Getting the setting right

Over at YA Misfits today, Dahlia Adler is leading the Monday Pep Rally on getting a book’s setting right. I started to make a reply in the comments, but decided I actually had enough to say it was worth its own post.

First, you should read Dahlia’s post. But to summarize, her point is basically that if you set your story in a real town that you don’t live in, you need to do your research to get it right, because natives of that town will know if you didn’t. Dahlia closes with the questions: What would a writer need to know to get your hometown right? And what books have gotten yours – or a town like yours – spot-on?

I’d bet this is something that non-Americans think about a lot more than American writers. :) The English-language publishing industry (especially for YA) is unsurprisingly fairly US-centric, since that’s where the biggest publishers are headquartered, and also where the greatest population of writers and readers are.

I’ve gotten pretty used to never seeing Canadian settings in the YA books I read, but as a Canadian it does pose a challenge to writing. I set my last book, Secrets, in Toronto for the reasons above: I know Toronto, I grew up just outside and even lived there a few years, so I can be sure the setting doesn’t read like it was written by a non-native.

But I was told, by more than one reader (including an agent), that Canadian settings were chancy. Americans didn’t want to read about Canada. It was too foreign to feel familiar, but not foreign enough to feel exotic. Which may be true, although as a Canadian who reads about foreign-but-unexotic American settings all the time, I sort of feel Americans could handle it. :)

Not to mention, there are a lot of great settings here in Canada, with their own unique features and interests. You don’t even have to go remote (eg the arctic) to find them. One of Dahlia’s commenters mentioned Montreal, a beautiful old city that’s arguably among the most bilingual on the continent. East coast fishing villages, or western coastal towns are full of culture. And Toronto is the fourth-largest city in North America.

Kelley Armstrong (incidentaly also an Ontarian) set some of her books on Vancouver Island, which seems to have gone over fine. :) Maybe once I’m a bestselling author with a huge following (ha) I can slip some Canadian settings into my works, but in the meantime I end up turning to American locations. Stars is set in New York City, which I’ve visited a couple of times but never long enough to get out of tourist-mode. Fortunately the story takes place many decades from now in a post-apoc future so I feel (hope) my non-nativeness won’t be as much of a factor. But my current WIP is set in a modernish Detroit, and I’ve spent even less time in Detroit than I have in NYC. Research will be necessary, and hopefully I’ll even be able to find someone who lives (or has lived) there to bounce questions off of.

As for the second half of Dahlia’s questions… I grew up in a very small Ontario town that’s as unlikely a setting for a published novel as any, but it is, in fact, the actual town that Judy Fong Bates’ adult novel Midnight at the Dragon Cafe is set in (even though she never actually names it, I don’t think). And I think she nailed it; it’s definitely recognizable as the little town I knew, albeit a few decades before I arrived.


8 responses to “Getting the setting right

  1. I think I’ve heard that about Canada, and it’s such a shame – I love learning about new places, and I’ve only been to Canada twice, and only to major cities. I did, however, copy edit a couple of stories for a Canada-themed anthology that was a lot of fun! Good luck finding someone from Detroit, and if you ever need NYC help, you know where to find me!

    • Thanks, Dahlia! I appreciate your offer of NYC help; I may well take you up on that. And I do suspect more American readers would be open to Canadian settings than agents suspect, but it’s true that culture flows north across the border more easily than it flows south. The funny thing is, I’d be willing to bet that if the book didn’t actually say outright that it was set in Canada, many (most?) American readers wouldn’t notice the small country-specific differences.

  2. LOL I just posted on Dahlia’s blog about Toronto! (Very tongue-in-cheek.)
    Yes, as a Canadian writer, it is difficult to decide on a city to base stories on… I hope my Toronto setting works for the urban fantasy I’ve written/am revising.

    • Fun, Carolyn! I was totally nodding along with your post comments. :) Good luck with your Toronto-set manuscript! I found with querying that it was better not to mention the city in the query, to avoid a no based on that prejudice and at least let the manuscript have a chance to prove itself based on the story. I’d like to read more books with Canadian settings; it always excites me when I find a mainstream novel with one (like Kelley Armstrong’s).

  3. I’m having this dilemma as well. One publishing expert has reviewed my pitch, synopsis etc. and told me in no uncertain terms that it must be moved to the U.S. It’s a YA contemporary about a girl playing hockey. So… really? I’ve had another publishing expert and a Pulitzer Prize-winner tell me under no circumstances can I move it – even if it means it will be more likely successfully shopped to a Canadian publisher when the day comes.

    I prefer to think that Dahlia’s got it right – Americans are actually more interested in learning about their neighbours than the “industry” thinks they are. On the other hand, I’d sure hate for this to be the fatal flaw that kills my book.


    • That’s frustrating, Keely. I agree with the second – a hockey novel just doesn’t make as much sense in a US town, even a snowy northern US town. Especially for a youth hockey setting (is it just me or are half of NHLers from either Canada or Russia? It doesn’t seem like the US has the same youth hockey culture as Canada. They focus more on football down there.)

      So hard to know what to do, eh? I guess it depends on what your priorities are for your story. If your goal is to break in to the mainstream US market via American publishers, then you may end up having to go with what the American industry is telling you to do. But I don’t think sticking to your guns and keeping the Canadian setting will kill the project completely, especially if your goal is just to have your story published. I bet a Canadian publisher (either Canadian imprint of a US big-six, like HarperCollins Canada, or a smaller Canada-based publisher like Raincoast) wouldn’t have any reservations about taking it on if they loved the story. Then once it’s published you could put in the work of introducing it to an American audience by way of blog tours/reviews, etc.

  4. It never bothered me the few times I’ve come across Canada in books. Quite the opposite, really. LMM made me REALLY want to visit Prince Edward Island (Lucy Maude Montgomery for those not in the know). I have yet to make it, but I truly want to visit even though I’m sure it’s no longer anything like it used to be.

    But, yes, I am an American who loves reading about other places, even if they aren’t “exotic.” Maybe I’m weird, but I don’t understand how it could be a problem. To tell the truth, Canada just isn’t all that different. And I wouldn’t want anyone to change their book, but I’d think a hockey book could just as easily be set in Minnesota. But what do I know? I’m just a silly non-hockey playing American who loathes football. Oh, and I went to a hockey game this year! Okay, maybe I’m not typical, but I don’t think the YA readers will care about a great book set in Canada as long as it comes across their radar. That’s probably the hardest part.

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