Writing Exotic Settings
Debbie, here, waving madly to all the Seekers. Ladies, today I bring you a taste of Liberia, Africa. For breakfast, a wonderful fruit platter consisting of mangoes, bananas, plantains, papaya, coconut and pineapples, all native to Liberia. In the crock pot I have a lovely goat soup cooking for lunch. Goat soup, the Liberian National soup is served at celebrations, and since this is the release month for my debut novel, The Doctor’s Mission, I thought we ought to break out with a feast. On the table you’ll also find several rice and cassava dishes. Be aware that they aren’t for the mild spice lovers among us. There’s a reason early Portuguese explorers called Liberia “The Pepper Coast.”
When I first started pitching The Doctor’s Mission at RWA 2010, I constantly heard, “Couldn’t you set that somewhere else?” Strangely, that didn’t discourage me, because I just knew I couldn’t. Missionary Pastor William Mayweather and the lovely Dr. Mary O’Hara were destined to be pioneering jungle missionaries in 1918 Liberia. It’s not like I could put them on the moors of Scotland. How ever would I explain cannibals in kilts? Nope, it just wouldn’t work.
Fortunately for me, Love Inspired Historical was willing to branch out of their American locales and take a chance on something different, because I love exotic settings in both my books and my movies. Give me a good jungle adventure (Indiana Jones, Romancing the Stone, The African Queen) or plop me down in the middle of desert on a camel (The Wind and the Lion), and I’m a happy camper.
Of course, I’m doubly excited now that Love Inspired has put out a definitive call for more and different locales. So what do you need to know if you’re writing a story set not only in a different time, but in an uncommon country for romantic fiction? I’m going to share three tips that I think may help you as a writer make the reader feel right there with your characters.
1. Immerse yourself in the research. If it is a country you’ve never been to, you need maps, photos of the times, as many first-person native or traveler accounts as you can find, and, if possible, someone with firsthand experience in the country.
For mapping, I did an online search and found standard modern maps. I also fired up Google Earth for a look at the general terrain of Liberia, found some wonderful US Army maps online at the University of Texas that told me where the rapids were in a major river, and referred to maps drawn by hand from missionary accounts and those from the 1926 Harvard expedition.
2. Use accurate details, especially sensory ones.
To research the daily life, I relied heavily on Google books (use the advanced search option), purchased several used books through Amazon and others, and downloaded a lot free for my Nook. You would be amazed at how much people wrote about themselves in the past and just how much of it can be downloaded to your e-reader off Barnes and Noble and Amazon. When I read all those first-person missionary accounts, I paid particular attention to the sights and sounds they described. This is how I learned about the antics of the monkeys in the jungle canopy. Here’s an example of how I used them in the opening of the book as Pastor William waits anxiously for the Mission Board’s newest workers:
There it was. His ears hadn’t deceived him. The escalating cries of monkeys in the tree tops telegraphed a clear message over and above the noise of the busy mission compound. Someone was coming. Finally.
From these same accounts, I learned what Pastor William and Dr. Mary would have experienced on their jungle trek, what they would have seen when they reached the first village, and what they would have heard the next morning when a death was discovered in the village. Here’s an example:
William heard the women’s wailing over a loss before Hannabo reached him. It was an unmistakable sound in the bush.
Someone had died.
Hannabo came running, out of breath, tension pouring out of his very skin. The smell of fear was strong. They all had to leave the village before accusations began.
Of course, in this case, those wails were the signal for them to run for their lives so they wouldn’t be subjected to the poisoning rituals used to find the responsible party. What I didn’t tell you is everything I know about the use of sasswood to determine the guilt or innocence of an individual. Which brings me to my third point.
3. Edit your research.
I have cannibals in my book, and yes, they are historically accurate as best I can make them. But, I have to tell you that I know a lot more about cannibalism in Liberia (then and now) than ever made it into my book. I restrained myself for two reasons. First, using a lot of that research would just gross you out. It is a romance, after all. Second, you as a writer need all that knowledge so you know enough to create a naturally believable world. If you share every little research gem you mined, your readers’ focus will wander off the story and square onto that little factoid you were dying to use.
Here’s how I described Dr. Mary’s first encounter after assisting with the delivery of a notorious cannibal chief’s baby:
Two feet from the chief, she stopped, afraid to take a breath. As their eyes met, the baby stirred and let out a high piercing wail. Mary startled as did the chief. Then the most amazing thing. His face split into a wide grin, revealing two rows of teeth filed to ominous points. The incongruity of the grin and the deadly teeth drove home the reality of a cannibal standing before her. But apparently proud papa existed in every culture. He thumped his chest and shouted to the compound, pointing to his daughter, and Mary dared take a breath.
You can find a longer excerpt of The Doctor’s Mission here:
Or, for more about me and missions, visit my website at www.debbiekaufman.com
Remember, putting your reader in the exotic locale you’re writing is your number one goal. Immerse yourself in the research of the time and place so that you can bring it to life. Sensory details are a must. But, whatever you do, use well-edited information from your research to create a believable setting and characters that don’t distract the reader from the flow of the story.
Now in the spirit of creating and writing exotic locales, how about a few travel tidbits from the audience today? Have you traveled somewhere and seen something that would make a great story detail? Or maybe you’ve researched and read a fact you’re dying to put into a book. If you’re more a homebody, tell us where you’d love to see a story set.
While you’re all thinking about what to share, I’m going to use some of that fresh fruit to create a smoothie bar for everyone to enjoy. I think a mango smoothie would take the heat out of the cassava dish I just bit into. See you at the smoothie bar!
When she wasn’t traveling to places like Brazil, Haiti, and China, Debbie Kaufman always found a good book to be a great escape. Originally a Kentucky girl, Debbie now lives in Georgia with her own romance hero, her husband of over thirty years. She has four children, three grandchildren, and two small house horses that pass themselves off as dogs. Her first novel is a Love Inspired Historical titled The Doctor’s Mission (Nov. 2011).
Today Debbie has generously offered to give two copies of The Doctor's Mission to two commenters. Winners announced in the Weekend Edition.