Wednesday, July 14, 2010

In a far off land I've never been to... where I've set the first chapter of my WIP, River of Tears. And this setting is: New Zealand

I've written about this setting choice in another blog, but that was several revisions ago. Since then I've been concentrating on amping up the suspense for this important first chapter. (I'm sure I have several blogs on revisiting the first chapter!) And while I did that revision for the hook, I just had to put the logistics of describing the setting out of my mind, as much as possible. Yes, I know I'm not done yet with that first chapter.

The setting. Oh, it started out so easy. Picture the lush green landscapes of New Zealand. You've probably seen it in movies like the Lord of the Rings and King Kong, Bridge to Teribitha, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, and many more. New Zealand was also the setting in the TV series Hercules and Xena: Warrior Princess. Remember those?

In a word, the setting of New Zealand is iconic.

The thing is, in many films set in New Zealand, we don't know this is where we are. In fact, we are most likely not in New Zealand, at all, but in a fantasy setting.

Perfect. This is what I want; a fantasy setting. I need a river and a waterfall and a large forest of mythic proportions for my hero and heroine to have an adventure. With only this in mind and the combined background settings from film playing like a memory, I figured New Zealand was the ideal setting. I wrote the scenes for this chapter long ago and made other assumptions along the way. It's hot. Without a bit of research, I had my hero and heroine in an open-top Jeep, decked out in khaki shorts and batting away insects while unnamed native birds scold them from the treetops.

Ah, ignorance is bliss. It's a little different when a fantasy setting is written as a real location. For one thing, the country has a diverse climate. And it's not all gnarly treed forests and waterfalls. As I've found, there are limits of regional geography that the fantasy world of film can pretty much ignore. Yes, I probably went about this backwards. Is there something wrong with thinking to make reality match my fiction? LOL
I know (sigh), now I have to make an attempt to match my assumptions to reality. But how much? I'm not writing a travelogue, but each bit of authenticity has the potential to get me into trouble. Do I identify birds and trees native to the region? Maybe, but would my city-girl heroine know this anyway? Or place names, like the river they'd been following until they went off the beaten track. I'd thrown in the Waikato River, but have since nixed that when I find out the Waikato region is mostly farmland.) Or, when Ben, the hero, says "if we leave now we can be back at the hotel before dark." Is it important to say where this hotel is? Auckland or Wellington? Uhm, where is that? Which leads to, of course, where are they? Could they be back by dark?

All this and its the only chapter in this location. Then I'm "home free" in the more familiar setting of Washington, DC. (I'll complain about the familiar another time.) This is when a writer either chucks the challenge of writing a far off setting or says nothing specific enough to get them in trouble. How fun is that for the reader? It's an interesting balancing act between detail and purpose for the scene. Much of the detail, in a single instance, doesn't matter, but I do see a need to touch on some reality. Besides what I also make up, that is. I do have a fantasy location of the rope bridge they find. Trust me, no one will ever find it. :)

Now to search for the nearly perfect regional location, the web will help me out. From the website New Zealand Waterfalls, I see a lot of prospects!

How do you tackle writing about locations in a far off lands you've never been to?


  1. I started off writing Regency historicals, and I hadn't been to England OR to the 1800s. LOL However, I could definitely do research, and when I did go to England, I tried to absorb everything possible so I could try to put it in my books. (If only the time travel hot tub had been invented then!)

    I don't need a ton of detail when I'm reading -- I'm more interested in what the characters are experiencing, so if they say "oh what a pretty bird" because THEY don't know what it is -- that works for me!

    If they're an expert from the Audobon Society, I would expect them to give details -- but in the context of the story, like the hero hates birds because one almost pecked his eye out as a kid -- LOL.

    So I guess the rambling answer is, it matters to me if it's important to the characters and/or the story. :)

    Fun post!

  2. Donna, you've said the key words..."I'm more interested in what the characters are experiencing" and "in the context of the story." I think enhancing this with details and not distracting is one of the hardest things about revision. It's funny how those character ideas come out with those details though. Like,it occurs to me that in New Zealand you drive on the left side, which to an American, puts the passenger in the "driver's seat," so to speak. Hmmm...this could be an interesting thought for the heroine to have about making a decision. I didn't finish my reply, but off to work on that...LOL

  3. Back again after a detour to get some words down. After months of a dry spell, I can't afford to let any get away. LOL

    Donna, I hope you have lots of notes - - or a great memory! - - from your trip to England. I lived there for three years back in the early 90s and sure wish I'd paid more attention. At the time, I think my writing focused on some letters home and how much I missed the States. Go figure. LOL

  4. Melissa - How do I deal with this? I make it all up. Now, when I did set a fantasy tale in a contemporary Ireland, I bought a map.

    I'm not much for details.

    Now, there are a lot of authors down in Oz...befriend one and ask for some guidance. Just a little detail here or there will lend authenticity.

    When I read a book set in the real world I love it when I stumble across stuff I know. Like a diner in Santa Cruz that I've eaten at.

  5. Chance, I try not to be one for details, but the buggers sneak up on me. LOL It is fun to read about familiar places, but I guess I don't want anyone to call me on it. :) I'm with you that there are advantages to making it up!

    Thank goodness for the internet though. I hope I have enough of an instinct to stop and check things. For instance, I was rolling along and added the detail that my honeymooning hero and heroine had gotten married in New Zealand by a Justice of the Peace. I added a big question mark because I had no idea if that were possible. Turns out, nope, the Justice of the Peace can't perform marriages, but yes, they could have been married after a three day waiting period. Gotta love the internet.


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