Wednesday, November 9, 2011

JWC Recap: Setting your story in a foreign country

At the Japan Writers Conference, Ann Tashi Slater did a presentation called "Setting you story in a foreign country( and a few thoughts on getting it published)." I presented on writing multicultural YA, so I was interested to see where we converged and where our opinions were different.

One of the things I didn't concentrate on in my presentation (50 minutes is not really that long) that Ann  highlighted was research. Research is important in any novel where you're not writing what you know. No matter how big or small the unknown factor is.

She used a Michael Ondaatje interview by William Dafoe as an opener.

WD  How does research lead to invention and where does it get in the way of invention?

MO That’s still a very difficult thing to know. You can always f[redacted] up by having too much research. You can paint yourself into a corner by finding out everything about 1926. Or you can hear someone on a bus say something that happened to somebody, and that’s enough to keep you going for 50 pages. It’s difficult to know what’s right and wrong. The kind of research I do, as a result, is quite intentionally random.
In my opinion, one of the perks of random research is that you get to find out things off the beaten track. Like if you look up Shania Twain on youtube, your first dozen hits are probably all her superhits. But if you start at one of those superhits and click around in the sidebar, you might end up at a lesser-known song, like UP, which you would never have found using a typical research method.

Ann pointed out the research methods she used in her novel, set in Darjeeling - she's part Tibetan. Her grandmother was still living in Darjeeling. She was getting older every day, and Ann said she knew a day would come when she wouldn't be there any more. So she spent some time there and did some interviews. She also went through photographs, letters, and diaries - things you may not have much access to if you don't have a family in. And she read lots of books which helped her focus her trip.

As for the nuts and bolts of setting in a foreign country, it's also important to integrate story and setting. You don't want to write every detail you know. That was something that I warned against in my presentation too. You risk writing a glorified travel guide if the multicultural elements are too much stronger than all the other story elements. Filter details through the pov and plot. Setting should influence the story, but it shouldn't bend it into pretzel shapes.

Ann also pointed out the importance of getting the details right. If you set a story in a Japanese junior high school and then had the kids bring lunch, that would pull me right out of the story. [EDIT: Other than the big cities] there are very few places in Japan where students don't get school lunches up until the end of JHS. Also, let Google be your friend. How you do this is up to you. Maybe you want to stop every time you have a question. Maybe you'll just insert a marker (I use hash tags) and come back to it. But the fact is that it's so easy to get information these days. Time and cost are much less of an issue in working with a foreign setting. Why not take advatange of that?

Is anyone working in a setting which isn't the same as where they live or where their main market lives? How are you doing it?


asiamorela said...

I think the advice on research is valid for any type of research, all in all. And it's very true.

I've got this story (currently on hold) which takes place in Poland, Warsaw more specifically. I didn't do it for any other reason than I love and miss Poland, where I've lived for 6 months, though. So I never stop to talk about life there; in a way, you could say the setting really isn't part of the plot. The only thing is that I try and give my characters Polish cultural references (I studied Polish language and culture for 4 years at university) and describe the scenery as I remember it (can still see myself roaming the streets of Warsaw). Even then, I don't think the people and places I describe are necessarily *typically* Polish, but that's not what I'm going for anyway (they are vampires).

Bee said...

Research is most important in any kind of writing really.

My book is about an Indian girl in England. So yeah, the major part of my book is set in a country I'm not from, never been to (I'm from India). There wasn't any particular reason behind this except for the fact that the story demanded it. And I've researched so much about England, I probably know more about it than any other country in the world, except my own. But yeah, the trouble is in integrating just the right amount of necessary detail into the story - something that makes the story credible (especially for readers from that country) yet isn't TMI.

Glad you brought up this topic.

Holly Thompson said...

Research is very important. But keep in mind that regional differences pop up all the time, so we have to be careful of our assumptions. Taking a bento to chugakko is common in our neck of the woods and some other areas of Japan I've been in. :)

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Claire Dawn said...

Asiamorela and Bee, it can be really difficult to get the right amount of setting in. You want to convey a sense of place, but at the same time, not overwhelm. If I ever learn the secret I'll let you know.

Holly, I find that it really depends on the "major-cityness" of your area. As far as I know all the schools in Iwate get. Apart from Sendai maybe all the schools in Tohoku get. I'll edit to say such.