their thing.  And they couldn’t believe anyone did it without a special reason.  (The special reason is, of course, that in Portugal, if you don’t do that to the vast majority of such “inheritances” they’d be wading through old letters and papers, having had those since at least Roman colonization onwards.)

Because of all of those, if you set a novel in Portugal — PARTICULARLY if you grew up there and know the real country, not the image in people’s minds — you’re going to have a hard time selling it.  Unless you’re working on one of the themes above and intend to do the work necessary to heinlein in all the odd details without slowing the narrative down.

To me, what this means is that half of my Portuguese short stories never sell.  The other half take a long time to sell.  And most of them I have to distort in some way to make them ‘acceptable’. 

The game is not worth the candle.  I can write the same story and set it in a time with the same characteristics and which American editors and readers are familiar with — the history of the English speaking world provides a lot of places and situations — and avoid the hassle.

This doesn’t mean I won’t ever write a novel set in Portugal, just that I have yet to find a compelling reason to do so.  And there are other reasons NOT to.  Those, I’ll deal with in the next few days.

And now, back to the real work.


*I am required here– by Miranda who is glaring at me — to say that the cat swung is entirely metaphorical and that anyone attempting to swing an actual animal will have to deal with Miranda aka cat princess of infinite power.  Cats should be carried, cuddled and petted.  Not swung.  Or she will pee on your books.

Why I don’t write fiction set in Portugal

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.  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 abandonned 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 takover 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.

Be Right Back.