This is a guest post by South African author and counselling psychologist, Joanne Macgregor.
Her books span ages and genres, and you can find out all about them here.
Her adult novel, The First Time I Fell, is out now.
One of many things I learned from my experience in traditional publishing was that the book market in my home country — South Africa — is tiny. If I ever wanted to make a living from writing fiction, I would need to target readers around the world, and that meant changing what, and how, I write.
Why write for the US market
The first books I wrote were set in South Africa — write what you know, right? — and intended for SA readers. That gave me the glorious privilege of describing settings I know and love (or hate), and being reasonably sure that I know how high school works, how Johannesburg looks, or how a patient addresses a nurse in hospital. It also meant I could use local lingo and swears, chuck in the odd Afrikaans or isiZulu word that everyone here understands, and touch on local issues with a subtle hand.
Having secured a reversion of rights for these books, I’m revising them for the US market and it’s a bigger job than I expected. Not only has my writing improved in the intervening years, necessitating biggish rewrites, but I’m having to iron out some of the local flavour to make it more accessible to international readers. This saddens me a little, but there’s stuff that just doesn’t translate, or at least not without my having to give the whole backstory of the issue or theme. And while how I’d written the rhythms of language of first and second-language English speakers may sound natural to a SA ear, it would be jarring to an international one. I’m leaving as much as I think I can get away with, without popping a US reader out of the story due to too much unfamiliarity with the language.
Still, I hedge my bets. For my books set in SA, I have a note before the start of chapter one stating that the book follows UK spelling and punctuation conventions, that words like colour, theatre, cosy and realise are not spelling mistakes, and that I’ve included a glossary at the back of the book for the more exotic SA terms. The warning about spelling has really helped — I’ve had no reviews complaining about spelling “errors” which happens to other authors writing in UK English. I could, of course, use US spelling in my SA-set books, but that would feel very strange indeed.
For Hushed, which was set in SA but written primarily for the US market, I included many American characters (in the form of a visiting US movie cast and crew), to give American readers a touchstone. It also allowed me to explain certain South Africanisms (slap chips, bunny chow, lekker) as part of the story.
Most of my indie books are written for, and set in, the US and these books have sold much better — by an order of magnitude — which validates this choice. But there’s no doubt that it is much more complicated and involves way more work. I think many people imagine it’s just about changing the spelling of a few words, but really, that’s the least of it.
Many things have different names. For example, you probably know that in the US, the pavement is called the sidewalk, but did you know that the surface of the road is called pavement? When you fall on the sidewalk, you don’t graze your knee (that word seems to be reserved for near misses with a bullet). Instead, you scrape it or maybe skin it. This different terminology really throws a wrench (not a spanner) in the works and if you’re not careful, you could wind up falling on your fanny (cue hysterical laughter from Saffers!) To make everything much more complicated, both the terms and the grammar can vary by state or region, so something like Coca-Cola is variously called coke, pop or soda, depending on where the speaker hails from.
It pains me when there isn’t a US equivalent in US for a great word like “git” (which can be used fondly as well as harshly) or “tarted up”. In my last book, I couldn’t have my protagonist “recce” the refrigerator or “chivy” the dogs along.
There are also grammar and punctuation differences. You can’t, for example, be in hospital, you have to be in the hospital, and you can’t get your lip ice out your handbag, you have to get your Chap Stick out of your purse. The US convention of putting all punctuation inside quotation marks regularly confounds me. For example, where we would say:
Betty considered Bob’s criticisms. She knew she was not “stupid”! But was he right in calling her “fat”?
In the US, this would be:
Betty considered Bob’s criticisms. She knew she was not “stupid!” But was he right in calling her “fat?”
Methods to keep track
To ensure I get the details of US lingo and setting right, I employ several methods. I keep a list of US English words, check regional differences on the net and consciously make a note of terminology from American TV and books. I do an enormous amount of research and often contact experts to check details. For example, for The First Time I Died, I emailed the Vermont Medical Examiner in Burlington to check details, and had to read up on whether Vermont conducts inquests (it doesn’t) because law enforcement and the justice system also varies across the different states.
I use a couple of US beta-readers to check the manuscript, one of whom is my sister who emigrated there twenty years ago and so is very aware of the differences in language and culture. My editor is American and under strict instructions to catch what he calls my Briticisms. Finally, I also use an expert reader from the place where the book is set to check local details of setting and idiom.
All these people are vital. For one thing, you don’t know what you don’t know. For example, in my latest book, I had my protagonist climbing drain pipes to get into a second story bathroom, only to be told that in the US (and especially in the cold north), the pipes aren’t on the outside of houses, because they would freeze in winter! And in a restaurant scene, I had a waiter bring the check (not the bill) and credit card machine to the table so my character could insert her card and key in her pin. Turns out this standard practice in SA is very uncommon in the States, where they still carry off your card to run it through a machine. I often need to rewrite entire scenes.
The contrasts between SA and the US are so extreme in school settings — everything is different! — that I don’t think I can face writing another high school story. I think it would be easier to write for the US market if you were writing in a non-realistic genre such as fantasy or sci fi, where you have greater latitude to create the world you want according to your own rules.
There are other issues the writer needs to be sensitive to — for example, whereas South Africans can be quite cynical and critical of our armed forces, in the US there’s almost a veneration of their troops, and you can run afoul of the guardians of political correctness by describing someone as overweight or stupid.
I think many writers in SA disapprove of authors like me who write fiction set in the US, seeing it as some kind of betrayal or sell-out. That doesn’t bother me. For one thing, I earn more from my books than they do (hehe), and for another, I feel freer to write the stories that interest me, which tend not to be the politically serious, literary fiction that wins awards in SA. Of course, Americans have their own historical and political baggage, but I do think it’s easier to write a plain, entertaining story with deeper human themes set there, than it is here where our history bleeds into every story.
I think all my effort has paid off. Many of my US friends say they couldn’t tell it wasn’t written by an American, and a recent review on Dark Whispers (set in SA) crossly docked a star or two, saying there was no reason for the book to have been set in South Africa — as though setting books in the US is the default, and if an author sets them anywhere else, there had better be a jolly good reason for doing so. I think this underscores my belief that it’s easier for Americans to read “American” fiction. So, like Lee Child (British) and John Connolly (Irish) and a host of others, I’ll keep writing for the American gaze.