The pages are still blank, but there is a miraculous feeling of the words being there, written in invisible ink and clamoring to become visible - Vladimir Nabokov

There is no agony like bearing an untold story inside you - Zora Neale Hurston

20 November 2009

Familiar or Exotic?

I was sweating in 40 C heat yesterday (that's 104 F--I looked it up) with 50% humidity and very high UV and thinking how exotic Sydney still seems to me. It's a world away from the small town in Idaho where I grew up. Even ignoring the differences between a city of 3 million and 30,000, there's almost no mountains to speak of (well, compared to the Rockies) and ocean everywhere. I went snorkeling this morning and saw fish I'd expect to find in an aquarium (touched a giant Blue Grouper-wow!), yet I had never seen the ocean before I was 13. Sydneysiders find that unbelievable: they grew up in the water.

I'm often asked about what it's like to see snow-capped mountains, or better yet, wake up to find snow on the lawn. People are interested in the strangest things. I can go on and on about the cuttlefish I saw in the harbour, but people will say, "You should go to the Great Barrier Reef. Now, that's something." I bet, but it's not right outside my door (meaning a short drive--I don't have a beach house, unfortunately). Travel seems to make an experience special, yet we often ignore the wonders all around us.

I've lived in Australia for over a decade, but I've never been to the Reef or Ayer's Rock (I've met plenty of natives who haven't been either). Likewise, when I was in Seattle I never went up in the Space Needle, and I still have visited the Empire State Building, despite several business trips to New York. Going back to America is going home, so I don't do many touristy things. Plenty of Australians find it exotic, though. I'm always surprised to hear someone excitedly planning their holiday to Las Vegas (I lived in Nevada for several years, so not interesting to me), or--and this is the best one--someone hoping to visit a trailer park and catch sight of people off "Jerry Springer". I've been asked dozens of times if such people exist, and I must sadly nod and say, 'Yes.'

So, when writing a novel, is it better to have a mundane or an exotic setting? My instant answer is 'exotic'. But, the more I think about it, the more I see it's all relative. I recently completed Larsson's "Millenium Trilogy" (Girl with the Dragon Tattoo etc) and loved it. I'd heard that Salander was an amazing character, and 'they' were right. She stole the show. Part of the reason I stayed engaged in the non-Salander sections was the setting--Sweden. The strange names, unfamiliar justice system, weather, bizarre food, all of it kept me hooked (well, the plot was pretty good too). I kept wondering, though, what do Swedes think of the book? Are there inaccuracies only a local would spot? Are Salander's holidays in sunny locals meant to give Swedish readers a taste of the exotic?

So, should you write what you know? Surely, someone somewhere will find it fascinating. Or, should you crank up your imagination and use a setting that's exciting and exotic to you? What do you think?


  1. I think you've raised a good point. Your location WILL be exotic to someone. I write about small Southern towns--what I'm familiar with. But the books seem to appeal to people in urban environments where the pace of life is much faster than is written in my books.

    Mystery Writing is Murder

  2. Plus, people who've lived in small towns will relate.