I write for an American publisher, based in New York State. Many of the romance novels I’ve read have been set in the USA, and I’ve written books set in the USA as well (my latest, Midnight at the Orpheus, is set in 1920s Chicago), but when I was first percolating ideas for my romance, Betting on Love, I kept coming back to setting it here, in Calgary and area, where I’ve lived for most of my life.
When I first started writing fiction seriously, I hardly even considered setting a book in Calgary. Why Calgary when there were so many more fascinating places? Calgary felt dull; it had the wear of the familiar, the everyday. It was the place where I’d grown up, gone to school, and worked. But yet, for this story, nowhere else seemed to work nearly as well. As much as I love the cosmopolitan feel of a city like Paris, or San Francisco, or New York, this story felt like it needed to be home.
For once, writing in my own backyard, I could draw on my own experiences instead of relying on expensive travel, the Streetview of Google Maps, and hours of extra research. As a bonus, I could expose readers to a city that they might not be familiar with. I hoped that something a little different would pique their curiosity. I tried not to be especially tour-guide-esque, though for some of the motorcycling scenes, I couldn’t help myself, especially given how gorgeous Lake Minnewanka is!
My regular haunts in Calgary are in its inner city; I work downtown daily, and I spend a lot of time there, and in the areas just south of the downtown core, known as the Beltline, and 17th Avenue. Being on the younger side of Gen X, I’m right in the age range for the ‘young professional’ who prefers urban living. However, my haunts are not just within the city. My extended family has a long history in southern Alberta, mostly in farming, and I knew I wanted to work that in somehow. So, I made one of my characters, Elly, a farm girl, and her love interest and foil, Alexandra, bartender and motorcyclist, a bona fide city girl. I could have the best of both worlds.
At some point during the first draft stage, I started to feel like I was being rather self-indulgent. Could I really write a story that was this autobiographical, this local? I felt like readers would point and say “You didn’t really put any effort into that, look, you only wrote about stuff you knew!”
It sounds a bit silly actually writing it out, but the mind does funny things when you’re not feeling overly confident. I did try to compensate for the autobiographical-ness of it all by making some things up. The restaurant I created in the book, Parry’s, is a mishmash of several restaurants I’ve known, including one I once worked at, and I didn’t want to tag the fictional place with the name of a real restaurant and inadvertently insult an excellent establishment. Liability is a real thing. But again, feeling self-indulgent, I also wanted the ability to make the restaurant exactly the way I needed it to be: a restaurant with attached lounge/bar, which would host karaoke nights and serve as a meeting place for all sorts of people.
In the end, I suppose I shouldn’t worry too much. Some readers will like what I write, and some won’t, and that’s the way of it. What is conventional to me will be unconventional to others, and I hope I can expand a reader’s knowledge of the world while they enjoy a romance. Delightfully, I did have one reader message me to say thank you, that she’d never read a romance novel set in her hometown. The message gave me a happy glow that lasted the entire day. What do you, authors and readers, think of reading a book set in your hometown?
Alyssa Linn Palmer is a Canadian writer and freelance editor. She splits her time between a full-time day job and her part-time loves, writing and editing. She is a member of the RWA, the Calgary RWA, and RRW (Rainbow Romance Writers). She has a passion for Paris and all things French, which is reflected in her writing. When she’s not writing lesbian romance, she’s creating the dark, morally flawed characters of the Le Chat Rouge series and indulging in her addictions to classic pulp fiction.