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  • Writer's pictureJohn Dolan

Writing About Foreign Parts: Presumptuous Advice for Writers

OK, let’s be clear about a couple of things before we start.

First, the ‘foreign parts’ I’m talking about are not genitalia attached to some exotic, non-local beauty. Secondly, the opinions expressed are mine alone. You may disagree, although I’d point out that I’m usually right about most things – except when I’m discussing things with my wife. Then I’m always wrong.

Since nobody who reads my posts has a lot of time (otherwise we’d be reading ‘War and Peace’ instead, right?), I’m going to keep this pithy. I talk too much anyway. I hope these headings will be a useful reminder for those novelists among us who base their works away from the familiar locations of the Western World.

Number #1: Do Your Research

No, you at the back with your hand up, I do not mean read an article on Wikipedia. Using your imagination is one thing, but remember that some of the people who will read your work will be familiar with the place you’re describing. They might even live there. If you balls it up, don’t be surprised if you see scathing comments in reviews pointing out your errors. Your credibility is at stake here. I never write about a place I haven’t visited – and preferably spent a while there. I know not everyone can do this, but if you don’t, ask yourself what you are really offering the reader. Some view about what a place might be like, for instance? (I know if you’re a writer of science fiction, this may present some problems, but you do have the advantage that no Martian locals will point out your inaccuracies. Though some smart-ass NASA person might, of course).

Customs and mores vary the world over. Does a Chinese person in their homeland REALLY do that? Be authentic. Don’t artificially transplant your own ideas of culture to somewhere they don’t belong. Some folks will either beat you up for it or ignore the rest of your writings as ‘uniformed’, or worse.

Number #2: Don’t Write a Travelogue

Your setting should provide a relevant backdrop to your story, and may well be integral to it. But your job is not to sell a holiday destination (or whatever) to your reader. That’s not to say they won’t fall in love with it, but don’t write like a wide-eyed tourist. Speak with authority about places. Little details, as well as being interesting, are important. However, if I want lots of data about somewhere, I expect to find that in a Lonely Planet Guide, not in a novel.

Ignore this point if you are, in fact, writing a travelogue.

Number #3: Avoid Info Dumps

This should go without saying, and applies to any aspect of writing, but folks can especially get carried away when describing places. Don’t. Drip-feed details as you go along and choose carefully the order in which you present them: make the sequence relevant for the narrative. You may find it helpful to alternate between wide-angle views and close ups.

Number #4: Put Yourself in Your Reader’s Mind

Hmmn. I know this is a tricky one – and you may well have readers from all over the planet, some of whom will be familiar with the location, some who will not. You have to please both types – so not too much info, not too little (see above points). Include stuff that is relevant and interesting and hack away the rest. How would you convey the feeling of an Asian street market to someone who has only ever lived in Nebraska? What would make it meaningful for them? Conversely, how will you avoid boring someone who spends time every week at such a market? Not easy, but the key is to INTEGRATE the place with the story as much as possible.

Number #5: Consider All the Senses

If you want to immerse your reader in the location, don’t just describe the visuals. Sound, smell, touch and taste are all important. Don’t just tell your reader what somewhere looks like.

That’s about it, really. Easy, isn’t it? Hmmn. Well, maybe.

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