The green-winged ogre landed on my window sill, on the top floor of Druddigon Castle in the underground land known among the peasants simply as Moligan. I fought off the dragon's harsh bad breath to rise from my bed, drew my trusty dagger from its pouch, and went to face the ogre before it could capture the golden chalice that I had kept under my pillow through six hours of restless sleep.
Not exactly the most appealing prose, right? Well, that's because I just can't write fantasy. Or speculative fiction or science fiction for that matter. In my writing I am incapable of placing characters in strange, far-off worlds, where the culture and religion and history is so much different than our own.
Or can I?
In the opening chapters of my suspense novel, Valley of Thracians, a retired American literature professor travels to Bulgaria in efforts to locate his grandson, who went missing three years before while serving in the Peace Corps. Upon arrival in Sofia, the country's capital, the professor must deal with people who speak a very foreign language, and who write in a Cyrillic alphabet he cannot read or understand.
Everything about Bulgaria is strange to the professor. When people nod their heads to indicate a positive reply, they do it horizontally. A negative response is indicated by an up and down motion. On the cobblestone streets, horse-drawn wagons compete in the traffic with shiny Mercedes sedans. The most important period in Bulgarian history is that of its people's struggle for independence in 1877 after 500 years of oppressive Ottoman rule.
On the first of March each year, Bulgarians exchange red and white strings called martenitza, which are worn on one's wrist and as an adornment on clothing until a stork, or a budding tree, is seen at the start of spring. On Easter, colorfully painted eggs are knocked together in a sort of egg fight, and the winning, unbroken egg is kept for good luck.
The list of unique Bulgarian customs and traditions goes on and on, and all of this comes to the professor's attention as he travels across the country in hopes of picking up the trail of his missing grandson.
The professor has definitely landed in a far-off world, one he never could have imagined. Yet, everything is real, and captivating. The scenic landscapes of Bulgarian mountains and seashores, the homemade rakia liquor that is consumed at meals, the vast fields of roses harvested for rose oil used in perfumes - this is all so amazing, so different, so unique. I could never make this up, yet it colors every single page of my novel.
In my writing about Bulgaria, it was important to me to ensure that readers get an insider's perspective of this fascinating country. I emphasized the setting of my story, almost as if the location, itself, was a character in the novel. Readers have commented that not only did they enjoy reading a page-turning thriller, but that they also learned so much about Bulgaria in the process.
Is my book a work of fantasy? Hardly, because everything is very real. Is it speculative in any way? Only if you consider that the professor is speculating what could have happened to his grandson. Science fiction? Not a chance. I would consider it travel fiction, as defined by Condé Nast Traveler: "It's a book in which a place is as important a character as the protagonist."
So, forget those green-winged ogres and settle down for a fantastical journey into a very strange, far-off world - the land of Bulgaria!
Originally published on Writing My Truth.