Image: Matthew Loffhagen
There’s a well-worn writers’ tenet that has likely been circling for as long as writing has been a thing. You’ve probably heard it: write what you know.
Now, this is, generally speaking, good advice. Of course, it can easily be misinterpreted by writers who go on to produce thinly veiled autobiographies disguised as fiction, but the central lesson – that authenticity is a good thing and should be aimed for – is indisputably true.
But what about when you want to set your novel in a country you don’t live in or, worse still, a country you’ve never visited? What about if you’re layering on the difficulty and also want to have your plot unfold several hundred years ago?
Writing about a different culture can be immensely challenging. After all, it may be relatively easy to research the historical facts and cultural statistics of a particular place, but it’s far more difficult to get an idea of how people actually live in said place. And, in fiction, it’s that human element that’s the most important.
So how do you write about a different country without being wildly inaccurate, coming across as inauthentic, or offending the people who live there? Let’s have a look.
Do your research
Let’s start with the most obvious step: research. Many writers will start and finish with research, but it’s really just the first stop on a longer journey. The benefits of research are obvious: you can’t expect to craft an engaging setting in your fiction unless you know about its history, culture, and social structures. This is true even of fantastical locations, but it’s doubly important when you’re writing about an actual real-life place. At best, inaccuracies can be mild annoyances for readers who know better and, at worst, offensive misrepresentations that put your readers off even turning another page.
Writing about a foreign country must begin with research.Click To Tweet
Thankfully, in the age of internet, research is easier than ever to get stuck into. Encyclopedias, books, newspapers, videos, interactive maps, and foreign media are all readily available online, so you have no excuse not to learn the concrete details of a given country’s culture and geography. Even distances can be easily mapped – the real difficulty is in remembering to do so.
The value of research is difficult to overstate. Julie Burchill wrote a compelling Prague in her 1997 romance No Exit despite never having visited the Czech Republic and, in 2007, Stef Penney won the Costa First Novel Award for her depiction of Canada in The Tenderness of Wolves without ever having set foot in the country. So what are the best research tools? Well:
- Google Maps – Google Maps is a fantastic resource for plotting out routes, landscapes, and points of interest. It can also be helpful for understanding scale (something especially important if you’re writing about a country considerably larger or smaller than your own. Trust me, visiting America is rather startling when you come from a small island).
- YouTube – You’ll be surprised by how many amateur city tours there are on YouTube. If you’re wondering what downtown Boston looks like but you’ve never been, YouTube’s got you covered.
- Films and TV – Try watching movies and TV shows created in the country you’re writing about, or at least something written/produced by people from that country.
- History books – Sorry, it’s not all YouTube and TV shows – if you really want to get a deep understanding of a country and its culture, you’re going to have to hit the library. Try to read from a variety of historical perspectives so you don’t end up spouting overly politicized historical interpretations in your fiction.
- Documentaries – The happy middle ground between TV-watching and library research, documentaries can be educational, informative, and palatable.
- Fiction, poetry, and art – One of the best ways to get a sense of the values and ideals of another culture is to jump into its art. Looking, for example, at art of the Russian avant-garde will tell you much about the aims and ideals of the Soviet Union, while reading Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment will give you an almost too-intimate look at what it was to inhabit the filthy streets of nineteenth-century St. Petersburg.
- Newspapers – There are many newspaper archives available online, and many more associated with museums and universities across the world. These can be fascinating time machines that grant researchers a glimpse of the fears, values, and events of past days.
- Cultural events – If you’re writing about a particular culture, there are good odds that there’s someone from that culture who’d be happy to share their experiences. Obviously, it’s not a case of finding an individual to bother – instead, look for organized events and/or contact established clubs and societies who express education as one of their goals. There are more of both than you might think.
As I mentioned before, be aware that research isn’t the be-all and end-all of novel writing. Sure, you might have mapped every bistro between the Gare du Nord and the Arc de Triomphe, but do you know what it’s like to rush through busy Paris streets to catch the Metro? Can you really Google that distinctive French frown? Research is a means of providing facts; it’s up to you to pump in the humanity.When writing about another culture, facts are the structure, but humanity is the substance.Click To Tweet
Dwell on the details
It’s all well and good me telling you to research your fiction, but you won’t be able to build an engaging setting unless you know what to look for, what to take away, and what to write down. One thing to bear in mind is that, with the prevalence of visual media, simple descriptions of your chosen foreign country just won’t do. Visual media will always be better at showing what something looks like, but text can better communicate what something feels like.
How? Well, like I said earlier, you need to focus on the humanity of a given place. This means sensory information: you’re going to want to think about sounds, smells, patterns of light and shadow, the humidity of the air, the feel of the crumbling sandstone beneath your characters’ feet. You’re going to want to write your physical description around decidedly human moments, and this means zooming in on the details. Consider the Berlin of Vladimir Nabokov’s Mary:
That night, as every night, a little old man in a black cape plodded along the curb down the long deserted avenue, poking the point of a gnarled stick into the asphalt as he looked for cigarette ends – gold, cork, or plain paper – and flaking cigar butts. Occasionally, braying like a stag, a motorcar would dash by or something would happen which no one walking in a city ever notices: a star, faster than thought and with less sound than a tear, would fall.
– Mary, Vladimir Nabokov
Here, Nabokov, a Russian author, is able to construct Berlin around the image of a single lonely man fishing around at night for cigarette and cigar ends. Berlin is not rendered in sweeping, physical descriptions, but instead the select details – the almost-empty street, the discarded cigarette butts, the faceless and infrequent motorcars – breathe life into the setting. The star above the scene provides a stark contrast that further highlights the mood of the city.
Here, early twentieth-century Berlin is brought to life, but you could just as easily use crowded pavements and the low, bright sun to describe Edinburgh, or a sweating, bright-eyed street performer with a battered trumpet to bring New Orleans into focus.
Thinking about details can help bring your characters to life too. Think about the little things: how do your characters get ready for work in the morning? How do they get around? What do they see, hear, and smell on their way to the train station? What do they reach for when they’re hungry? What slang do they use? All these questions will help enrich your characters and shed light on the society they’re part of.
Pay attention to language
Language is an oft-overlooked aspect of world building, but linguistic slips can quickly shatter a writer’s dreams of authenticity. Think about it: would your Hindu shopkeeper from Mumbai be likely to say ‘For God’s sake’ or ‘Jesus Christ’? Would your Native American brave be likely to describe something as ‘electrifying’? Would your French contractor measure things in inches and feet, or would he actually use meters and centimeters? These are all things that should be getting special attention in your research, but they’re easily overlooked.
As with language, it can be tempting to assume that every culture on Earth conceptualizes certain things in the same way. The flow of time, for example, or gender, or sexuality, or notions of place – but to assume that everyone thinks time is linear or that borders are definite is to ignore cultural ideologies and philosophies just because they run counter to western ideas.
Many writers, particularly those from colonized nations, have attempted to draw attention to this kind of cultural and philosophical displacement. Wilson Harris, for example, a Guyanese writer and academic, paints a vivid and spiritual picture of Guyana’s lush interior in Palace of the Peacock by refusing to adhere to western ideas of linear time – rather, his characters find themselves circling life and death, replaying events and occupying multiple spaces and forms at once until they finally find transcendence. It’s an incredibly authentic book, but a hard one for western readers to get through – they essentially have to learn a new way of thinking.
Of course, you don’t need to go that far. But do be respectful; misrepresenting someone else’s culture is an unpleasant and lazy thing to do, and you won’t win any points by resorting to lame stereotypes or by presenting other cultures’ rituals or ceremonies as weird spectacles.
Instead, be humble, be open-minded, and be self-aware: remember that you’re not observing from a neutral or objective space. We’re all products of our own cultures, and we should take pains to self-examine and identify the forces and power dynamics that have influenced our own positions and perspectives.
Don’t imagine you have an objective eye for culture – we’re all biased by our assumptions. Click To Tweet
Travel yourself interesting
Of course, it would be great if you could save yourself the trouble of endless research and just hop on a plane to explore the place yourself, but sadly that’s not always practical or possible. On the plus side, not having the time or money to travel needn’t be an impassable obstacle if you want to set your fiction elsewhere.
Research is of course the first thing you should worry about, but while it’s great to learn as much as you can so that you can write with confidence, remember it’s the details that really bring a place to life. This is partly because most places on their own aren’t intrinsically interesting – it’s the people who’ve built those places, who live in them and who have colored them with their customs and ideas, who’re really the ones readers want to know about. Sure, places like Giza and Stonehenge and the Colosseum are pretty nice to look at, but it’s the human mysteries and mythologies they hint at that are truly intriguing.
What are your favorite novels set in a foreign country? Did I miss any top tips? Let me know in the comments, and for more great advice on this topic, check out When Can You Include Accent And Dialect In Your Dialogue? and The 3 Things Successful Travel Writing Books Need.