10 July 2014

15 Tips For Writing Your Novel With An Exotic Setting

By Jenni Gate 

Note: friend and colleague Jenni Gate (who does both mystery and travel-writing) is pinch-hitting for me in my regular spot in the Sleuthsayers line-up today. Her subject: exotic locations in fiction writing–a timely subject during high vacation season! I'll be back in two weeks with my regular helping of half-baked ideas, sentence fragments, and poor spelling. In the mean-time, enjoy! –Brian

"To either side of the long-tail boat, dark and mysterious mangrove swamps shrouded
their secrets from view. The long-tail boat driver hefted an elongated pole with an antique, four-cylinder Fiat engine sputtering to life at the end over the back of the narrow vessel into restless water. Engines roared as diesel fumes and greasy, choking smoke billowed, launching our craft into the murky, gray-green Andaman Sea. It was a wet day to tour James Bond Island, known as God’s Nail to the Thai people. I should have listened to the ironic gut-ache I felt when I boarded the boat, its blue, green and yellow-patterned colors dimmed by dark, angry skies. Asian coastal monsoons whipped wind, rain, and frothy salt water into my face. I felt alive, yet exposed, the weather mirroring my turmoil. Like the other tourists on board, I snapped photos through a fogged lens of karst mountains rising from the sea, their limestone facades like candle-wax dripping over temples hidden deep within gloomy jungle caverns below. As we sped towards the island, I noticed the long-tail boat driver, thin, dark brows lowered over his anguished face. He searched the swamps to either side, their hidden waterways a perfect hiding place for modern-day pirates in the Strait of Malacca."

The place described in the piece quoted above: James Bond Island

Writing a story set in an exotic location is challenging. Too many details, and we risk losing our reader; too few, and we fail to anchor a reader into the world of our story. An opening paragraph needs to set the scene and give a sense of time and place, yet push the action forward. Our reader needs to know that the exotic setting is as integral to the story as the plot and characters. In stories where the setting is common or familiar, fewer details may be needed to set the scene. In fantasy novels and in mysteries set in uncommon locations, we need to hook our reader while threading details and references into setting descriptions to place the reader deep into the scene.

A childhood growing up overseas without TV and reading mysteries for entertainment led me to notice when a setting in a novel did or did not ring true, based on my own experience of a place. Get the details wrong, and a multi-cultural reader will notice.

Here are a few tips for setting your story in an exotic location:

1.     Know how to pronounce the name of the place, the names of people, and common objects in the setting. In news stories and books on tape, it grates to hear Kabul pronounced as Ka-Buwl, sahib pronounced as sa-heeb, Celtic pronounced as Seltic. If you write about a place, you should know how it is pronounced locally. It will come through in your writing.
2.     With exotic locations, including fantasy locations, maps can help orient a reader to the setting of the world of the story. Whether it is a map of a world or a map of a floor plan, consider including one or some either within or appended to your story.
3.     Research the people, culture, and subcultures of the location. Interactions between subcultures and counter-cultures with the main culture of a place are ripe with conflict for your story. Another source of potential conflict is when your protagonist is an outsider to the culture. If people in the setting are closed in outlook and limited in their experience of others, your character could have a challenge learning how to maneuver this new world. If people are open and friendly there are still clashes of culture, customs, and belief systems that can play turmoil with your character’s goals. Remember that what may be exotic to you as a writer is home to the people who live there. Knowing traditions and cultural norms, and understanding how those systems affect the daily lives of the people living there may help you find the elements necessary to craft a story with universal appeal.
4.     Know the history of a place and thread those historical details and references into setting descriptions to give the reader a deep sense of setting, layered with meaning. This works in fantasy settings as well. In Game of Thrones, for instance, frequent references to historical events and to legacies of the various family lines add meaning to the actions of the characters and provide a sense of their birthright.
5.     Setting impacts different people in different ways. Know your character before setting a scene in that character’s point of view. To write the paragraph at the beginning of this post, I created in my mind a character full of secrets who is ripe for an adventure. A romance novel with a wistful protagonist looking for love, would focus on the romantic elements of the setting instead. The details you choose to include should have something to do with the point of view character and the genre of the story. Setting also impacts characters in different ways when they are under pressure or out of their element. This can be a source of instant conflict.
6.     Any setting is exotic to someone who has never been there. Sometimes a fresh description of a well-known location can make a common setting exotic again.
7.     When researching your location, remember that photographs you may find on the internet or in a book can’t show the temperature or humidity or the insect life of a place. For example, on a recent trip to Thailand, my husband and I took hundreds of photographs. None showed the smothering effect of the heat and humidity, how simple actions became more difficult in that environment. All around us, ants of different sizes scurried everywhere. When we noticed a bright orange beetle at an elephant camp in the jungle, our guide vigorously stomped on it. He showed us a scar on his neck and said the beetle exudes an acid that eats through skin and gets infected in the muggy heat. Details like these can be used to add depth and texture to the theme and to the world of the story.
8.     Comparisons of an exotic setting with the more familiar settings of a character’s home can provide conflict as well as an emotional appeal to the reader. A character who is homesick and feeling isolated and distant from his or her family will experience a location differently from a character who has adapted to the place and feels at home among its people. Choose the details that mirror the emotions of the character or foreshadow the plot or theme. As with any story, don’t over-describe a palm tree if that tree will have nothing to do with the storyline. Unless your character is going to hide behind the tree, the reader does not need to know every detail about it. The details you choose to include, woven into the action of the story, help bring the scene alive. A list of setting details will lose your reader and distance them from the world of the story.
9.     Determine the purpose of a scene before adding exotic details. The details chosen to flesh out the setting should progress the goals of the scene, whether it is to advance the action of the story, highlight theme, or move a character from one location to another. A refugee forced to hide under a pile of snake skins to cross a border in the open back of a cargo truck will notice specific details such as the stench of the skins, the thick or smooth quality of the scales, and will know what type of poison her guards dipped their spears into. A tourist crossing the same border would notice other details such as how old the border guards are, the red tape required to cross, how close the guards scrutinize the vehicles and the individuals crossing at any given time. The details chosen for your scenes should mirror the characters’ emotions, expand the theme, and add tension to the story. Details set the mood, help the reader see the setting, and further the plot.
10.  To help anchor the reader in an exotic setting, sprinkle in similes and metaphors so that there are comparisons to what the reader may know of their own world.  
11.  Use all five senses, if possible, in each scene. The scent of Thai chilis cooking can make your character’s eyes water, choke their sinuses and fill the air with an unforgettable aroma. If your character’s respiratory system is in full reaction, coughing and sneezing from the pepper scent, they may not notice an attacker enter the room.
12.  Themes that can be paired with exotic locations include environmental themes such as deforestation, development, resources, exploitation. Conflict of indigenous populations with modern ones. Lifestyles vs. traditions. Fragile ecosystems, natural and un-natural boundaries and limits, blurred and disrupted borders. Ruins and crumbling structures contrasting with a jungle as a labyrinth. Mysterious creatures, monsters, spirits, enigmatic figures with supernatural powers. Found artifacts and gems, special objects. Dread, fear, darkness, horror, contrasted with awe, wonder, peace, and acceptance.
13.  Identification between a reader and the story is crucial. A familiar element to the story may help maintain a connection. If the setting is too different, or what happens in the plot is too shocking, readers may disconnect. Just as showing the photos of your last foreign trip to friends may cause their eyes to glaze over, readers may get bored if they don’t feel a connection or have a reason to care about the exotic setting and the lives of the characters in it. A shocking experience such as a coup, riot, or war, can be difficult for someone who has never left the U.S. to relate to. Our readers may understand the experience of a soldier in these situations to some extent, given that many Americans have either served in the military or know friends or family members who have served. Most Americans have no frame of reference for empathizing with a civilian caught in that sort of violence. There is a fine balance in the telling of these experiences. Careful selection of the details that will make a connection to keep our readers with us must be made early and kept in mind throughout the story.
14.  Be careful of making assumptions that may seem biased, racist, or offensive to a reader who is native to your chosen location. Be wary of using your setting as a backdrop for the bizarre or irrational as this has become a cliché in stories with exotic settings.
15.  Finally, a thought to keep in mind as you craft your story. “We all carry within us places of exile, our crimes, our ravages. Our task is not to unleash them on the world; it is to transform them in ourselves and others.” Albert Camus.
The mantra to write what you know about the emotions and motivations of human nature still apply, but it is possible to write about an unusual location just with careful research. A setting your protagonist is unfamiliar with immediately puts the character under some level of stress. An exotic setting can be treated like a character in your story, its characteristics naturally generating conflict, themes, and plot.
Jenni Gate is an accomplished wanderer and aspiring writer. Born in Libya and raised throughout Africa and Asia, Jenni’s upbringing as a global nomad provided a unique perspective on life. As a child, she lived in Libya, Nigeria, the Congo, Pakistan, the Philippines, and the Washington DC area. As an adult, she has lived in Alaska, England, and throughout the Pacific Northwest. Much of her work draws on her extensive experience in the legal field. Her published work includes several articles for a monthly business magazine in Alaska and a local interest magazine in Idaho. She has written several award-winning memoir pieces for writing contests. Jenni currently writes non-fiction, memoir, and fiction, drawing upon her global experiences.

To read more about Jenni's adventures around the world, visit her blog at Nomad Trails and Tales, like her page on Facebook, and follow her on Pinterest.


  1. Many of these tips apply equally well to writing about less exotic locations. Glad to have you here at SleuthSayers, Jenni.

  2. Great post! It all comes down to do your research. And it sounds like you have done a lot of that. Welcome aboard!

  3. Thanks, Eve. Yes, exotic settings have been a big part of my life, and growing up all over Africa and Asia definitely helps me with the research. But plenty of relevant details can be culled from photos and videos of a place when it's not possible to travel there. Thanks for the warm welcome!

  4. Fascinating, Jenni--thanks for the post. And welcome to SleuthSayers!

  5. A very interesting post, Jenni - I found your point about pronunciation most instructive. Will pass that on to my Crafting a Novel students.

  6. Thank you so much, John and Melodie. I'm glad you found food for thought here.

  7. Love your blog SleuthSayers.

    Great article, Jenni. You've made some really good points and I intend to use them in my writing. I've bookmarked so I can come back to it.

  8. Hi Dale, thanks for stopping by and commenting! Glad these helped.

  9. I bookmarked, too. Great points!


  10. Wow, thank you, Dixon! I'm happy so many writers are taking some ideas away from this.

  11. Great, informative poat, Jenni. I enjoyed reading it. And thanks again for pinch-hitting for me!


  12. Brian, you are so welcome. It's been a real honor. And I would love to pinch-hit again some time. :)

    Thanks so much for the opportunity to share here on Sleuthsayers.

  13. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.


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