Write what you know. Write from your heart. The number one rules for writing, right?
I've always thought so. Everyone has their own voice, their own backyard, which is different than everyone else's. The literary world would sure be a boring place if every author in the world set their stories in New York, as exciting as the Big Apple may be.
Still, there's a real temptation for Canadian authors to set their stories in the U.S.A. Do other writers from other countries feel the same way or is it just us loathsomely not-confident Canucks? The thing is, the American market is HUGE and the Canadian market is tiny. The thing also is, there is a general consensus that Americans are not the least bit interested in reading about Canada, even though Canadians regularly read American books and watch American TV/movies.
Is that true? As a reader, would you automatically reject a book because it is set in Canada?
I am wondering about this because last weekend I attended the North Words Literary Festival in Huntsville, which was inspiring, amazing and downright awesome. One of the speakers was a Canadian literary agent who was asked whether it's better to set books in the States rather than Canada.
Her answer was, "I'm embarrassed to say, but it's much easier to sell a book set in the States." American publishers, she said, are not interested in Canadian locales, and America is where the big money is, publishing-wise.
This really got me thinking.
I have always been a fan and a big supporter of Can-Lit. I believe that Canadians have important stories to tell and there's no reason why we should be writing about other countries when our own is so rich in character, scenery and history. And yet I want to sell my books – so on the one hand, I'm touting Canadian literature; on the other hand I want a big fat publishing contract and movie rights in Hollywood.
It's hypocritical, sure, but there have been success stories. Take The Shipping News, for example. Set in a tiny Newfoundland fishing village, Annie Proulx's wonderful book won a Pulitzer Prize and spawned a successful big budget movie. Not that I am in any way comparing my work to The Shipping News. I'm absolutely not. I'm just saying it can be done.
My writing group friends asked if I would be willing to change the location in my manuscript to a place in the States. Maybe, I said, if it was a deal breaker. But then I got to rereading my novel and realized small town Ontario is more than just a location – it's the very soul of the story and it's what makes the main character who she is. It would be an entirely different story set somewhere else.
Then I thought, well, why not set my next book in the States. So I started scouting the internet for ideas. I thought, well, Maine, Vermont, Pennsylvania, Michigan – they're all close to the Canadian border. Geographically, they're a lot like Canada. But as I narrowed my thinking south of the border, I realized I don't know a thing about local history, dialect, geography, scenery. Nothing. I turned away from the computer with frustration, thinking, "why am I even bothering to think about this? What is wrong with writing about what I know?"
I realize that, if you're a true writer of fiction, you should be able to write about anything, anywhere. After all, it's the characters who matter, not the geography, right? Maybe... I don't know...
So I'm asking you. What do you think? Should we write about the place we call home? Wherever that may be? Or should we write to where the market is, hoping to tap into a bigger economic pie?