Bringing a Foreign Land to Life by Maria Hudgins
It is the five senses that bring a setting to life. Can you hear the sound of Big Ben? I can hear it in my mind. Do I have to explain what lemon gelato on the Isle of Capri tastes like? Do the very words “lemon gelato” make you feel as if you are there? I’m not Muslim but calls to prayer broadcast all over town when I’m crossing the street in Istanbul, warm my heart. Cheese fondue in Zermatt, Switzerland. Can’t you taste it? These are the little things that should go into the notebook you keep when actually traveling or as now, virtually traveling. You can buy lemon gelato at your local ice cream shop, find a bench overlooking whatever body of water you live near, and pretend. Whatever works.
Sensory details put you there.
You can use your trip notes (and the Internet) to turn, “We had lunch and a beer at a pub,” into “We ordered fish and chips with a pint of Foster’s at the bar, then settled into a corner booth.” Fish and chips automatically brings up an aroma, doesn’t it? “Shopped for souvenirs at a toy store,” becomes “Bought Pez dispensers at Hamley’s on Regent Street.”
A friend of mine whose husband worked for an airline told me about packing for a week in the Swiss Alps followed by a week in Kuwait. Sometimes the contents of a suitcase can tell a story. The clothes your characters wear tell about the weather, the climate, and the local standards of dress.
Stieg Larsson uses words unpronounceable with an English tongue—words like Blomkvist, to remind us we aren’t in Kansas anymore. I can’t say this out loud, but inside my head, I don’t need to.
My efforts to nail down the essence of a place while actually there don’t always work. In a fit of determined verisimilitude, I sat on a bench in the Botanic Gardens in Oxford and closed my eyes and thought. What do I smell? I smelled vanilla. That made no sense. Turns out I was sitting beside a bed of blooming heliotrope. Lovely, but not terribly typical of Oxford. I sat a while longer and was rewarded with a peal of medieval bells from the ancient Magdalen Tower. That’s better.
Listen to Louise Penny’s description of a tranquil spot in the heart of Paris:
“Hell is empty, Armand,” said Stephen Horowitz.
“You’ve mentioned that. And all the devils are here?” asked Armand Gamache.
“Well, maybe not here, here”—Stephen spread his expressive hands–“exactly.”
“Here, here” was the garden of the Musée Rodin, in Paris, where Armand and his godfather were enjoying a quiet few minutes. Outside the walls, they could hear the traffic, the hustle and the tussle of the great city.
But here, here, there was peace.
The writer, I think, must vary the tension in a mystery or a fast-paced thriller. Louise Penny does this by changing the setting without leaving Paris.
Glenn Meade takes us to Cairo, 1939, with this: “The Khan-el-Khalili bazaar was crowded as usual that evening, the noise and the smell of spices and sweaty bodies overpowering . . .” I was there in 2014 and I smelled no sweaty bodies. Hygiene standards are higher now, I guess. As for the sense of touch, there’s nothing better than the Bazaar’s kitten-soft cashmere pashminas in every color. In case you go there yourself, try the rice pudding in the little storefront café near the entrance. It’s the best in the world. I promise.
But I think it’s important to remember that we are writing mysteries and thrillers. Don’t let the plot get lost in lovely word pictures. Without a killer story, we would have NO readers.
Maria Hudgins is the author of the Dotsy Lamb Travel Mysteries, the Lacy Glass Archaeology Mysteries, and a number of short stories. She has visited Italy, Switzerland, England, Scotland, Egypt, Turkey, and the Greek Islands, and used these locales in her stories. She still has the notebooks she kept in each of these places.