I’ve always loved flicks like the Mummy, or Indiana Jones, that step well outside the western world and off the beaten track. Reading has taken me through myriad exotic locales, especially in books by Matthew Riley (that launched me on imaginary journeys to South America and the Antarctic, to name a few). For me, this is just where it’s at: The great unknown of our planet Earth is just as beautiful and vast as the most vivid creations of the human imagination, or might as well be when you consider the limited hours we have to explore it…
It should come as no surprise then, that I set my writing in what are essentially imaginary versions of real-life far-away places. There’s something about the everyday novelties experienced whilst travelling that I just can’t get enough of.
Maybe one day I’ll do a big “Sydney post-apocalypse / outback zombie Mad Max thing”, but for now I’m writing Far-East stuff (if you haven’t seen Fury Road yet, just know that it’s the ballsiest, most amazing film in recent memory, and it’s ‘STRALYAN to boot!). Next I might be setting a story in a sci-fi analogue of Northern Europe, or the sub-continent, or who knows where… I’m excited to think about it.
So anyway, how do we go about writing a tale that’s set in far away places?
1. Go there.
I hope you’ve got your passport handy, because all the really cool stuff you want to put in your book? You really need to experience it first hand. You’d never know that marketplace you saw on TV is a veritable beach-landing of smell bombardment. You can’t imagine the shirt-sticking squelchyness of the heat and humidity. You didn’t know your skin could sweat, burn, and bronze simultaneously like this, despite your slathering of suncream. The TV version will never show you the motorised hand-carts or huge ceramic jars that the locals use to transport their produce. You might not see all the grinning, charming, middle-aged ladies with hands that absolutely know what the hell they’re doing, bagging seafood or pressing mini-donut pieces. They’re not photogenic or stereotypical enough to make the cut. You’re going to have to actually go there.
2. (Get to) know some people.
The best way to experience a culture is from the inside, so if you know anybody who lives over there, try to wrangle at least a short stay with them in their home. If you can’t for whatever reason, at least try to book something like a traditional homestead, or a bed & breakfast. A room in a Korean traditional home in Anguk, with a tiny low roof, heated floor, and central garden courtyard covered in snow is going to be hard to beat, especially when the price is factored in. Your western hotel room clone, built on a template copied the world over, is about as far as you can get from fascinating concrete communal village structures in rural Guangzhou (with automatic mahjong tables!) or the tatami-matted splendour of a ryokan (hot springs, people. Get naked and start relaxing already).
Even if the only option is a standard hotel room, you can still try to make a local friend. They might not take you to places you couldn’t find on your own, but they can sure as hell tell you more about what you’re seeing, which brings everything to life.
Sit at a bar that locals frequent at least one night per trip, as a kind of minimum (and that’s AT THE BAR, not in a corner. Pro-tip: often the bar-tender is the most interesting person in the room, and they’re almost always happy to talk).
3. Notice the little things.
The way food-stands in Taiwan have little motors spinning above them, dangling threads over the top of the dried fish to ward off flies (the dried fish there is often sold as a snack, like jerky: it’s full of salty sweet flavours). The mildly alarming chemical-smelling glue that’s sold as a children’s toy in Hong Kong markets, because you can blow through it to make plastic bubbles. The bins full of grit-bags on the streets of Sapporo in winter, so you can spread your own non-slip surface on the icy kerbs (while you stagger between hour-and-a-half long all-you-can-eat-and-drink restaurants). The freedom to park anywhere you damn well please in Korea, and just leave your phone number in the car window. The incessant sirens of London. The honking as you drive past pedestrians in China, as a courtesy to warn them that you’re passing. Getting handed a cookie in EVERY SINGLE PLACE YOU GO while travelling in The States (slightly hyperbolic, but not too far from my actual experience during a trip I took to San Diego and Chicago for work).
These little details are novel, they are fun, and they simultaneously lend a sense of wonder and of believability to your story world. If you’re writing outlandish fantasy or sci-fi you might not reproduce the little things that you’ve seen on your travels, but you could certainly use them as inspiration. A servant in your space-station that hands out fresh wafers of soylent green to arriving guests, or a swamp dragon that loves the sewers below a specific marketplace for the rich smells drifting down from above. Use your observations and twist them.
A note about cultural appropriation (and what I like to think of as cultural misappropriation): you are weaving things from your travels into the tapestry of your work. You are NOT demonising or exaggerating these things. A writer that shows “the way locals do”, is not likely to offend. A writer that portrays these things in a negative light, or a hyperbolic, stereotypical way, is going to piss a lot of folks off. Let’s look at one example:
- In Hong Kong you are likely to see flocks of mainland Chinese tourists smoking by the duty-free carton, with their plastic cigarette holders, following flag-wielding guides, and scoffing bags of dried foods and snacks. What you’re less likely to notice is the businessman who pays for a friend’s son to live in their holiday apartment in Shenzen, just so that the kid can get into a better school, or the mother who spends twelve hours preparing food for the celebrations at Lunar New Year. You’re not seeing the restauranteur who is open and serving dumplings and congee at 4am because that’s when a lot of people are heading to work. Generous, intelligent people can easily get short-shrift simply because of what we’re conditioned to look for.
SO! What is a better way to write about this kind of thing? I think balance is key. It might be better for one of your main characters to have some of these traits, rather than using a set-piece extra, because you can then balance it against some of their positive aspects (they’re an amazing linguist, or a cool dude, or a renowned astrophysicist, whatever). You don’t have to avoid stereotypes altogether, as long as you debunk them as just that: stereotypes, they don’t define the entirety of who that person is. They also don’t define every member of a racial or cultural group: there’s always nuance, and there are always exceptions, often even total contradictions. These things certainly shouldn’t reduce a character’s agency (their ability to push back on the story).
At the moment I’m actually in Korea, catching up with my in-laws, my wife, and my little daughter that I haven’t seen for the past two months. I’m also taking notes, not doing a lot of writing, but taking buckets of notes, and some of the best bits will end up in book two. Have you been taking notes based on your travel experiences? Get anything really good out of it?