I’m writing a story. My problem is that a big part of this story takes place in China, and outside of the usual clichés I know next to nothing about China.
Ignorance is not an unsolvable problem, of course. There are lots of books about China — I have two on my nightstand right now — and of course the internet is brimming with info. You can with a little reading and a little googling get enough of a feel for a place to write about it convincingly, or at least avoid looking like a fool.
But what you cannot get from books and googled images is insight. Even if the book you’re reading offers interesting insights, they’re somebody else’s insights, and nothing is worse than recycled insight. A revelation that somebody else has earned by living in and seeking to understand a place can only be a fact when it’s repeated to others, and by the time it comes third-hand it’s already a cliché.
Why do I need insight into China? Mostly it’s the structure of the story: the protagonist comes to China thinking that he’s looking for one thing, fails to find it, but is redirected to seeking something else instead. It would be nice if the protagonist’s failure and renewal were related in a deep and interesting way to the country that he’s visiting. The story doesn’t really require that his destination be China — it could be Vietnam or India or Brazil or any number of other places around the globe — but wherever it is, the place as presented in the story must seem authentic, and must relate organically to the character’s transformation. It will not do to have him visit Exotic Foreign Locale #12 and be impressed by the friendly but nondescript brown-skinned natives. I’m trying to be a little more original than that.
And that’s why I’m trawling my sources looking for the thing that’s going to turn him around. I don’t know what it is yet, but I trust that when I see it things will click and I’ll know how to finish my story.
(If you, by the way, have anything interesting along these lines to share, please do so in the comments. I can’t say what I’m looking for, but anything interesting and informative about the rapidly industrializing countries of Asia or Latin America would fit.)