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How to Write Vibrant, International Settings
Written by
She Writes
October 2018
Written by
She Writes
October 2018

This guest post was written by Kathryn Abdul-Baki, author of A Marriage in Four Seasons.

The international settings that I write about in fiction are usually places I know well, or that I have loved so much that I want to take the reader by the hand to have them see it as I do. The details of a specific smell, the color or intensity of the light, the texture of the heat or the cold, the unique and particular sounds, all go into setting the mood of a place I want to recreate.

Setting as a Character

Above all, the setting must be fascinating enough that it becomes a character in the novel.  Not to overshadow the actual human characters, a vibrant setting will enrich the main characters, make the reader feel more deeply their predicaments and states of mind.

I often begin a story with a setting, relying and embellishing on my memories, creating a strong sense of place in my mind’s eye.  My characters, on the other hand, along with the plot, must be made up and need much more abstract planning, such as delving into the depths of a character’s emotional or psychological state. Once I have an idea of my setting, I immediately turn to the characters, the engine that drives the story forward.

Tie Location to Emotion

One way to make a foreign setting more vibrant and relevant to a story is to tie it to a specific feeling or thought of a character.  A mysterious alleyway when reflected as an aspect of the muddled state of a character’s mind, firmly knots it to the character, enhancing both the character and the locale. A woman might be intrigued that the dogs in a Spanish village all seem to be dainty, as if to fit perfectly along the narrow streets.  The observation gives us a clue as to the character’s personality, preferences, and focus, as well as make the setting more personal.

Make Setting Familiar

Another way to make foreign settings more accessible is to include details that remind the reader of familiar scenes in his or her own life. Observations of shared human actions bring characters into our own frame of reference, even if their habits and dress are alien. An American observing a young couple with their children in a café in Istanbul will identify as the husband tenderly feeds a toddler bread while his wife breast-feeds an infant beneath her hejab scarf. The American feels an affinity for the Turkish couple through their parental devotion, despite the language barrier and their foreign attire. Similarly, a tourist nauseated by the stench of hanging carcasses of butchered sheep in an outdoor market reveals the striking, foreign scene as well as the character’s feelings of revulsion, reinforcing our own discomfort with the sight of death as we shop for food, garnering a stronger reader response than by merely exposing it.

Unite Location and Conflict

The locale can also correspond to the character’s current dilemmas or conflicts. I describe an American woman’s life by setting the story in four different countries. Sensual southern Spain is the backdrop for the time in her life when she yearns for romance and motherhood; winter in New York for the deterioration of her marriage; multi-ethnic Turkey, a crossroads of civilization, for her deciding to chart a new course; Tunisia, with its serene beaches and white-washed towns, for where she ultimately finds peace with her life-choices.   

Describing how a character feels waking up in the morning to the cascading gong of church bells, the call to dawn prayers from a mosque, the shrill calls from a village boy selling rolls and boiled eggs for breakfast, allows the reader to experience the foreign setting, but also to learn something more about that character’s intuitive nature.

Adding Authenticity

Foreign dialogue and phrasing, used sparingly and appropriately, can enhance the flavor of a different place, as does describing foreign customs.  For instance, describing the constant serving of tea in a Middle Eastern country as a pleasant precursor to doing business not only reveals a foreign custom, but might also elicit impatience from one Western character looking for a prompt transaction, or appreciation from another who is yearning for a more Zen environment.

Plot can be moved forward by having different characters reacting differently to a new experience: An American couple may decide to go to a bullfight in Madrid, the man eagerly awaiting the spectacle, his wife uneasy. If the wife ends up being the one to relish the spectacle whereas her husband is repulsed by its bloodiness, their unforeseen reactions reveal hitherto unknown qualities that can be used to create new conflict and move the plot forward. 


Research adds to concrete memories, historical details as well as places or events not witnessed in person can embroider recollections of a place, like hemming a handkerchief with different colored thread.  I try to focus on the precise reaction I had to a specific place or experience, deconstruct it to make the memory sharper, remembering how seeing something for the first time made me react or shift my perspective. 


Imagery comes into play by thinking of unconventional ways to describe something. Comparing a house or street to something live can give the sense of movement to an inanimate object. An intricate mosaic ceiling of a mosque or church can swirl like a multi-colored constellation of stars, a ceiling fan in a hot hotel room can blow down air in soothing angels’ puffs, a natty chair can cast an angry snarl.  These made-up details, however, must logically fit into the reality of a particular setting to make it stronger and to retain the reader’s trust.

In short, to make foreignness familiar and believable, the reader must feel empathy for the character’s reactions, even if they are different from the reader’s own, so that the faraway setting feels, at least temporarily, like home.


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