South America and Iron Spires over the White CitY by Joseph Rollins

My favorite question at book readings is why I chose Colombia for the setting of my Victorian-era steampunk novel. After opening in London, the main characters travel to New Grenada, the colonial name for the northwest corner of South America. The story progresses from Cartagena on the Caribbean coast, through the rain forests to the abandoned Spanish capital of Bogota. The novel’s climax takes place in Popayán, a mountain town far to the southwest.

Popayán is known locally as the White City because of the large number of cathedrals the Spanish built when the city was the region’s capital. The white buildings are an awesome sight to see when hiking the surrounding hills surrounding. I know this because my wife’s family is Colombian, and we traveled to Cali and then Popayán in 2016 for a family reunion.

I wrote the first draft of Iron Spires over the White City in 2015 for National Novel Writing Month. That draft was a hot mess, as first drafts are. In it, the characters traveled to west Africa, not South America. Having never traveled outside North America, I relied on You-Tube travel bloggers to make the West African coastal cities and the inland rain forests come alive. Without a doubt, my portrayal was flat and without any notion of the region’s heartbeat.

After the family reunion, I tackled my second draft of Iron Spires, moving the story from West Africa to South America. The results were awesome; I had a real feel for the heartbeat of the region. I knew what the rain forests smell like and how damp the air is. I knew how people spent their free time and could describe meals we actually ate, not what I find online when I search for typical Colombian foods.

Readers sometimes ask if Colombians really put cheese in their hot chocolate. This is because early in the novel my protagonist baits his British wife and cousin into drinking hot cocoa with cheese. The answer is yes, Colombians do put cheese in their hot cocoa. Colombians produce awesome chocolate, and hot cocoa is a local favorite. Colombians eat a white, crumbly cheese with a mild taste. It is part of the Queso Blanco family of cheeses common in Latin America; the closest thing in my local grocery store is the Mexican version, Queso Fresco. And yes, it is very tasty in hot chocolate; much tastier than marshmallows.

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