In Another Place, Not Here: Writing Exotic Locales

How to set your story in a non-canon world | © kevron2001

Ah, the thrill of travel! Exploring new horizons, indulging in unfamiliar foods, and taking in sights only ever glimpsed in a guidebook holds endless appeal for us humans. We’re explorers at heart, and even if you hate the expense and inconvenience of traveling, chances are you like to read about places you’ve never been. That goes double (and maybe even triple) for fanfic writers. We live and breathe our canon. Whether our stories are set in the shadowy halls of Hogwarts, the steel-and-glass canyons of New York City, or a tiny shack in the Canadian wilderness, we’re intimately familiar with the daily environs of our favorite characters.

There are lots of good reasons to set your story in a non-canon setting. Choosing to do so can offer a unique, refreshing, and standout story that your readers will love. You can tease out different aspects of your characters by placing them in a challenging environment (How would a young wizard fare in Antarctica?), create interpersonal conflict and drama (again, travel often equals discomfort and stress), and best of all, you can share your enthusiasm for another place or country with a fellow fan.

There are a few things to consider before you sit down to pen your magnum opus about Will and Hannibal opening a B&B in Brighton, however. Do you know the location well enough to write about it fairly, accurately, and with enough detail to satisfy your readers and craft a believable setting for your characters? If you’ve never been to Honolulu or Mumbai or Reykjavik before, your readers will be able to tell, unless of course you do your homework and carefully consider what details you want to include. Part of the beauty of the internet is that your audience is from all over the world, and as a result, it’s more than likely that at least someone will have visited or lived in your chosen setting, no matter how remote it may seem.

If you don’t have any firsthand knowledge of your chosen setting, you can (and should!) research. Google is a wonderful tool and so is Wikipedia. But I’d urge you to cast a wider net and consult travel guides, documentaries and films, blogs and podcasts, and even other fiction novels and short stories that are set in the place you want to write about. Even watching first-person YouTube videos of street scenes from your host city can be illuminating: traffic patterns, weather, what people wear, what kind of shops are available, and what kind of vehicles people use can add local detail that enhances the setting of your story.

Another great source of information is your fellow fan. There are numerous communities on LiveJournal, Tumblr and Reddit that will check your story for real-life inconsistencies. People love to talk about where they live, what their daily routine looks like, and what the socio-cultural realities are in their home country. Take everything people say with a grain of salt, of course—we humans may be explorers, but we’re also tribal creatures, given to prejudice and biased opinions—but listen to what your beta readers and local experts have to say. As a fiction writer, it’s your prerogative to make stuff up, of course, but accuracy, fairness, and attention to detail are key to writing a successful story.

A final tip: be critical of your own biases, assumptions, and prejudices. If you’ve chosen to set your story in a conflict zone or a location with high levels of poverty, inequality, or political unrest, be aware of those issues. (Again: research is your friend!) Listen to that internal Authorial Voice, the one that tells you if a plot twist feels wrong or worries that you haven’t fully captured the dynamics of your OTP. If you think you might offend someone by characterizing a place, person, or even a time period incorrectly, I’d recommend getting a second opinion. Try running that detail past several beta readers first or ask for general feedback on an online community frequented by residents of that location. If you still think it might not be right, jettison it entirely. It’s exciting to see a place where you’ve lived or traveled featured in a story; it’s crushing to see it misrepresented, mischaracterized, or misunderstood.

Getting familiar with your exotic setting, finding a local willing to beta or question about specifics, doing your research, and above all, writing about your setting in a fair and accurate way will win over your readers and give you a chance to stretch your skills at displacing your characters in space and time.

Recommended Resource: Fantasy Worldbuilding Questions By Patricia C. Wrede
If you feel ready to start writing about an exotic locale, start by consulting a WorldBuilding guide. Fantasy writers use these question sets all the time, but they’re equally applicable to real-life settings. The questions asked in the guide—what are the local customs? Slang? Architectural styles? What does the currency look like?—will help you nail down those critical details, even if you don’t end up using them in your final draft.

About Anne Barton (1 Article)
Anne Barton has been involved in online fan culture since 1996. She’s written for various fandoms including Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Star Trek, Firefly, DC Comics, Due South, and X-Men: First Class.

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