Jilly: The Scottish Question

 The Scottish Question (Wellcome Images via Wikimedia Commons)

The Other Scottish Question
      (Wellcome Images via Wikimedia Commons)

I have a question. As a reader, when you see a Scottish setting, do you automatically think a story must be historical? If you saw clear signals that a love story was set in present-day Scotland, would that surprise you? Would it ring your wrong-o-meter?

I ask because I recently received some feedback from a contest judge. I’m paraphrasing a little, but she said something like: I gave you a low score because your entry is a contemporary romance set in the Scottish Highlands. Everyone knows that if a book is set in Scotland, it must be a historical romance, so I feel strongly that your story has broken the promise to the reader, who will inevitably feel disappointed.

My entry was in the ‘contemporary romance’ category, I’d taken care to use a modern-sounding title, my characters were wearing contemporary clothing and using present-day language in a twenty-first century business discussion, so I was somewhat gobsmacked and not a little cheesed off by the judge’s comment, but after I’d recovered from my hissy fit I started to wonder if I’d learned something useful.

It never occurred to me that this might be an issue. For me, it’s natural to set a story in present-day Scotland. Sure, the country has gorgeous scenery and has been romanticized since the time of Queen Victoria, but it was also the home of some of the most brilliant architects of the industrial revolution and now enjoys the benefits of thriving oil, banking and technology sectors. It’s not a theme park. Whisky and tourism are the icing on the cake.

I can understand that some readers might initially default to Outlander or Braveheart, but they can’t be the only option. If an iconic story puts a setting off-limits for all other sub-genres, Atlanta should have stopped at Rhett and Scarlett, but somehow Ilona Andrews has managed to set the whole best-selling Kate Daniels urban fantasy series in a half-ruined, post-apocalyptic version of the city without anyone invoking the spirit of Margaret Mitchell.

My first thought was to wish I could explain to the judge that contemporary Scotland is a glorious mix of tradition and innovation, that some castles are now museums while others are still family homes, that my Scottish friends wear kilts on occasion, and that today’s Highlands make the perfect setting for a smart, entrepreneurial family with deep roots and strong loyalties. I might even have reminded her that Outlander star Sam Heughan isn’t really Jamie Fraser, but a living, breathing, real-life twenty-first century Hot Scotsman.

Then I remembered Jenny Crusie explaining to us in class at McDaniel that even if you’re factually correct and the reader is wrong, it doesn’t matter. You can’t be in every bookshop or inside every e-reader to argue your case and set the record straight. You have to pick a lane and accept the consequences.

I like my book, I think my premise is sound, and I’ve had plenty of positive feedback from other readers, including judges in other contests, so clearly I’m not going to abandon ship on the basis of one comment.

I’d just like to know whether you think that Scotland=Historical is an angle I should be super-careful about, and whether there are things I could and should do to avoid misleading the unwary historical-loving reader.

Thoughts, comments and suggestions would be much appreciated. Thank you!

18 thoughts on “Jilly: The Scottish Question

  1. How incredibly racist of your reviewer! Probably the same sort of idiot who expects that Australia only consists of people living on remote outback stations with no electricity (Australia is far more urbanised than the US).

    Mary Stewart made a tidy living writing present-day mystery romances set in places more commonly seen in historical romances – and no one told her to stop.

    Assuming the cover art doesn’t confuse, plenty of people will pick it up because it’s different, not because they’re getting more of the same.

    Good luck!

  2. I just finished reading a great post over on Writers in the Storm by Golden Heart Finalist Julie Glover, about using twists to freshen your characters (http://writersinthestormblog.com/2015/12/3-twists-to-move-past-stereotypes-and-freshen-your-characters/). If you think of setting as another character (and when you write strong settings, they become another character in your book), taking a setting people are accustomed to seeing in one time period and writing it in another is a great way to do that.
    You’ve just made me realize how much I’d love to read a contemporary set in Bath, or an historical set in Tokyo (ahem, Michaeline) or an Edwardian set at Versailles (okay, that one strains even my thirst for the original, but I would definitely read a contemporary about a someone who works in the French tourism industry at Versailles (or any very famous old castle). The protagonist of JoJo Moyes’ You Before Me lived in the shadow of such a castle and it worked really well to create a powerful backdrop for the story. (Not a romance, but it had a character arc worthy of a romance.)

    Every reader has certain things she looks for in a romance, and I suspect your judge looks for the comfort of the predictable. She is not your audience. Your audience is looking for something fresher.

  3. My story is set in Arizona, has a horse or two, and has a native American as antagonist. Does that mean that “everybody” will assume it’s a western? And who is “everybody” anyway?

    Not sure if this judge was an agent/editor or a writer, but I have the sneaking suspicion that she was advocating for a different story and had to find some way to judge you low (my suspicious nature). Ignore her.

  4. Thank you very much for your comments, ladies, and got it – as Jeanne said, this reader/judge probably enjoys the comfort of the familiar, which means she’s not my reader.

    I love the idea of setting as a twist. A contemporary set in Bath would be fun, or perhaps sci-fi, time-slip or alternate history – say a story based on the Herschel family of astronomers who were star-gazing from their house (now a museum) while Jane Austen was writing? Caroline Herschel would be a fabulously cool character as a story starter (http://herschelmuseum.org.uk/history/william-and-caroline-herschel/the-herschel-family-of-astronomers/) – too busy discovering comets to swish around the Pump Room and Almack’s.

    Or how about a contemporary starring a Duke (we still have them)?

  5. I think it was the reviewer’s bias. I love Scotland, My grandmother was the first in her family born here in the states, we still have many family lines there. It is ok and interesting to read a historical setting there and I’ve read stories that work both current and past settings there, but Inthink it shows a real oersonal lack to want or expect everything to be historical there. This may sound funny, coming from an archaeologist, but I’ also an anthropologist. I don’t like historials all that much, I would much rather read a contemporary where the past is shown through more modern eyes and we can see the difference – good, bad, whatever- there. It hurts my heart to think that we can only have historicals from Scotland. Unless the entire country is now Brigadoon, bring on the now!

    Stick with your guns…. Follow the rules…. If you think you’ve laid everything out well… Look for multiple feed back… If 3-5 of of betas feel they got in and then found a broken historial promise, then maybe your set up and clues weren’t as awesome as you thought and you may need to tweak something or bring some info foward to set it up better. I’m betting it is someone who just thinks kilts belong on hairy buggers who like to carry women off like cave men – that’s her thing, not yours. Trust youself.

    • Penny, I didn’t realize you are a fellow anthropologist! (My interest was biological/forensic anth, but I never worked in the field – the path not taken *sigh*).

      Jilly – What all the other commenters said. I especially like the point about the story promise. IIRC, your opening scene was very clearly a contemporary setting. If a reader chooses to ignore the obvious signals, that’s not your problem.

      • My focus was southwest/Great Basin archaeology, but I also went down the forensics track, and since I was in Utah – geomorphology and geology as well. I did the bones, people and animal, and forensics – I wanted to be able to make the first guesses and understandings of what I found and not have to solely rely on other’s interpretations. I knew at the time I wouldn’t want to do forensics, because I didn’t think I could handle man’s inhumanity to his fellow man and stay happy and sane. So now, I’ve come full circle and I’m writing about it. (I thought I would be writing sci-fi or urban fantasy, but it looks like my first big finish will be a smattering of archaeology, murder, mystery, and thrills.)

        • Archaeology, murder, mystery, and thrills – sounds like a very fun read. What’s your timing, Penny? Any idea when it will be available for us to enjoy, or is it too early to say?

        • I took the first book apart. I am in the process of becoming a reformed pantser (it is very painful at first). I’ve found part of the problem was – too much- too big. Basically there are two stories there so I think the first two stories will need to be written together and I’m laying them out now. I want to have book 1 & 2 done over the next few months. I already have ideas and some very loose layout for 3 & 4. I have a UT archeologist Lee McEuen getting hauled in for murder on his way back from the desert where he’s found people looting sites he’s recently documented. The new interim lady sheriff now has to deal with the mess that is the BLM girl’s body and artifacts that were found in Lee’s basement as well as why she came to town in the first place- What happened to the former sheriff. They’ll have to work together to solve both cases and walk off in to the sunset. The second story will continue along with some of the stuff alluded to and beginning to get laid out in book one – someone is systematically & wholesale looting UT archaeology sites – and they are willing to kill anyone who wants to get in their way. It’s a big international business and an ICE agent is on the case – undercover – so undercover that Lee thought his friend Jimmy had been dead for over a year. Together Lee, Jimmy, and sheriff Kincaid will have to find and stop the looters before the past and the present are only dust in the wind.

        • Good luck with the reforming process 🙂 . I’m a pantser who’d love to be more of a plotter. I keep trying but it never seems to work for me and since I’m naturally an orderly writer maybe I should be heading in the other direction – trying for less structure and more discovery.

          Archeology, murder, mystery, and thrills – I’d buy these books. The characters sound fascinating, and I’d love to read more about the desert and archeology sites – what Jeanne said about strong settings becoming an extra character. Fingers crossed for 2016!

  6. Thanks for making me feel better about the really unhelpful comments that I’d received in contests. I think that one deserves to win a prize for Most Unique Viewpoint.

    Someone mentioned once that Courtney Milan views contest comments are market feedback. There are always going to be some outliers.

    • Happy to share 😉 . Contests can be such a mixed bag and as you say, good preparation for reviews. I should add that I received a super-helpful critique from the same contest as this one, so it was still well worth the time and $.

  7. Wow-I thought I had gotten some bad contest feedback but yours definitely wins the prize. I have to think that readers are bright enough not to assume a story in Scotland would automatically be a historical. If not then, like the reviewer, they probably are not your reader.

  8. That judge was Not. Your. Reader.

    I actually like that it’s a Scottish story set in modern times. I never would have suggested, wanted, or hoped it be historical. And I’m sorry, but knowing the opening of your story, there’s no way one would expect it to be historical SIMPLY because there’s a Scotsman in it. Good grief. Some people are so narrow-minded.

    Purge that feedback from your mind. Right quick!

  9. Even a good judge can have prejudices, I guess. And . . . at least the judge was honest. Provincial, narrow-minded, and of small tastes, but honest.

    The more I see of people’s feedback, the more I realize that the real prize in a contest is the feedback. It’s either good for writing, or good for your study of human nature. If you win an award, that’s really nice, but a matter of luck for the top five or so, I suppose.

    I think most people will eventually come around to the idea that there are 21st century people living in Scotland, that there are dairy cows in Japan, and that India, Pakistan and North Korea all are technologically advanced enough to have nuclear weapons. One doesn’t normally think of Chinese astronauts as romantic heroes, but why not?

    I hope it didn’t cost you the contest, and that you got useful feedback from the contest in one way or the other.

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