Wednesday 11 January 2012

Books with foreign settings

With permission, I'm reproducing this email from reader Elizabeth Dunn:
"Dear Nicola,
I have just read Rachelle Gardner's blog [sorry, can't find it, but anyway] about books with foreign settings being difficult to place in the US market. It is rather disheartening as I am writing my upper middle grade book about a British boy being dragged off to a month long holiday in Venice. Most of the action takes place in Venice. Would UK readers have a hard time reading about Venice? Has my setting completely cut me out of the market? Can a UK based book reach US markets easily? What's your experience?

"Thank you for your time and your great blog."
No, UK readers certainly would have no trouble reading about Venice. Not only is there the well-known Agatha Christie novel, but we've also loved a whole load of others, including the first one that springs to my mind: Salley Vickers' Miss Garnet's Angel. Venice is absolutely a wonderful setting for a novel.

As to whether a UK-based book can reach US markets, it depends on a) the precise setting b) how strong the setting is and c) the other powerful aspects of the story. To elaborate:

a) The precise setting matters: Edinburgh and London will work well. Leicester and Hull less so. With apologies to Leicester and Hull. (And this does NOT mean you can't set books in Leicester and Hull, just that they won't of themselves be a draw to those who don't appreciate the romantic aspects of those cities.) HOWEVER, please note my next point.

b) If the setting is only mildly present, it doesn't matter at all. For example, Meg Rosoff's
Just in Case was set near Luton and won the Carnegie Medal, but the setting is not vividly realised, (though it is important.) If your setting is a major factor, richly described, it matters more if the setting is not well-known to a US/other market. Also, US readers are said to be less willing to read outside their shores, but I think this factor is exaggerated, frankly. Put it this way, no one (sane) is going to read a book because it's about Luton but they might not mind discovering halfway through the book that it happens to be.

c) It's the power of the story that matters most. The setting really shouldn't negatively affect the book if the book is strong enough. And the setting can enrich the book, regardless of whether it's romantic or aspired-to.

So, Elizabeth, I don't think you have a problem. However, writers should consider the power of every aspect of their book over the reader, and setting can be important.


bethonie said...

A little more proof for you. The year before last, a book set in the Australian outback won the Coventry book awards, and Coventry is definatly not the australian outback.

E.Maree said...

The blog by Rachelle mentioned is this one:

Though Rachelle's advise is usually fairly good, that blog post rang false to me and I'm glad you've confirmed it. Readers seem quite happy to read about books in any location, as long as the setting is an enjoyable part of the story - take the much-praised YA book Anna and the French Kiss (set in Paris) for example.

catdownunder said...

Yes Bethonie - and I was told by one agent that nobody would be prepared to look at my middle-grade novel because it is set in Australia and France. I still hope that agent will be proven wrong! Perhaps one "exotic" setting is acceptable but not two? There is a strong demand within Australia for new Australian authors to set their work in Australia. I am not suggesting it is the only possible setting but it is certainly what agents and publishers are looking for in new writers.
An American friend asked if she could read my ms - and then asked "but do I need to know Australian to understand it?" No - and nor do you need to know French.
By the way, has anyone else ever noticed that Oxford seems to be more popular as a setting than Cambridge?

Wendy Meddour said...

If it's important to the plot (and not just there for decoration), then surely 'foreign' settings are a must? My debut is set in Britain and Algeria - found it hard to explore concepts of 'home', 'belonging' and Berber culture without leaving the village ;)

Dan Holloway said...

Gosh, what springs to mind first says a lot about one doesn't it :) - any other takers for Thomas Mann's piece of gloom?

Very good advice on the centrality and realisation of the setting. Of course, in Hull's case, they have a rich (and increasingly well-known) Larkin heritage, and sometimes a book that brings to readers' attention a setting that *should* be better known because of its hitherto undiscovered richness can do wonders for both tourism and the book itself.

As for Italian cities and the US market, Hannibal, one of my guilty pleasures, springs to mind - most of the book is set in Florence too huge effect (and sales)

Dan Holloway said...

absolutely! I will refrain from partisan remarks but that's certainly true. It may just be accident - that earlier writers like Lewis Carroll started a snowball, or something else altogether, I'm too close to be objective. I can certainly say from experience that Oxford is an "easy sell" - I did very little to promote the book I self-published other than use the strapline "imagine the Hannibal Lecter novels set in Oxford University" and it rattled through 6000 copies in a few months.

Vanessa Gebbie said...

It may or may not be relevant to the discussion - but just for current info, I offer this: 'The Coward's Tale' comes out in the USA in March - set in a small south Wales valley mining community, and voice very accented (if that is possible). The publishers are pushing the setting as a selling point, and pre-pub mentions in the press are all mentioning it as relevant, and a plus.

Unknown said...

I've never written anything where the setting was crucially important, so I've never really thought about this, but out of interest I opened the file for the novel I'm currently working on. I did a quick search for "London," since that's where it's taking place in my head, and didn't get a single result. I haven't mentioned the city once. This blog's got me wondering whether I should make it more clear, or just leave it as a generic city, since it doesn't really matter where it's happening.

Elizabeth Dunn said...

Fascinating comments and thanks Nicola for your time and advice. The key words are the 'power of the story'. Right and damn and don't we just love the challenge?! (In case E. Maree's link doesn't get you there, Gardner's article was posted on her blog on December 6th.)

Nicola Morgan said...

Thanks for input, everyone.

Cat - remember that agents do sometimes latch onto a specific as a way of avoiding saying they don't want the book. (You know that and i apologise for pointing it out but the others need to know, too.) Also, some agents are wrong! If an agent said, "nobody would be prepared to look at my middle-grade novel because it is set in Australia and France" that is plainly wrong. It makes no sense. Something has been lost in translation perhaps.

Vanessa - hooray! I have TCT on my TBR pile and I can't wait!

Lesley - if the setting isn't important to the novel, no need to mention it.

May I say that there's a very relevany bit in Write to be Published that tackles exactly this? I think that it will help any of you still wondering about setting.

In some of my books, setting has been crucial (Fleshmarket is the obvious example, where old Edinburgh becomes a character, in effect) and in others it hasn't (Deathwatch, for example, also in Edinburgh but could be anywhere.)

Rita Carla Francesca Monticelli said...

I've read this post with curiousity. Here in Italy most readers (including me) are generally more attracted by books set abroad then those set in Italy, in particular when the location is important for the story itself. So practically the countrary than US reader, as I'm understanding well.
I don't know what's the reason for US readers, but the one for Italian readers to prefer foreign locations is very simple: curiosity.
I personally see a book as a way to leave my daily reality and immerse myself in a new one. This is easier and actually more interesting if the location is something I'm not accustomed with.
Moreover the more the location is "exotic" the easier I can suspend my incredulity and "believe" in the story I'm reading.

Anonymous said...

My novel is partly set in Scotland and partly set in the outback of Australia. I've changed the setting thousands of times before finally settling on one. I just hope it works!

Elizabeth Dunn said...

Wow, Vanessa. I've just checked out The Coward's Tale. I'm impressed. It's going on my list. Congratulations.

catdownunder said...

Yes Nicola and I would agree with you - if she had actually read a word I had written! I admit she is known for a quite fierce pro-Australian stance.

Ebony McKenna. said...

Perhaps it's not the setting so much as the origin of the characters? A home-grown character gives the reader an 'anchor' in which to explore the new setting?

Whenever I see this topic arise on the webs, there are always dozens of replies from readers refuting it. Many of them American, many saying they love reading books set somewhere else in the world.
Yet from an agent's point of view, if they're saying books with foreign settings are a hard sell - that's their reality too.

In which case, us writers have to fall back on writing the best darn story in the universe.

Whirlochre said...

I can confirm that Leicester is indeed terribly romantic.

Both Gok Wan and Englebert Humperdinck were born there so who needs gondolas and roses?

Anonymous said...

It is exceptionally difficult for new writers to break into print in Australia and New Zealand. In Australia there is also a very definite bias towards material set in Australia, as shown by the books which are published here. If you break the rules about location you are going to have far more difficulty getting accepted. Australian writing is expected to show an Australian "voice, theme and setting" according to at least one publisher of my acquaintance. It may happen but you are definitely limiting your chances of acceptance. Di Williams (librarian)

Nicola Morgan said...

Di (anonymous) - thanks for coming here. Ah, we're perhaps seeing a cultural policy, and this refers to "Australian writing." I'm familiar with this as a "Scottish writer" as sometimes in Scotland there's this desire amongst some in the cultural establishment yo promote "Scottish" writing. It's valid, I feel, but does not mean that's all we're looking for. The picture is not as simple as it seems at first sight. And is more diverse.

My advice is UK-focused, also taking in the US, the biggest markets. Nothing to stop an Oz writer going to a publisher there.

Anonymous said...

My 2 pence/cents, as an aspiring America-born author now settled in the UK for 10 years...

There's a definite mindset in the US entertainment industry (and I guess we have to include publishing here) that Americans would never understand British (or Irish, Welsh, S.African, Aussie or NZ) English. British television programmes are never shown on commercial networks, they're 'translated' into American versions. That's been the case from Till Death Do Us Part to The Office. The first couple of Harry Potter volumes were translated into American; it wasn't just the title.

It's stupid but it's also self-perpetuating: the reason Americans have trouble understanding other English speakers and their turns of phrase is because they're deprived of the opportunity to hear (and apparently read) them.

Unknown said...

I'm the opposite of Anonymous, being a Brit settled in the US since the late 90s. And when you left, Anon, there may not have been that much British TV, but we're now the hottest new thing.

Doctor Who! Downton Abbey! The Tudors! They love our telly, and are getting much better at speaking Brit as a result. Public TV in America has always been a champion of British drama, but with the rise of BBC America we no longer have to sit through the fundraising drives (and the ads on BBCA have gone from cheesy to mainstream, a sure sign of success).

I think the belief that readers don't like non-US settings is a self-perpetuating myth that just keeps going around New York. I regularly see books that have done well in the UK crossing the pond, sometimes not translated at all (and btw there are Harry Potter purists here who insist on collecting the English versions). British-born books take a little longer to get over here, but I can usually get them from my local library a few months after their UK launch.

As Nicola says, it's the story that counts. A great book will find a market here in the US, one way or the other. Good luck!