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Setting stories: Canada vs. US

I talked a little yesterday about the differences between Canada and the US that I keep in mind when writing for a US audience. Today I’ll discuss why GIVE UP THE GHOST is (theoretically–I don’t ever name the city) set in the States, even though I live in Canada.

When I started writing GHOST, I knew it was going to be set in a city a lot like Toronto, just because that’s the city I know best. And indeed, some of the settings in the story are based directly on places here.

But I also knew I didn’t want it to be Toronto. Why? Mostly because there are a lot of less-than-shining examples of human beings in Cass’s life, who are not based on any actual people who live here. It would have felt odd saying it was Toronto but then making up some streets and schools that didn’t actually exist here, but it would have felt even more awkward using specific schools and implying that teachers and students there got up to all sorts of unsavory things. The name of the city didn’t matter to the story, so it felt best just not to name it.

So that’s why the story isn’t set in Toronto. But why did I use wording and cultural norms that fit the US instead of Canada?

Well, since I wasn’t setting the story in a specific city, it didn’t have to be in one country or the other. And I knew I was going to be querying mostly US agents, and hoping to sell the book to a US publisher.

This is less about national pride (or lack thereof) and more about wanting to make some sort of a living as a writer. There are hundreds more agents in the US than in Canada. The population of the US is ten times larger than Canada, which suggests there are ten times as many readers. And US-published books show up in Canadian bookstores all the time, whereas Canadian-published books don’t usually make their way across the border unless the book is picked up by a US publisher as well. So it seemed like the best way to get my book to as many readers (American and Canadian) as possible was to have it published in the US. And I suspected it’d seem more appealing to US readers if the details (which didn’t affect the telling of the story) were American rather than Canadian.

Frankly, I probably wouldn’t have done this if I lived anywhere other than Canada. If I liked in the UK I suspect I’d have set my book in the UK; if I lived in Australia I’d have set it there. But Canadian culture and society, on the level that you see it in the book (it’s not as if I get into government policy), is very similar to American. I hardly had to change anything at all! So I didn’t feel I was sacrificing anything.

Does that mean I’ll never set a story in Canada? Unlikely! I’d love to write a novel that takes place here. Because if I was going to set a book in an actual city, Toronto is the only one I’d feel comfortable using. Because I am proud to be Canadian, and you don’t see many US-published books set here, and it’d be nice to be a part of changing that. The thing is, each story has its own demands of time and place. It will just have to be the right story, the Toronto story.

Because in the end, it’s telling the story the way it needs to be told that matters most, not where you tell it.

I’d be curious to hear from writers and readers on this topic. Does it matter to you which country a book is set in? How do you decide where to set your books?

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Originally published at Megan Crewe - another world, not quite ours. You can comment here or there.



( 5 comments — Leave a comment )
Oct. 6th, 2009 07:02 pm (UTC)
I'm a Canadian writer publishing in Canada and thinking some of the same things as you, Megan, but not making those conscious choices at this point. In the two books I have published (second just making its way into bookstores), the characters are Canadian teens who each spend time in Germany. And I must admit that I wonder if simply making them Canadian instead of American, hurt my chances of selling south of the border. It bothers me a bit, to think that an American might reject a book because the nationality of the character is something else. Or is it just that they are generally so uninterested in Canada that the thought of a Canadian MC makes them yawn?

Of course these are broad generalizations because, through LJ and elsewhere, I've gotten to know a lot of awesome Americans who wouldn't judge a book based on the character's nationality. But still I wonder about that kind of myopic sensibility in general.
Oct. 7th, 2009 04:34 pm (UTC)
Honestly, I don't think most *readers* care much. But I think publishers worry that they might, and anything that makes a book even a little bit more of a risk is, well, a risk for the writer, too, in trying to sell. Unfortunate but true! That won't stop me from setting the right story in Canada, though. :)
Oct. 7th, 2009 12:46 am (UTC)
Interesting post! It would be great if you did write a book set in Toronto. I've only visited there a couple of times but it's such a lovely city and I think it would be great if more Americans were aware of that. I don't know if they would be turned off by a non-American setting - I would hope not!
Oct. 7th, 2009 04:35 pm (UTC)
I definitely will set a story here some day! Means more pressure, though--if I'm using a real city, there are actual facts I have to get right! Heh.
Oct. 10th, 2009 08:06 pm (UTC)
I remember when I was writing I couldn't help but set it in some sort of pseudo America. British culture just didn't seem to lend itself to school settings, for example (you can write about a British school society, I imagine, but any cliques are usually formed by who can beat up people the most or take the most drugs/drink, whereas in the US you can divide by sports/intellect/anything but who managed to down a litre of vodka bought by their parents on a park bench.) American-style road trips are out, as British road trips spend half their time at the traffic lights and lack the wide open space or isolation. Can't write a religious novel cause none of us have any. Couldn't have my protagonist home alone while her parents travelled because our social services would have been on to her. Also, we're only in school until 16, and 16 year olds only make certain types of protagonists. Want an 18 year old in high school? Gotta go American. UK University life just doesn't pack the same punch. Even a workplace setting would be dull, as we have so many rights and regulations nothing bad, risky or exciting could ever happen in a workplace. Boss being mean? You'd just hand him in to HR! In the US, less strict policies mean you can actually write some risk in there and be believable.

I guess it's my own taste too - I've found novels set in the UK seem to have the Britishness as part of the plot - quirks, personalities, aspects we recognise - so that the book wouldn't work in the US and becomes a sort of Brit cliché. But I also find, and it saddens me, that the British YA market relies too much on the sex/drink/drugs aspects of the lives of 'average' 13 year olds, and I don't believe things are as bad as the media would have us believe.
( 5 comments — Leave a comment )

My Books

Earth & Sky
(Earth & Sky #1, science fiction YA)
Skyscape/Razorbill Canada, 2014

The Clouded Sky
(Earth & Sky #2, science fiction YA)
Skyscape/Razorbill Canada, 2015

A Sky Unbroken
(Earth & Sky #3, science fiction YA)
Skyscape/Razorbill Canada, 2015

The Way We Fall
(Fallen World #1, apocalyptic YA)
Disney-Hyperion, 2012

The Lives We Lost
(Fallen World #2, apocalyptic YA)
Disney-Hyperion, 2013

The Worlds We Make
(Fallen World #3, apocalyptic YA)
Disney-Hyperion, 2014

Those Who Lived: Fallen World Stories
(Fallen World #3.5, apocalyptic YA)
self pubbed, 2014

Give Up the Ghost
(paranormal YA)
Henry Holt, 2009

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