Wish I Was There: Why We Love Exotic Fiction

The Arts

The first time I went to Greece, I was in my early twenties and working insane hours. We covered four islands a day via ferries and cargo planes, and everywhere we went the locals would come out of their houses and give us flowers or offer coffee. As most islands had no hotels we were settled with families overnight – everyone wanted to open their homes to us because we were promoting a Greek holiday company.

We were showing others the beautiful islands, and thereby sowing the seeds of their fall from innocence. Destinations like Mykonos are now (according to the Sunday Times, at least) strictly for A-Listers and far beyond the price range of locals, while Rhodes is now a dumping ground for morbidly obese cruise-ship passengers, a place to buy Chinese-made T-shirts and plastic trash.

From the grand tour to Club 18-30 was a long way to fall, although it’s estimated that no more than one thousand people ever performed the grand tour, now comparable to traversing the world by private jet. And who can begrudge people for wanting to travel cheaply while they can still get about? I took the above shot in our local park as 200 cruise ship passengers wandered through in a state of bemusement, as if trying to remember which city they were in.

Writing exotic fiction is big business; if you can’t get there, it’s fun to read about it, and a lot of authors have carved out niches for themselves involving detectives working in Italy and France, those destinations seemingly the most desirable in readers’ minds. You can’t really write novels set in other countries without visiting them at least once. To write the novella ‘Reconciliation Day’ I spent a week crossing Romania, which was an eye-opening experience. I haven’t used my arctic trip in a story yet, but I hope to soon. To write ‘Lost Children’, author Christopher Hart clearly spent time in Central America. It’s a little like writing about the immediate past; it helps if you or someone else lived through it so that you have some direct experience.

It’s hard to write about the reality of other lands when the public wants clichés. When the TV drama series ‘Succession’ went to England their episode was set in a castle. I never even saw a castle until I was in my thirties. The England I knew bore no resemblance to the one I had read about or seen in films. Those glamorous tales in which lazy afternoons are passed beneath the mulberry trees in Italian gardens remained a fantasy. We prefer our dramas played out in the al fuera cafes of the ‘sobremesa’ – a great word meaning a lazy afternoon spent drinking over leftover meals – and of course, that’s what is sold to us in fiction, not the reality of neon bars, selfie crowds and cheap booze.

If crime novels are fantasies (and they all are – few detectives come face-to-face with a murderer during a killing spree) then ‘exotic’ novels are fantasies too – we want to believe in Persia, not modern-day Turkey, Ceylon, not Sri Lanka, and Siam, not Thailand. ‘The King and I’ was, unsurprisingly, a book and film considered deeply offensive to the Thai royal family, but we love the idea of it, just as it’s impossible to think of Maigret without snails and red wine. Bryant & May exist in a London that’s as real as I can make it without getting depressed, so I sprinkle on top the London I wish still existed.

When the truth becomes a delightful lie, you print the lie. Selling the dream is what we do best. But the reality can be just as much fun, as you’ll know if you’ve read any of the great travel writers.


12 comments on “Wish I Was There: Why We Love Exotic Fiction”

  1. prm says:

    Sorry to nit-pick, but by Persia you mean Iran – for modern Turkey, Anatolya 😉

  2. Peter Tromans says:

    A delightful lie is the life to which most of us aspire; indeed, the hope that allows us to survive.

    Screws: verb or noun?

  3. Helen Martin says:

    What about an author like Donna Leon who lives in the Venice about which she writes? Her stories sound real and the side bars are about the North Africans starting gift shops selling Chinese made purses and the little corner coffee shops where people gather for morning drinks over the paper and policemen can sometimes get home for lunch with their wife and children, who are like children everywhere.
    I rather like those murals you show but they might be a bit difficult to live with on a daily basis.
    (That lady on the right at the top is the way I look these days and my man is talking about an Alaskan cruise next spring so he can ride the White Pass and Yukon Railway. I think I’ll brave it even if it is such a touristy thing to do.)

  4. Ken Mann says:

    A newly widowed woman told me on a cruise a few weeks ago that she chose cruises “because people talk to you” which was not her experience in hotels.

  5. SimonB says:

    I’ve just read “The Man Who Saved Britain” by Simon Winder. In it he makes a good case for the exotic locations being one of the reasons for the success of the Bond novels.

  6. admin says:

    Some good points here. I love Donna Lon, and yes, of course there are authors who have direct experience off where they write about, and do it astringently.
    The idea of being on a cruise ship where people talk to you fills me with horror. I’m on holiday specifically to avoid conversations, but I get that if you’re lonely it’s a good thing.
    And of course Persia Iran, I wrote that a tad too quickly!

  7. Phil says:

    I detect an echo of ‘The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance’ in your final paragraph. A fine variation on the the famous quote.

  8. snowy says:

    * Makes note of “The Man Who Saved Britain” *

    If anybody feels the urge to stock up on reading material, to get them through the darkening nights may I tender a couple of recommendations from my latest book ‘binge’.

    “The Peculiar Case of the Electric Constable” by Carol Baxter

    An account of the first murderer to be apprehended by the use of the Electric Telegraph*, It reads like a crime novel rather than a dry historical account. The author weaves in all the background and context in which events played out, without you ever feeling that you are being given a history lesson. [There have been many murderers, not many were Quakers].

    For those with a liking for eccentric detectives, but find that their usual source doesn’t produce a sufficient supply to sustain them through the year, [too busy having sausage, mash and mushy peas, in far off lands,apparently]: might find solace in:

    “The Rain Soaked Bride”** by Guy Adams

    [To save you suffering my description, here’s the blurb.]


    Toby Greene is part of The Clown Service, a mostly forgotten branch of British Intelligence tasked with fighting paranormal threats. However, the Rain-Soaked Bride is no ordinary assassin. Relentless, inexorable and part of a larger game, merely stopping this impossible killer may not be enough to save the day…”

    [I also read something called “Hall of Mirrors” by some bloke or other, that was rather good as well!]

    [ * Crippen was Wireless Telegraph ]

    [** Or start with the first book “The Clown Service”]

  9. admin says:

    I’m not giving Guy Adams my money. He still owes me a beer from last time.

  10. Peter Dixon says:

    Have you got a recipe for ‘Typical Soup’?

  11. Wayne Mook says:

    You’ll need to look in the typical places for it Peter.

    Didn’t the 1st Persian Empire cover both modern countries. I wonder what Miley Cyrus is a descendant from Cyrus the great, or am I being a bit of a twerk? Sorry I’ll get my coat.


  12. Helen Martin says:

    The Clown Service was great and The Rain Soaked Bride was really weird and great. The third in the trilogy is A Few Words for the Dead, just more in the form. You do have to like weird, though.
    Make him buy you the beer, Admin.

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