Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Writing for a North American audience

By Narelle Atkins

In April ICFW member LeAnne Hardy wrote an excellent post on Writing about Culture. LeAnne is an American who writes stories set in other countries, including Africa.

In the blog post comments, we chatted about how cultural differences can be very stark or more subtle. I'm an Aussie and I write contemporary romance for a primarily North American audience with the Love Inspired Heartsong Presents line. My books are set in Australia and my characters are Australian. I've just finished the copy edits on my fourth book, and I've learned there are many subtle cultural differences between Australia and the USA.

Snowy Mountains in Australia
The obvious difference is grammar and spelling. I have a bad habit of mixing Australian and American grammar and spelling now I'm using both all the time. The placement of commas, in particular, can trip me up. Spell checkers are useful, but they don't pick up everything. Google is my friend when I need to double check spelling and word usage. 

In Australia we have a lot of exposure to American language through television, movies, and online sources. The other day my son asked me if I had my cell phone with me. My daughter and I did a double take, because we call cell phones 'mobiles' in Australia. I'm now convinced he watches too much American content on You Tube, but I digress... 

I refer to 'jumpers' as sweaters in my books, a 'footpath' is a sidewalk, '4WDs' are SUVs, 'insurance excess' is a deductible, 'morning tea' is refreshments, and 'mum' is spelled mom. I was able to keep a reference to 'brumbies' in The Doctor's Return by adding an extra sentence that defined the brumbies as wild horses.




It's perfectly reasonable for an Aussie to say "I'm wearing my thongs to the beach and I'll take them off when I walk on the sand" because thongs are flip flops. But that sentence won't translate the right way in North America where thongs are intimate apparel.

North Curl Curl Beach in Sydney, Australia
One of my Aussie friends is currently living in the US. She mentioned that the American spelling in my books means she can hear the dialogue in an American accent. It's interesting how we can translate the dialogue into our own dialect. When I read American books, I usually hear the Aussie pronounciation in my mind.  

Our seasons are different in Australia, being in the southern hemisphere. I try to avoid references to specific months. We have Christmas in summer, and we drive on the opposite side of the road. I'm careful to be non-specific regarding left and right when it comes to driving and talking about cars. 

I also think, in general, that Australians are less concerned with political correctness than our American friends. My editors have picked up a couple of things in my books that have surprised my group of Aussie beta readers. Our church culture is slightly different, too, and that needs to be taken into account.  

There are subtle nuances to consider when writing dialogue. I've discovered during my trips to the US that 'you're welcome' is the usual response when someone says thank you. In Australia we have a variety of responses, including no problem, no worries and okay. I learned to ask for two percent milk in hot black tea, after ordering tea with milk from a well known cafe franchise and ending up with what we call thickened cream in my tea.

My conclusion is that I would need to do a lot of research if I wanted to write a contemporary romance set in North America. The authenticity of the characters and setting doesn't always translate easily in a different society and cultural setting. It's the little things that can distract a reader and pull them out of the story.

What challenges have you faced when writing for an American or international audience? As a reader, do you notice the small cultural differences? Have you read a book set in your part of the world that didn't translate fully to your cultural setting? I'd love to hear your thoughts and experiences. 



NARELLE ATKINS writes contemporary inspirational romance and lives in Canberra, Australia. She sold her debut novel, set in Australia, to Harlequin's Love Inspired Heartsong Presents line in a 6-book contract. Her debut book, Falling for the Farmer, was a February 2014 release, followed by The Nurse's Perfect Match in May 2014, The Doctor's Return in August 2014, and Her Tycoon Hero in November 2014.

Narelle blogs regularly with Australasian Christian Writers and Inspy Romance. http://australasianchristianwriters.blogspot.com/ 
http://www.inspyromance.com/ 

She is also a co-founder of the Australian Christian Readers Blog Alliance (ACRBA).
http://acrba.blogspot.com/ 

Website: http://www.narelleatkins.com
Blog: http://narelleatkins.wordpress.com
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/NarelleAtkinsAuthor
Twitter: @NarelleAtkins https://twitter.com/NarelleAtkins

20 comments:

  1. Most of your points are also valid for authors setting their stories in other countries—such as the current US trend for writing books set in England. They need to do a lot of research to ensure their characters sound English, not American.

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    1. Hi Iola, I agree, research is very important for all settings. The challenge is finding the right balance between the authenticity of the dialogue and ensuring readers will understand what's being said.

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  2. Funny I say your welcome when someone says thankyou I think its something the older generation grew up with and having older parents it filtered down. good tip on the milk. I ask for low fat here which is 1%. I think it would take a lot of research setting books in the states.

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  3. Hi Jenny, I rarely heard 'you're welcome' when I was younger. It could be a regional difference between Sydney and South Australia? When I moved to Canberra, I discovered a lot of people say 'yeah, yeah'. It's a phrase I hadn't heard when I lived in Sydney or Melbourne.

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    1. maybe its more country people who say it. like if you hold the door open for someone they say thank you and you respond Your welcome. One of our previous pastors would say it even when they didn't say thank you. It may be a Victorian thing too as mum grew up there. I don't hear it as much now as I use to but I think its more often in the country you will still hear it.

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    2. Jenny, this makes sense.

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  4. Gotta laugh, Narelle! We lived in the Heartland for two years and got tripped up for most of that time. I once said,"Oh, I've got a ladder in my stocking." Blank stare until I pointed to it. "You mean you popped a runner in your hose!"

    I'm in the proposal stage of a historical set with the beginning in America and the remainder in Aus. I have a character that explains what terms mean to my protagonists which makes for a bit of fun.

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    1. Hi Rita, lol, your example is a good one :) Yes, transplanting a character in a foreign setting can provide opportunities to add humour to our stories.

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  5. This sure adds complexity to writing our novels, doesn't it Narelle. My editors were English who had experience of the US market but nothing beats the reaction of readers when something wasn't as American as it should be.

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    1. Hi Ian, yes, this is true. Readers want to enjoy the story without being distracted by language issues.

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  6. Hi Narelle,
    We had to keep a close eye on this in 'Imogen's Chance' too, as Imogen is an American character. Sometime there were opportunities within the story to have her discussing the language differences with the Australian characters.
    I've sometimes replied, "No worries" or "No problems" to North American friends in emails. They've been gracious to me. (Thank you, if that's anyone here.) Sometimes I receive comments about "cute Australianisms" spoken by my Aussie characters. I guess at least they are authentic when I don't realise I'm doing it. We've probably all come across moments when we've read characters trying to sound authentic and not quite pulling it off.

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    1. Hi Paula, I think 'no worries' is probably more of an Australian expression than 'no problem', but both phrases do logically translate with the correct meaning. The context of the words can help readers intuitively understand the meaning of unfamiliar words and phrases.

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  7. Great post Narelle! All my books have some kind of American flavor to them - either the setting, or the hero or heroine are always American. I rely heavily on my fabulous American critique partners to pick up all my un-Americanisms!

    For instance in New Zealand we call a kitchen counter a "bench" while in the US a "bench" is a type of seat. Rubbish bin and trash can, chips and fries, biscuits and cookies are a few others that spring straight to mind.

    And they are great for catching my inadvertent cultural faux pas. In my latest manuscript I used a word to describe the hero that in NZ would be akin to calling him a jerk. My critique partner came back with YOU CAN'T CALL HIM THAT! And I discovered that in the U.S. that term had *ahem* sexual connotations.

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    1. You know Kara fish and fries just sounds sooooooooooo wrong.

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    2. Hi Kara, yes, I agree our American critique partners are invaluable :) They can tell us the common usage meanings for words, especially crude words, that aren't listed in the online dictionaries.

      Jenny, I totally agree, fish and fries sounds wrong because fish and chips is an iconic expression.

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  8. Great thoughts and comments, Narelle. Afraid I am rather double minded on this. Sure, I know there are certainly words like "Jerk" and "thongs" that we would be wise to avoid for readers in another culture. However, if we are writing Aussie characters in an Aussie setting that book has to be authentic to Aussie readers. How many times have I read words in books written and published by other nationalities I've found offensive or even do not have any idea what they mean? Perhaps we just need to write really great and have more Australian books out there published by Australian publishers so we can all "educate" other cultures too to our differences. Besides, as someone mentioned before, words also can vary from state to state in Australia and I know they certainly do also in different states of America. Why shouldn't readers be encouraged to expand their understanding and knowledge of other countries? Of course, if we submit to publishers in another culture, that has to be up to them what they accept. This is the same for any writers in any country.

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  9. Hi Mary, You've brought up some good points. At the end of the day, authors need to know their target audience. I think it's helpful if they know their audience from the start.

    For example, are you an Aussie writing primarily for the US market and seeking a US publishing contract? If yes, your American readers need to understand your language and word choices because they are your primary audience. You need to deliver a product that meets their expectations.

    Are you an Aussie writing for the Australian market with an Aussie publisher? In this instance, it doesn't matter as much if your word choices don't translate in other Engish speaking countries. But, the Australian market is small, and I think it's wise for Aussie authors to consider writing books that will appeal to an international audience.

    Indie authors need to work out which market they want to sell in and create a product that meets reader expectations in their chosen market.

    It's impossible to write a book that everyone will like and want to read. The trick is to find your tribe of readers and deliver great books that meet or exceed their expectations. Will a great story trump word and language issues? Maybe, maybe not. There are millions of books available in the marketplace, and you don't want to give your readers a reason to cast aside your book.

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  10. I'm writing a non-fiction work but need to know whether female pastors are frowned upon in the US. It seems in some places of the US it's ok but other parts it seems to be taboo. Any thoughts?

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  11. Hi Susan, I suspect you are right because I haven't seen many female pastor characters in Christian fiction published in the US. It's also a controversial issue in some places in Australia, too.

    Are female pastors an essential element of your non-fiction book? If not, you'll probably broaden the scope of your potential readership by removing it. If yes, it could be a selling point for Christian readers who are supportive of female pastors.

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  12. No Narelle, female pastors are not an essential element of my book. It wasn't even in my book until I sent my manuscript to a US editor who suggests an epilogue. The idea grew on me and I wrote a 3 page epilogue where, I mention female pastors as an extension to an idea I had raised in the introduction. However when I sent it back to the editor, they seems to go cold on the project but didn't say why. Anyway, a writing friend of mine in Australia read my manuscript and felt US readers would struggle with the epilogue. So it would be easy to delete, but I was curious.

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