Tag Archives: setting

How Not to Write About Brazil (Several Tips)

Let’s just say you’re going to write a novel set in Brazil. I know, I know, there’s not a whole ton of novels out there set in Brazil, but I think the world could use a few more set in South America. If you’re going to go that route, or even if you just want to travel to or talk about Brazil, there’s a couple common mistakes you’ll want to avoid. I’ve written before about getting the setting right, and I don’t feel fully confident I’d get Brazil quite right if I wrote about it, but at least I’d avoid obvious mistakes like having my main characters take their honeymoon off the west coast of Brazil. And now you can avoid mistakes that will mark you off as a naive gringo to all your native Brazilian readers, just by keeping these tips in mind!

First tip: Think about Brazil. Now let me guess two things that crossed through your mind: Rio de Janeiro and the Amazon. Congratulations! You’re right, both well known places are located in Brazil (and you must have learned something in Geography). But just because they’re both in Brazil, it doesn’t mean you should be planning plots where characters dash from the wilds of the jungle into the streets of Rio, or (in the case of tourists) planning vacations that dodge back and forth between those two places. They are NOT right beside each other. Not even close – to take myself as an example, I’ve been to Brazil twice and have only been once in the Rio de Janeiro airport, and nowhere near the Amazon. It’s like saying Vancouver and Toronto are beside each other, or maybe New York and Los Angeles if you’re from the States.

Why do people easily assume other countries are small, even when they know how hard it is to get around the place where they live? It’s a common problem – people in Europe ask me if I know people in Toronto, when they’ve never left the borders of their two-hundred-kilometre-wide country themselves. I think it’s because it’s easy to know the differences between places in the country you live in, but when you think of a place you don’t know very well, you tend to put the whole place into a single category. It’s only when you get to know a place that you realize it’s got just as much variety, or maybe even more, than the country you come from.

So maybe chalk this one up to a common human failing?

Next tip: Brazil is more than a jungle. Talking about variety – there’s about a zillion different regions in Brazil, with their own culture and climate, yes, the southernmost parts do get snow. What, you thought the whole country was a rainforest? While most stereotypical descriptions of the place like to portray it as the deepest jungle, any country that big is going to have a variety of landscapes. For example, where I stayed in the northeast, there seemed to be a lot of hills and tangled forests, fields of sugarcane, and (fortunately) absolutely beautiful beaches. Brazil is not as big as Canada, but it’s sure big enough. So clearly, if you’re going to write about it, you’re going to actually have to pick a region. Think about it on the same scale as you would if you were writing a novel set in the United States – you’d probably pick a state to put the story in, right? Fortunately, it’s tons of fun to find out stuff about the cultures of all the different regions in Brazil (and listen to them tell you why you should pick up their accent for your Portuguese, rather than the Rio de Janeiro one.)

Bonus tip! Rio de Janeiro is not the capital of Brazil either (that would be Brasilia). I’m told it’s a very beautiful city though, and that I must visit it on my next trip. 🙂

Two further tips: Brazilians do not speak Spanish, and obviously don’t enjoy being told they do. It’s not too much of an effort to remember they speak Portuguese, the sixth most spoken language in the world – apparently more spoken than French, which surprised me since I’ve been told since I’ve been in grade school that it would be the most useful thing in the world to learn French. I’m glad to hear learning Portuguese wasn’t a waste of time either.

Also, if you call yourself American – well, Brazilians are Americans too (South American, that is). Just like Canadians technically are Americans as well, we’re just usually too polite to argue about this. 🙂


In the interests of full disclosure, I’m going to reveal I did set one chapter of a terrible fantasy novel I wrote in highschool in Brazil, mainly because we were covering Brazil in school that year. But I did not do any research, and most of the chapter concerned a hidden base in the jungle where magical power was concealed. Clearly, I missed an opportunity to insert realistic culture and background into my novel! Oh well, perhaps I’ll come up with a better plot now I’ve actually been there.


What pops into your head when you first think of Brazil?


Filed under Brazil, On Writing

Travel? Research? – Getting Your Setting Right

OR: Write What You Know, Or Risk What You Don’t Know

Paris, City of Light - What would it be like to live there?

 I always wonder if writers have visited or lived in the places they write about, and if they haven’t, how they feel comfortable enough writing about places they’ve never been. I’m always incredibly afraid of messing the place up and getting some hypercritical reader listing off all the details I got wrong. Which is why most of my stories have been set in Western Canada, or some fantasy world I made up.

I’m sure professional writers have a way of getting around this, but it seems to me that writing about a place you don’t know very well would involve a daunting amount of research, or an expensive travel habit. One solution, I suppose, would be to write about places you’ve already seen on vacation. For instance, I could try to write about Holland, or maybe Seattle – and after my trip to South America this summer (stay tuned for more details on this later!) I could write about Brazil. But I would still be afraid of writing a “touristy” description of the place, without the knowledge of what it’s like to actually live there.

A shortcut around this, of course, would be to make the main character of such a story a tourist. This might be one example of what I mean by saying professional writers develop their own ways of writing convincingly about their settings. I recently came across this post by Dean Wesley Smith about how all too often writers use research as an excuse not to write – they haven’t done the research so they can’t write the story. And, of course, the research looks so daunting they never do it, and the story never gets written. Dean Wesley Smith is of the opinion true writers find ways to keep writing no matter what. Because a writer who never writes is never going to make it.

A street in Northern Holland

A street in Northern Holland

That’s why I’m scared and reluctant to write about a place I’ve never been. I think at least visiting a place gives you an idea of its atmosphere, and living there is even better. But maybe it would be a good idea to challenge myself – to see if I have the skill of bringing to life a place I have never been to.

All the same, travel can really open your eyes! (And stimulate your writing). Even cultures that seem similar to ours, such as Holland and the other European cultures, do certain things slightly different. That is one reason I think going to Brazil this summer will be so interesting!

How about you – have you ever read a book where the setting wasn’t convincing? Should writers stick to what they know, or try branching out a little?


Filed under On Writing