Tips for Writing Places Where You Don’t Live

a guest post by Amber A. Logan

We’ve all heard the advice to “write what you know,” but is that always the best way to tell your story? And what about “write where you know?” Do we have to limit our settings to that tiny little spot on the map where we live? Amber Logan, author of The Secret Garden of Yanagi Inn, shares her thoughts on the subject. Below the post, you’ll find information about Amber’s book and how you can win a free copy.

If we, as writers, were only able to write about the places we lived, the world would likely be a duller place. I live in a Kansas suburb, for example—a nice enough place, but it doesn’t exactly make for a scintillating setting.

But writing about a place one doesn’t live can be tricky—and even trickier if one has never been there. Fortunately, I do have some tips on how to make this process easier.

If you can, travel there. This may sound like an obvious piece of advice, but it is something to strongly consider. While I wasn’t able to travel to Japan during the pandemic, I’ve been to Japan many times and have been to many Japanese gardens. Those memories are still with me and served as a great starting place for my research. If you can’t travel to your desired location, you can always ask yourself: is there some place you’ve been that you COULD use for your setting instead?

Consider how true-to-life you want to be. One of the biggest pitfalls of writing about a location you’re not terribly familiar with is making mistakes which will stick out like a sore thumb to those who DO live here. So I would encourage all writers to decide early on: will this be as accurate as possible, or will I play with reality a little bit? Dedication to accuracy can be fantastic—it will really wow your readers—but it also comes with a lot more research (and a higher price for failure). You have to consider not just the physical space of the city/buildings/etc. but also the time period (you don’t want readers screaming “that McDonalds on 5th and Main wasn’t built until 2019!”).

Alternatively, you can choose to deviate from reality—which is my personal favorite. This doesn’t mean you have to go for a full-on fantasy setting, but you can create a fictional town that feels authentic to the time/place you’re setting your book. The Yanagi Inn in my novel, for example, doesn’t exist—it was inspired by a number of real-life locations, but the setting is fictionalized. I mention it being “outside Kyoto” to give readers a feel for the area, but the specifics of the building and its gardens were imagined. I also included an author’s note at the end of my book to explain the artistic license I took in various areas. I highly recommend disclaimers!

Research, research, research. Whether you are writing about a real-life location or a fictionalized version, you will still need to do research. Thankfully, researching another location in the world has never been so easy. Try to use as many mediums as you can to get the fullest picture. Find movies and documentaries set in your desired setting, and pay attention not just to the visuals, but the auditory; what would it sound like for your character to walk down that street? Find travelogues or blogs or social media accounts that highlight your location. See if there are any coffee table-style photography books for your location—I love these for showing the artistic and idealized image of the setting. Hop on Google Maps and drop the little pegman onto streets and virtually “walk” them to see what traffic is like, what the shops look like, etc.

Find readers who DO know the location. This is super important, because only a local will know what you’ve missed or gotten wrong. Maybe you’ve accidentally called a sandwich a “submarine” and they call it a “hoagy” or a “grinder” in that town. Or maybe you describe a clothing choice which would be super impractical for various reasons. Subtle details like that are what can make/break the book in a reader’s mind. So finding readers who are native to your setting can give you invaluable feedback.

I hope these tips are helpful! Remember, writing about a far-off location can be fun and bring a lot of color to your writing, but you have to be willing to put in the work to get the details right (or face the consequences of angry readers!).

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Cracked doesn’t always mean broken.

Grieving her mother’s death, Mari Lennox travels to Kyoto, Japan to take photographs of Yanagi Inn for a client. As she explores the inn and its grounds, her camera captures striking images, uncovering layers of mystery shrouding the old resort—including an overgrown, secret garden on a forbidden island. But then eerie weeping no one else in the inn seems to hear starts keeping her awake at night.

​Despite the warnings of the staff, Mari searches the deep recesses of the old building to discover the source of the ghostly sound, only to realize that her own family’s history is tied to the inn, its mysterious, forlorn garden . . . and the secrets it holds.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Amber A. Logan is a university instructor, freelance editor, and author of speculative fiction living in Kansas with her husband and two children—Fox and Willow. In addition to her degrees in Psychology, Liberal Arts, and International Relations, Amber holds a PhD in Creative Writing from Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge.

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