Writing “Exotic” Locales (Or, “Always do your research!”)

Currently listening to: Pageant, from the KÀ soundtrack (Cirque du Soleil)


I live in the middle of a cornfield. Not literally, but really. I can see a cornfield from my window, and no, I don’t live on a farm. This makes it a little bit difficult to draw from my environment to create interesting settings for my writing. Or, interesting to me. I suppose there are some people who would be fascinated by something set in Middle of Nowhere, Midwest United States. Probably mostly people who don’t live there themselves. So there’s a serious impulse to set my writing somewhere–anywhere–else. So I’d like to talk a bit about doing just that.

Not too long ago, I read a work set in Italy. In a part of Italy I’ve been to a couple of times, and really enjoy visiting.

There were so many inaccuracies. I ended up having to put the book down. It would have been fine, perhaps, if the novel dealt with some sort of alternate-history, or alternate-Earth or something like that. But it wasn’t. It was just Italy.

Do not be that writer. If you’re going to set a work somewhere that you don’t live, somewhere that you’ve never been to or only been to a few times? Do the research. Get it right. Don’t just click a travel website about Rome, and assume that’s the most accurate picture of the entire city. Don’t watch some silly rom-com set in Paris and think you’re an expert.

Oh, and as far as languages are concerned: if you’re dealing with a country in which a different language is spoken from that of the novel’s protagonist, address that! It adds a little bit of difficulty for your character(s), but it also adds a little more authenticity. And I can think of few situations where a little bit of a language barrier is going to completely derail the plot. Unless you’re dealing with an alternate universe, your character’s chances of meeting someone who doesn’t speak English in a country where a language other than English is spoken is pretty high. Hell-I’ve been lost and alone in parts of France and Italy where–despite there being throngs of English-speaking tourists–none of the shopkeepers, waiters, or random passerby on the street spoke more than a few words of English. And as a general rule, the further away you get from tourist centers, the fewer people speak English. Not to mention the fact that sometimes, the locals just don’t want to talk to you in English, no matter how polite you are about it*. Or English isn’t the predominant tourist language (for example, there are places in Italy where most shopkeepers and such speak German, French, and Italian, and they’re a little surprised to find out you speak English because that’s not their usual tourist stock).

Basically, do your research before picking a setting. Venice might seem like a great locale for your WIP, but if you try to write that everyone travels via gondola, you should probably take a step away from your notebook or keyboard. Research is your friend, and you don’t want future agents, publishers, or readers, to roll their eyes and think you’re a fool for misrepresenting the geography, history, or culture of wherever you’ve set your work.


*I’m looking at you, mean French sandwich-lady at Place St. Michel. I even asked in French if you spoke English, and you act like you don’t until the moment I leave, and then you’re suddenly Miss Chatty McSpeaksPerfectEnglish


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