Writing from Here to There

Most of us love the fact that books can take us out of our ordinary lives and transport us to distant lands. But how does an author create a story that can do that?

Many novelists root their stories in places they’ve once lived. Barbara Kingsolver, for instance, spent part of her childhood in the Congo, which lends verisimilitude to her terrific novel, The Poisonwood Bible. And while The Stockholm Octavo is set in the 18th Century, the novel was doubtless inspired by the nine years author Karen Engelmann lived in Sweden.

“Write what you know,” writers are told. But what if you’ve lived only in one place, and you find your hometown of minimal literary interest? Living in the Southwest may not inspire dreams of becoming the next Tony Hillerman. And while Jane Smiley set A Thousand Acres in Iowa, your novel might demand a quite different setting.

So, if something lies far beyond your experience, you’ve got to put some extra effort into creating scenes. If you’re writing a political thriller, for instance, you may want to visit Washington, D.C. If you’re writing a courtroom drama, sit in on a trial. You get the idea.

Street musicians in Seoul.

Street musicians in Seoul.

I recently took an opportunity to travel to distant locations in Japan and South Korea. I savored the tantalizing aromas wafting from yakitori restaurants on the narrow backstreets of Tokyo. I closed my eyes and listened to gentle chanting coming from a Buddhist temple in Seoul. And I put on a hardhat and descended deep underground into a tunnel that North Koreans had blasted beneath the D.M.Z.

Even if you can’t afford a plane ticket, a little research can go a long way. Plain ol’ guidebooks can get you started. Spend some time online, and be sure to check out the Travel Channel. Try to learn a little of the language, history, and culture of the place you want to write about. Best of all, sample some of the food.

Nothing beats being able to walk the streets and breathe in the smells of your novel’s setting. But be inventive. If you can’t afford a trip to China, for instance,  you can get a whiff of the culture by visiting Chinatown in one of America’s burgeoning cities, such as Chicago, New York, Seattle, or San Francisco.

Ask politely, and you’ll be surprised by how generous some people can be with their time. I’ve been given some great insights by various experts, including FBI agents in New York and Seattle. And I’ve been escorted through not one, but two very interesting jails—one in Sacramento and one in El Paso—without the stress and inconvenience of actually being placed under arrest.

Of course, one option is to write fantasy. It amazes me, but those writers somehow seem to make it all up from scratch. J.K. Rowling dreamed up the entire world of Hogwarts while being a single mom in London. And Suzanne Collins got the idea for The Hunger Games while flipping channels between Gladiator and a reality show.

It’s true that the imagination knows no bounds.

The writer’s job is to fully comprehend the landscape so that with each page the reader is transported through time and space, ever deeper into the story. So get started. Grab a map… or create your own!


Carla Norton is a novelist, journalist, and true crime writer. Her debut fiction, The Edge of Normal, was a Thriller Award finalist and a Royal Palm Literary Award winner. The sequel, What Doesn’t Kill Her (titled Hunted overseas), was released last summer. Her true crime books include Disturbed Ground, about a notorious female serial killer, and Perfect Victim, which was put on the reading list for the FBI Behavioral Sciences Unit and became a #1 New York Times bestseller. For more, visit CarlaNorton.com and find her on Facebook, Goodreads, and Twitter.