From Lee Lamothe. I kinda screwed up getting this post posted here; somehow I went onto another site and put it there: I think I might have whored out on my next
novel, due out in mid-July from Dundurn. Free Form Jazz -- the first
episode of a policier series involving a city cop and a provincial
policewoman -- was written several years ago and was set in Toronto
and the north of Ontario. (In fact I carved it from the original The
Last Thief which, in the first draft, was a stupid 193,000 words. I
removed the cops entirely from Thief and set them aside for later;
later came Jazz.) When my agent told me people in Canada don't want to
read Toronto-centric novels and Americans don't want to read Canadian
novels I switched it to a mythic mid-Western American city that has
now become the locale for several novels, both finished and in
progress. Some of them are stand-alones. Free Form Jazz now involves
an American city detective and a State Police officer. It now takes
place in my unnamed mid-Western city and crosses the border up into
Canada. The border -- especially post-9-11 -- is a monumental problem
for criminals and I'm surprised more writers haven't examined the
hassles it has caused for the criminal element. In any case, I've
travelled to enough American cities on business involving the
underworld, that I'm as comfortable in Detroit or New York or LA as
anywhere.

In the event, I did think long and hard about changing Jazz from a finished
Canadian book to a US/Canadian-based book. After much thought I
decided it didn't matter to me where the story took place. If not
Canada, then the US; if not the US, then Hong Kong; if not Hong Kong,
then Rangoon or Palermo or Rome. My characters are as tough and weak
and heroic and cowardly no matter where they operate.

So, a question -- being a bit of a Socratic nut: how many writers on
the site would change the geography of their story if it made it
significantly easier to get published into a wider market? And how important to the reader is locale to the average crime/mystery story?

Lee

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I'm laughing. What exactly is "whoring out" a novel? And how delightful that the Canadian border actually appears to be a hassle for the criminal element. Who knew?

I'm having major problems with locale. My main series is historical and set in Japan. Lesson learned: readers like their history in Great Britain or Rome, but not in Japan. Another historical thriller of mine is set in 18th century Germany. Big problem: nobody wants to read about Germany, and that includes my agent.

Nothing I can do about the series, but I have toyed with the idea of shifting the German protagonist and his family to England. It makes me angry, but it could be done.

So I know what you're talking about. It's the sort of thing that makes me mad at readers. It's really all a matter of knowing too little about the world and not being interested in learning something.
Your agent is right. My books are set in Toronto and they don't sell. (well, they don't sell in Canada, the next one comes out in the USA from St. Martins next month, so we'll see). No American publisher (I used to be with Harcourt) has ever mentioned the Toronto setting as an issue and no American reviewer has ever mentioned it.

On the other hand Giles Blunt, Louise Penny and inger Ash Wolf write international bestsellers set in Canada (usually rural settings) so it probably has more to do with my books than the setting.

On the literature side everyone from Margaret Atwood to Alice Munro to Mordecai Richler to Joseph Boyden to Michael Ondaatje to Miriam Toews to Barbara Gowdy to... well the list is too long to really go into, all write international bestsellers set in Canada.

The question is, does changing the setting change the book? If you're happy with the changed setting, then it's no problem at all. If you think it's going to help with sales, well, let's say it probably can't hurt. You write what you know. I know Toronto so my books are set here. If I knew someplace else they'd be set there.
Damn right I'd change the setting if I had to, but there are limits to where. A story written for Chicago could probably work in any number of cities, with the requisite changes to specific locations and weather.

Would a story written for Chicago work in Bangkok? That would be a LOT tougher.

As a reader, the locale just has to be appropriate to the story. I read fiction set all over the world and enjoy it for providing glimpses into other cultures and places. It would put me off a little to read a Swedish cop speaking in American vernacular, as it would ruin my feeling of being in Sweden. Except for things like that, I'll read a book set anywhere.
My two cents: There's a pretty familiar US-Canada cultural difference here, one that not too many other countries seem to emulate.

Canadians don't seem to mind Canadian settings for mysteries, as long as they're not too precious and name-droppy. In other words, a more 'generic' Toronto or Vancouver or Montreal, rather than a deeply nuts-and-bolts experience. But, it's true that, en masse, we prefer our whodunits set in more exotic locales. A lingering inferiority complex? Maybe.

The Brits and Europeans seem much more cosmopolitan in their tastes (imagine that!) , embracing both favourite sons and daughters, writing locally-set novels, as well as 'foreign-based' mysteries by 'foreign' writers.

Americans seem much more parochial in their fiction tastes. They don't seem to mind 'international' swashbucklers (eg. the Bourne saga), but they like their heroes to be American and at least some of the action to take place there. But I think this is gradually dropping away. Consider the burgeoning popularity of Stieg Larsson (Sweden), Jo Nesbo (Norway), Fred Vargas (France), Ian Rankin (Scotland) and a host of other 'foreign' writers with foreign settings who are making real headway in the U.S. And an A-list movie version of Irish heavyhitter Ken Bruen's London Boulevard is about to be released -- there's more pop-culture internationalism in the genre.

So, all in all, it comes down to the storytelling. Books with 'foreign' settings have to be really damn good to crack the U.S. market. Much less so for Canadian and European readers -- there's a lot of derivative dreck (including American stuff) out there that seems to sell pretty well in these markets. Canadian settings? Wow, you've gotta be really good (or get a lot of hype behind you) to swing that with readers anywhere.
I almost prefer "foreign-based mysteries by foreign writers" because I find thrillers, serial killers, cozies, and amateur detectives a bit tedious.

Boy, am I negative today, or what?

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