Thursday, June 30, 2011

Tips for Setting Your Novel Internationally

Having lived overseas for 10 years and traveled as well, I love reading books set in other countries. Lately, I'm seeing more of these types of books and I think that's due to the fact that the US is becoming more aware of the world outside of its borders.

There definitely has been a boom of multicultural fiction in the last decade, which was so needed. But now I truly believe its time for the market to allow books set in other countries where the focus isn't only on Americans but on a world-view.

Some books that I've really enjoyed that deal with an international focus and have accurate settings are Sea by Heidi R. Kling, Heist Society by Ally Carter and Die for Me by Amy Plum.



Sea is set on the island Java, Indonesia where I lived for two years so I was curious to see how accurate Kling would be. As I read, I was transported back to those days I lived there. I remembered the first time I'd entered a local bathroom, found out about the left hand thing, and the onslaught of the rains in the rainy season. If you want a story depicting life in Indonesia, I'd highly recommend Sea.

Heist Society by Ally Carter really pulls in an international view because it's set in multiple European countries. I love not only the intrigue, the brilliant plot of this novel and the witty, engaging characters but I love how these characters are not restricted to one country. The world becomes their playground.


Die for Me is set in Paris. Now I'm not an expert to Paris since I've only been there once as a tourist, but as an expatriate, I can always tell when an author knows their setting. And Plum obviously does. She has the details so perfectly captured from the cafe's, the locals market, the words used and nuances of the culture that a tourist would never notice. But my biggest quibble which she passed (being that I've taught and visited many international schools) is she had the American School right too! Any American living in Paris would be going to that school and she presented it accurately as well. Kudos!


I also would recommend the review of Die for Me given on the blog hobbitsies. Excellent and I completely agree.


Things to consider when writing a book set in another country:

1. Do go visit your setting and bring along a journal. My journal was divided in categories:
  • my daily experiences
  • vignettes of people and places that I saw (I liked sitting in cafes and just observing a person. I'd sketch out their profile and then image a story up for them in this setting
  • smells
  • visuals
  • particular details I enjoyed- or didn't!
  • foods and their tastes
  • think about the religion, their holidays and how the society interacts through those
  • notes of unusual things that a tourist wouldn't pay attention
2. I recommend seeing your setting through your character's eyes. What would your character notice that would be unique to them? For instance, if your character is an artist, they would focus on the art of the place or if your character loves shopping, it would be the shops and merchandise.

3. Does your character or any of the characters go to an international school there? Nearly every major city has an international school or two! If you want to change the name of the school that's fine, but I'd be wary of making up everything about the location, because you are missing a pivotal part of the culture. And if you get a reader who went to an international school, it takes out the accuracy of your novel.

Instead, I'd recommend emailing the school and requesting to interview a student or teacher from that school to find out what life is like there. You'll be amazed at the things you learn from the culture.

But traveling is expensive and buying a plane ticket and jetting off to an exotic location isn't always feasible. If you can't travel, then you will have to work hard to recreate what you can't experience. Ways to do this are: interviews, maps, movies, blogs of other's experiences and books from that country.

More links:
  • I did an interview with Kirsten on her blog A Romantic Meets the World- Soaking in your setting: Christina Farley
  • Nathan Bransford shares what a great setting is here
  • Beth Revis talks about the setting in a dystopian novel here but really, it's full of great tips for all writers 
What are some of your favorite books set in other countries. Please share any tips that you may have too!

15 comments:

Angelina C. Hansen said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Angelina C. Hansen said...

Let me try this again. I really should make sure I'm awake before I comment on blogs ^_^

Love this post. I lived in Paris which is probably why I've set two of my books there. Must check out DIE FOR ME. I'm reading the sequel to HEIST SOCIETY right now. And SEA sounds intriguing.

Thanks for bringing up such an intereresting subject here.

Laurel Garver said...

Google street view is an invaluable tool for writing settings. About 3/4 of my novel is set in England, and though I did a research trip, I frequently need to jog my memory about how a particular city is laid out. I can pop onto google maps, go to street view and rewalk all the streets again! Awesome!

KarenG said...

My dream is to set a story in Italy. I even have the novel outlined, but I've never been to Italy. That's why it's a dream. Great post!

Christina Farley said...

Angelina- I didn't know you lived in Paris. So cool.

Laurel- Fabulous idea. Very steal worthy.

Karen- Okay. Now you have a reason to go to Italy. Purely reseach, of course. Dream big girl!

beth said...

Brilliant post!!

Have you ever read Guy DeLisle's works? His wife is with Doctors Without Borders, and he tags along on her missions. Such brilliant little snippets of real life in other countries.

Carolina Valdez Miller said...

Having traveled extensively and lived abroad helps me out a lot when writing in other settings. Like you, it also makes it seem more obvious when an author clearly has spent time in that foreign setting. I love books set outside the US--especially when it's done well.

Krispy said...

Great post with useful tips! I should definitely do that with a journal next time I go traveling. Usually, I just take tons and tons of photos; ah the wonders of the digital age. :)

lotusgirl said...

Great advice. Thanks.

Kim Kasch said...

Oh for me another culture is all about food. It's the tastes, the smells, the difference in aroma and . . . no wonder I have to diet.

Christina Farley said...

Beth- no I haven't! I must check those books out. They sound wonderful.

Carolina- exactly. I can spot those kind of books a mile away.

Krispy- Photos are great too though! I like to tape them on my wall when I'm writing. When I wrote my story in Korea, I was actually living in Korea so I was totally able to go outside and feel it. But now that I'm playing around with my Indoneisa story, I have to use the pics to help me remember. Gotta love the digital age!

Kim- Food. I know. France smells like fresh baked bread. The whole freaking country!

Medeia Sharif said...

Awesome tips.

I have an unfinished wip that takes place in another country, and it's unfinished because I didn't have a strong feeling for the place. Maybe if I take a trip there I'll revisit this manuscript.

Andrea Mack said...

Excellent ideas, Christy! I also like your book recommendations, I'm going to have to look for them.

Ruth said...

I really want to read Heist Society, that sounds so fun!

Annemarie O'Brien said...

Great post! I love reading books set outside the US. Opens so many doors and the mind.