I grew up in a small town called Slave Lake. On the shores of Lesser Slave Lake, not Great Slave Lake, where by great fluke, I was born and spent my first five years. The point of the story is Edmonton was “the city”. It was a mythical, magical place. As any small towner could tell you going into “the city” was reason enough to skip school for the day. Hell, sometimes it was reason enough to skip several school days, and no teacher questioned it.
And now I live in Lethbridge. It’s a much bigger city when compared to Slave Lake, which didn’t get a traffic light until I was in grade 10. The traffic light made the front page. But it was a weekly paper, so it made the front page 8 days after the traffic light had actually gone up. Another triumph in investigative journalism, let me tell you. And “the city” is now Calgary, not Edmonton, and it’s only two hours away not three.
Growing up, the books I read all took place somewhere else. And I don’t just mean the fantasy novels. New York, Los Angeles, London. The British countryside. The British countryside a thousand years ago. Even small town America. It would have been easy to internalize the message that stories happened somewhere else, and writers came from anywhere but here.
When I started to get published, my vampire novels took place in New York. Some of my short stories happened in no town in particular, or a vaguely New York-ish metropolis. (I always got confused when I was younger. A metropolis was any large city. But then there was the Metropolis of Daily Planet and Superman fame…)
Somewhere along the way, I started setting my contemporary stories in Canada. Downtown Calgary, in and around Victoria, small town BC (with a trip to Edmonton at Christmas), along the highway outside of Canmore. I blame Rob Sawyer for the impetus, who is proudly unapologetic and vocal about telling Canadian stories. (You can read more about his thoughts on Canadian settings for SF in his advice for beginning writers.)
(You know what else is cool? Shaun Haunter’s The City We See blog, posting book excerpts about Calgary through the eyes of writers.)
I could say it’s about writing what you know. And there’s no denying that knowing a place in person can affect how you write about it. But that’s not it–or at least not all of it. You don’t need to be in New York for your story to matter. I think there’s room for so many voices out there that don’t always get heard. Tell the stories about where you’re from, and where you are, and where you want to be.