Saturday, September 11, 2010

Writing About Faraway Places

I was more brave in my early days of novel writing when it came to the subject of setting. In my more recent published mysteries, I've stuck mostly with locales that I visited personally. Sometimes I brushed up my recollection with trips to the Internet or maps or books, but I described places as I had seen them with my own eyes.

My first post-Cold War thriller, which remains unpublished, though not because of its settings, began in Vienna. At the time (1990) I had never visited the Austrian capital, but I read lots of descriptions and stories about its role as a hotbed of espionage activity. It fit the bill for the ambiance I needed in my story. The scene took place in a restaurant. I didn't identify its location, so I would have no problem with the geography.

A little later in the book, I sent the protagonist to Israel for a rendezvous in the old port city of Jaffa. I read several travel guides and structured the area as best I could figure it. I dodged a bullet on that one. When I visited the area eight years later, I discovered it was quite different from what I had imagined.

I placed another scene on Cyprus. For this one I used a deserted area on the cost in the Turkish section of the island. I had no qualms about this one. Then one of the main characters journeyed to Hong Kong, a place I had spent a few days in about three years earlier. I felt comfortable in my descriptions there.

The final chapters took place in Toronto, another city I had visited a few years earlier. All in all I was rather pleased at my coverage of faraway places, some of which I had never seen. But others have done an even more credible job. Martin Cruz Smith in Gorky Park and Joseph Finder's The Moscow Club, written in he early eighties, both read as if the writers had an inside look at Soviet Russia.