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I wanted to write a short story about a man who visits China. I have never been to China; I have never even been to Asia.

The story is meant to be realistic and accurate so just imagining what it would be like to be in the place and getting it completely wrong is not an option. I am also afraid of portraying stereotypes and media misconceptions of Chinese culture.

So how do I write about the experience of being in China when I don't know it myself?

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There are four things that writers do, when they want to write about something they don't know:

  1. Get experience. If you want to write about sword fighting, learn sword fighting. You don't have to become an expert, but taking a few classes will give you very much better idea of what it means to swing a sword.

  2. Do research. If you want to write about living on a space station, read the books, blogs, articles written by those that have been in space. Again, you don't have to become a space cadet, but you can easily find out about how peeing in low gravity feels.

  3. Imagine it. If you have no time or cannot find the information you need, use the experiences you have and extrapolate from the. Being a woman is not so very much different from being a man, and if you have ever experienced pain, you can write about menstrual cramps, even if you are a man, or about being kicked in the groin, if you are a woman.

  4. Hint at it. You don't really have to go into all that detail all the time. When you write about riding a bike, you don't go into how it feels to sit on the saddle, how you have to balance the vehicle, and so on. You just assume that most readers will have an idea of what riding a bike entails and will fill in the detail. Do stuff you don't know in the same way. Readers have a great imagination, and they know lots of things, so use that. Give them some hints, and let them imagine the rest.

These options should be employed in decreasing order.

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How important is setting for your story? If it absolutely has to happen in China, dig into National Geographic and other reference materials--read, watch documentaries, etc. If the story can take place elswhere, take the man some place you know.

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Don’t bother going to Venice. When writing fiction, I used to assume that I couldn’t write about things unless I had direct experience about them. I once wrote an entire story taking place in Chicago without having ever visited Chicago. But after doing a little Internet research, I was able to write a good and plausible story about Chicago which worked reasonably well — and nobody ever suspected me of faking it. (I later visited Chicago and confirmed that I got the details basically right). I am currently working on a story taking place in Venice. I never have felt “handicapped” because I never had the opportunity to go to Venice. You shouldn’t either. Writers get great at faking things; that’s the whole point of writing!

Stephen King once wrote that you should research the hell out of a subject (by interviewing people, reading nonfiction books, etc), and then cover your tracks by hiding as much of your background research as possible in the finished story.

I wrote stories about animals -- and often I will read articles about lifestyle and habitat. But you can't get too worried about what you don't know. Just try to imagine the best you can...(If you get a detail wrong, you can correct it later).

Also: I would try to read a book or two about the specific time period and setting. But don't sweat it too much. (For example, do you know that in Venice the locals don't ride gondolas but the cheaper vaparettos. Who cares though!) But as a nonnative outside the culture, people don't need to be impressed by your realistic details. I would worry more about plausibility; i.,e, would a Chinese character know about certain information from youtube, etc...

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Go to an exhibition on Chinese art. The near totality of your readers have never been there either so don't get hung up on "getting it right." Sometimes the fresh minds with no experience offer the best points of view as experience truly does stifle creativity. If the book is winner "pay a visit" and "revise and extend your remarks" as they say in Congress.

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Research Chinese culture and history in the specific area you want to place your story. China is huge, so the local customs and history of the region or city you want your character to attend would help a lot in terms of accuracy. Researching dialect or slang might help too!

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