Christina here. I like stories with slightly unusual settings, and have written a few myself. A while back I did a talk with fellow author Liz Harris on how to go about creating them, and it’s not always easy, especially if the story takes place in the past. All authors who write historical novels are really writing about unknown locations since none of us can ever go back there and experience them for ourselves. Therefore, we have to do lots of research to find out what they were like at the time, if possible, then use our imagination to convey this to our readers. Some are more difficult than others!
If we can visit the location in the present and walk in the footsteps of our ancestors, that helps a lot. Some places haven’t changed all that much and it is easy to picture them during times gone by. Others, like London for example, have obviously changed in many respects, but are still essentially the same layout so it’s possible to imagine where places of interest to us were situated. And there are often old maps you can consult as well.
Things get a little more difficult if we want to write about faraway places or locations which have disappeared or changed completely. I’ve set a couple of my novels in 17th century Japan, for instance, one in 18th century Surat in India, and another partly in 18th century Canton in China, with brief mentions of other places along the way. Canton is now called Guanghzhou and, as far as I can tell, nothing much remains of the old city, so even if I’d gone there, it wouldn’t have helped me much. Instead, I had to rely on old eyewitness accounts to find out what it was like at the time my story takes place.
The potential for getting it wrong is there – someone else will always be more of an expert no matter how much research you do. It’s easy to make mistakes regarding the language, customs, food, topographical layout etc, and even the weather unless you’ve experienced it for yourself. But if we disregard the pitfalls and still decide to set our novel in an unusual place, what can we do to make sure we avoid mistakes?
First of all, we do a lot of reading. The obvious place to start is with an overview of the period and country concerned, plus its relations to England at the time if applicable. It helps to know exactly what was going on in this particular country at the time and also how English people then would have viewed this foreign place (if they even knew it existed). Once you have the basics, you can start to learn about the country itself and its customs now, as they may still be similar. For instance, Japan is a very modern country in many ways, but the people have still kept a lot of their ancient traditions, especially during certain times of the year.
You can read up about the clothing, food, language, traditions, history and so on in general, then do more detailed research into particular events, rulers, wars, possible catastrophes like earthquakes etc – using books written specifically about the period. When you have an overview, you can move on to primary sources like biographies written at the time (if available), journals and travel accounts. Finally, you look for the specific points necessary for your novel (and sometimes you don’t know what you’re going to need until you actually sit down and write the story, so the research is ongoing throughout the writing process).
Old photos, prints or paintings from the time you’re writing about are invaluable, and a lot of the people who travelled to foreign countries in the past were excellent at sketching the scenery and other things that caught their eye. There are lots of images on the internet (although these have to be checked for authenticity), and it’s also fairly easy to find out about the weather during different times of the year in every part of the globe.
The best thing is obviously if you’re able to travel to the country yourself. If not, you have to rely on travel journals and contemporary accounts. Lots of people travelling overseas keep travel blogs now and these can be easily found on the internet.
Museums are another great source, for instance the Victoria & Albert Museum in London has a wonderful Asian collection. If we’re really stuck, asking an expert might be possible. Authors often e-mail or call complete strangers to find out about specific topics, and they are usually happy to help (sometimes for a fee).
Apart from the scenery, scents and tastes are very important when describing an unusual setting. If this information can’t be found in journals or travel accounts, it might help to visit a restaurant serving that country’s cuisine so you can try it (and smell it) for yourself. Even if it’s not completely authentic, it will give a good idea of what the hero and heroine might encounter.
If we are really lucky, there are reconstructed villages or sets from the past where an author can really experience what it was like. Places like the outdoor museum at Newtonmore in Scotland where they have old dwellings with peat fires; the Viking village in Ribe in Denmark with its longhouses and workshops; and Butser Ancient Farm with its Iron Age huts. All these really helped me imagine what life had been in the past.
Setting isn’t just the location where the story takes place, but it can be things like ships and carriages the characters travel in. For my first historical, TRADE WINDS, I needed to know what it would be like to sail to China in the 18th century. I was able to go on board the Swedish sailing ship Götheborg (an exact replica of a ship used by the Swedish East India Company) and this gave me the details I needed to recreate my characters’ journey. At the Gothenburg City Museum, I was also fortunate enough to find the journal of Colin Campbell who was the supercargo (or chief of the trading expedition) for the first venture to China. From his account, I was able to imagine what life was like in Canton for foreign merchants.
Another travel journal, that of a Swede called Christian Hinric Braad who travelled with the SEIC to India and China in the 1750s, helped me picture the city of Surat in India for another book, MONSOON MISTS. It was very detailed and incredibly useful.
So that’s a short summary of the work that goes into creating the backdrop to a novel. Do you like unusual settings and, if so, is there somewhere in particular you would like to read about?