Guest Post by Lucinda Whitney.
Lucinda Whitney was born and raised in Portugal, where she received a Master’s degree from the University of Minho in Braga, in Portuguese/English teaching.
She lives in northern Utah with her husband and four children. When she’s not reading and writing, she can be found with a pair of knitting needles, or tending her herb garden.
She’s the author of The Secret Life of Daydreams and One Small Chance. Please visit her website at lucindawhitney.com for more information and news.
Learn how to choose a foreign setting, how to research it, how to deal with language and culture, and how to bring it all together to enrich your story.
We always hear “Write about what you know” and while there are lots of advantages to that, what about all the things you don’t know? Your characters’ lives are not your own and choosing the best setting for their stories makes more sense in the long run.
Obviously, the US is a large country and there are lots of exciting places where to set your novel, but sometimes setting your story abroad will give it another dimension that readers crave.
What are the advantages to choosing a foreign setting?
Foreign settings are less done and more exotic. If you want to surprise readers in the genre you write, set the story in a new location from what’s usually done. Most people can’t afford to travel and reading is an easy way for them to discover other countries and cultures. Also, the unexpected will hook a reader and keep them turning the pages.
For instance, I knew I didn’t want to set my LDS romance stories in Utah because that’s been done a lot. But LDS romance set in Portugal is something new and it gives another perspective by showing how church members there deal with similar struggles.
By placing your characters in new situations and making them more uncomfortable, the conflict in the story goes up.
For instance, challenge your character. If you have a shy girl (let’s call her Mary) who’s never traveled to a foreign country, start the story with her stranded at the airport in Madrid, Spain, during an air crew strike where she doesn’t speak the language and doesn’t know anyone there. It’s the worst case scenario for this character and it will certainly shake things up. How will Mary get out of this? How will she react to the country and the natives? What kind of situations will arise from this? Why is being stranded in Spain so much worse than being lost in London?
By making the location part of the plot, you enhance the story with a new set of challenges inherent to the setting.
How do you go about choosing a foreign setting for your story?
The city and country you choose matter to the story and there are some reasons for that: the people and their customs, the culture and the language, the history and geography, the politics, the fauna and flora of the region, and even the weather and seasons can influence a story in different ways. Think of particular details tied to these reasons and make a list in connection to your main character.
For instance, if you choose to write a Regency romance, setting the story in the British Isles or setting it in another part of the world will greatly change the story even though it may be set in the same time period, the early part of the 1800s.
If it’s a contemporary story, how is the place a challenge to the protagonist? Does this setting complicate the life of the POV character? Does it change their fears and goals? Going back to our first example of the shy girl, Mary would probably feel more confident in London where at least they speak English. How is she going to get out of Madrid and why does she dislike being there so much?
If you’re writing an action story, setting it in Hong Kong or the Amazonian jungles of Brazil will change the way your character interacts with their setting and result in very different stories.
Does the setting have a meaning to the POV character? Are there negative or positive connections associated with this setting? Did something happen in this character’s past (backstory) to trigger their negative/positive reaction to it?
How do you research your foreign setting?
There are two ways to research a setting: traveling there in person or doing it from your computer at home.
In person- If you can afford the time and money to travel, think outside of the box when you get there. Venture out on foot to less popular areas (the less touristy places). Go where the natives go to get more local flavor instead of relying on guided tours. Take the city bus, the subway, or the train instead of relying on taxis or tour buses. Don’t just take pictures. Keep a small journal of your impressions using the other senses: the smells and sounds that stand out to you, the tastes and textures that would matter to the POV character (ex:, a lawyer and a farmer would react differently when set in the Scottish Highlands). These details are harder to remember than the visual ones and will have a deeper impact on your descriptions.
The more senses used, the more engaged the reader will be with what your character is going through because the experience will be more dimensional.
If you’re concerned about the language, buy a conversational guide or get a translation app to help with simple questions when you go exploring.
Don’t forget about trying new dishes, especially the ones particular to a certain area. What makes the ingredients and flavors special? How do your characters react to them?
Gather maps, pamphlets and other mementos that can later aid your writing. Will your character take a stroll on the beach at some point? Pick up some shells. Even if you don’t use all the details you experience in each area, they all add up to enrich the story.
If possible, before you travel, connect with someone who lives in that area for a more personalized experience (FB is great for this. Is there a friend who knows someone who lives in the area you’re traveling to?)
Think of theme of your story: is it historical? Take a tour of museums, libraries, and castles. Is it sports related? Go to stadiums and practices. Does it involve food? Take a restaurant tour. Focus your trip in the ways it relates to the plot and characters.
When you can’t travel- Google and Google maps are great, but don’t rely only on these (by the way, street view is better when using Google maps).
Write or email to the Chamber of Commerce of the city you’re researching and ask them to send you materials by mail. You can ask for city maps, transportation maps and schedules, museums and other entertainment, places to eat, where to stay, etc. just like planning a vacation. You can also contact travel agencies for similar materials.
The Library of Congress has a Ask a Librarian service (https://www.loc.gov/rr/askalib/). The amount of information they turn up is amazing. And don’t forget about Youtube as another great resource.
Join a large writing community on FB and ask is anyone lives it the area you’re researching. This will result in tips and insights from locals. When I was writing my Christmas novella set in Manhattan, I asked on Writer Unboxed if anyone lived close to Central Park so I could ask some questions. Ask around on FB if any of your friends have friends or contacts in that area and then interview them (via private message or email).
To avoid being overwhelmed, focus your research of the place on how it affects your POV character and specialize instead of going wide; start out small and then expand the research as needed.
Another element of research is the local language
Use too much and readers will complain they don’t understand (believe me, I know); use too little and you risk losing the local flavor of the setting.
When thinking of language in relation to your main characters, there are 3 situations to consider:
First, when all the characters (main and secondary) are natives to that place. You’re writing in English but your reader knows the characters are talking/thinking in the native language. You don’t need a lot of words and phrases in the foreign language. Show the nationality in the behavior and mannerisms, in what they eat, where they go, etc.
Second, your POV character is the native to the area. How do they interact with the foreign characters? What in their background offers a challenge or a connection to those interactions?
Third, your POV character is the foreigner in that city. It’s going to be important whether they speak the local language or not. Do they interact with locals, with their countrymen, or with other foreigners?
Which one of these situations is the higher challenge for the POV character and their story? How does this affect the pacing (description and narration)?
Each situation will determine how much language to use; find the balance (“enough to flavor but not to overwhelm”).
When you do use words and phrases, resist the urge to provide a literal translation to every instance. Instead, make the meaning clear through context and secondary dialogue.
Regarding language and spelling: DO YOUR HOMEWORK! I can’t emphasize this enough. Do your research and don’t rely only on Google Translate. Don’t think your readers won’t know any better. WRONG. They do. There’s always a reader who knows the language and it looks bad when it’s translated incorrectly. Occasionally, I come across books set in Portugal written by authors who are not native and I haven’t found one without some kind of mistake, usually something very simple. It looks lazy and sloppy. Whenever possible, check with a native or ask around on FB if anyone knows a friend who can speak the language.
How do you use your research to enrich your story?
Now that you’ve chosen and researched a foreign city, either in person or remotely, you can use this setting as a plot point in your story to further along the action and to increase the conflict.
Another way to look at it is to treat setting as a character, one that needs to be developed just like all the other characters in the story. Setting becomes another character in the way it marks the main character’s interactions to it and those in it.
Show the setting through your POV character only. What does the setting trigger in the character? How do they react to the different places? Does it affect their mood? Which of the five senses is more prevalent when your character interacts with this particular setting?
If you use alternating POVs, the reactions will be different between the character who’s visiting and the character who’s always lived there. They have different emotional connections to that setting and these connections carry different weights in how they see (how you describe) the things around them.
Even though the foreign place you end up choosing for your story is a real place, you still have to put the work into it because you’re worldbuilding it specifically for your story and your characters. The richer the setting, the more involved the reader becomes.