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Monday, November 18, 2013

Getting Your Setting Right Takes Time, But It's Worth It - With Author Marie Coutu

I had never met author Marie Coutu (pronounced Co-chew) before, but when I caught up with her at the International Christian Retail Show (ICRS) in St. Louis last June, it didn’t take long to see that
this is one interesting woman who writes, loves hats, and is a doting grandmother.

Marie has written throughout her adult life, first in nonfiction as a newspaper reporter, and then in business and government. Most recently, she’s written for the Billy Graham Association.

About six years ago she was bitten by the fiction bug and after a few false starts began a story that became her recently-published novel from Write Integrity Press, For Such a Moment. The book is the first of a three-book series based on biblical women. For Such a Moment is a contemporary based on Esther.

Much of Marie’s book is set in Guatemala. Even though she’s never been to that country, she’s been told by people who have lived there she’d written the setting so well, they assumed she’d spent a lot of time there. Intrigued, I asked Marie how she managed to pull that off. Inquiring authors’ minds want to know! 

Here are Marie Coutu’s steps for making the setting come alive and realistic even if you’ve never been there yourself:

1.     I used websites, books, and interviews with people who knew Guatemala well.
2.     Through a Guatemala travel guide I learned overall facts about the country, and studied the photos from the different areas.
3.     Websites geared to tourists that were sponsored by the Guatemalan government and others helped--especially for a volcano scene.
4.     Google Earth is fantastic for getting a sense of the setting and the distance between places. In one scene, my characters run from their hotel to a nearby park, which I found in the guidebook. Google Earth helped me visualize their route and I discovered my characters would have to cross a bridge over a multi-lane road to get to the park. I would not have known that otherwise, and it wasn't something I would have thought to ask about or that a visitor would necessarily mention.
5.     I searched for various websites that would give me tidbits about the country. Several sites by photographers and video crews who documented the poverty in and around the garbage dump in Guatemala City were helpful in describing the people and setting.
6.     Blogs by mission teams that described their experiences in Guatemala provided descriptions of the smells and sounds that helped me incorporate as many senses as possible.
7.     I talked with a woman who’d recently returned from Guatemala, using interview techniques I’d learned as a reporter. I specifically asked her to describe the sights, sounds, and smells she remembered. Smells are especially important, since they trigger memory and emotion more than any other sense. (It's also the most difficult to describe!) It was from this woman that I first learned about the "chicken buses" which appear in one scene.
8.     Ministry sites which serve the poor in Guatemala City and rural Guatemala, provided additional information and pictures.
9.     Since a banana plantation is crucial to the story, I read a lot on the Internet about growing bananas. Note that the guideline of not using a fact (especially from the Internet) unless you can confirm it from three different sources applies as much to a contemporary novel in an exotic setting as it does to a historical story. In most cases in my story, however, descriptions of setting and even the banana plantation were "impressions," not fact. So basing a scene off information from one site was okay, even if that setting might only apply to one area of the country.

Thank you, Marie, for taking the time to help all of us to make our settings as authentic as possible.
There is nothing worse than having a reader who is familiar with your setting tell you that you got it wrong. Not only is it embarrassing, but getting details of a setting wrong can hurt your credibility and cause you to lose readers. It’s well worth it to make the extra effort like Marie did to get the setting as right as possible.

What techniques have you used to authenticate your setting, even if you've never been there?

You can read more about Marie and her books at her website.

A native of Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, author Pamela S. Meyers lives in suburban Chicago, an hour's drive away from her hometown which she visits often to dig into its historical legacy. Her novels include Thyme for Love, and Love Will Find a Way,  contemporary romantic mysteries and her 1933 historical romance, Love Finds You in Lake Geneva,Wisconsin, released in April, 2013. She can often be found speaking at events around Lake Geneva or nosing in microfilms and historical records about Wisconsin and other Midwestern spots for new story ideas.


  1. Marie, great information. I used some of the things you mentioned, especially travel guides and websites, when writing a novel set in Costa Rica. I like the missionary sites idea. (Good to see you at the ACFW conference.)

  2. Thanks so much for this, Marie. In writing my nonfiction book, I'll have more resources to look into for accurate information.


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