Six Tips For Writing About Exotic Locations In Thrillers

by | May 31, 2017 | The Writer's Life | 5 comments

by Jamie Freveletti

Sunset in Puerto Vallarta Mexico

Think that as a writer you’ll be able to sit in an exotic locale and write? Well, you’re half right, I’ve been known to write in any number of exotic locations, but not for the reasons one would think. I’ve written in Mexico, Brazil, Colombia, Chile, Argentina, Germany, England, Italy and every August in Anguilla, where my family and I would spend two weeks on vacation.

But more often than not I’ve been writing because my daily word count requires that I do. And don’t get me wrong, I love it, but there is definitely something to be said for actually seeing the sunset rather than writing like a crazy woman on a laptop as the sun sets around her. Luckily, I usually write in the early am, so sunsets do not occur without me noticing. Like this one above, taken from the rooftop pool at the Hotel Mousai in Puerto Vallarta with a margarita in hand while my laptop remained locked in the hotel safe. 
So let me get to the tips of writing in exotic locales. Some are practical, and some just an observation from my experience and you can take them or leave them as you see fit. 
1. Sadly, most places you’ll write about in thrillers are just too dangerous to visit.
My first book, Running From The Devil, was set in Colombia during the time of the FARC paramilitary kidnappings. I obtained most of my information from interviews with locals and research, research and more research. Towards the end I was able to fly to Cartagena to visit one of the beaches that I used for the final scene of the book. I checked into the Sofitel there–past the soldier guarding the door with a machine gun and a German Shepherd police dog, and was told by the concierge that a kidnapping at the beach just three weeks ago made it too dangerous for me to attempt. None of the hotel management thought it was a good idea. At all. l made do with more interviews and stayed near the hotel.
My second book, Running Dark, was set partially in Somalia. More interviews with Somalis here in the US and one reporter who was there as we corresponded by email. Not a chance for me to travel there safely, he warned. More research ensued.
2. But the limitations above will often work in your favor.
The biggest mistake some writers make is when they assume that their experience of a location is all that’s required. This is not true. Though I’ve visited St Martin many many times in my annual trips to Anguilla–we fly there and charter a boat because there are no direct flights in the summer, my actual knowledge of St. Martin was superficial. Sure, I could describe the island as I drove it, could describe the airport, even could talk about the interior, but it took actual research to discover the political and social issues that St. Martin was grappling with. Tourists don’t learn of these unless they ask. These issues ended up in my fourth book, Dead Asleep, but I would not have known them had I simply relied on my travel there. Word to the wise, even if you think you are well versed in an area, research will show you even more. Just like those times you’ve had visitors to your home town, taken them around, and ended up learning more about the city in which you live. 
3. Travel blogs are your friend.
My upcoming Emma Caldridge book is set partially in the Sahara desert. Big portions of the book take place in Mauritania. Not a tourist destination. My research made it sound like a bleak place with lovely people but few natural resources or industry to speak of, and even less opportunity. To research this country, I found blogs written by Peace Corps members and intrepid travelers with photos and video. In many cases these were even better than had I been there, because they had a local connection through their Peace Corps posting. Look for these bloggers. They’ll really give you an inside scoop into an area. 
4. Always try to read local newspapers. 
You’ll learn about the issues affecting the locals and you’ll get a feel for the underbelly of an area. This is even applicable to here in the US. For my first Ludlum book, The Janus Reprisal, I happened to be researching the large ports of Europe and discovered a small report in an Italian paper (in English) about the local police intercepting a shipment of guns with bayonets attached that were hidden in a cargo ship sailing a route between Italy and North Carolina. The reporter noted that this shipping route originated elsewhere, but was a common one for contraband smuggling. I used the information to create a fictional shipment. That report was a great help.  
5. Think about insects and wildlife.
If your locale is exotic it’s likely the wildlife is as well. Look into the insects that thrive and the local animals. Check out to see if they have wild dogs, feral pigs, vampire bats, and scorpions. Even ritzy hotels in tropical climates have geckos running around and palmetto bugs the size of collies. Write about them. Adds a lot to your story. 
6. Discover if there is a local brew (or ask if there is a traditional drink).
Aguardiente is quite cheap and common in Colombia and tastes like cough syrup. I drank it in a small bar in Cartagena. Awful stuff to my mind, but many drink it and it plays a role in my first book. Always ask if there is a common drink or drug. Khat is prevalent-and legal-in parts of Africa and some in Mauritania never travel without the utensils to make tea. You don’t have to indulge but you should know the local customs and writing about them will enhance your story.
And lastly, if you do get to travel to the locale, enjoy your research trip!
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  1. S. Lee Manning

    Love all your suggestions, except for drinking the local brew. Don't drink brew.

  2. john

    I used to love visiting the island of Margarita, a province of Venezuela just off its coast. I especially loved the crystal clear waters — great diving — and the rum was spectacular. Don't think I'll be returning any time soon, however.

  3. Jamie Freveletti

    Sandy, oh yes I don't mean home made stuff. Aguardiente is bottled and sold through regulated channels–it's not moonshine and I would assume is safe to drink!

  4. D. P. Lyle, MD

    Excellent advice, Jamie. Thanks for this.

  5. Karna Bodman

    What a great list of ideas/advice for writers! You have traveled to SO many intriguing countries — no wonder your writing is so vivid and interesting. Thanks for a great post!