International Settings in Fiction and Books Set Outside the US

This question about international settings in fiction is one I got on the blog a few months ago. It’s about writers who either live outside of the US or books set outside the US, or both:

How do editors and agents feel about writers from other countries? I live in Canada and write using Canadian spelling and grammar. My latest young adult story is set in Canada so I have kept to the Canadian standards. However, I’m afraid that agents will see that and wonder whether or not I know basic grammar.

Do American agents consider the location of the story and/or it’s author when reading a manuscript? Do they require American spelling and grammar? Would an agent in the states consider taking on a story set in another country or would they prefer to change the setting to an American city?

international settings in fiction, books set outside the us, writers living outside the us
Feel free to pull us into another location, but writing books set outside the US has a few unique considerations.

International Settings in Fiction, and the Far-Flung Writers Who Craft Them

I get this question a lot, actually. And some people may not love the answer, though it isn’t coming from my personal beliefs. I’m talking about international writers and books set outside the US and how they are perceived in terms of marketing a manuscript to agents and/or editors for the American audience. I’m not giving my own personal views about how the world should be. I’m not making commentary on American culture. I’m not saying that this is the only opinion on the issue. But an undeniable bias exists toward American settings in today’s kidlit. That is a fact. (How do I feel about that personally? That’s not what this post is about.)

If you want to shop your international settings in fiction it in the American market, or write as an international creator for the US market, adhere to American grammar and spelling standards. I see tons of submissions from around the world and am very familiar with what is standard usage in other countries. I give writers the benefit of the doubt and assume they know basic language rules, so don’t worry about your Canadian usage branding you as illiterate in our eyes.

However, I also know that you will have to adhere to American standards if you manuscript is acquired in America. The best way to avoid heavy line editing later on is to Americanize your manuscript before you submit to American agents or editors. You know what’s coming … just get it over it.

I see a lot of Canadian writers. They usually set a story in the place they know best, usually their Canadian hometown. However, international settings in fiction for novels published in the American market usually tend to be more … exotic. The novel by P.J. Converse, SUBWAY GIRL, out from HarperCollins, is a romance intertwined with the bustling subway lines of Hong Kong. The Stephanie Perkins romance, ANNA AND THE FRENCH KISS, out from Dutton this fall, is set in … bien sur … Paris.

Books Set Outside the US: Canada Edition

Not to offend our dear friends up north, but for Canadian settings, I have to ask: is it 100% essential that the story is set in Canada? Is the Canadian setting absolutely crucial to the story? Does the whole thing fall apart when you take the story oot of Canada? I’m not sure American kid/teen readers will understand the nuances and glories of Canada.

It doesn’t have the sexy allure of France or Brazil or Morocco in American popular culture. I read a lot of children’s literature and have yet to come across a pocket of stories set in Canada. Now, I don’t know if that’s the setting’s fault or if I’m not reading the right books or if it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy, but the general lack of Canada-centric books in the US kidlit market makes me a little less eager to submit project set in the Great White North (unless the Canadian setting is absolutely imperative to the action of the story, as I’ve mentioned, and the book is completely amazing, of course).

International Settings in Fiction Must Be Essential

The setting has to be absolutely instrumental to the story. Novels are about choices the writer makes. If you’re just setting something somewhere just because, that’s not a strong choice. If you set a story outside of the average American reader’s frame of reference and you want to publish in the American market, one or both of the following must be true: first, it must be a location that the reader will be thrilled and excited to vicariously visit (think about action movies…they’re always set in some exotic world destination), second, it must absolutely be crucial to the story. You can’t have a Mayan story without some mention of Mexico, for example. (This is the same advice I’d give for historical fiction in children’s books, by the way.)

This is a tough market. Editors don’t care where you’re from, but they do care about your work being able to attract the maximum number of readers. If you want to publish in the US market, your best, strongest bet, would be to cater more to American readers in terms of location and grammar/spelling. I believe in giving your work the biggest possible chance at publication, and if you can make these changes without wrecking your story, it might be smarter.

Either way, I don’t think a lot of agents will penalize a writer for being located internationally or for writing international settings in fiction right off the bat. It’s all about the writing and the story, at the end of the day.

Struggling with details of  your novel, like setting, character, plot, or voice? I work with clients every day as a developmental editor, including many writers based internationally who are looking to publish at home or in the US market.

36 Replies to “International Settings in Fiction and Books Set Outside the US”

  1. Is New Zealand considered interesting enough? I usually set my stories in America, but it would sure be a lot easier to set them here at home. I use American spelling and grammar, but I’d quite like to be able to make use of my amazing homeland.

  2. So interesting and such a reaffirmation that reading taste is subjective. One of the things I liked about the Twilight series was that it made a cold, rainy, flannel wearing, no-where sort of town seem interesting.

    And my kids LOVED the language differences in Harry Potter. They still say “loads” “dunno” and “wicked” quite a lot. And we now say bogie instead of booger. It just seems less yuck.

    I once had a woman say, after I’d recommended a book, “Honestly, I don’t really care to read about other cultures.” I think I stared for a full five minutes before I accepted that everyone has their own taste.

  3. Anonymouse says:

    And that right there says a lot about the insular American mindset. We’re not interested in anything but us, unless it’s “exotic,” whatever that means. How about we not make other cultures zoo exhibits? I’m glad to see people are looking for books in other settings, but a) we need to use characters of those cultures, not white (often Americans) brought in and b) we need to learn to see everyone as human. There’s no such thing as “exotic,” so let’s stop thinking like that.

    I for one would love more books set in Canada. What’s wrong with having me stretch my mind a little around the nuances and subtle differences between America and our neighbor up north?

  4. Very interesting post! My current manuscript is set in Basel, Switzerland, and I was wondering about agents’ perspectives on international setting. Thanks for the info.

  5. A personal experience:

    I wrote a novel set in the Philippines about a girl who runs away from home for seven days. She experiences a landslide, befriends a boy from the shanties, nearly drowns in the river, etc. — in other words, I played up the exotic-ness of the locale as much as possible. I queried agents and sent the first few chapters. The agents who chose to provide specific feedback said the novel was good and the characters were interesting, but it wasn’t a marketable book.

    I’m sure there’s no rules across the board, but that was my experience. I’ve just finished one that is set in the U.S. and feel more confident about it.

  6. I don’t agree. OF course this may be because, as a teen, I moved to Europe and spent three years there. I met all sorts of cultures and was curious (even of Canadian culture) of how things were in other countries.

    I think to say that people should ONLY write about America (excluding Paris or whatever) that we are pigeon-holing kids in the states. I think kids in America are pretty sheltered. I personally thought it refreshing to read JK Rowling’s books set in England. (I agree with Susan) That was exciting to me as a younger person.

    If your writing is great, your story something that any teen can relate to, I really don’t think it matters WHERE the story is set. It isn’t going to break the deal for most people. I would just make it clear in the beginning where the story takes place right from the start. AND get them sucked into the plot.

  7. I don’t think the point being made is that people should only write about America — I think the point is, if you want to be published in America, you have to cater to what Americans prefer to read. (Which isn’t an exact science, of course).

    That’s my take.

  8. Anonymouse says:

    Erin: But who are the “Americans” in question? If you poll one group of people, you’ll be told they don’t read outside their own culture. If you poll another, you’ll hear they are dying for it.

  9. Anonymouse — And that’s a big shortcoming in terms of how some publishers do business. They cater to THEIR customers. But who are their customers? Booksellers.

    They do not have actual reader tastes down to an exact science, even though readers should be their ideal customers. Instead, publishers let booksellers be their tastemakers.

    This is problematic in terms of redefining what publishers acquire, as most do not do the kind of outreach or polling that you’re talking about.

  10. I think part of this equation is also who are the publishers you are targeting. There are some houses that want culturallydiverse stories. Lee and Low comes to mind. We should write the story we want to tell and then determine who is likely to be most interested in publishing that story. It is all about knowing your market and what certain publishers want.

  11. Mary: You’ve hit on a point in the comments that just befuddles me. Why don’t publishing companies invest more in polling/surveying their readers? It’s market research that most companies do. I understand in this economy they are hurting and market research is expensive. But it just seems to me that somebody in the publishing biz ought to be making this investment to better target their product.

  12. Anonymouse — Good point. I was going to say I don’t know the answer to that question, but apparently Mary does, since she answered it. I also appreciated your earlier post, because as a writer who features minority protagonists, it’s something I think about often.

  13. Re: Harry Potter. It should be noted that Harry Potter was also tweaked to adhere to American readers. Spellings were changed and names of certain items were, too. I remember reading that J.K. Rowling was miffed by it, but in the beginning, she gave in. I’m sure she doesn’t have to give in too much anymore, though!

  14. Erin: Funny you should mention that. When I travelled to Budapest in 2000 with my sister, we had a layover in London. She bought HP in the airport and loved it. When she bought subsequent HP books in the States, she said that they just didn’t have the same charm because of the Americanization.

  15. Interesting. Now I am going to have to go buy the British version of HP! =)

    Lots of great comments. BTW

  16. I’m Canadian, and while I have to agree, I also find it a little sad for Canada. We’re close enough to America, physically and culturally, that I can easily understand the setting of American set books. But we’re fundamentally different enough that we do deserve to be recognised in books. However, I do see that Canada is not nearly as exotic to american teens as say, France or China. And we don’t have the coolness creds of the British with their slang words. But we ARE different and should be acknowledged, I think.

  17. Anonymouse says:

    Mary, thanks for replying. Erin, you, too.

    Mary: That’s rather silly, and I hope at some point, that changes. Even not considering the ethics of it all, it’s bad business sense not to know what your ultimate end user–the reader–wants!

    Oh, and I need to own something myself: I talked about polling Americans and culture, and I realized I defaulted to the idea that other cultures are not (white) American. Many of the people who live in America and read–and who aren’t white or who are biracial–want to see their own experiences reflected in books and settings. This might mean going to the culture of their parents’ origin, or it might just be mean showing them as normal people in North America.

    And some people, no matter what their ethnicity, just want to see the whole world around them represented. 🙂 I hope as we move into the future, more and more of our North American market will share that viewpoint.

  18. I believe “The Incredible Journey,” which became “Homeward Bound,” was set in Canada. I enjoyed reading that story. Although it was written many years ago, it was like a breath of fresh air. It was different! Aside from that, without more knowledge of the Canadian’s story, it’s difficult to say if the setting will matter much. The post says that it is a YA story set in Canada. A good story will pull readers in no matter where it is set, I think.

  19. Alex: My roots are in Canada (my father’s side of the family were farmers in Quebec), so I think Canadian history/culture is really interesting. Being from Michigan, Canada was really a part of my upbringing — visiting Toronto, Montreal, Sarnia, Stratford, Quebec City. Especially for northern states, there is an understanding and experience with Canadians. For me, it was like a little slice of European life before I could travel overseas.

  20. L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables series is set in beautiful Prince Edward Island, Canada. After reading those novels, it’s on my bucket list to visit PEI! Though he’s not a kidlit writer, Alastair MacLeod’s short stories and novel, set in Nova Scotia, are hugely acclaimed.

    I don’t know if they were published in the U.S. first or not (I’m thinking no) but the point is they gained a lot of fame in the U.S., and a lot of it had to do with the beautiful Canadian setting. So I don’t think it’s wise to discourage the questioner from setting her story in Canada. There is so much beauty all over the world–whether Canada, an unpopular U.S. state, or Norway–and it’s writers who have the privilege to enlighten readers with the beauty and exoticism that’s everywhere.

  21. Thanks for the post, Mary. I’m Canadian and I’ve worked hard to cure myself of my Canadian spelling as I want to publish for the American market.

    I believe a lot of the publishers in Canada require Canadian content (has to do with government grants, I think) and there are only so many stories about beavers, bacon and snow a person can write. 😉

    Seriously though, a lot of the Canadian publishers have very specific guidelines when it comes to content, and it is very limiting for a Canadian who wants to write about Canada. And if we are being honest with ourselves, let’s face it, as a country Canada is boring. I think that’s why most of the great stories set in Canada are wilderness survival stories.

    I’m not dissing Canada, I love Canada, but it’s just not that exciting as a setting for a story.

    Canada is huge and we are extremely diverse not only culturally but geographically as well. I’d have to do just as much research to set a story in Canada (except for possibly my hometown, as Mary suggests) as I would to set my story in the US.

  22. Great post, I’ve been wondering about a lot of this myself, being English but having lived in New Zealand and now Canada. (Oh and France for year a long time ago). One thing I have learned is that no matter how different cultures/rules are, you have to respect the new country you go to. There are so many different things to remember and then once you move forget the old ones.

    The same must go for pitching. If you want to get published in England, learn English grammar and nuances. Ditto for America etc.

    I am about to submit a few PBs and will alter them according to which country I send them to.

  23. Although there may be undeniable bias toward American settings in today’s kidlit, it’d be nice to read some more encouraging thoughts on a popular blog like this. Perhaps more along the lines of your great post about ‘issues’ – that if it’s essential to the storyline, and the writing is excellent, it’s okay. This post does read a little as though you’re suggesting people change their settings just to get published. I’m sure that’s not what you mean but if I’d written a book set in Canada, I’d be wondering right now.

    As a non-US person (I don’t like to use the term American as strictly speaking it also includes South America and I’m not referring to people there), I despair at the ignorance of many US people about other cultures. It’s undoubtedly true that books based in the US sell better, but how bloomin’ depressing is that? I’d do my darndest, as an editor/agent/writer, to try to buck that trend. I want to earn money but not so badly that I’ll just go with what the masses want. (Yes, I know, I’ll probably remain unpublished in the children’s market, until my dying days. Oh well.)

  24. This is a great post. I’m a Brit living in the US and sell my book to the US market. I found it a bit of a shock to have to re-learn English grammer. I had to buy a book and reprogram my brain, no easy task, although I can understand the reasoning behind it. If you are taught grammer in the American classroom reading a book with different grammer rules would come across as being written incorrectly.

    As for Colloquialisms I think they should stay in a book because that is what defines it. HP for instance, was set in England. English people don’t say sweater they say jumper, we don’t say pants (pants are underwear) we say trousers etc etc. When we English read American books those colloquialisms aren’t changed, we just accept that is what the Americans call them and it’s almost like knowing a another language, and I for one wouldn’t want it any other way.

    If I’m reading a book set in another country I want to know what words they would use in that country, it’s what adds that little extra interest to the book. I was amazed that JK had to change the title of her book in the US. Do Americans not know what a Philosopher is?

    I admit that I found myself unwittingly writing for the American reader and got a surprising response from one reviewer who enjoyed the story but expected to see more “British” words in it, and was disappointed that it sounded too American when it was set in England, so what does that tell you? It tells me that the publishers do not give their readership enough credit, that they don’t think the American public has the intelligence to know that if they are reading a book set in a different country there may be different words used to describe things. Don’t you think that’s kind of insulting?

  25. Harry Potter is set in England, it makes sense to have words like jumper and bogey instead of sweater and booger. If an English author set a story in the US with American characters and used those words, and the story was being shopped to US publishers, it would come across like the author didn’t do their research. That’s my take, anyway.

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