Monday, November 14, 2011
A Story, In Any Other City
The majority of stories can happen anywhere. The percentage of stories that are completely limited to one location is small. In part, this is because people are people. There may be variances for cultural elements and aspects, but very few places have a lock on a specific type of story that's unique to them.
I think that actually makes choosing a setting harder, rather than easier. What seems to go into the choice has more to do with the author's comfort, perceived popularity and sellability. Yes, I'm one of those Canadian authors who was told to move my story south of the 49th parallel or I wouldn't sell to a US publisher.
I failed to mention at the time I really preferred the idea of selling to a UK publisher. However, I did refuse, and part of the reason I refused to move WHAT BURNS WITHIN out of the Greater Vancouver Area had to do with the issue of believability.
You see, the idea for WBW had come to me when my ex-husband was involved with the fire department. He was on call, and one night, in the middle of the night, the alert sounded. He responded over the radio, confirming he was on his way, while I lay in bed, suddenly not able to drift back to sleep because I realized in that moment that anyone could know I was at home alone. Anyone with a scanner - and as a former journalism student, I knew college kids who kept those things on hand. People around town who were nosy, the rural pot-sellers... Anyone could know I was home alone.
It started to scare the crap out of me. And the idea for a story was born.
In order to make the setting work, I needed a larger urban area than where we lived at the time, but it needed certain technical realities. Not all cities have volunteer fire departments, or volunteer officers who are on call. Some have full-time firemen, like my friend, Steve, who serves in New Westminster. In order to position the story correctly, I had to make sure I checked off certain boxes, or anyone with local knowledge would laugh in my face.
No way did I want a story that fell apart on a technical snafu.
I also knew the GVA and was comfortable semi-fictionalizing it, while playing largely in the real world.
I refused. And the series sold to a US publisher anyway.
I started working on HARVEST OF RUINS in 2007, when I was in Canada. I originally planned to head back to my hometown and present a fictionalized Muskoka. I knew the landscape intimately, and for me, HARVEST was a story that really wasn't location-specific. It didn't hinge on technical issues the way WBW did.
When things changed in my life, I looked at moving HARVEST south of the 49th, and began the painstaking process of researching for a Maryland location that would work. Little did I know that I was going to be living in an area lacking in lakes, which played a critical role in the original draft.
Modifying the draft for the location wasn't that difficult, though. Tim Hortons became Royal Farms. Webers became Double T Diner. A lot of the substance could stay the same...
Except for a main secondary character, who just happened to be Native. Or Aboriginal. The term we used to use was (no offense intended) Indian... which reminds me of a story about translations, but I'll get to that in a minute.
Where I grew up, in Muskoka, I had classmates who were Native. Not many, but some. But in Maryland? Uh, not going to happen. There was a very different reality in this area after it was settled, and the Aboriginal populations were largely displaced.
Those are the kinds of things I wouldn't have even thought about if I hadn't spent a lot of time here, and wasn't married to a Baltimore boy. Although, in the end, I moved the location back to Canada, revising the manuscript for a different setting was a worthy process that taught me a lot. It also made me aware of just how important setting research can be, and reinforces to me why it will always be easier for writers to stick with what they know when it comes to setting, because it's so easy to get something wrong.
You've got to be comfortable with what you're doing. If you aren't, I think it'll come through in your work. Own what you know, and you can make it work.
Oh, and that story about the word 'Indian' and translations? When WBW was being translated into Japanese, my translator asked me about a reference using East Indian in the text. She wanted to change it Indian or Indonesian. I had to explain why it is that in North America there's a distinction between 'Indian' and 'East Indian', and that it doesn't strictly mean Indonesian, either. For her, understanding the history of the term in the context of North American culture was an eye-opener. She had no idea about the localized history of the word and how it used to be used.
Prior to the experience of working with a translator, that wasn't something that would even have occurred to me. How we portray setting is not only a challenge for us in our own language, but can present unique challenges for translators as well, and that's a reality that may not be avoided by fictionalizing a setting, either. Whether you write about a real place or one you've created, most of us write with some grounding in reality and culture, and those are components of setting that we will have to contend with in our work.
When appropriate, there are those who render the setting as its own character within the text. That's not always necessary - or appropriate - for the telling of a tale, and it lies within the writer to strike the balance that best suits their story.