I have a question: is it hard to write about a foreign country/place?

I know that Dostoevsky was Russian, his themes and settings were inspired or entirely based by Russia/the Russian culture.

But I also know Howard Philips Lovecraft who wrote in unfamiliar settings (foreign and imagined) and thus 'created' them. Because they were 'created', he wasn't as pressured to verifying details, unlike someone adopting a foreign setting, he invented them!

And here is the paradox: although Lovecraft was a great writer, his imagery and scene/feel/place/culture suggestion power wasn't enough, because he couldn't write about foreign countries (in features/troubles/traditions) in the real world. I suppose because of the amount of required research, or he didn't feel like it.

So, how should a beginner go about writing about unfamiliar places/settings in the real world? Min you the beginner doesn't yet know where to look because they haven't tried and got it wrong before. What's the first step to avoid that 'going wrong' from the get-go?

  • 3
    Welcome, loldop. I reworded your question a bit and added three more tags that I felt handled something of what you're asking. Tell me if I misunderstood your question.
    – Mussri
    Commented Jan 12, 2013 at 13:35
  • @Mussri yeah, it is exactly what i want to ask:) thanks!:) Commented Jan 12, 2013 at 14:18
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    Please don't call him Howard. He has a name. It's H.P. Commented Jan 14, 2013 at 3:11
  • @Aerovistae Howard Philips Lovecraft, yes:) Commented Jan 14, 2013 at 8:53
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    Also see: Deciding the setting: Real or Invented.
    – Mussri
    Commented Jan 15, 2013 at 19:39

3 Answers 3


The first step is to hold back your urge to write. First do your homework, thoroughly.

Learn. Learn a whole lot about the place.

Start with Google StreetView and Panoramio. Proceed through Wikipedia to learn not just about the place but about landmarks, anything in the area. Find movies, amateur videos, anything to take place around there. Read blogs of people who live there. Maybe get in touch with them, ask them to tell you about their daily lives. Listen to their daily worries. Make sure to see the place in all seasons and weathers. Read a local newspaper (online) even if through Google Translate. Find historical maps of the area, learn how it changed alegiances through ages. Learn basics of the language. Get a feel of how it sounds. Watch any artwork created around there. Try something of the local cuisine. If a given activity, sport, hobby, leisure is typical to the area, go and try it locally, feel it on your own skin. Find little details of the country culture. Find little details that make given country what it is. It's not the towers of Kremlin that create the feel of Russia, it's a podstakannik on your tea glass.

If you can afford, go there. If you can't, live by proxy.

Eat your heart out, Lovecraft! World got much smaller since your times!

...I could find my way from Dityatki to Chernobyl blindfolded. And if I had to, I'd stop and sit to have a lunch on the brick fence of the communal farm in Cherevach without ever taking the blindfold off. And I wouldn't even step into the nettles.

  • ...one thing that is very fun... If you understand the "generics" well enough and fill in the blanks - lowres sat images of Google Maps for instance - with your imagination and these generic elements, and then then you find actual photos of these places... Just to say Panoramio got updated with some photos from Jampol, a village south from Chernobyl. It looks totally how I pictured it!
    – SF.
    Commented Jan 13, 2013 at 19:20
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    I agree with this in principle, though I wouldn't think that Google Streetview is where I'd START. That would be a final detail. I'd start with learning more about the culture and the "big things". If you set your story in another country and then, for example, say that two characters meet in a bar, but in fact there are no bars in this country because alcohol is illegal and that law is widely respected, anyone who knows the country will find that pretty jarring. But if you say they met in a bar on 3rd Street and there don't happen to be any bars on that particular street, even the natives ...
    – Jay
    Commented Jan 15, 2013 at 14:51
  • ... are unlikely to think much of it. I suppose if you put a factory in what is actually an upscale residential neighborhood, people who knew the place might get a laugh, but that's the least of your worries.
    – Jay
    Commented Jan 15, 2013 at 14:53
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    @Jay: I'd agree partially. If you read dry resources, your imagination tends to start building an image which is very far from the reality. First see a bunch of places to get the most generic look and feel implanted in your head. Only then proceed to learn the rich background - that way you won't have to rebuild the whole image you've created with textual sources once you see the photos. Sure return to the StreetView to assure details are right but first use it as source of most generic imagery, something as non-special as possible.
    – SF.
    Commented Jan 15, 2013 at 15:04

What is your purpose in writing about a foreign country or place? Do you intend the setting to be integral to your story? If so, and you have never been there, then you are probably facing a considerable challenge. You simply do not have the background to inject the elements of authentic detail that will be required.

On the other hand, if your aim is simply to have an "exotic" backdrop to a tale that is driven by the characters and their interactions, then you may be able to blur the detail to a level that you can manage by drawing on guidebooks and the writing of others.

In either case, you should not be so determined about "going wrong". The only way to learn from your mistakes is to make some. Start writing and see what happens.


If you set a story in a real place that you have never been, I think it would be easy to get something wrong that anyone who has been there would know -- like what side of the street they drive on or the fact that no one there wears a hat or whatever. To those who do know the place it could be really jarring. Like casually mentioning that a character spent the evening watching television -- but you said he was Amish, and Amish people don't watch television. Or that he was in such financial trouble that he couldn't pay the mortgage -- but you said he was in Saudi Arabia, where the banking system is different and they don't have mortgages. A real example that occurs to me: I once saw a movie about King Arthur in which Arthur and his knights on several occasions talk about making sacrifices to "the gods". Except ... except the whole point of the old stories about Arthur and company was that they were Christians defending Britain against an invasion by pagans. I suppose a re-telling of the story in which they are pagans might be a clever twist, but it was tossed in so casually that I got the impression that the scriptwriters didn't realize what a bizarre twist this was. Now I'm thinking it would be fun to write a story set in Indonesia in which the people there are all Jewish, with no explanation of how that came about. :-)

I think an easy out is to set the story in an imaginary place. You can model it on a real place, but if you give it a different name, then you avoid having to research a bunch of detail. You can then freely take the things about the real place that made you want to set the story there, and just make up whatever else you need as you go along. Also, you can say negative things about the place without offending people who are from there. I suspect this is why lots of stories are set in "a small country in Europe" and the like. Oh, this wouldn't give you total free rein. If you set a story in "a small country in Europe" and then mention the characters going off into the jungle, readers might ask, "The jungle? just where in Europe is this supposed to be?" But you eliminate whole categories of possible problems. You can call the local law enforcement officer "the constable" without having to check on official titles, you can say the hero had to cross a raging river without consulting a map, you can say that the heroine was annoyed that the shoes cost 20 dropniks without having to worry about the actual currency or prevailing prices, etc.

That may not work for you, of course. It may be essential to set the story in France because the whole plot hinges on the legacy of Charlemagne or some such.

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