How to Set a Novel in an Unfamiliar Location

For a fiction writer, weaving a real historical incident into my narrative posed an interesting challenge. Here's what you should know.
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Journey to Death was inspired by a first hand account I was given of a political coup in the Seychelles in the late 1970s. Interested in the impact of politics on ordinary people, I invented the story of a love affair between two people from different cultures, torn apart by circumstances. The narrative then moves to deal with the disturbing fall out from that relationship, several decades later. For a fiction writer, weaving a real historical incident into my narrative posed an interesting challenge. I would advise other writers to consider exploring the idea, as it can add a different dimension to a story.

Guest post by Leigh Russell. Russell is the internationally bestselling crime author of the Geraldine Steel and Ian Peterson series. Having reached #1 on Kindle and iTunes, Russell's work has attracted glowing reviews in the UK and USA. Her titles regularly appear on bestseller lists and have been shortlisted for prestigious industry awards including the CWA Dagger. After studying English at the University of Kent, Leigh went on to teach, specialising in supporting those with learning difficulties. Leigh guest lectures for the Society of Authors, teaches creative writing courses in Greece and runs the manuscript assessment service for The CWA. She is married, has two daughters, and lives in London. Russell's new book Journey To Death can be purchased at Amazon.

Leigh Russell Credit Marte Lundby Rekaa-featured
Leigh Russell Cover

When my agent secured a three book deal for my protagonist Lucy Hall, on the strength of my manuscript for Journey to Death, I was thrilled but also a little nervous. I like to research my books thoroughly, and I had never visited Mahé, the island in the Seychelles where my novel is set. All my research had been done online. I had useful email conversations with the British High Commission in the capital, Victoria. Everyone I approached online was very helpful, but it was impossible to discover what sounds can be heard in the Cloud Forest up on the mountain. Studying the websites, I was confused about whether the sand on the beach at Beau Vallon Bay is actually white or golden. And are the bats really as large as people said?

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There were only weeks to go before the final manuscript had to be sent for editing. I could not alter the location, with the coup as the catalyst for the action in the book. At the same time, the Seychelles is a popular holiday resort. It was possible that people who had visited the location might spot inaccuracies in my description that would spoil the book for them. There is so much about the sights, sounds, smells and atmosphere of a place that cannot be researched online. So unless you are setting your book in a remote place none of your readers is likely to visit, you would be wise to experience the location for yourself.

I could not back out now. Contracts had been signed. My advance was in the bank. With time running out before the manuscript was due to be delivered, I went on a last minute research trip to Mahé, armed with my draft manuscript and a list of questions. The time was well spent, with numerous visits to the British High Commission, the local police station, Central Police Headquarters in the capital, Victoria, the market, the hotels, the Cloud Forest, and of course the beaches. It was not all work. I swam in the warm waters of the Indian Ocean, and watched the sun set over the ocean every evening. My husband, who accompanied me, had a wonderful time helping me research cocktails on the beach at sunset. As well as adding depth and local colour to a manuscript, travelling for research can have other benefits for a writer!

Of course, as a writer, you do not need to set a book in a location that is a long way from home. The second book in the Lucy Hall series is set in Paris. Knowing that Paris is only two hours from London by train makes a huge difference, knowing I can pop back for a day to check on my facts. The fourteen hour flight to the Seychelles meant the trip was more pressurised, as I had to check everything while I was there. In addition, the first draft for Journey to Death had already been submitted and accepted, leaving me little time for research. It was hard work, making all the changes necessary before submitting the final draft. Some of the alterations related to the location, others to the police procedures on the island, and the role of the British High Commissioner. There were further details to add or amend. For example bananas in the Seychelles taste very different to those in the UK. Of course readers may not notice such small details, but they all contribute to create a sense of authenticity.

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The deadline was tight. I emailed the final draft of Journey to Death to my editor in the UK from a bar overlooking Beau Vallon Bay.

So there are both risks and rewards to setting action in an unfamiliar place. The most serious risk is making a blunder that spoils the book for your readers. In placing a book in a particular location, you want to transport your readers there so they feel: "Russell evokes the exotic locale beautifully, but readers will be in the grip of the suspenseful story, too, even as they feel the island heat and smell the flowers.” (Booklist) And of course there are always risks attached to staying in an unfamiliar place. When Lucy Hall is in Paris, she stays in a cheap downmarket hotel. We arrived at a rather nasty place I had booked online, and promptly moved elsewhere. Afterwards I saw on Trip Advisor that the hotel I had originally booked had bed bugs... Then there was the time that I was challenged by a policeman wielding a machine gun...

But the rewards are priceless. Mahé is by far the most beautiful place I have ever visited. It was a magical trip, despite all the hard work. And as for Paris, and Rome, I had already fallen in love with those cities, long before Lucy Hall arrived on the scene. Having an excuse to return to them was a joy. So if you enjoy travelling, you might consider incorporating your experience of different locations into your writing plans.

I wonder where Lucy Hall will go next?

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Brian A. Klems is the editor of this blog, online editor of Writer's Digest and author of the popular gift bookOh Boy, You're Having a Girl: A Dad's Survival Guide to Raising Daughters.

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