The first week of this past July, for our biennial vacation together, my wife Valerie and I took a cruise to Bermuda for the first time. That I found it a beautiful island and enjoyed myself immensely should surprise no one. For one thing Bermuda's beauty well documented in myriad travel magazines and for another most folk know I've never met an island I didn't like.
But I'm a writer, and when writers travel – or do much of anything, actually – we are always observing, picking up details that will probably in some form find their way into our work. Also, as always happens when we travel together, Valerie resumed encouraging me to write a romance or six – suggesting Bermuda as a perfect location. So I began taking notes on what I was observing, which I usually don't do.
Things I wrote down included:
Grass on Bermuda looks just like the Bermuda grass in our yard, but isn't because American Bermuda grass is African.
The Bermuda Longtail is the only bird I've found as viciously territorial as my favorite Northern Mockingbird. A cage match wouldn't be much fun, though; the Longtail's twice the size of a mocker.
The famous pink sand is ordinary white sand with (really pretty faint) swirls of pink flakes from crushed shells.
Sea turtles do not appreciate friendly snorkelers.
On the other hand, if you hold very still underwater (and are of hirsute eastern European stock) finger-long fish will line up along your arm to nibble your hair.
Wear sneakers in the water! Raw coral beneath the surf is the norm.
Mayonnaise is great for removing tar.
On a related note, everything is spookily clean.
Rude Bermudians are evidently kept in a secure compound far from any tourist areas.
Those last two are particularly significant. In our first exploratory stroll through the Dockyard on Ireland Island we sensed something a bit 'off' – not wrong, but different. It took us a while to realize what it was: no one approached us with discount offers. In every city with a tourist industry we've visited there were always folk on the street offering visitors half price or less on cab rides, local crafts, tours, etc. Here there were none. We'd heard Bermuda was expensive, but the prices in the stores were in line with anywhere else we'd been; what was missing were the street vendors. I even sought out alleys and back streets in Hamilton, testing the theory local entrepreneurs kept a low profile, with no luck. "Deals" were not available.
At seven every morning, as I sat drinking my third
Bermuda is not without crime – there are three prisons and we once saw a group of police officers surrounding a man on the street. And listening to a radio talk show in which the female host took calls from listeners debating some political controversy I didn't follow I learned Bermudians can indeed vent their tempers when they want to. (Though a heated argument in British Colonial English pales in comparison to southern talk radio stridency.) But Bermuda is alone. I'm typing this in Wilmington, NC, so Bermuda is about 770 miles east of me; the point of land nearest Bermuda is Cape Hatteras, NC, at just over 700 miles. Even on this shrunken globe of the internet and jets and 6,000-passenger cruise ships, in a very real sense the people of Bermuda have only each other to rely on. Which means that Bermudians need to trust one another to work for the common good, and behave in a manner worthy of that trust. Of course there are individuals who don't – they do have police and courts and prisons – and there are bound to be seven or eight or twenty opinions on what best constitutes the common good, but underlying it all is the knowledge they are all in it together.
What has this to do with writing? Quite a lot. Most of us have had the experience of reading a story set in a place we live or have lived and known by the second sentence the writer has no idea what she's talking about. She may know what street leads where and accurately describe the sunrise/set over the mountain/bay/river/skyline, but it's clear she doesn't "get' the place she's writing about. Every society, every locale, every family has its particular culture. More than any physical attribute a place and a people are defined by their culture – the givens upon which they base their decisions and behaviors. Any story set in Bermuda that vividly captures it's physical beauty, or engagingly depicts sea birds and turtles, or evokes its colonial history with insightful observations of architecture and ruins, but misses the culture of the people will ring false.
When you set your story in a place you don't know, don't just research its history and geography and politics. By all means, visit if you can and between snapping shots of everyday scenes and making notes about scents and sounds pay attention to how folk interact with each other when they're not playing for the tourists. Body language, manners. If you speak the language, listen to AM talk radio. If you can't visit, the internet makes local media scarily accessible. Listen to local talk radio stations, read local papers, read stories by local writers if you can find them. This diligence – which is by no means hard work – will add a depth and texture to your story and a verisimilitude the folks you're writing about will appreciate