Friday, November 20, 2009

On Writing a Canadian Novel - Are We So Different to the States?

Summer Must End is at the 63% point now, a big jump from two weeks ago. I've been writing and editing every day, and I'm happy with where the story is going. This is the first time I've written something set in one place, in this case, my local area, here in south eastern Ontario.  I tend to incorporate a couple of countries in my books because I personally enjoy the change of venue, but I wanted to explore what makes Canada - particularly Ontario - unique, in this novel.

In fact, I could be writing about New England, when you get right down to it.  Our terrains and weather are the same, our people have much the same accents, we love coffee and doughnuts, drive on the right side of the road. You watch a movie set in Chicago, or New York, and, if you're very astute, you could well discover it was made in Toronto.  If you were plonked down in some unidentified small town in the north, the only way you'd know which nation you were in is by the flag flying on the public buildings. The restaurants and superstores will look much the same, although there could be some unfamiliar supermarkets. And the guy who was responsible for the design of those 1900s houses with the front porches was just as prolific here as in Buffalo, Detroit, and Baltimore, et al.

Only that arbitrary line, drawn by surveyors without the benefit of today's technology when our nations formed, dictated that this is Canada, and, a couple of inches over, that is the United States. There is a town in Quebec which is evenly divided right through its center, so that even the public library has a line painted across its floor to indicate it's an international border.  People exiting from the wrong door are technically liable to be charged as illegal immigrants! Before the border clampdown, this was one village, and now it's divided, with metal gates manned by border agents.  It's a microcosm of Berlin in the 60s. And there are other towns like this sprinkled along our shared border, including four airports!

They say Canadians don't stand out in any memorable way when they travel overseas because they sound American, so they're lumped in as coming from one of the fifty US states, unless they're questioned more closely. That's okay, I guess, because we're a low-key, modest bunch, most of the time, and comfortable with who we are. On the whole, Canadians are softer-spoken, reserved rather than conservative, unconventional in many ways, and less hung up on money than most Americans, but this will barely be seen in a casual meeting. We're statistically much less violent here, so we make up for it by playing ice hockey, where almost anything goes. It's also a secular nation, with less emphasis on church-inspired doctrines.

Of course, there are other clear constitutional and philosophical differences between the countries, and I'm certainly not going there in this blog, although it would make very interesting reading, were I that clever. But the point I'm getting at is that it's difficult to write the all-Canadian novel. I could toss in a few 'eh?'s in some dialogue, and mention the Toronto Maple Leafs, but that doesn't do it. Instead, in creating my Ontario characters, I'm writing about our North American sameness, our common flora and fauna, our weather, the human experience.

And so I'm left trying to make sense of all of this through my characters. As I said, it's not easy, really, and perhaps that's the point. We are so alike.

If I wanted to snag that New York agent, I would be wise to set this whole thing somewhere north of Boston, say, instead of Belleville. But I can't. This is my tribute to Canada. It's perhaps not the Great Canadian Novel, but it will be my small offering.

Please check out SarahBeth's blog again. She's doing all right with her Art Sales for Willow campaign, but she's not there yet, around $400 short. She has less than a month to pull this veterinary expense together to save her dear cat-baby. I know you'll want to help.

Have a great weekend. Oh, and enjoy a fine American Thanksgiving on Thursday. There's one of our differences. We celebrated ours on October 12.  Give a poor turkey a break, if you can.


Melissa Marsh said...

When I was at the Jane Austen Center in Bath, there was another gal there on my tour that sounded America. Of course, I was excited to find another American so nearby, so I asked her if she was from the U.S. "No," she said. "I'm from Canada." So it's definitely true that there really isn't anything readily discernable between the people of these two nations.

I find it intriguing that you're writing a "Canadian" novel. I confess, I really don't know a lot about Canada, but I think I would love to visit someday.

Fran said...

Well, Melissa, we'll see what emerges. Perhaps I will be able to nail the differences - there are a few big ones. Canadians weren't officially in Vietnam, for instance. Many served (including one of my characters), but on behalf of the US as volunteers. (Ironically, many Americans came to Canada to avoid the draft.) This means that Canadian vets are not honored at our annual memorial ceremonies, although there is a move to change that. Anyway, an interesting snippet few people know about, even here.