Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Writing About Foreign Locations

By Chester Campbell

Writing mysteries with foreign locations can cause some difficulties, but when I started penning novels in the early nineties, I plunged ahead without hesitation. You do that when you're young (I was only sixty-seven then). My second book, still unpublished, was set largely in Korea, with smaller sections in Hungary and Thailand. I'm currently revising it with a new market in mind.

For the Korean part, I had the advantage of having spent a year in Seoul during the Korean War in 1952-53, plus a visit there during a tour of the Far East in 1987. I also had a Korean daughter-in-law who provided some information on customs in the country. I read lots of other views of the Hermit Kingdom, including those in various travel books.

The title of the book is The Poksu Conspiracy. Poksu in Korean means "vengeance." I found enough expressions in phrase books to give the story a realistic feel. Transliterations of Oriental languages with odd alphabets are notably inconsistent, but I tried to stick with spellings used in the media for better known words. After completion of the manuscript, I had it read by a Korean college student to catch any inaccuracies.

For the portion set in Thailand, I used the area around Chaing Mai, a popular tourist destination in the northern part of the country. In checking on Google, I found the city has grown tremendously in the past quarter century. The metropolitan area now includes a million population. I had visited Chaing Mai as part of that month-long Far East tour in 1987.

The Hungarian setting was a bit different. I had never visited that part of Europe. I read several books to get a feel for the people and the country. My chapters were set in Budapest, and I found a copy of National Geographic that included lots of good photos and details of locations I used in the story.

Using foreign locations in mysteries isn't all that difficult if you're willing to do the research. As best I recall, Martin Cruz Smith wrote Gorky Park without ever visiting the Soviet Union. Reading the book, you'd have thought he had lived there. Have you written foreign locations? If so, how did you handle it?

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Nancy said...

Good to know it can be done without having to travel everywhere, altho I love traveling. I have several novels set in foreign lands, such as Israel, Libya and Maine (well, Maine *feels* foreign). At the time of their writing, there was no Google, so I have copious books. The novel set in Israel was also set in the time of Christ, so I also have copious history books including Josephus. The time was harder than the location as I recall.

Jaden Terrell said...

Chester, my brother-in-law was stationed in Budapest for awhile, so he and Nikki could both tell you a lot about the area.

I look forward to reading the book on Korea. JABBERWOCKY was terrific.

Mark W. Danielson said...

Chester, I believe the old adage of "write what you know" still applies here. While Google Earth provides amazing vistas of international locations, it cannot provide any sense of its smells, crowded streets, manner of dress, sewage, electrical wiring, building condition, or attitude.

I had the pleasure of dining with Martin Cruz Smith a few years ago and eagerly listened to his tales of living in the Soviet Union after literally smuggling himself in. His time over there gave him a well-developed sesnse of the things I previously mentioned.

Google Earth and Google are excellent sources for updating one's knowledge, but it is very difficult to accurately describe foreign locations without having been there.