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Writing: How to Write About Distant Places

We’ve been talking on this blog lately about the benefits of writing about what or where you know, such as the area in which you live. Today English indie author Fran Pickering shares her experience of doing the opposite – writing thrillers set in Japan, on the other side of the world from her home.

aerial view of Tokyo

Fran Pickering’s chosen setting: Japan

Like most writers, I try to give my books authenticity and atmosphere by writing about places I know. But for me it can sometimes be a bit of a challenge, as the places I describe are on the other side of the world, which makes it hard to check on the details I don’t remember. I can’t just pop out and take a look.

My books are set in Japan. They’re murder mysteries featuring expat Londoner Josie Clark who lives in Tokyo where she’s inclined to stumble across a surprising number of bodies. I write about Japan because I love all its beauties and quirks and intricacies, and I love sharing my experience with others. I try to make my readers feel as though they’ve actually been there themselves, and the feedback I get shows that people enjoy immersing themselves in the Japanese atmosphere and finding out about what Japan today is really like.

The Japanese setting makes the stories much richer than they would be if Josie stayed in the UK.  She’s an outsider in a very organised and homogenous society, which gives her the chance to ask questions that nobody else can, but she’s also sufficiently embedded in Japanese society to show the details of everyday life and culture from the inside. So it’s important to get it right because my credibility is at stake. It has to feel right and it has to have that that’s what gives people the immersive experience.

I know Tokyo well having lived and worked there, and I’ve travelled extensively around Japan, so I don’t find it hard to write about it, but I don’t live in Japan and sometimes I want to set a scene somewhere I don’t know well. Akihabara, for example, Tokyo’s vibrant and zany Electric Town: I hadn’t been there in years. What to do?

First line of response is Google street view. It’s a godsend, but a trap as well. It doesn’t take you inside the shops and cafes, and it can sometimes give you a very funny idea where places are in relation to each other.  When I went to Akihabara to check, I found I’d got small but crucial details wrong. Ok, I know that most people wouldn’t notice if I misdescribed the AKB48 cafe, but for the dedicated AKB48 fans out there, a mistake would invalidate the whole book. (In case you’re wondering, AKB48 is a popular girl group.)

I think actually visiting places you write about is key if you want an authentic feel. For instance, in my latest book Josie has lunch in the Aoyama Flower Market Tea Room, which I’d come across online. It sounded lovely – a cafe inside a flower shop. So I looked at the photographs and wrote about it. Which was fine, but superficial. Actually going there told me the wooden benches were uncomfortable, the room was filled with the scent of flowers and damp earth, the glass tables had holes in them for plants to grow through and the Rose Parfait really tasted of roses. Knowing all that makes the scene really come alive.

The best thing about writing about Japan is that it keeps me going back there, to revisit places I love and to discover places I’ve never explored before. And it enables me to share a fascinating country with others, and maybe surprise them. The worst thing is the twelve hour flight to get there and the jet lag. But at least I’ve always got an excuse to go and see my Japanese friends – strictly for research purposes, of course.

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