Jan 19, 2010

Lost, but Not in Translation

Last week, I spotlighted the cover of Maurice Broaddus's debut from Angry Robot Books, King Maker. The book itself sounds very interesting but what I found almost equally intriguing was it's setting: Indianapolis.

When it comes to American cities, Indianapolis is nothing special. My apologies to the Hoosiers but it's true. It may be the 14th biggest US city but in terms of defining characteristics or geography or culture, there isn't a lot to talk about. This isn’t a huge issue per se but when you consider that King Maker is debuting to an exclusively UK audience, it becomes a little curious.

Can you describe the 14th biggest city in your own country? Furthermore, can you name/describe the 14th biggest city in a foreign country? Angry Robot books is selling Indianapolis to England. Will they buy it?

Using existing cities and cultural references typically benefits the author. This is particularly helpful in Urban Fantasy or Near-Future Science Fiction when the city is not the primary focus of the story. Using a recognizable city allows the melding of the monstrous with the mundane; the futuristic and the familiar. It’s easier for the reader to envision the setting, allowing the author to devote more words to plot, character, or action.

But the world is getting smaller and it’s only getting easier to get your hands on any work of fiction published in the English language. US or UK, Canada or Australia, even India or South Africa: the internet and affordable worldwide shipping have made every book available for a global audience. The problem is that when you start talking about a global audience, the number of recognizable cities drops dramatically. Outside of New York, London, Paris, Rome, Tokyo, and a few others, you are going to lose some people. Indianapolis isn’t exactly recognizable in the US. What happens when the average Australian tries to visualize the city in their mind’s eye?

To test my hypothesis, I recruited a few fellow bloggers to provide their first impressions of common US cities as if the cover blurb mentioned them in passing WITHOUT resorting to google or wikipedia. Here is our eclectic panel:
  • Aidan of A Dribble of Ink. Aidan hails from Canada, making him Canadian. You know what they say. You can't spell Canadian withou Aidan. You also can’t talk about great genre bloggers without including Aidan.
  • Niall of The Speculative Scotsman. I'll give you one guess where Niall is from. Niall is very new to the SFF blogging scene but he is making a big splash with both quality and quantity of content/snark.
  • Amanda (a.k.a Magemanda) of Floor-To-Celing-Books. Amanda is representing Britain. Her blog doesn’t appear to be working at the moment I’m writing this but when it is, it’s definitely worth reading.
  • Blue Tyson of Free SF Reader. BT is an Australian blogger but unfortunately, he has lived in the US for a few years so he’s got a little more experience than the typical Aussie.
So here is the the question: You pick up a book and it is set in ___________, what images and settings does that evoke for you as a reader?"

The Cities
1. New York City
2. Washington D.C.
3. Indianapolis
4. Chicago
5. Los Angeles
6. New Orleans
7. Boston
8. Miami
9. Detroit
10. Seattle

1. New York City

Aidan - Power, money and lights. Taxi cabs and skyscrapers.

Niall - In Scotland, we have two proper cities. The government has in their infinite wisdom awarded the city designation to five or six others, but no-one here pays Perth or Inverness much mind. In any event, there's Glasgow, and there's Edinburgh; I imagine New York City to be the North American equivalent of the former. Glasgow is where most things in Scotland happen; it's the beating heart of the country, bustling with business and people with their heads down, but there's also a substantial amount of crime. Guns, for instance, are for the most part outright banned in the UK, so you don't often hear about gun crime - it's actual news. A few days ago, though, someone was shot dead in an ASDA car park in Glasgow. Pretty much anything that happens in Scotland, including bad juju such as that, happens there.

Amanda - This is the city that never sleeps! Freezing cold in the winter; bakingly hot in the summer - oh, and almost all the inhabitants seem to up sticks and take part in a mass exodus to the Hamptons and back each summer. Iconic, breathless, unique, impersonal (I've actually visited NY so I feel I can talk about it with some authority). In the SFF arena, I've read the Good Fairies of New York by Mark Millar.

2. Washington D.C.

Aidan - Clean and filled with people wearing suits.

Niall - I'd extend that analogy to Washington D.C., too. If NYC is Glasgow, the commercial centre of Scotland, the Capitol can only be Edinburgh, home to tourists, arts and the upper middle-class.

Amanda - I've also visited this city. My impression was large houses, wide boulevards and clean streets. I think Washington prides itself on being the political centre of the United States (and, arguably, the world), and takes itself a bit too seriously. All the more surprising that the Smithsonian Museums are located there! I've read some Kim Stanley Robinson set in Washington - bah, without Google I can't remember! I read it a while ago.

3. Indianapolis

Aidan - Yellow and average.

Niall - There are... races there? I think? Haven't read Kingmaker yet - should I? - nor can I recall the city being the setting for any other fiction in recent memory. Indianapolis would be a blank slate for me.

Amanda - Haha, you're totally right! Indianapolis is a big blank to me! I know the city exists, I know that GenCon is held there (yep, I'm a big geek), and I *think* there might be an Indianapolis Grand Prix for Formula 1, but I have no clue about what the city is like, where it is, important little details like that...

4. Chicago

Aidan - Great downtown. Lots of business people. Lots of cold colours (black, grey, etc...) in an elegant way.

Niall - Curiously I think Chicago is the sort of place where noir happens. And dark fantasy, perhaps. I know not why.

Amanda - The Windy City! I've watched the musical, and my general impression is business and crime and Al Capone. I love Jim Butcher's Dresden series set here.

5. Los Angeles

Aidan - I've been there, so I have a pretty strong picture. Venice Beach and Sunset Boulevard. Haze and lots of skin. Hell on earth.

Niall - I know this to be the city where Jack Bauer often hurts people. Also the vicious circle of down-on-their-luck hopefuls who've tried and failed to make it big and the dodgy dealers who take advantage of their disappointment.

Amanda - LA is all about Hollywood for me - I see it as being rich, decadent and seedy. It seems the kind of place where women are all plastic and blonde and the waiters are all down-on-their-luck actors (check out my sweeping generalisations!) Angel by Joss Whedon was set here.

6. New Orleans

Aidan - The French Quarter, as defined by popular culture.

Niall - New Orleans is a curious one, delineated in its literary analogues by Katrina much as it was in real life. I don't feel qualified to speak about the truth of life in that city now, but certainly before the levies gave in, before the tragedy, it was represented as a seductively open-minded sort of place: lurid and dangerous in all the right ways. If I had ever come to America, I'd have come to New Orleans.

Amanda - Here my over-riding view is of a city from the deep South, where the citizens drawl and eat stuff like 'grits', which just sounds bizarre to me. Music is also something that I link with New Orleans - jazz in dark smoky clubs. For some reason vampires are drawn to the South - Anne Rice's vamps lived in New Orleans, and Sookie Stackhouse lives in Bon Temps, which I think is local (check out my detailed knowledge of US geography).

7. Boston

Aidan - A Europe-esque old town feeling, but with modern concessions. History. Great architecture.

Niall - For me, a Scotsman looking in from afar, Boston is inextricably tied to the Tea Party and the Massacre, and not coincidentally the revolutionary air of era. It's a place with real heritage, a place where impossibly important decisions were made. I'm afraid to say I imagine it to be a sort of post Victorian-era London, full of museums, town halls and town cryers.

Amanda - Okay, well, the Boston Tea Party springs instantly to mind, but honestly? I don't really have an impression of Boston. It's one of those cities that I know of but don't know anything about - I don't even know where in the States it is located (yep, there is that stupendous geographical know-how that serves me so well *rolls eyes*). I don't like to admit this publically, but I rather enjoyed Ally McBeal and I know it was set in Boston - but, unlike a series such as Friends or Sex and the City where the city is almost another character, it didn't give me any better understanding of what Boston is like. Although I do still get nightmares about dancing babies!

8. Miami

Aidan - Bikinis and old people.

Niall - Ah yes. The city where all the pretty people kick about in teeny bikinis. Sun, sea, sand; babes and beach-houses. There's none of that in Scotland - it's all strictly against the law.

Amanda - The Miami Dolphins help to give the impression that this is a sporty, fresh and sunny city. All I can think of is beaches and tourism when people say Miami. Miami is far too sunny for vampires.

9. Detroit

Aidan - Destroyed beauty. Ghost town left in the wake of strong history.

Niall - My only real impressions of Detroit are negative, I'm afraid. Another of Michael Moore's many achievements.

Amanda - Again - probably oddly to you - I have no real impression of Detroit. I *think* it is quite important for car manufacture, but I might be getting the wrong city there. Nope, nothing else coming for poor Detroit.

10. Seattle

Aidan - I've also spent a fair bit of time in Seattle. It's a lot like a Canadian city, only in the states. Lots of young people drinking their coffees.

Niall - One of my most recent reads, Boneshaker by Cherie Priest, was set in a Civil War-era steampunk Seattle decimated by the outbreak of a gaseous zombie-making plague. The primacy of that reading experience in my mind means that it's rather stronger than the gorgeous, nearly futuristic city I saw so often in Frasier.

Amanda - Okay, I'm *slightly* more familiar with Seattle but only because the grunge movement started there. I don't know why, but this always leaves me feeling as though Seattle is quite a gloomy rainy place!

Blue Tyson didn't participate in the challenge due to his temporary residence in the US but he did share a few thoughts about the issue in general:
Your average Australian isn't going to give a second thought to Indianapolis, Detroit, etc. generally speaking. as opposed to Honolulu, Las Vegas and San Francisco, say.

You are also right that most Americans would be hard pressed to get past Sydney. ;-)

Just as a general comment, NY or LA = roll the eyes boring as far as a setting for a run of the mill book goes. We have no vested interest in any of the settings or marketing population bases that have to see local, so where it is doesn't matter, and something different is good.

While you can’t prove anything from such a small sample size (feel free to provide your own answers), the evidence does suggest that the most recognizable US cities are significantly less so outside of our borders. Based on these results, I have to ask a few questions:

Do authors consider their target audience when they define their setting?

Do publishers consider setting and their readership when they buy a book set in the real world?

Do readers purchase/enjoy books more when they are familiar with the setting?

Should they?


  1. There's something to be said for the familiar. However,from a consumer perspective,I've read plenty of European fiction that is set in locations that are unfamiliar to me and never gave it a thought. These days, a couple of google clicks and you know all you need to know about a city/town, etc.

    Same thing with unfamiliar words. I don't sweat readers who can't be bothered to flip open a dictionary on occasion. In any event, neither of these circumstances are things I've heard many readers complain about.

  2. @Laird - I definitely agree. The availability of google and/or a dictionary is definitely something that reduces the impact of unfamiliar places or words.

    I don't think this is a problem. It was more curiousity on my part on how well foreign readers were equipped to take on various American cities. The answer was not especially (but probably more so than the typical American) but the conclusion I'm coming to is that it doesn't really matter if you are or not.

    I felt kind of like the Freakonomic's researcher. I had a data set but wasn't exactly sure what I wanted to say.

    I'm just warning people about Indianapolis more than anything ;-)

  3. Oh, I think it's an interesting question. If I ever conclude basing my stories in Olympia, WA hurt my sales, I'll reevaluate with a quickness.

  4. I know what the 14th largest city in the UK is (and I am from the UK.) It's Nottingham. According to population size and also strict definition of a city (our definitions are a bit different from other places: eg a town of any size is considered a city if there is a cathedral in it: therefore we have quite a lot of small cities that have far less population than larger towns! Whereas in the US it goes solely by population, no? The smallest city in UK is St David's in Wales - also in the whole world! (If we Brits can't have the biggest, we'll have the smallest!)). 14th is Nottingham with 280,000. According to strict definitions (ie, city, *not* conurbation - so what you folks would call "metro area", no?) Yes I had to look it up. I thought it might be Coventry: but that's on some lists as 11th biggest and on others as 13th. It depends on your definitions. Brits are finicky! I know off the top of my head that Glasgow is 4th biggest with over 1/2 a million people.

  5. Anyway it's not a fair question. Because the US is a much larger country, has larger cities and more of them anyway: so of course there are more large, "memorable" cities in the US! Still, beat 1797 for compact & bijou! (Pop. of St. David's!) Not too many crime gangs there (though there are in Cardiff!) Anyway I was just thinking: maybe Mr Broaddus (who I have yet to meet) will succeed with "King Maker" in putting Indianapolis on the map! In which case the city fathers will have reason to bless him! (Maybe then they'll even support the homeless projects he is involved with.) OK I've got another question for your US experts: what are the differences between Indianapolis and Minneapolis?


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