Monday, January 26, 2009

Armchair Globetrotting for the Earthbound Writer

"I want to write about other countries and cultures as vividly as you do, but I don't have your opportunities to travel. I'm housebound in suburbia with a spouse and children. I've researched my setting thoroughly, but how do I make everyday details ring true?"

It is one of the most common questions I receive as a writing instructor. Almost as common as commentary from someone who has traveled to one of my novel settings. "Iguazu Falls are exactly as you described them (or Ciudad del Este, Lake Titicaca, the Colombian Amazon, a Central American biosphere). I felt I was walking through the pages of your novel." Or from a local, "I see from your book you were here. It's so nice to have a writer get us right."

Granted, you can't beat personal, on-the-ground experience, and I've been privileged to experience first-hand a variety of countries and cultures. But let me make a confession. I have not been to all the places I've written about (though most), and some I've visited after-the-fact, only to discover with my readers that they were exactly as I had imagined--and wrote. How did I pull it off? More importantly, how can you? The secret is as simple as it is mind-boggling, one of the great privileges of being a writer at this particular point on the timeline.


Yes, that's all there is to it. Simple, garden-variety blogs. There is no longer a distant, exotic spot on our planet where tourists, expat personnel, or even locals, have not only passed through, but been motivated to chronicle their adventures on-line in endless, detailed prose. Better yet, with countless snapshots of their journey (if you are one of these, please don't consider this a negative; on the contrary, I love it. Keep it up!). Do you want to write an authentically hair-raising confrontation with Turkish soldiers at a Mt. Ararat military checkpoint (not to mention cockroaches in the hotel bed that night)? The sights and sounds and smells of walking a cloud forest trail--or visiting the residents of a Third World city dump? A private security contractor bash in Kabul complete with demining robot programmed to serve drinks? (hey, I couldn't make this stuff up!) If you can't go yourself, travel with those who have.

A few tips for using blogs as effective research tools:

1) Read as wide a variety of blogs as possible. Different travelers have different experiences and takes on local life, but if you read enough of them, you can pick up a good sense of your setting. If ten blogs all describe the same spiderwebs lacing the walkways and coatimundis (an adorable, but badly-behaved cross between monkey and raccoon) stealing lunch at Iguazu Falls or the constant dust and diesel smell of Kabul, chances are using those particular details will make your writing ring true to the knowledgeable.

2) Use blogs to get inside characters' hearts and minds. Reading blogs of the actual character types you are writing about is a great asset in bringing their fictional counterparts to believable life. The frustration of being a female aid worker in a Muslim country. The pride of mission in a Special Forces medic saving an Afghan villager's life. The confusion and anger and curiosity about Western life of a Pakistani medical student. All are insights as valuable as a one-on-one interview (and sometimes more so, I can attest personally). For writing my most recent novel, Veiled Freedom, set in Afghanistan, I followed blogs of humanitarian aid workers and diplomatic personnel, U. S. military, Afghan students, and more.

3) Set your computer to Google Alerts. Again, for Veiled Freedom, I kept a Google Alert both for general Afghanistan news and for Afghanistan blogs during the entire writing process (I still am for the sequel I'm currently writing). The result was a constant, up-to-date flow of data and local color during the writing process. This is simple enough to do by following instructions on the Google (or other browser) home page. I set mine to arrive once a day to my email inbox.

Of course the next question is how to weave a plausible reality if you can't uncover those necessary details. But that's for another session . . .

1 comment:

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