One of my favorite things to read in fiction is a story where the protagonist ventures into a foreign land, preferably one where he’s never been before. The sights and sounds and smells of what he’s exposed to come through with an appealing authenticity – provided the writer has done their job properly. There’s nothing worse than reading about a location you’re familiar with and seeing that the author screws up a basic fact any tour book would know better. And we’ve certainly all seen feature films supposedly shot in certain cities or towns that look nothing like the real place.
I’ve been fortunate to write on the Rogue Angel series for Harlequin’s Gold Eagle imprint. The series hero, Annja Creed, is a female Indiana Jones-type globe-trotting in search of relics and rogues. She’s never in the same place twice and that presents me, the writer, with a challenge every time I sit down to craft a new adventure for her.
Sometimes, it’s easy. My most recent non-Rogue Angel novel, The Kensei out this week from St. Martin’s Press, takes the hero Lawson to Japan for some advanced ninjutsu training. I’ve been to Japan many times and have studied ninjutsu there with the grandmaster of the tradition, so writing The Kensei was very much an exercise in dredging my memory for the experiences I’d personally had. I know the feel of heated seats on the subway lines. I’ve laughed at the absurdity of putting the non-smoking section of the McDonald’s in Kashiwa on the second floor while all the smokers on floor one watch their exhalations drift up. And I’ve felt the joy of entering some of the coolest toy stores on the planet.
But how does a writer present an authentic sense of place and culture if they’ve never been there before?
Fortunately, in the 21st century, we have the benefit of the Internet. While a lot of people go to Wikipedia for their information, I prefer to plumb the depths of social media. Connected as we are with Facebook and Twitter among others, chances are good that one of my contacts has either been to the location I need help with or knows someone who has. Connections and introductions are made via email or Skype and then we’re off.
From there, it’s simply a matter of asking the right questions. I generally start by asking what their initial impressions of the country were when they stepped off the plane. How was the airport? What were the customs people like to deal with? Did they speak English? Did they seem to harbor any resentment toward Americans? What about taking a taxi into the city? What were the sights like? Do they have any pictures?
This back-and-forth is intelligence gathering at a very simple, yet effective level. Sometimes my questions will prompt a further explanation or provoke a gut response they had forgotten about. That’s when you know you’re getting something good. I’ve lost count of the times when one of my interview subjects gave me a memory that, to them, seemed innocuous, but enabled me to layer it into a character, further providing a layer of detail that cinched the scene together better.
And if I can’t find anyone in my network that has been to the location in question, I’ll opt to use Google to search for online travel journals. Maybe someone on Flickr has posted pictures of their trip. If they have, then I’ll reach out and ask if I can send them some questions. Almost all of the time, they’re happy to help if you explain that you’re a writer and their information is appreciated.
Taking that information back to the manuscript is more than simply sticking it in. I sort through what I’ve got and then frame scenes around nuggets of detail. I dislike long paragraphs thick with exposition. I’d rather sculpt a scene and stick something into a snippet of dialogue. It feels more genuine placed into the flow of the story that way, rather than dangling in the midst of a page of text. To me, that’s somewhat disruptive to the flow of the story. It’s one of my gripes with technothrillers that take pages to explain a bit of high-tech gadgetry; I’d rather get back to sticking my characters into dangerous places.
Done properly, details about foreign locations or cultural differences can truly add a nice dimension to a story or novel. The reader gets an extra bit of knowledge that rings true to them and doesn’t feel as though they’ve just at through a travel lecture. Done poorly and it jars the reader out of the fictive dream, threatening the stability of the entire work.
For me, acquiring the necessary information to properly paint a scene and layer it into the story seamlessly is an important part of creating a great book, like The Kensei. The giant video monitors juxtaposed next to ancient wooden temples and streets filled with breakdancers and noodle stands help transport the reader exactly where I want them to go.
And once they buy into that part of the story, I have them exactly where I want them.
As a writer, Jon has published over a dozen novels including four Lawson Vampire adventures (2002-2003) with Kensington’s Pinnacle Books, the Jake Thunder mystery/thriller Danger-Close (2004) with Five Star Mystery/Thorndike Press, and eleven installments in the internationally bestselling adventure series Rogue Angel (2006-present) with Harlequin’s Gold Eagle line. His latest thriller Parallax debuted in March 2009 as an exclusive ebook. Praised by bestselling authors like Robert B. Parker, Douglas Clegg, and Thomas Monteleone, Jon’s novels will continue to thrill readers for many years to come. His short fiction story “PRISONER 392″ (appeared alongside Stephen King in From the Borderlands, 2004, Warner Books) earned him an Honorable Mention in 2004’s Year’s Best Fantasy & Horror edited by Ellen Datlow. Jon has also co-authored two non-fiction books: Learning Later, Living Greater with Nancy Merz Nordstrom (2006, Sentient Publications) and The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Ultimate Fightingwith Rich “Ace” Franklin (2007, Alpha Books/Penguin/Putnam) Jon’s next Lawson Vampire novel, The Kensei, will be out in Spring 2011 from St. Martin’s Press. He can be found online at www.jonfmerz.net.