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Deryn Collier: Set Your Mystery in Canada

What does it mean for our culture, when our writers are told to set their books somewhere, anywhere, else?

Book Cover Confined Space

“Whatever you do, don’t set your mystery in Canada.”

It was advice from an expert, sharing trade secrets with a room full of aspiring crime writers. It was advice I’d travelled across the country to hear. And it was advice I decided then and there to ignore. Here’s why:

It came too late: I’d already written my mystery. I’d called it Confined Space and set it in a small town in British Columbia. The setting is a fictional version of a town I found fascinating enough to leave the big city for.

The year I had heard that advice, Canadians had written mysteries set in Wales, in Chicago and in a no-name version of Toronto. They’d also set books in Saskatoon and Calgary, and in fictional versions of Sutton and North Bay. Did one of these approaches make for a better mystery?

I took a little opinion poll on my blog. Is a Canadian setting boring, I asked? The answer was a unanimous no. What matters most are characters, I was told. A plot that propels, and a setting that is engaging and realistic. A Canadian setting is not enough to turn readers either on or off all on its own.

Everyone else loves Canada: While I was writing Confined Space, I was also working as a physician recruiter for the town where the book is set. Over the course of three years I met physicians from Pakistan, South Africa, Sweden, Ireland, Scotland, England, Australia, New Zealand and the USA. One and all, these savvy, educated, world-travelers were fascinated with the real-life version of my fictional town.

The landscape, wildlife, vistas, climate, and endless opportunities to get outside were a source of amazement. Their kids could go out and play? This was big news. Rush hour is unheard of here, unless some farmer decides to drive a tractor into town. The gardening alone was enough to sway several candidates. The five world-class ski hills within driving distance—what was not to love about this place?

Bad stuff happens here too: As a place to move to, sure, my setting is great. But I write murder mysteries. There needs to be bad stuff happening and my real-life town did not disappoint. As a transplanted urbanite I became fascinated with the way secrets are handled in a small town. There may be no hiding the fact that so-and-so’s husband is being held in a US jail for smuggling marijuana, but you still need to sit next to her at soccer practice and not mention it.

In a place where everyone knows everything, there is an unspoken code for how we get through the day. For what we know and what we are allowed to mention. For what we move on from, and what we remember for generations.

"Don't set your mystery in Canada": I ignored that advice and I’m glad I did. Things are working out just fine for my novel set in small-town BC. Though it does make me wonder about the other writers in the room that day. Did they listen?  Did they transplant their characters to the US, to generic-ville, or to another continent? And what does it mean for our culture, when our writers are told so matter-of-factly to set their books somewhere, anywhere, else?

Deryn Collier

Deryn Collier grew up in Montreal and attended McGill University. She lives with her husband and two sons in Nelson, BC, where she is currently at work on the next Bern Fortin novel.

Deryn’s website:
Twitter: @DerynCollier

Author Photo Credit: Natalie Santano

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