Setting a Story in a Foreign Place

I’ve read plenty of books by plenty of authors. My typical experience is that most authors will set their stories in a single place. And occasionally branch out from there. But other times I’ll come across an author who sets stories in many different cities that are nothing alike. And my thought is they’re either a world traveler or they are great at research. It’s usually a mix of both.

For example, Michael Connelly set one of his Bosch stories (in part) in Japan. But as he was in the process of writing it he took a trip there and stayed for three weeks taking everything in. And also writing, of course. Suffice it to say that I don’t have that kind of money to be able to do that.

But I realized something recently. My second story was set in a different city I’d only visited once or twice. And as soon as I reached the point in the story in which Andrew had to make the trip I stopped writing. So I’m really thinking that my story didn’t work out because I didn’t know enough about the city to continue. I’d planned a short trip just to walk around and take in as much as I possibly could, but that never happened. For now and into the future I’ll just stick to the one city I know.

What about you? Have you ever set one of your stories in a city you didn’t know well?

26 thoughts on “Setting a Story in a Foreign Place

  1. I set my book in New Hampshire, a place I’ve never been. Most of the story takes place inside a giant void (hole in the ground). Hampton Roads published it last November. But I did do as much research as possible, including giant holes in the ground. It helps when no one else has been there, either.


  2. My first attempted novel was in a place I knew well, but my second (which I’m working on currently) is in a place I’ve never been to. However, since it’s a alternate reality, I can cheat because it doesn’t have to be exact.

    I have a story I’m afraid I’ll never be able to write because it’s set in Brazil, a place I’ve never been. So I definitely understand your hesitation. It’s hard to write a setting you don’t know, particularly since others WILL know it…


  3. Most of my story settings take place in places I’m familiar with. For cities that I’m not so familiar with, I either just make them up and give them a fake name or I open up Google Earth. Thanks to the street view, you can travel down a lot of roads and it’s really helped me add depth to the cities I wanted to include but don’t know well. Try it and see if it works for you. 🙂


  4. One of the things in hesitant about is setting my stories in places in the real world because I do not know places well enough. Its also one of the reasons I love writing fantasy, because creating my own worlds means I get to know my worlds well.
    When I start to go travelling though, I’m definitely going to explore writing in the real world.


  5. I routinely set my stories in foreign places – I love international adventure. Unfortunately, I’ve never actually been out of the country, and certainly couldn’t afford a three week trip to Japan or somewhere just for research. So it’s mostly a matter of dense Internet research. That, and my books usually don’t stay in one place for long, so I don’t need too deep a history of a foreign locale. Mostly just street names, major landmarks, how transportation and hospitality works, food, etc.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I also couldn’t just go somewhere for three weeks. But you’re right. Whenever someone would do this, it’s most likely not going to be for the duration if the work. So getting to know the things you mentioned would likely suffice in most situations.


  6. I read a book last year that was set in a place I know well. Beside the fact that he had too many characters, he did not know the area. He made it an area with German descendants, it is mostly Scandinavian. He had so much wrong, it ticked me off. I reviewed the book and said, he sounded like he had visited the Island as a rich Chicago tourist as a child and never really researched it before he wrote the book. Research the area if you are going to set your story there, or you may upset the natives, who aren’t the hicks you think we are.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I understand what everyone is saying about needing to visit places but … What if you write historical fiction? You can research as much as you like, but when it comes down to it, you have to make a certain amount up. I’m sure a lot of historians would have a problem with some of my hisotrical scenes – but I am writing fiction, not non fiction …


    • Yep. I’d say it’s not the worst thing in the world to create a city with a fake name that is modeled after a real one. Then it doesn’t gave to be 100% accurate. But readers would still know it.


  8. I used to write for an online-published anthology that was based in the Caribbean. Because the other authors of the anthology had chosen it before I was asked aboard, I didn’t have much choice. It was a fictional island of the Caribbean, but having never been in that area of the world, or any island, or well, anywhere really East of California, this was a challenge. I researched the hell out of that place. I watched Youtube videos: nature videos, cultural videos, and home movies by people in the Caribbean. I found online sources for radio stations in the islands and listened to those while looking at maps (DJ chatter and local commercials give a good flavor of the area). Writing about a Caribbean Island having lived my whole life in the desert was a lot of fun. I worked a lot of details into it. So much so that now that my stories are mine again and are being revised, moving the location from the island is incredibly hard. Palm trees, humidity, and monkeys are everywhere in the stories! Because of that opportunity, though, I’m not afraid of writing about places I’ve never visited. It’s always easier to “write what you know” but easy isn’t really the name of this game, I figure. As long as you do your best research and respect the place, like JustDeb pointed out, it’s all good.
    Oh, and never forget you can always find people from that area and ask them questions. To do research on a first-generation Indian character, I looked for and found a first-generation Indian to interview. When my friend wanted to write a cop story in my neck of the woods, I went out and got pictures of certain areas for her and she actually called the Highway Patrol and asked questions. I wouldn’t have been so brazen, but she said the officer was very polite and happy to help her get facts straight.


  9. Yes, I’ve created and written stories/books based in other cities and while it does take a heck of a lot of research, it’s also fun! I learned so much about the cities I set the books in, and while I do intend to visit them all someday, I think I have been accurate enough that natives to that city will accept my story. If setting is used more in the background, it doesn’t matter much where someone sets their story, as long as they don’t have the setting as a focal point.


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