Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Unknown Lands

So, you've got a great idea for a story. It's awesome. But you need to set it in a country you've never been to. Ever. And you have no idea how to do it.

I'm not an expert on this at all, but here's some ideas that may or may not be helpful.

First: the tools you need:
  • Interwebs: This should be your first branch. Look for travel blogs, look at Wikipedia, look at Google images. Don't just find the pages of the tourism bureau; find real, authentic pictures by people who were there, and read real accounts from people who were there.
  • Travel Channel, NatGeo Channel, etc: Do not rely on the "easy" tourism channels. Samantha Brown can only help so much. Andrew Zimmerman will provide much more realistic detail.
  • Research the obscure: foods, language, customs. Never assume. Check out all details.
  • Don't underestimate Google Earth. Check out where your place is in location to everything else that's relevant--such as the equator, or the next closest city. Check out surface details, and see if the place you're using is popular enough to have street level views.
OK--so, how do you go about using all this research?

1. Identify what you need. In general, the foreign country is just setting--so you'll need all the typical things you'd need with setting.
  • Sight: Look up pictures of the place you want to write about--and don't just look up post-card pics. Look up real life pics taken by people who were there--get a sense of how crowded the place is, what the other things nearby are. For a fictional story I wrote about the Egyptian Pyramids, I looked up all the classic pictures of them--you know, the pretty ones.
  • But then I went on Google Earth and looked up where they were in relationship to Cairo--pretty close. Then I looked up blogs by people who had been to the pyramids on tours, and they talked about how abrupt the change from city to tourist trap was. These were all details I incorporated later.
  • Sound, Smell, Feeling: You're going to have to stretch your imagination here. What sounds would you hear in this setting? What smells? How would it feel? Logic works here--the pyramids would have sounds of many different languages as tourists talk, would smell of camels and an earthy scent of sand, would feel hot and dry. Look up facts--what kind of weather, temperature, etc. do you see?
  • PS--Don't be afraid to contact people. What does it hurt? Look up people who write travel blogs--just google it--and email them. Most people love to talk about their adventures and are thrilled to help.
2. Research the little details. One authentic small detail--especially a little known one, or a close observation--counts more than paragraphs of false description. So if your characters are sitting down to a meal, find a traditional recipe, recreate it at home, and describe that. If they have a holiday, research the details of that holiday and include that. Recreate as much as you can that doesn't come from a tour book--research the little, everyday stuff, and include that. That will make things much more authentic.

3. Don't focus on stuff you don't know. Need to write a story about two characters on the top of the Eiffel Tower, but have never been? If you can't find someone who knows what it's like and can describe it, or if you're not confident in your faking of it, then don't include it. Just say they're at the top of the Eiffel Tower, but don't add the details that you assume are true. Keep it simple.

...so, what exotic locations do you think you'll try? And how will you research them?
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