The other day I ran across the following question from Strange Horizons editor Jed Hartman on Facebook:
"Are Russian authors as enamored of matryoshkas as English-language authors who write fiction set in Russia seem to be?"
My ears immediately perked up. I'm sure you have probably already grasped the issue: an author unfamiliar with a culture is trying to set a story in that culture, and is looking for details that will help back up the setting. What can he/she place in the room? Where can he/she have a character go, which will richly suggest setting and context?
The matryoshka example demonstrates one of the traps inherent in this process. It is easy for outsiders to a culture to draw conclusions about what objects would be in a room based on their own limited experience of the culture, often from movies or stories, or just common knowledge in their own culture about what the foreign culture is like.
I have personally been on the other end of this. When I was studying in Japan, I got asked all kinds of questions about what I was like... which turned out to be questions about what all Americans were like. All Americans? Seriously - are all Americans "like" anything? I would say in a country this large and diverse, there are a very few things we can really point to and say "all Americans are like this." But I was asked more than once, "How many guns do you own?" And on numerous other occasions I was asked questions that began, "Since you're a Christian..." Please notice the very very large assumptions inherent in any questions of this nature. I would, quite awkwardly, find myself in the position of having to speak for every American when I am absolutely certain that is a position for which I am unqualified.
Obviously this is an issue that doesn't apply solely to setting - it applies to many other categories as well. However, since I'm thinking about setting here, let's take this a little further.
What kind of details do you need? Well, for real world settings and cultures, you need to have done your research. I'm an anthropologist and very much into the idea of field work and representation of the insider, so I would recommend going and finding a member or three of the culture you'd like to work with, and finding out what really goes into a room. This is one of the reasons that I set up the Writer's International Culture Share - because it's a lot of work going out and finding people, and I love having so much specific, detailed information from unusual cultures available in one place.
Be aware that if you feel certain you know what must be there, but have never actually walked into that setting, you are probably wrong. There is an enormous difference between cultural insiders and cultural outsiders: they will notice different things. Different languages let us categorize things differently, and different cultures lead us to think different things are normal. That's why I often will go back to literature, such as Japanese literature in translation from the time period I'm working with, in order to determine what insiders would be paying attention to.
Okay, so you're writing a scene and you are trying to set it in ancient Heian Japan, and you want to depict the setting. You'll probably want to indicate the season (spring, fall, summer, winter, rainy season), whether or not your character is indoors (he/she might be noticing temperature, after all), because seasons are very important to the Japanese (then, and even now). If you're looking for particular objects or vistas associated with the season, then go back to Japanese poetry in translation, and you'll discover things like the association of the moon with the autumn, for example. If there is a woman involved there will likely be privacy screens in the room. If it's winter, there will be a brazier to help keep people warm. Depending on who the people are and what they're up to, you may find writing materials in the room, short tables, brushes and ink blocks, inkstones, etc.
I always like to start with a set of core insider objects. But that isn't always enough. You can start with the things your character will notice, but it's also a good idea to keep in mind someone else: your audience. Chances are you're not also writing your story for Heian Japanese insiders, and therefore there may be details - important ones - that an insider wouldn't notice but that your reader will fill in incorrectly without guidance. This might include something like the fact that the floors are either polished wood or tatami mats, and that people don't wear shoes indoors. In a case like this, pick out a few details that you feel are important to note, and then hide them. Take them and set them in the background by making them part of a description of a character's action, or incidental to something else that is important to the character. That way they won't take on too much importance in the character's mind, but they'll be sitting there available to the reader so that later when you mention the character falling on the rush mats, they won't go, "Huh?"
This distinction between insider details and audience details also applies to fictional worlds of the fantasy and science fictional variety. The people of Varin will always notice a person's caste, and will notice distinctions within their own caste but typically not that of others. On the other hand, they live underground but don't tend to take much notice of that; I have to sneak it in here and there. They also have very little wood, and large pieces of wood are extremely expensive - that one I can either show someone noticing, as when a servant notices that the family he's interviewing with has a gaming table and chairs made of real wood, or sneak in, as when I put in a word here or there to remind readers that tables and chairs are typically made of brass or steel, and doors of steel or bronze (thus combating specific real-world expectations).
It's something to think about.