Foreign Settings: Been there…or not?

by | Aug 19, 2018 | Karna Small Bodman | 9 comments

…Submitted by Karna Small Bodman

We Rogues have been writing about the use of foreign settings in our thrillers, so the question is: must we have traveled there…or is doing great research enough to “transport” the reader to just the right location? When the updated version of my international thriller, Final Finesse, was released this week, in both print and kindle versions, I thought back to the way I described all of the settings  (along with the local personalities). 

Caracas, Venezuela

Much of the action in this story takes place in Venezuela where a top advisor to their President has put together a deadly plot against the United States….one that my heroine, who is on The White House staff, must race to unravel.  However, I didn’t have a chance to get to Caracas, nor did I really want to travel to a place with tremendous crime and one riddled with corruption where inflation has hit one million percent (though that number is reported in news articles, I can’t for the life of me figure out how that “works”) Here is a once lovely country blessed with many natural resources, where now — under a brutal Socialist Dictator — the people have little food or medicine and are desperate to escape the appalling conditions. You have to admit that a country and government like that present a veritable petri dish of possible plot points. And there was one I really wanted to write.

What to do?  First I contacted our former Ambassador to Venezuela, Otto Reich,  who graciously agreed to meet and fill me in on details about the governing situation (dire)  the settings (modern buildings vs. tin-roofed huts) and the people (warm and loving, but truly hurting).  Next, I read tons of news reports and articles, collected photos and also spent time with a former CIA agent — a contact who gave me invaluable information, even showing me documents, but did not want to be named on the Acknowledgements page. Now that the book is out, if you decide to pick up a copy, I certainly hope you will feel you have “been there” along with my hero and heroine.

Of course many authors DO travel to exotic locations and weave those experiences into their books.  One of my favorite writers is Nelson DeMille whose last novel, The Cuban Affair, was inspired by a trip he took to Cuba with a college group where they were “led” (“watched”) by government- provided guides. Yet he still was able to get away from time to time and collect a ton of impressions for this great story about a boat Captain from Key West, hired by Cuban ex-pats to go there, escape surveillance and recover a buried fortune. 

On the subject of Cuba, I’m a member of three book clubs, and one of them selected Love and Ruin by Paula McLain — the story of Ernest Hemingway’s third wife, Martha Gellhorn who was a great novelist in her own right.  The author certainly did a great job researching this story and  describing settings in Spain during the uprising against Franco where both “Marty” and Ernest began their love affair, as well as in Cuba where they spent many years together.  

Ernest Hemingway and his third wife, Martha Gellhorn

Then I thought about another bestselling author who has carved out a special niche by writing 27 mysteries set in Venice, Italy.  Donna Leon has mastered the art of describing that historic city by giving her readers a taste not just of famous tourist sites, but scenes in back alleys, private homes, even the inside of local police stations as she features Commissario Guide Brunetti who works tirelessly to solve local crimes. From her vivid writing, it is obvious that she has LIVED in Venice for many years.  Her latest endeavor is The Temptation of Forgiveness.  

Of course many of my Rogue colleagues have written great thrillers with intriguing, often dangerous settings — places they traveled (at their peril). For example, Chris Goff went to Ukraine along with hot spots in Asia and wrote about them in the terrific story, Red Sky. When I read it, I felt I truly was “transported” to places I knew I would not be able to visit – and yet “felt” I was right there as the action unfolded.  

Now, what about you? What are some of your favorite books that take place in exotic locations? Or, are there places where have you traveled and said to yourself, “This would make a great setting for a great thriller?”  Leave a comment below, or on our Facebook page (click the icon at the upper right).  And thanks for visiting us here on Rogue Women Writers.

…Karna Small Bodman

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  1. Robin Burcell

    Great question. I know that my books always benefit when I've been there. But the next best thing (when you don't have the wonderful resource of knowing someone in government!) is Google street maps. In fact, I've used it when I couldn't remember a certain location, and found that my photographs didn't picture exactly what I needed. (Of course, I've also taken fictional liberties with locations, which, I'm sure does not please the people who live there, but was necessary to add some color or further the plot. So for every time I've done it, sending my apologies!)

  2. Karna Bodman

    You are right, Robin — Google maps (and Google earth) can be a great help. As for government sources, most embassies have videos on their websites that also can be invaluable – to the "home bound" author.

  3. Lisa Black

    I had to rewrite the ending of Takeover after I actually visited the site and realized it would be impossible for a car to drive right into Lake Erie from the end of East 9th Street, because of the huge concrete stanchions in the way!

  4. Jamie Freveletti

    Venezuela is a fascinating place right now, and glad you got the information you needed. I went to Colombia for my first, Running from the Devil, but stuck to safer areas, like Cartagena. Congratulations on the launch of Final Finesse this week!

  5. Muffy Wilson

    Wonderful blog post, Karna. I enjoyed it immensely. I have never tried my hand a thrillers as I am highly intimidated but oh how tempting you make it sound. We traveled extensively growing up and any excuse to travel back to favorite places, and in time, would be welcome to do what we love most, wouldn't it. ***sigh*** Wonderful piece. Thanks so much, Penny Jiuditta

  6. Gayle Lynds

    Great blog, Karna. I have a collection of National Geographics going back to the 70s — first because I fell in love with the writing and the articles, and then as I began to write novels I realized what a resource they were for local color. Since then, I've been a travel hound through books, magazines, and airline tickets. One of my favorite questions from readers is whether I've visited all of the locations in my books. No one has yet been able to guess which ones I've gone to and those I've researched. Research is just an excuse to satisfy one's curiosity, right? 🙂

  7. Karna Bodman

    Lisa – Interesting that you were able to edit Takeover after your trek over there. Then again, we all try for "verisimilitude" – right? Jamie – it's great to visit Colombia – right now I don't think I would venture to very many hot spots in South America….to "scary!" And Gayle, yes National Geographic is a wonderful source, filled with incredible photos (that we are often able to "capture" and post on our blogs). I'll have to remember that for future reference…thanks.

  8. August

    Absolutely fascinating post! What ingenious ways to get to the heart of your research. And one million percent inflation?! It's hard to imagine. Now I'm very intrigued to check out your book! 🙂 As for books with exotic locations, I love the many Agatha Christie mysteries set in the Middle East, where she spent lots of time with her archaeologist second husband. You can really tell the 'local color' comes from firsthand experience.

  9. Chris Goff

    Thank you so much for the shout out, Karna. I can't wait to read FINAL FINESSE. Congrats on the new release!