Thursday, October 4, 2012

Canadian or American?

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?

51 comments:

  1. I with you Cathy! on all your thoughts. I had just came across this link a Canadian FB friend, who lives in Texas posted. I enjoyed it and am Proud to be a Canadian ! http://www.wimp.com/explainscanada/

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  2. Well, I'm an American and I'd love to read about Canada. I already know a lot about the States, I'd like to learn about new places!

    And as far as I'm concerned, you should always write from your heart! Don't change your location unless YOU feel like changing it. Otherwise, your story will loose something in the translation.

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    1. Absolutely ! Well said jaybird, that is the way it should be with anything.

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  3. I'd be interested in reading a book set in Canada!

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    1. What a coincidence! I happen to have a book set in Canada! ;)

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  4. I'm an American living in Canada. I enjoy Can-Lit. I feel you have to set your stories in a place that you know or it doesn't work well. The thing is Canada isn't like the states except maybe some of the landscape in some states.

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    1. I agree, Kristy. I really do. I guess publishing, like everything else, comes down to money and if Canadian stories don't sell, publishers don't want them. (Another reason to love self-publishing)

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  5. I grew up in Michigan, so I wouldn't mind reading a Canadian-based story. ;-) The upper midwest — Minnesota, Wisconsin, upper Michigan — have distinct dialects to be sure, but they're not the same as Canadian dialects.

    Urban settings are easier; they're fairly generic these days, and what distinct features they have can be figured out online. So you could take what you know about Toronto and apply it to many US cities without too much effort.

    Hey… or maybe cross the border in the story? Part of it in Canada, part in the US?

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  6. I am always delighted to find a story set in Canada.....thrilled to find a Canadian author. However, if a story is good, it really doesn't matter where it takes place.

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    1. Me too, Delores. Some of my favourite books EVER are by Canadian authors. Like Margaret Laurence's Bird in the House or Alice Munro's The Beggar Maid or Terry Fallis' The Best Laid Plans.

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  7. I would have to say that the moment your focus is no longer on the heart of the your story, what makes it your story, it is no longer YOUR story. It is true we write so that others may enjoy it, but if you have no heart in the story, if you - the writer - can't get any joy from reading your own tossed-together-words, then you may as well set aside your keyboard.

    Write from your heart. If what you know is Ontario and that is the setting that makes your story YOURS, then go for it. Just maybe you could have the next The Shipping News on your hands.

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    1. Hug! Thanks Angela, and best of luck with your new book!

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  8. Part of what I love about reading fiction is being transported to a place I can't visit in person & learning about new cultures, beliefs and people. Being in the US, I would love to read more stories about and set in other places. I vote no, don't change your setting!

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    1. I feel that way too, Shannon... so why do publishers believe everything should be set in the U.S. when readers want variety and exotic locales?

      Oh! Got your email about your new book. A pet psychic? Hilarious! Can't wait to get my mitts on it. Best of luck!

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  9. Write what you feel. Isn't that what writing's all about? One of my favourite books is Cabbagetown. Hugh Garner wrote what he felt about growing up in the slums of Toronto. I don't think he would have been able to convey the same feelings about a foreign city.

    karen

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    1. Karen, I ADORE Hugh Garner. One of my very favourite short stories of all time was written by him, called The Yellow Sweater, or maybe just The Sweater, I forget. But I loved his writing. It's so cool that you love him too!

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  10. I don't think it matters what the setting is as long as the writing is strong. Agents will also say that you shouldn't write more than 80,000 words and, really, you should try to keep it to 60,000, and that's a bunch of hooey, too. If your story -needs- to be in Canada, have it in Canada.

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  11. Well you know my thoughts from what I posted on Facebook. I am 100% supportive of Canadian writers setting their stories in Canada. I was going to cite The Shipping News but you beat me to it. Wonderful book and movie! (I adore Gordon Pinsent!). Write what you know. If you were doing a specific story about something or an event in the USA then yes, set it there. I know that the USA steamrolls over our neighbours to the north which is unfortunate. I have laughed...but cringed...at Rick Mercer's barbs about us (like 'Talking to Americans' was just a bit mean spirited in a lot of ways, as amusing as it was).

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    1. OMG, you really ARE an honourary Canadian!

      1. You know who Gordon Pinsent is! WOW! Big brownie points for you, JoJo. I love that man, too. He's one of my favourite actors in the whole world and, honestly, he was the very best thing in that movie.

      2. And you've watched Rick Mercer???? Yes, it is mean-spirited but, yeah, kind of funny.

      You rock, JoJo, and you do deserve dual citizenship fer sure!

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  12. I am always drawn to books set in Canada. There aren't enough. Let's have more.

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  13. I'm writing spy thrillers, so it's rather hard to start out with the notion of CSIS agents as compelling characters. So one of my main characters is American, but the books that I'll write following these characters will be globe trotting, stopping in various places as I go along.

    I do have a plan for a future book wherein the present day action starts off quite literally in my backyard, over in the Gatineau Hills, with the murder of an Irish terrorist turned politician, and end up in the Nahanni before the book ends.

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    1. And you see, William? Spy thrillers are a perfect example of stories that should be set where they need to be set... which is what writer Tom Gillespie wrote this morning on Facebook. Makes perfect sense to me. And good luck with those novels - the Gatineaus would make an ideal setting for your idea. So beautiful, too.

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  14. You're out of my depth. I cannot imagine writing that which you don't know.

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  15. I would say, write what you like and set the story where you think it needs to be. On the other hand, it may be worthwhile to experiment with nudging a story into a US location. And if you make it a fictional location, perhaps in a fictional timeline, I suppose you could make it very Canadian-like anyway.

    Ooh, wait! Change it to SciFi and set it in the distant future [or past] on a space colony called Americus, Canadia. Yeah, that's the ticket!

    FWIW, and at the risk of being [more of] an outcast, I was really looking forward to seeing the movie version of The Shipping News and decided to read the book first. I disliked the book so much that I have never watched the movie, but I had no problem with it being set in Canada. The setting was probably the most interesting part....

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  16. Have you ever read any books by Giles Blunt? My Mommeh has read his books, and the setting in Canada is one of the interesting things about it (check out "Blackfly Season")

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  17. I think setting is SO important in a novel. I write the places I know, it lends an inntimacy to the story. As well, characters and setting really interweave, so it's important to know where your characters live and interact.

    I also believe writing for publication whims establishes a path to disaster. Peace...

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  18. This post raised my blood pressure so much I had to calm down before commenting! If the setting is the heart and soul of your story, I can't imagine you even thinking of changing it just because agents think that Americans only want to read about America.

    I feel a lot better having read the comments, they have restored my faith in readers. It makes me think there's a huge disconnect between what the publishing industry thinks it can sell, and what people want to read.

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  19. I know there are xenophobic audiences. I just read an interview with Hayao Miyazaki, perhaps the best living director, who said he has to direct his movies to be set in Japan and be "more Japanese" or else his home country's audience won't watch them. And just like that, I know U.S. citizens who don't like watching anything with subtitles, or who prefer the accents to be those they recognize.

    But I like to think I'm broaderminded than that. I may be an outlier, but the next novel I'm reading is Lindqvist's Let the Right One In, which is hardly an American book. Yet even with an amazing film adaptation, a company did remake it, setting it in our country for our audiences. So the issue does exist.

    To be honest, though, if something was set in the U.S. or Canada? I don't think I'd care if it was NYC or Toronto. If you have a very specific location in one country, or one very specific bit of NYC or Toronto, which feeds into the novel, then it's that intimate thing that matters. Even though the locale would be in that country, the nationality wouldn't matter to me, only the intimate truths.

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  20. I don't care. A good book is a good book is a good book. And I have books in my much loved category from a number of different countries. And indeed in some cases they have been tranlations as well.
    Write from your heart. Anything else is a little dishonest and is, I think, detectable as well.

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    1. Here, here, EC. I believe that as well. Too bad big publishing companies don't.

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  21. Thanks to the wonderful L.M.Montgomery I have had a love affair with Canada for most of my life. I have to say that I activley seek out books by Canadians and stories set in Canada but they're so hard to find! Stay strong and write what you love because the book buying market is a lot bigger than American and I can say from the New Zealanders perspective at least it's awesome to find things NOT set there.... as much as we, of course, love the place :)

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    1. Good old Lucy; good old Green Gables! She really did blaze a trail, not only for Canadian authors, but for women authors as well. Her stories are timeless and will likely continue to charm readers around the world for as long as human beings continue to read.

      If you're looking for some awesome Canadian authors, try Joseph Boyden, Elizabeth Hay, Alyssa York, Margaret Laurence, Alice Munro, Farley Mowatt, Margaret Atwood, Hugh Garner, Robertson Davies ... there are so many!!!! Have fun!

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  22. Interesting topic, Cathy.

    One of my former writing instructors published a book here in Newfoundland about 10 years ago. It was set mainly in a small, rural village but part of the story was in St. John's.

    He also had interest from a New York publisher and it made it to the 'higher level'. Ultimately, though, the book was rejected because it WAS NOT set in the US.

    After reading the opinions of some of your American followers, Cathy, I think the US publishers should rethink their strategy. Perhaps Canada (and the UK and AUS...) are now thought of as more 'exotic' locations by the American reading public?

    Remember...a number of Canadian writers have had success writing about here: Margaret Laurence, Farley Mowat, Mordecai Richler, Roberstson Davies, Guy Vanderhaeghe, etc, etc...

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    1. See? That's depressing, the story about your writing instructor. But I would rather read something about Newfoundland, something true to the writer, rather than something made up - any day of the week.

      And yeah, Canadian authors rock. They really do. And not just at home - look at Margaret Atwood, one of the most famous writers in the world. I bet she writes whatever the hell she wants. (I love all the writers you listed, except I've never heard of the Guy fellah -- will have to look him up.)

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  23. I've had this exact same conversation with my husband, and he told me everything you were told, basically. I wanted it to be Canadian, but B told me I shouldn't mention any Canadian names and keep it open. And of course, to submit to the U.S. where the market is, we'll have to check certain spellings.

    I had a unique dilemma as my creatures living underground setup their world to handle the descending bodies below eatern America, I think I went with. In my head, they are under Canada and the U.S., and I think I just called it America... seeing as though we really are all part of the American content.

    But yeah, I would write it as you see it, and maybe just don't mention specific names for places....? At least that's what I took from it.

    Tricky one! And great post, Cathy. It's a bit mind bloggling to me and not something I had considered when I started either.

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    1. It's actually a pretty depressing debate. It's fine and dandy to be idealistic and say, write what you know (which is what I do anyway, so screw it), but to hear people in the business, Canadians, tell people to write stories about America, is just awful. The agent who was speaking was surrounded by a legion of Canadian authors, success stories all, who base their novels on Canadian people in Canadian places. Were they exceptions? I don't know. I am pretty sure, though, that I would rather self-publish than write something that's not true to me.

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    2. By the way, Carrie, is your husband in the writing or publishing business? Just wondering about your comment.

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  24. "eastern America" not "eatern". ;)

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    1. At least you didn't say eaten America... although it sounds like a great idea for a Godzilla treatise.

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  25. Really? Okay, I'm biased cos I'm Canadian, but I really have no trouble reading books set either in the US or Canada. It all depends on the story! And I think anyone can relate to "small town" or "big city" settings no matter what country they're in.

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  26. I say write what you know. You can not give the nuances and quirks of an unknown city/country like you can your home. I recently read a novel set in a small town in Maine and loved it because of the common references and lingo. It helped me envision it all.

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  27. Hi Cathy!!!! I've not been blogging or visiting for AGES...
    I say write what you know.If the story is wonderful, who cares where it is set:)HAve a great weekend! Happy Thanksgiving:)

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  28. Yes, write about what you know. Actually, I'd love some referrals to Canadian lit. My family is tied to Canada- Nova Scotia in particular, and now that my greatniece is marrying and moving to BC, there too. So if anyone knows of some good books set in Canada, please let me know (aside from Shipping News). Thanks!

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  29. I think it's wrong to think that Canadian authors have limitations. They just have to believe that Canadiana is wanted and respected. Keep pushing this out into the forefront. Be fearless. Keep M.Atwood and Mowat and Findley in mind and soar like Johnston Livingston Seagull. Aim high and believe you can.

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