Is there anything more romantic, more conducive to steamy, sensuous passion than danger and desire in a far-flung exotic location? Escape authors Wendy L Curtis, Gracie Macgregor, and Georgie Tyler don’t think so! From the jungles of Papua New Guinea to the island paradises of Gozo in Malta and Mykonos in Greece and the harsh and beautiful Sudan, they’ve woven stories into settings as thrilling and unforgettable as the first stirrings of love. Here they share the excitement and the challenges of finding – and writing – love in a foreign land.
What’s the allure of an exotic location?
Wendy: I love exotic locations because every time I dream about relaxing and not having a worry, it’s on a secluded island, with cocktails delivered by a cabana boy ! I do think it is how a lot of people like to dream about how their life could be different, so it’s a definite escape within books.
Georgie: I guess I’ve always been captivated by exotic locations. Not necessarily places with a 7-star rating attached to them, but places that are out of the way, or have religious, scenic, or remote location qualities. I’ve travelled but not as extensively as I would have liked to and always love to know about new places. I suppose when my kids have grown up I’d love to travel the world and write reviews of places for holiday makers as well as write novels and get paid to do it! A bit grand , but oh well, it’s good to dream.
Gracie: I think when we travel to an exotic location, even in our imagination, we allow ourselves the chance to become different people. It takes courage to immerse yourself in a strange place, and you can’t help but grow from the experience. You’re already open to new possibilities – a different culture, all the amazing sensory experiences – so there’s always that tantalizing potential for something wonderful to happen to you.
Exotic settings are perfect for romantic suspense. How did you choose your setting to ramp up the tension?
Gracie: My setting chose me! I was holidaying on Gozo, basically just soaking up the sun and history and atmosphere in the little coastal village of Xlendi, and suddenly imagined how a peaceful, sleepy place could be the ideal setting not just for love and romance, but for sinister secrets and scandal. There was that underlying tension between past and future, between innocence and greed. Of course, the sinister secrets, scandal and greed are all fiction! The beauty, peace and romance are the real Gozo.
Wendy: I wanted people smuggling to be a part of my suspense angle without focusing on it completely. I also needed tropical storm activity, and it had to be close to Australia, as refugees coming in boatloads is a very hot topic here. But I also did not want to present it with a biased POV about the right and wrong of it but with a human compassion feel about the only ones in the wrong are the ones profiting from the hopes and pain of others. And anywhere I chose had to be known enough for most Australians to understand the beauty of it, but also volatile enough for there to be a real threat of danger there, and I definitely didn’t want to choose a real place that might be offended by being portrayed as something illegal going on there. So I made up a small island off the south coast of Papua New Guinea, and never had any national people actually involved in the smuggling except by skippering a boat to take people to the detention centre so he got to keep the boat for his fishing. So I needed another nice place to set part of the story in, which turned out to be Cairns.
Georgie: Sudan was an obvious place to set the story for me. I sponsored four boys there for many years through a charity and would correspond with them through their translator. When I came up with a story involving MSF doctors and a scary warlord, Sudan was the perfect location. The internet was my friend as I researched as much about the location as possible. I’ve never lived in Africa and have only visited it as a child and have no memory of it. However my father spent some years growing up in Iraq on a RAF base and had many stories of life in the desert. As for Mykonos, I have visited the island and Greece several times as my mother is Greek and I grew up in England and I think it’s pretty hard to beat a summer holiday in Greece!
What did you find most difficult or challenging about writing in these settings?
Georgie: Sudan is not a country many people know much about. However, there is a wealth of information on the internet and I tapped into it! Describing landscapes and weather patterns, political turmoil is relatively easy as this information is accessible. The more difficult research is understanding the people and the way they think. I had to draw from my bank of knowledge, my relationships with people who have lived and worked in Africa (not necessarily Sudan), who have lived and worked in Muslim countries, doctors and nurses (I seem to know a lot of people who work in the medical profession! It helped since my main characters are doctors!).
Gracie: I was very conscious that I was writing about crimes and intrigue happening in a small place, filled with real people getting on with their real lives. I haven’t had that same concern with setting stories in busy metropolises, because there’s an anonymity in big cities that means you can write about the people in a shop or a bank and not be worried a reader will think you’re writing about them or someone they know. I wasn’t in Xlendi long enough to get to know anybody very well, so all the characters are entirely fictional, and I was keen to make the central antagonist an outsider.
Wendy: Hands down the most difficult aspect of using PNG as a setting was the fact that I didn’t want to ever disrespect the very proud people who call PNG home. For this reason I made a fictitious island off the South Coast and was very sure I always portrayed the people and the place in a good light. Also, I’ve never been there, so I tried to anchor my story there with what we might all believe it would be. Most of my story takes part in Cairns, also a very exotic location but a lot more accessible for me as a writer.
Why do you think an exotic setting works so well for the romance genre?
Wendy: Romance is a genre readers use to escape from real life for a while. I think an exotic location aids that healthy escapism. There are plenty of places we’d love to go but may not ever get a chance, or places we’ve been that these settings remind us of.
Georgie: Exotic rhymes with erotic! No, I’m only kidding! I think a good romance novel can be set anywhere. It’s the relationship between the hero and heroine and how it unfolds that is important. However, I like to read and write books that take me to another place. I want to smell the spices in the air or hear the crash of the wave as he lowers his head and steals his first kiss. I want the conflict in the story to extend beyond the protagonists’ relationship and for their environment to have a hand in their journey of discovery. I also love to learn about new places and since authors are also researchers, your general knowledge grows.
Gracie: I like Georgie’s point about exotic rhyming with erotic! Travel takes us out of our everyday routines, makes us less inhibited people, more spontaneous, more ready for excitement – more ready for love! Exotic locations are not just great places to discover new love; the fashion for second honeymoons suggests they’re also fantastic for rejuvenating tired love. I thoroughly recommend them!
And what exotic places are next on the horizon for you or your characters (ie what are you writing now?!)
Georgie: The locations of my next two books are inner city Sydney. However, many from rural Australia, other states and beyond may find it an exotic setting. Perhaps one day I’ll write a story set in Mongolia or Tibet/Central Asia. Now that’s exotic! Anyone got any ideas?!
Gracie: I’m going back to Gozo, but in a very different time setting. Gozo has long been thought to be the true identity of Ogygia, the island home of Calypso in Homer’s Odyssey. Calypso was a famed beauty, and a very tragic figure as well. I’m telling her love story.
Wendy: I definitely have a PNG follow-up story coming and that will have a good dose of Tasmania in it as well. Tassie is my home state and there are places here that can just take your breath away and it often gets overlooked as an exotic location.