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!