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.