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?


Setting stories: Canada vs. US — 4 Comments

  1. I personally as a reader (from the USA myself) enjoy being exposed to other cultures, even if they share a lot of similarities to my own, and knowing a, say, urban fantasy was set in Canada would be a reason I WOULD pick something up. I’d agree that changes like color vs. colour might be practical on a workload-end for American publishers (so they don’t have to go back and change it to fit their style), but I’m not sure why it’d put anyone off of a book to read about dollar coins/loonies and “spares”. Perhaps you’d have to sneak in some context, or do some research (we have study halls for “free” periods and in my old high school you couldn’t just wander around–if you were out of your classroom between classes you had to have a written pass…our study halls had dedicated rooms and assigned seating) so you could get the right information in there to teach Americans what Canadians already know as you realize your demographic is largely American, but it’s not like you won’t have to do that anyway for the fantastic parts of a novel. I personally wouldn’t find it harder to explain, say, a faerie court than a Canadian school system. (Although Canadian readers might be amused by you spelling it out for us dumb Americans 😉 )

    Maybe I’m an oddball and there are other readers out there that wouldn’t like a book because it was set in modern Canada and not the modern USA. But I’m not sure it’s as much of a setback as you think it might be. Then again, I’m not published, so ::shrug::

    • No, I agree, I don’t think most readers care! 🙂 But publishers are often hesitant to take anything they perceive as a risk, and a book set outside the US (without something really exciting about the setting) may be harder to sell because of that.

  2. Interesting!

    I’m a Canadian living in the UK and I often struggle with where to set my novels. Initially I set one in Halifax, NS (where I’m from). My second attempt was set in London (where I live now), but my writer’s group told me my ‘voice’ didn’t sound British — too many North Americanisms slipped through! So now I have set one in the US and we’ll see how that goes.

    It’s nice to see another writer deliberating over geographical settings, spellings and voice.

    • It is a tricky thing! You want to write a story that feels authentic, that’s true to your experience, but that won’t cut you off from opportunities to share that story, too.

Leave a Reply to Megan Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Please verify that you are a real person by answering the question below. *