On writing

Do we remove sense of place when we change our novels to match the audience reading them?

It seems that everywhere I’ve been on the web lately people are talking about how a strong sense of place can act as another character in your story, or really make a story more enjoyable.

Around the same time, I seemed to read a lot about how if you want to sell to the US market then you have to ‘Americanise’ your story. In particular, how the first Harry Potter was Americanised (or should that be Americanized) for the US market, while the later stories were changed less.

Some of the changes include:

English US
Philosopher’s stone Sorceror’s stone
Car park Parking lot
Sherbet lemon Lemon drop
Toilet Bathroom
Mum Mom
Dear Harry, (it said in a very untidy scrawl) I know you get Friday afternoons off Dear Harry, I know you get Friday afternoons off,
[written in a handwriting font]


Differences in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, The Harry Potter Lexicon

The changes were minor. Some people who read both version said they didn’t notice the differences.

I can’t say. I haven’t read the US versions of the book. I don’t know how much they changed the sense of place, but to me books that use ‘Mom’ and ‘bathroom’ give me a totally different sense of place to one that uses ‘Mum’ and ‘toilet’.

I know that these are only words to talk about, respectively, a parent and a room in which to perform ablutions. You can argue that this is nothing like the sense of place you get from, say, Carl Hiaasen’s stories about Florida.

You get a stronger sense of place from Hiaasen, but that doesn’t mean that Harry Potter doesn’t also have one. I believe it just means that Hogwarts is more familiar to you. Despite the fact that it’s a fantasy, it’s set in a school environment most readers are familiar with, even if they have never been to boarding school.

Yes, some stories bring place to the forefront and make it a character in the story. Other stories concentrate on the emotional development of the (other) characters and the place could be anywhere.

Even so, if you have written your story well the sense of place will permeate it. It’s there in everything the characters say, what they eat, where they go. And sometimes in what they do as well.

It’s also the differences between life as you know it and life in the book that evoke a sense of place. If you have lived all your life in the city, then a well-written book about life in a dying country town will seem exotic to you and give you a stronger sense of place than one set in a big city. If you are not French then a story set in France will be exotic. Or it should be, if it’s written properly.

It’s the little things that make a difference. Calling your mother Mom or Mum or even Mama.

That’s why I think the trend to Americanise books for the US audience is a sad thing. It takes away some of the strength the book gets from its setting; the thing that makes a particular book what it is.

Most of the time you don’t even need to change it in the first place. Let’s go back to Harry Potter. In the Philosopher’s Stone they changed nearly fifty words to suit their US audience. In Deathly Hallows they changed two words—cot and dresser.

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