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So far I've been setting my stories in the country I live: Taiwan. Not because I love my country. In fact, I'm not fond of patriotism. I just figured out it would be easier to describe surroundings that I'm familiar with. But I've been wondering lately whether I should set them in places that have to do with the story.

For instance, setting an earthquake story in Japan (a country famous for its earthquakes), a surfer's tale in Hawaii, or the chronicles of a rice farmer in China.

Usually my stories have nothing to do with the country's history or culture (though I make mention on them and use them to create a certain atmosphere).

If this is the case, does the country matter?

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Although radical patriotism is out there, I firmly believe that honest, productive devotion to one's country (notice: 'country', not 'homeland') is something that should be aspired to. That said, you're describing "adding cultural traits to an existing mind-image of a real place". Do what you want if you don't specify the country. If you specify one because of a trait you want to use (like earthquakes in Japan) then you'll have to include all the cultural baggage and keep in mind riceballs, honorifics, annual festivals, CRT displays, etc. –  Mussri Jun 29 '13 at 11:38
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Keep in mind that if you set your story in Japan, you'll need to KNOW about Japan. If you try to fake it, there's always someone who will figure you out. You would either need to do a lot of research, or find someone who lives or has lived there. On the other hand, setting a story about ninjas in Taiwan just because you don't know about Japan also doesn't make much sense. –  Tannalein Jun 29 '13 at 12:38
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Do you even need to specify the country at all? Depending on the story, you might not need to name places in the first place. –  Michael Kjörling Jun 29 '13 at 20:11
    
@MichaelKjörling Good point. Often no specification is needed. –  John M. Landsberg Jul 2 '13 at 2:18
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3 Answers 3

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Everything in your story should serve your story. The setting, the geography, the era, the culture, the time of day, the weather, the characters, their gender, their names, their descriptions, their language(s), their histories.

If you've chosen a familiar setting because your story works best there, fine. If you want to set your story about ninjas fighting sharks in the American Old West, however, you'd better have a good in-universe reason for doing so. It has to make sense.

As long as the setting (Japan, Hawaii, Mars) works for the story, then no, it doesn't matter.

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As you've noted in your question, the country matters if your story is about events or culture peculiar to that country. Someone mentioned Dr Zhivago, which is a story about the Russian Revolution. It would have made no sense to tell that same story but say it happened in Canada.

In many stories, the country isn't all that important. A murder mystery or a love story could be set in any country that has ever existed, as -- to the best of my knowledge, anyway -- people everywhere commit murders and people everywhere fall in love. Still, the country would affect the story.

In an important sense, the setting always matters. A love story set in a country in which marriages are normally arranged by the young people's families would be rather different from one set in a country where young people choose their own spouses. I'm sure every country has unique cultural traits that would affect the flow of the story.

I think most writers set a story in their own country when there is no good reason to set it somewhere else for the simple reason that they know their own country and so they don't have to worry about making mistakes on the background. I wouldn't just pick a random country to set a story in without knowing a lot about that country. You'd be likely to make all sorts of mistakes that anyone who DOES know the country would quickly spot. People might let you off on the details. Like if you say that the hero went to a bookstore in the town of Foobar and a reader who knows the place knows that there are no bookstores in that town, he might skim over it on the reasoning that it was important to the plot that the hero visit a bookstore and so you just invented one. But if you are regularly talking about characters being stuck in traffic jams in a country where in reality few people have cars and the roads are always empty, or if you talk about the king of a country that has no king, or about the blizzards in a tropical country that hasn't had snow in recorded history, etc etc, it's just going to be jarring.

Is there an advantage to setting a story in a different country? Like, if you live in Taiwan and your primary market is Taiwan, do Taiwanese readers tend to prefer books set in their own country, or books set in foreign countries? (I have no idea.) I suspect it depends on the story. With some stories, a foreign setting would be exotic and could add flavor. With others, it would be distracting. Like, when American authors write an adventure story, they almost always set it in a foreign country, because the further from home you are the more of an adventure it is. But when Americans write a crime story, they almost always set it in America, because a foreign setting could make clues more difficult for the reader to interpret and would require additional explanations all over the place.

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+1 Jay. I particularly like your observation about which settings American writers choose for adventure versus crime stories. Very perceptive. –  John M. Landsberg Jul 1 '13 at 16:24
    
I'm in agreement with most everything here, except I think murder mysteries often do benefit when the author is familiar with local law enforcement, and it would be hard to write a credible mystery without that familiarity. Hence, American murder mysteries feature detectives who recite Miranda rights (when they finally catch the murderer), British mysteries have references to Scotland Yard, and so forth. "Book 'em, Dano." –  J.R. Jul 2 '13 at 22:30
    
@J.R. I don't disagree. That's the direction I was heading when I said, "In a sense, the setting always matters" and the example about romances. The setting of a murder mystery could make a bigger difference than I was originally thinking. In a mystery set in a country with a many detailed civil rights protections, one could write a mystery story about how the detective must navigate the rules to obtain the critical evidence. A reader from a country with more lax rules might be saying, "Wait, if they KNOW it was him, why don't they just break down the door and beat him up until he confesses?" –  Jay Jul 8 '13 at 13:41
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Basically, Alex, the country matters if you want it to matter. Your story is what matters, and if your story is about something that pertains to the country, then the country matters to the story. Think about it: In Mark Twain's Life on the Mississippi, does the country matter to the story? Well, guess what. Even if you haven't read it, I'm guessing you can figure out that since the Mississippi is in the United States, the country matters to the story. How about Doctor Zhivago? Well, I'm sure you know it's set in Russia. And I'm sure you know the setting is CRUCIAL to the story. Hm. Yes. I would say the country matters to the story. How about the movie The Matrix? Well, gee, no. Can you even think what country that was set in? Nope, I bet you can't. It didn't really make one tiny bit of difference what country it was set in, because, after all, it wasn't really even set in a country. Well, okay, it sort of kind of was, at least in part, but not really, and the part of it that was kind of in a country didn't really emphasize the country, did it? Nah.

The country matters... if you want it to matter.

By the way, most writers set most of their stories in their own country just because that's the easiest thing to do. It's perfectly natural, perfectly acceptable, and generally just fine. It's usually not a problem, and usually doesn't demand any particular thought on the part of the writer, because for the most part, unless you have a special, particular, compelling, plot-driven reason for taking the story OUT of your own country, why wouldn't you just leave it alone and let it live where you are giving it birth... in your own country?

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Can I just add that both Mark Twain and Boris Pasternak (who wrote Doctor Zhivago) wrote about countries they lived in? It would be terribly hard to write a meaningful setting-based story that happens in Russia if you've never been there. They don't say "write what you know" for no reason :) –  Tannalein Jul 1 '13 at 12:37
    
Absolutely correct, @Tannalein, which is why I emphasized the setting is CRUCIAL to Dr. Z. –  John M. Landsberg Jul 1 '13 at 16:20
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