When your novel is set in an unfamiliar location, it can be challenging to make it seem real. Whether it’s a setting in the US or a foreign country, you need to develop a ‘feel’ for the locale. Sharon Yang, Sisters in Crime author and retired English professor, observes that getting a sense of place and time also applies to historical writing: “research on the past is like going into a foreign world.”
Whether or not you’ve visited a place, it’s important to capture the right details so the writing rings true. Here are nine tips to get you started.
My Amber War series begins during WWII and is set in Eastern Europe. Beyond the historical texts, I read several novels for insights. The one that stood out was War of the Rats by David L. Robbins. It described the life a Russian sniper in Stalingrad including being still for an extended period of time while waiting for a shot. I lay on my stomach outside on the lawn for an hour, and wrote about the stiffness in my body.
Lisa Lieberman—author, former history professor, and Vice President of our New England of Sisters in Crime also suggests “reading memoirs and correspondence and second-rate literature, dated books that were justly forgotten.”
Tip #1: Get a feel for time and place from novels (memoirs and correspondence), noting specific details that apply to your people, setting, and plot.
Movies can give a sense of the setting as well as how the ‘normal’ person behaves. For example, find ones that show what people are wearing–burkas, scarves, loose clothing. Do they dress formally or casually? What are children wearing? How do men behave toward women?
Tip #2: Use movies for information about foreign people and their customs.
I’ve traveled extensively in Lithuania where most of my books take place, but when I needed to set a scene in a modern apartment in Vilnius, I used Airbnb. I picked one address and got to work. I noted the interior. Google maps showed me the outside of the building. I looked at the greenery, type of architecture, neighboring houses, width of streets, the make of cars. When a character in my novel walked into that building, I had plenty of information to ground the scene.
Tip #3: Use information from specific locations.
Travel books and online travel sites can provide important details, too. A character can visit a charming town that happens to be a tourist spot where there’s plenty of information available including maps, photos, and so on.
Tip #4: Consider adding locations where information is available, like a popular tourist spot.
Add sound, smell, and taste. Look up music popular in the foreign country during your novel’s time frame. Look up a traditional recipe and make it. I prepared bigos, a Polish dish. It was delicious, but the smell was strong–details which brought my dialogue to life.
Tip #5: Add sensory information like the taste and scent of local foods.
Online language sources have idioms or sayings that can give dialogue a unique foreign flair. In my novel Black Amber, a Russian character mentions that “all will be chocolate.” It’s a Russian way of saying things will get better.
Tip #6: Lightly season the dialogue with idioms.
Lisa Lieberman observes: “immersing a reader in another time and place means getting at mindsets, shared assumptions that weren’t always articulated.” In addition to novels and memoirs, consider English language newspapers from the country you’re portraying. They’ll give you a feel for current (or past) issues and political leanings. This may not be a focus of your writing, but if a character mentions an important news story, it lends a strong air of authenticity. Sharon Yang also uses old newspapers to see “what people are buying and the prices, what's playing on the stage or movies and when, who's in the news (even small items), sports events.”
Tip #7: Mention foreign news, entertainment, and consumer items that would resonate with readers.
Make travel information real. For example, if your character arrives in a foreign city by plane, look up flight schedules and have them arrive at the appropriate time of day or night. Refer to online pictures of airports and mention something unique such as the shape of the control tower. Use actual road numbers and street names when characters are traveling by car.
Tip #8: Use real air and train schedules; use maps for street names and routes.
Finally, find people who lived in or visited your setting. Talk to them. Ask them to review your manuscript for accuracy.
Tip #9: Find people to help.
Research can provide the details that make scenes feel authentic. Even if you’ve visited a place, don’t assume you know everything. Watch movies, read books and letters, go online to find details. Apply the information you find to settings and characters. Treat readers to an unusual scent or taste. Mention specific sensations like the feel of desert sand on the skin. Use an idiom or two in dialogue. The effort can take time, but the payoff will be happy readers.
For those of you who write about foreign settings, what are your tricks?