Although the expatriate novel is not exactly a genre, certainly it’s a category. And if you, as a writer, decide to go there, the shadow of the greats looms large. E.M. Forster, Ernest Hemingway, Henry James, Edith Wharton, and many others cut quite a swath during the 19th and 20th centuries, when traveling abroad was a whole lot harder than just grabbing a fare off of Google Flights. Living “abroad” (as opposed to “immigrating”) was an activity mostly for the rich who had enough income to experience ennui. The young woman in Rome, sitting a café with nothing to do, waiting for her companion…Elizabeth Spencer, please fill in here.
The bar is lower now, or at least it was in pre-COVID times. You don’t have to be uber-rich to see the world—though the uber-poor still won’t. So why not set a novel somewhere else? Well, go ahead, I say. But take note: The world view of the modern reader is much, much different now. No intelligent, empathetic audience is going to tolerate a writer dismissing “locals” as background scenery for international love stories, in the manner of Out of Africa or Passage to India. Which is why, if you’re writing a book set in a country other than your own, I suggest asking yourself the following questions.
1. Have I been there? If you want to set a novel in a real place, it’s wise to know that place very, very well. Even if you don’t like the city/country/state, you need to respect it, and that means learning everything you can about the geography, culture, and history that you can.
2. Have I read books by authors from this place? This is super important. Don’t assume just because you are writing about somewhere, say, very remote, that no one else has. Read local authors to get the lay of the land. And remember, you are not representing anyone’s voice but your own.
3. Now that I know all this stuff, should I shoehorn it into the book to show how much work I did? No. Let your knowledge bubble up naturally through the dialogue and action. No info dumps, please.
4. Do I really need to set this story here? The answer should be yes, Katie! There is absolutely no way to tell this story in any other setting than Doolin, Ireland! (Or wherever.) If you are wishy washy on this answer, my guess is you won’t put the work in to really nail the place and characters.
5. Is this an immigration novel or an expatriate novel? Huge difference. This writer only writes expatriate novels, because I’ve never been through the immigrant experience, and I just don’t know if I could access that level of complexity. But we need more immigrant novels, in my opinion. So, I hope that if you are reading this, and you’re thinking about writing a novel about immigration, and you have the chops, then go for it. I salute you and I will be the first to read it.
6. Wow. These locals from the place I’ve chosen sure are going to be thrilled I wrote about their town/city/country, won’t they? Nope. They most likely will not care, because they prefer their own writers.
7. My mom, though? My wife? They will love it! Or they’ll say they will.
So what should a writer keep in mind when writing a novel set abroad? I don’t claim to have a firm grip on it, but I have written two (most recently, Embassy Wife as well as the novel Abroad), and, having disappeared into pitfalls, I have a few thoughts. Though you can do what you want, of course. It’s your country.