Nathan Beyerlein is a blogger, a teacher of English as a second language, and a world traveler. His first fiction, “The Tricky Business in Mai Chau,” appeared in EQMM’s Department of First Stories in June of this year. It was the start of a mystery series that blends classical plotting with hardboiled action, using the author’s current home, Hanoi, Vietnam, as backdrop. A second story in the series, “Following the Likely Path of the Moon Bear,” will be featured in our March/April 2014 issue. Nathan’s advice to writers working with exotic locations is complemented by photos from photographer Sebastiano Favretto. —Janet Hutchings
When friends or family come to visit my life in Hanoi, Vietnam they often leave with digital pictures in the thousands. If the old adage that a picture is worth a thousand words is correct, where does that leave a writer trying to include an exotic location in his own work? Of those millions of words that it would take to give any sort of real picture, which should a writer choose?
My recent series of short stories, the Nat Burg Mysteries, depict a Sherlockian detective and his friend solving mysteries in Vietnam’s remote jungles, countryside, and metropolises. I’ve lived abroad for six years in various countries around the world and have always struggled with the appropriate way to write about place. In this recent series, I think I’ve found my way. Below are my ten tips for anyone whose writing includes what for many is considered an exotic location.
1. Take Part in It
Three days ago I went to work in a swim suit and a poncho; I put my goggles on to keep the rain from pelting my eyes. I drove my motorbike much of the way there through ankle-deep brown water that smelled like things of which I’d rather not solve the mystery. The streets were packed with people engaged in a similar battle with their daily commute. It was fun.
Many of my Western colleagues either came late or took cabs. If you want to give a flavor of the life of a place, you’ve got to really live there: eat local food, drink in local watering holes, play games, gamble, try to chat with old ladies at tea stalls . . .
2. Learn the Language
By no means a simple task, but one that will open up any country to you. For months I found myself having the same conversation in Vietnamese with anyone willing. It led to many an interesting lunch invitation or confusing adventure. One example: an old woman giving me a local drug of Betel nut and areca leaf. Not to be taken lightly, the concoction is like a caffeine trip that begins and ends in two minutes.
3. Bring a Notebook Everywhere
Every walk down the street in Vietnam provides ample inspiration. There are so many people densely living in Hanoi that if one just stops and opens one’s eyes, one can see a myriad of mini dramas take place. As I sit at a cafe writing this: a man with two mattresses on the back of his motorbike, a little girl trying to float a cardboard boat in the gutter, two drunk men angrily pointing at each other at a Phở stand, the fat owner of my cafe peeling fruit with a sharp knife and watching football . . .
You can’t capture it all, but make sure you’re ready when you experience something that touches you. Personally, I’m a fan of Evernote, which allows you to store your notes on any computer or smart device. If my favorite notebook is at home, I can write on a napkin, take a photo, upload it later, and keep it forever.
4. Remember Your Objective
Don’t mince words. If you’re writing a mystery, the story needs to be driven by the plot. There will be a lot of moments from the napkins referred to above that you’ll want to include, but it’s not about them. If you’re not writing a travelogue, remember what you are writing and don’t let the place get in the way. The place is a spice. One should never make a meal completely out of nutmeg. (I tried that once after reading a W.S. Burroughs novel, and it nearly killed me.)
5. Be Mindful of Your Audience
Always good advice but especially in conjunction with tip number four. The more exotic the location, the more difficult it is to relate it in a way that will create an image. To test my relaying of an experience, I usually try to describe it to my more inquisitive friends from back home and see what questions they have. Below is a sample of one of those conversations.
Me: I went to laughing yoga this week.
Friend: I’ve never really seen you as the flexible type. Why do they call it laughing yoga?
Me: It’s not really the stretching sort of yoga. It’s just a large group of older people that meet by the lake at 5:30 A.M. and make each other laugh. It’s very good for your health they say.
Friend: How do they make themselves laugh . . . ?
The conversation continues and I start to realize that merely saying “laughing yoga” is not enough.
6. Sometimes It’s the Foreign Nature of the Language or Idea That’s Appealing
Inevitably, there will be a lot of things in your writing that the reader will have no real context for. If mentioning Mắm tôm, I don’t need to go into all the details of how it’s made from fermented shrimp paste (not the big shrimp, the tiny brine ones). It’s maybe enough that I mention a foul-smelling purple sauce that is placed in front of a character.
Also, think of how many times a mention of some exotic food or beverage, in literature you’ve read, has inspired a need to try it. The foreignness stimulates the imagination.
7. Listen to Your Friends’ Stories
It’s easy to get bogged down in your own experience of a place. For months, I had all sorts of notions of things that I thought I knew to be true about Vietnamese culture and ideas. Many of them turned out to be stereotypes that I’d formed from one or two incidents. A different perspective on foreign culture can keep your own flights of imagination in check. Also, they’ve probably got some interesting material you could “borrow.”
8. Get Over Your Inhibitions
Living in a foreign culture provides a chance to reinvent yourself somewhat. Try things that you wouldn’t normally do. Laugh with old people at 5:30 A.M. until your sides ache. Try the purple sauce that smells like death. If you want to flavor your story with the place, you’ve got to know what’s in it.
9. Don’t Lose Your Voice
Similar to point number four, you don’t want to get so lost in the thing that your unique voice is buried. I might be entering a phase of contradictions here, but I often have to remind myself that it is “me” doing this thing. This usually happens through the occasional out-of-body experience. Like when I look at myself gambling with a group of young Vietnamese people on a bamboo mat (we are all taking that five-dollar pot very seriously). Don’t lose the “you” when you write about the game.
10. Mystify It
When you keep yourself in the equation, it creates a certain sort of mythology of the place. Vietnam as experienced by Nathan Beyerlein. There will be inconsistencies and certain things that researchers may disagree with, but it will be a whole lot more interesting.