Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Which Writing Hill Are You Going To Die On?

In December last year I got the news that every writer dreams of. After years (and a few more years) of experiencing every high and low that comes with being an aspiring author my agent had received that call from Beth Adams at Howard Books. Since I found out via email as I was about to start a meeting for my “real” job I also had to try and be present there for an hour when all I wanted to do was scream, hug everyone in the room and possibly break out into a jig.

Over the last six months I’ve had to keep it secret for three, handed my baby over to my amazing editor and survived developmental and line edits, talked cover ideas, growing my platform (good news – it’s so small it can’t actually get smaller!), had author photos done, wrangled with the IRS, and started writing my second contracted book that is due in October.

So I thought it might be fun to share the biggest thing I’ve learned as a New Zealand author with a US based team…

Know Which Hill You’re Prepared to Die On

Characters, plotlines, physical characteristics, title, there’s very little in your story that it out of the realms of possibility of getting changed, even when it’s contracted.

As a New Zealander, there is not much that gets me more peeved than reading New Zealand (or Australian, British etc.) characters who aren’t authentic. Most often this involves American versions of words or phrases or using products that aren’t even available in their country.

Then There Was You, my debut romantic comedy, is set in New Zealand and Allie, my heroine, is New Zealand born and bred. The one thing I wouldn’t move on was anything that would turn Allie into an American version of herself.  There was no way that she was ever going to pick up trash (or use a trash can), drink soda (or pop), use ketchup or put gas into a car.

Fortunately, my incredible editor got this. While we’ve had to make a few changes to avoid confusion or replace products that Americans wouldn’t know with more generic terms, Allie has very much retained her “Kiwi” identity. As we’ve worked through edits, there have also been some entertaining conversations via “comments” as she’s gone “I don’t understand this?” or “What is this product?” or “To a US reader this is going to mean this” and I've said "A New Zealander wouldn't say this" and "We don't have dimes in New Zealand!" and "A Kiwi would never do that!" . My absolute favourite was a scene in which I mentioned that there was a pot plant in a hotel room. To me this meant, well a plant in a pot, apparently to some US readers this would read that the hotel supplied cannabis! 

Knowing which hill I was prepared to die on made the rest of the process a whole lot easier. Everything else was up for grabs in pursuit of the strongest possible story!

So let’s talk… what’s made you cringe the most when you’ve read a character who is supposed to be one nationality (or from a certain place) and who says or does something that is totally off kilter with that? Or have you ever read something that in your world translated as something completely different to what the author would have intended? If you're a writer do you know which hill you're prepared to die on when it comes to your story?

Kara Isaac lives in Wellington, New Zealand. Her debut romantic comedy, Then There Was You, is about a disillusioned academic-turned-tour-guide and an entrepreneur who knows nothing about Tolkien who fall in love on a Tolkien themed tour of New Zealand. It will be an early 2016 release from Howard Books. When she's not working her day job as a public servant, chasing around a ninja preschooler and his feisty toddler sister, she spends her time writing horribly bad first drafts and wishing you could get Double Stuf Oreos in New Zealand. She loves to connnect on Facebook at Kara Isaac - Writer and Twitter @KaraIsaac


  1. Congratulations, Kara, on your upcoming novels. I think you chose wise hills to die on. Our characters need to stay true to who they are (and where they're from). If we don't believe in them---our readers won't either. Blessings on your publishing journey.

  2. Great post, Kara. I found this very challenging in Angelguard where I had an Aussie, a Brit and American lead characters with various global settings published by an English company but targeted to a mostly American audience. What a mouthful.

    One of the fabulous aspects of stories written by non-Americans but primarily for an American audience is how we can provide an alternative perspective on life.

    It's a fine balance to maintain character integrity but at the same time not disrupt the readers too much from their normal programming. It'll be great to see how your readers receive Allie. I'm looking forward to reading it.

    You've been very clever with your story line because there are so many LOTR/Hobbit fans that want to know more about NZ simply because those movies were made there. I trust you'll be marketing specifically to such groups.

    1. Wow, Ian. You really did go for the full spectrum! I'm looking forward to reading Angelguard when I have some reading time again :)

      I'll certainly be trying to. I know how protective LOTR/Hobbit fans are of their world so I hope they think I've done it justice!

  3. Hi Kara, This is a tricky area for those of us who write for an international audience. Unfortunately we can't please everyone. I was determined to keep my brumbies (wild horses) in a scene in The Doctor's Return. The brumbies are an iconic part of the Snowy Mountains region in Australia, and using the more generic term of wild horses (that translated better to a North American audience) just didn't feel right. Interestingly, my Aussie kids commonly use US expressions eg. trash, ketchup, cell phones, most likely because of their online exposure to US media and entertainment. I do think the online world is blurring some of the strong cultural distinctions we used to have with word usage.

    1. You're right, Narelle. (And yay for brumbies!) There is definitely more of a blurring these days and in some places Allie uses words that a Kiwi probably wouldn't ordinarily use but are becoming more common here for that very reason. For example, she refers to a kitchen counter, rather than a bench, because my US critique partners told me bench to a US reader means a bench seat and they couldn't work out why she was chopping vegetables on a low seat!

  4. Congratulations Kara. Good on you for standing firm when needed. Had to laugh at the different ideas about a pot plant. In Australia it is the same as the NZ view.

  5. Must remember those words 'Know which hill you're prepared to die on', Kara--that's excellent! I haven't had to deal with cultural issues and different word usage with my novels but I have sure had to make big changes I thought would be impossible at first. Now I feel much more that, if something has to be changed, then a good solution to the problem will be found somehow.