I wrote my first novel, Ship to Shore, as a Brit. It uses UK spelling and words, metric measurements, etc. This is partly because the book is set in London, the Hebrides and on a ship on the Atlantic Ocean, and the characters are either English or Scottish, and partly because that’s what comes naturally to me. I grew up in Canada but have lived in England and Australia for most of my adult life, and spent 20 years as an editor of English as it is used in those three countries.
Too Close, my second novel, is aimed squarely at the US market, however. (That’s where the numbers are!) It’s set primarily in San Francisco, with side trips to Seattle and Las Vegas, and the main characters are American. They use cell phones not mobile phones, and wear pants rather than trousers. (And thanks to my mother’s sharp eyes, they now wear baseball caps not baseball hats. Oops.)
How hard could it be, I thought, to be a fake American? I spent almost 30 years just across the border in Canada, and visit my parents at their winter home in south Texas. I watch US movies and US TV shows.
I was sure I could pull off a novel that sounded like it was written by an American.
The US spelling was a bit tricky, but once I set the language to US English, Word’s handy red squiggle under a mis-spelled word kept me on track. Things like “harbor” and “realize” were not a problem, but I could not figure out what it objected to in “marvellous”. Surely Americans don’t drop the u? The o? No, but it turns out that they do drop that second el!
The punctuation was the second peril. It required a conscious effort to put it inside the final quote mark, rather than outside (as I’ve done with marvellous, above; in Too Close, that full stop – oops, that period! – would have gone inside the mark).
And I was halfway through the first draft before I remembered that Americans say Mom, not Mum. A quick find and replace fixed that one.
Gotten. That is one Americanisn I will never ‘get’. I tried using “had gotten” a few times, and it just seemed wrong, wrong, wrong. So I rewrote the sentences, which seemed safer.
The real peril, though, lies in what you don’t know you don’t know.
My hero, Greg, started out as a chartered accountant, and in one scene he is doing Continuing Professional Development. (Stick with me, the scene is not as dull as that might imply.) Only, it turns out that in California what he’s doing would be called Continuing Professional Education – and he would be a certified public accountant, not a chartered accountant. It took me half of hour of Googling to determine why I couldn’t find any information on chartered accountants in the US!
Then there is the mistake that dwarfs all the others. In one scene, when the characters arrive in Reno they stop at a motel that is festooned in red, white and blue bunting and balloons, to celebrate July 1st. I wrote that, I read it, my mother read it, four beta readers read it. Alas, none of us is American, and only recently did I read it again, give a mental shriek and go, “Ack! It’s July 4th!” (In Canada, July 1st is Canada Day, a national holiday commemorating the birth of the country, and I think the date morphed into the US holiday in my mind.)
Just imagine the reviews on Amazon if that had gone through!
The worry now is, what other bloopers are lurking in Too Close? What else don’t I know that I don’t know?