Foreign travel on an intercontinental scale is time consuming, tiring and expensive. Flight times from the U.S. to China can be 30 hours and 12-15 hours to most locations in Europe. Those living in Australia, New Zealand, Africa, South America and India also face many hours in an aircraft to reach destinations in Europe or the Americas.
Most businessmen travel to seek new markets for what they make, attend trade conventions, arrange joint ventures or check out suppliers. They are on the clock traveling on their company’s behalf. Oftentimes such trips are assigned, and to refuse to go is to risk their jobs.
For writers the choices are not so straight forward. The writer increasingly does not have an advance towards his book, and he is traveling at his own expense. The novel may be set in far-away places and in different eras. It is certainly far less expensive to write about a subject close to your geographic location or sometimes even create a fictional world of your own. Nonetheless, there are times when the novel is set in another location because of a particularly compelling story line.
Take for example Ian Fleming’s James Bond character. This guy gets around internationally. It is not too strange to find him not only in London, but in four or five other countries during a single book. These make for an exciting read and thrilling movie, but the safest approach for an average writer would be to confine his foreign adventures to places that he has gone before or knows about.
My own book-in-progress, Father of The Grooms, has brief scenes in San Francisco, Baton Rouge and Washington D.C. in the U.S. There is also one brief incident in Iraq that will consume only a few pages of text, but the majority of the activities, and certainly the most interesting ones, take place in Sicily - a place that I had never been.
The general story is that a Louisiana family of Sicilian origin has two young men of about 23 and 25 who have had considerable trouble maintaining relationship with women. One is recently divorced and the other thrown out of his live-in relationship with a lady in San Francisco. Dad decides that it is time to have some grandchildren and proposes that they do it the old-fashioned-way by using his family ties in Sicily to arrange a marriage with two nice Sicilian girls.
Not fully realizing the seriousness of this arrangement, the two guys agree to go on a family vacation to Sicily to meet some interesting women and see their ancestral homeland. They arrive on Monday and find out that the wedding is to be on Friday. Their prospective brides have recently undergone the considerable trauma of having a beloved cousin literally blown nearly in half in the most recent of a series of vendetta killings that had been going on between two families for over a century and augmented by the Mafia Wars of the 1990s. They want to get away from that cycle of bloodshed at any costs - even if it means marrying two American men that they have never met.
Other interesting characters include Father Flanagan, an Irish priest sent to Sicily to hopefully bring some peace between the waring Mafia families and the two young men’s gay uncle who runs a hairdressing parlor with their sister.
Miscommunications, misunderstandings and cultural conflicts abound in the plot as the wedding day approaches. It is made very clear that the arrangements have been made, more than 50,000 Euros spent, and if the wedding does not take place, none of the American part of the family are likely to leave Sicily alive for refusing to accept “two of the most beautiful flowers of the island,” as their brides.
With this general story line it was absolutely necessary for me to go to Sicily to see the locations where the visiting Americans would be taken to become somewhat acquainted with their historic homeland, a dark cave on Mt. Etna where a certain ceremony was to take place, the out of the way location where the Mafia family wedding was to occur, and some of the historic sights they would see.

Could I write this book without going to Sicily?

With on line resources it would be possible to do research on the geography of the island, plot out their tour and perhaps pick out some major locations where segments of the plot could unfold. What I would have missed was information on Sicilian wedding customs, the street names where the brothers are going to be taken for their bachelor party, the location for a boar hunt that one of the brothers is going to participate in and information on the types of wine and food likely to be consumed.
Being on the island helped me better visualize my characters, give me little vignettes and tell me things that I would likely never have discovered, like there are no Catholic schools in Sicily as we have here in the U.S., and that the caves on Mt. Etna were used to store snow for icing down drinks and making flavored ices during the Island’s hot summers.
It would have been even more helpful had I been able to go during the Fall when our American family is to arrive, but I did have the opportunity to participate in a small town’s Saint festival complete with marching bands, throngs in the streets, etc. The narrow steep streets were so crowded that a person could hardly push their way through. Such a crowd would allow a couple to get purposefully lost to have a few minutes of private conversation away from their ever watchful hosts which will be useful in advancing the story at a critical point.
Such trips are not inexpensive. My direct costs was about $5,000 including the air fare, my nine-day Secrets of Sicily tour with Dimensione Sicila and a two day stay-over to get to locations that were not covered on the tour. Especially helpful were my conversations with the tour guides, hotel personnel, waiters, etc. who spoke excellent English. Sicily is an economy that derives 30 percent of its income from tourism, so fluency in several languages is often a requirement for employment in the larger tourist hotels.
In the book two of the places that our prospective grooms are going to be taken by their younger Sicilian cousins are to a whore house and a gay bar. Palermo is a port town and as I told the young lady at the desk, who by this time knew exactly what I was doing, “There is one thing that sailors have always wanted when they come ashore. It has been so since ancient times and is still true today. I don’t want to embarrass you, and I had rather ask a guy, but there are none here.”
She did not get my meaning, so I wrote “Whore house” down on a yellow pad. A slightly older woman who was listening in from a desk behind the counter did get the question and while the younger desk clerk told me that the houses were located on Lincoln Street near the port, the lady at the desk supplied me with the name of a gay bar that she had found on line. She also informed me that it would only be open after dark.
Again, this is the sort of information that can only be obtained by actually visiting the location and interacting with the locals. I was not successful in everything. I discovered enough about an ancient style of Sicilian knife that is significant to my plot that I will be able to make a copy out of modern steels in my forge here in Georgia. I even found some decorative elements from some of the very early inhabitants of the island that would work on the hilt. My copy of this knife will not be an exact replica, but will be a usable, effective knife with identifiable design elements that relate to that culture.
You can follow my efforts on this novel, screenplay and movie at and even participate in the completion of the novel, screenplay and movie. The novel will be completed in a year, the screenplay the following year and hopefully the movie started the next.

Should you take a fact-finding trip to support your book?

As always, it depends. If your book has major sections set in another country, you should very likely go there if you want your book to get a reasonable review. One thing that reviewers will harp on is any inconsistencies in facts in regards to the location and the supposed activities of your fictional characters. You can have them do anything that you can imagine to foster the story and plot, but it adds considerable authenticity to the work if you can bring out unexpected things and events that a person would not know, unless they had been to the location.

Author's Bio: 

Wm. Hovey Smith is a registered Professional Geologist in Georgia. He is or has been a member of several writers’ organizations including the Professional Outdoor Media Association (POMA), the Outdoor Writers Association of America (OWAA) and the Georgia Outdoor Writers Association (GOWA). He is the author of 18 books with his most recent title being “Create Your Own Job Security: Plan to Start Your Own Business at Midlife.” He has been a radio host and does public speaking on work and environmental topics with appearances in the U.S., Europe and China. He is an active blogger and the producer of over 725 YouTube videos on outdoor and business topics.