Tips for Distant Settings

Things I’ve learned about setting a book in real places, especially distant ones.

Distant SettingsWhen the Hubster and I decided to celebrate our 50th anniversary with a trip to the British Isles, of course I had “book” in the back of my mind. However, an international setting wouldn’t have worked with any of my existing series, and since I never plot in advance, I decided to enjoy our tour, taking pictures and notes of what we were seeing and doing and just wait and see what might bubble to the surface.

Distant SettingsOur trip began in Northern Ireland with a visit to our daughter, who had pointed out that she moved there 12 years ago and we’d never visited. From there, we had a couple days in London where I got to meet one of my critique partners face to face for the first time. Given we’d been in our little group for about 15 years, that was another “it’s about time” moment.

From there, we visited Scotland, and then Ireland. When we got home, I decided I’d write a short and sweet romance. Write it quickly, understanding that it’s not my true “brand” but that I had to publish something to justify writing off at least part of the trip.

Well, I soon discovered I’m not a short and sweet romance author, and mystery elements insisted on working their way into the story. What I ended up with is Heather’s Chase: an International Mystery Romance which is closer to my brand, although it’s a stand alone and still a bit of a one off. Nevertheless, it was an educational experience.

My Tips

Distant SettingsLess is more. My first drafts went into phenomenal detail about absolutely everything. Airports. Train stations. Hotels. Food. All the places we stopped, what we saw on the drives. Given we were traveling for well over two weeks, that would have been a LONG book. A sense of place is good. Overwhelming readers is not. I had to keep reminding myself to make sure everything related to the plot and characters. I wasn’t writing a travelogue.

Stay true to time. Readers familiar with the area will know that you can’t get from A to B in two hours, or that when you’ve had your characters on their bus for five hours, it’s really a twenty-minute drive.

Distant SettingsYou’ll always miss something. Unless you’ve got your plot mapped out before your trip, once  you start writing, you’ll have a scene to write and—lo and behold—you missed taking a picture, or didn’t take the right notes. I spent a LOT of time on the internet rechecking facts, looking at maps, and refamiliarizing myself with some of the attractions we visited. If I couldn’t find exactly what I needed, I reminded myself I was writing fiction—another reason not to name real places. On the occasions where my characters were eating in real, named places, I made sure I had pictures and menus. Same for attractions.

Distant SettingsDon’t make up real stuff. One of the reasons I made this book a stand alone was because our trip didn’t include visits to police departments (although I snapped a picture of a vehicle in Ireland, “just in case”). Also, it would be unrealistic for my American characters to have any access to law enforcement in several different countries.

Be nice. I also opted not to name the specific hotels or restaurants (mostly). For one thing, it gave me the freedom to change the décor, layout, amenities, or the restaurant menus. And, if something “bad” happened, I wasn’t going to incur the wrath of those establishments.

It’s about flavor. Although my characters didn’t visit Northern Ireland, I did include a character from the same town we’d visited when we stayed with my daughter. I made sure she vetted all his dialogue. For example, people in Northern Ireland use the word “wee” as a meaningless adjective. I was asked for my wee credit card, given a wee receipt, offered a wee bag for my purchases. My British critique partner was very helpful with vocabulary as well.

All in all, I had a great time ‘revisiting’ my trip to the British Isles while I was writing the book, and being able to incorporate my experiences into Heather’s Chase.

Want to see more pictures? Click on the book cover below, then scroll down to “Special Features.”

Heather's ChaseMy  Mystery Romance, Heather’s Chase, is  available at most e-book channels. and in print from Amazon.

Terry Odell is an award-winning author of Mystery and Romantic Suspense, although she prefers to think of them all as “Mysteries with Relationships.” Follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

20 thoughts on “Tips for Distant Settings

  1. Terry, I bought Heather’s Chase and enjoyed it, being able to “see” the places your characters went. In my current WIP, the good guys are running from Washington DC, through Amsterdam, Paris, (maybe) and ending in Cape Town. I’ve been to all of these places, flying, backpacking, riding the trains, and driving, plus I have thousands of pictures, but when it comes to putting the words on paper, my characters can’t seem to fit in my exact path. I’ve settled for trying to give a general feel for the places they go. What they hear, smell, see, reactions (mine, my husband’s) some conversations I noted, and experiences that might be universal to anyone visiting these locations will, I hope, convey the correct feel of being there. I guess we’ll see, if I ever get it finished. ?

    • First, so glad you enjoyed Heather’s Chase, and were able to spend some time in the British Isles with them. What worked for me when writing was getting everything down first, then reading to see if those descriptions helped the story followed by a liberal use of the delete key. One or two elements of each location is usually enough to convey the flavor, especially if you have two Americans trying to relate what they’re seeing to their own experiences. And everything should tie in to the reasons they’re there.

      I had a job in Cape Town long ago, but rarely got out of the conference center. (Which is why we toured Africa for three weeks before the job started. Never used it as a setting, though.)
      Good luck with your book! As JSB would say, “Carpe Typem.”

  2. Terry, I enjoyed a vicarious trip to the British Isles while reading Heather’s Chase. You hit the right balance of setting details, plot, and pace. The story kept moving forward and didn’t get bogged down with too much description. Very well done!

    Isn’t it funny how those darn characters keep wandering off the path you planned for them?

    Thanks to you, I tasted local foods but didn’t gain weight! The photos of the welcome greetings you received from the places you stayed were delightful. How nice they took the time to recognize your anniversary.

    • Thanks so much, Debbie. I have to give our travel agent credit for arranging all those welcomes. Sadly, nothing we ate was calorie-free.
      This book was truly full of surprises for me, some created by the limitations of the setting given their circumstances, but sometimes, I had to let them lead the way. I’ll confess, sometimes they led me down dead ends, but we worked things out.

  3. I wrote a similar type book early on and was surprised when a “native” called me out on my descriptions. “You shouldn’t write about places you haven’t been,” except I HAD been. Clearly, I had offended her sense of place, so I did change some of my venues, oddly enough, to places I hadn’t been.

    • Funny how we can all go to the same place and see things differently. Or the “natives” haven’t been there in a while, and things do change. Another reason not to go into great depths with descriptions.

  4. Good topic and interesting tips, Terry.

    Things are a little different for me writing Historical Fiction/Fantasy/Time Travel. It’s not so much the real contemporary settings, which I visit, but what they were like 400 or 40,000 years ago. So no brochures, no hotels, nothing modern at all. In fact, in my current Neanderthal series, I invent Writing! (bet I’m the only here who can say that 😉

    • I remember a children’s book (which was a LONG time ago) where they invented the alphabet.
      But made up settings do avoid the realism factor, as long as you’re consistent with the worlds you build. I know I’d forget to track something.

  5. Great tips, Terry. I’m a fan of making up fictional versions of places, establishments an chains. It’s fun and keeps me off the hook.

    I love your photos! We returned to Ireland in the summer of 2019, the Republic, and loved it as much as the first time in 2010. I was struck at the Cliffs of Moher at the tourists who weren’t heeding the warning signs about staying away from the edge of the crumbling cliff face, but that’s people for you 🙂

    • Dale – we were there in September of 2019. The most memorable takeaway from the Cliffs of Moher (aside from the fact that I live at 9100 feet in the Colorado Rockies, so hardly impressive) was the sign in the restrooms requesting people not wash their footgear in the sinks.
      The first made it into the book (since the characters were from Colorado), but the second lies on the cutting room floor.

  6. Congratulations, Terry, on releasing Heather’s Chase. I just grabbed a copy from Amazon and I’m looking forward to reading it now that I know some of your adventures in writing it.

    My husband and I love Scotland. We’re also fans of Alfred Hitchcock’s film “The 39 Steps.” When we were in Scotland, we went all over the place looking for locations from the film. We met scads of charming locals and had such fun. Now that I’m writing mysteries, I’d love to set one in Scotland. It’s the perfect backdrop for suspense.

    • Thanks, so much, Kay. Hope you enjoy the trip. My daughter was an extra in Game of Thrones when they were filming in Belfast. They have huge tour busloads of people looking at locations. We did get to Giant’s Causeway, but as we drove the coastal route home, she would just point and say–“if you go down that way there’s a big field where I stood around all day.”
      I grew up in the Los Angeles/Hollywood/Beverly Hills area, so seeing production companies set up with big trailers, etc., was the norm. My mom tells the story of seeing something like that when she and my dad were in Hawaii, and it took a moment, but she made Dad turn around because… they were in Hawaii, not LA, and MAGNUM PI!! TOM SELLECK!

  7. It’s usually easy to spot a “I’m going to take this trip off as a writing expense” novel by the sheer amount of travelogue going on. Good on you for not falling into this trap.

    The stranger in a strange land viewpoint character is a great protection against minor goofs outside of the landscape and other specifics. The mistake then becomes the character’s, not the author’s.

    • “The mistake then becomes the character’s, not the author’s.”

      So true, Marilynn, and I stand by that statement. I did get good advice (you got that wrong!) from my London-based critique partner.

  8. Terry, thanks so much for the terrific advice, particularly (but not exclusively) “Don’t make up real stuff.” Love it!

    • Thanks, Joe. Yeah, people will jump down your throat if you get the carpet color wrong. Sometimes a reference to a generic, well-know restaurant chain, for example, will paint the picture quickly for readers, but after setting one of my books in Orlando, I decided there was a good reason to make up my own towns.

  9. Terrific tips, Terry (try saying that five times fast 😉 ). The first book of one of my series shows Revere MA how it looked when I lived there back in the day. Even though I dated the book to align with that era, some readers from the area still called me out in reviews. Many of the businesses don’t exist today. Since then I’ve been much more careful about mentioning specifics unless they’re national landmarks. Much safer to invent a fictional diner, for example, in a real location.

    • I remember a scene set in a particular restaurant near where I lived. (Loved doing the research for that one!), and about 3 weeks after the book came out, the restaurant closed. So now it seems as though I made it up. 😉

  10. Accept the fact that you are going to get something wrong. Someone will call you out that the Thursday special at the Plump Hen on Estherbrook Street is not liver & onions. Just tell a good story and know that there will be an angry email.

    Also, Google maps in satellite and street view can be your friend. Just look at the dates of the pictures. But you will know how many hotels are on that street if you need to.

    • Good reminders, Alan. Even though I’d been to the places my characters had visited, I spent quite a bit of time on Google Earth. And Google Maps. And searches of the hotels’ and attractions’ websites, which posed a new set of problems as everything was closed for the pandemic, and some of the sites were kind of like, “Well, since you can’t be here anyway, we don’t need to show you everything.”

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