Blogger in Residence, Matthew C Lamb, investigates the pros and pitfalls of setting your story in your hometown.
The first novel I ever wrote was set in Canberra. Sort of. I created the fictional city of Riverside for the post-apocalyptic adventure, featuring all the most evocative parts of my hometown (foggy orange streetlight hazes; endless winding suburban streets; a dark mountain looming over an artificial lake). But once I had finished the first draft, I wondered: since Riverside was so similar to Canberra, why not actually set it in Canberra?
I re-wrote the manuscript.
Some time later, finished novel in hand, I attended a publishing workshop. A prospective publisher mentioned that international audiences did not read genre fiction set in Australia. So I rewrote the book again, fictionalising my town once more.
Now I have two versions of the novel and I’m not sure which setting fits best.
Maybe you have had a similar dilemma. With the benefit of hindsight, here are the key factors I should have been considering when choosing my setting.
The greatest benefit of setting your fiction in Canberra is that you know it so well. Familiarity can bring accuracy and realism to your work. Many authors travel (or even move their entire life) to the setting for their books to achieve that tangible, authentic touch. If your writing is set in Canberra, you can reflect the same depth of understanding without employing such an expensive, time-consuming approach.
When describing a place you know so well, however, it is easy to have blind spots. You may think your description of a place carries certain associations or imagery, but a reader unfamiliar with the location may not see that detail. This could leave them confused, or disengaged. To avoid this, try reading your work as though you were a reader from a foreign country, learning about Canberra for the first time. “Think like a reader” was author CS Boag’s advice on setting.
Everyone knows Canberra
If your reader knows Canberra, there are lots of benefits. Your setting will be a place they can relate to, and their experience of your work will probably be more inclusive and accessible for it. If you expect your audience to be local, try to include touches such as street and business names. But be careful: if you are portraying something real, be aware of the impact this may have on real people.
On the other hand, some readers will know Canberra for all the wrong reasons, and readers may ascribe negative characteristics to your setting without you wanting them to. Canberra is boring. Nothing but roundabouts. Political emptiness. No night life. Is this what you want from your setting, or will you have to work extra hard to counter these cliches?
No-one knows Canberra
If you step beyond Australia’s borders, Canberra is relatively unknown. Many foreigners I’ve spoken to believe Sydney is the capital—I’m sure you’ve had a similar experience. This can be advantageous. For these readers Canberra is a blank canvas: it can be whatever you portray it as. It is also a relatively fresh setting, moving away from the clichés of bustling big city or quaint small town.
“Canberra is underutilised as a literary character,” says Capital Yarns author Sean Costello, whose short stories are based in Canberra and try to “subvert the stereotypes [of Canberra]”.
Of course, there are drawbacks. It is a lot easier to set your fiction in a well-known place because the infrastructure is already built in the reader’s mind, the connotations already set. Think about it: how much do you know about the geography and culture of New York, despite never having been there?
You’ll have to work a lot harder to describe Canberra. Does making Canberra the setting offer enough to make this extra work worthwhile? And beware: because it is an unknown for readers, you may tend towards over-description. This can bog down your work, or make the setting an overwhelming presence in its own right.
Will it sell?
Remember that publishing workshop I mentioned? It was a panel discussion called The Pitch, held in Melbourne in 2014. When asked by the audience about setting writing locally, Patrick Lenton of Momentum Books (a digital-only imprint of Pan Macmillan Australia) said non-local settings were preferred. Momentum publishes for an international audience—primarily American—and it was Patrick’s belief that Americans don’t want to read books set in Australia.
But do not fret! Another member of the panel disagreed with Patrick. Sam Cooney, editor of the literary journal The Lifted Brow, was very positively disposed toward works of fiction set in Australia. Australian content, he believed, allowed for a unique voice, and he was more likely to publish such works for The Lifted Brow.
So where does all this leave us?
With setting, it seems, there is no right or wrong answer. The key takeaway is to be conscious of where you set your fiction, and actively work with the benefits and pitfalls of this choice.
The other consistent message is to remember your audience—reader or publisher—and write what will most appeal to them. Because, as always, it all comes down to connecting with the reader.
Matthew C Lamb writes crime and other genre fiction, the adventurous stuff he’d like to read. He also blogs about writing and storytelling at www.matthewclamb.com, and has trouble saying no to a good blockbuster movie (when his parenting responsibilities permit). His other desk is in a public service building somewhere, working in law enforcement and national security. Enough fuel for a lifetime’s stories…