How authors of books set in France overcome challenges (in their words)

French street with shuttered buildings

Writing a book set in France? Discover how fellow authors avoid clichés and overcome challenges of language, setting and more.

If you’re writing a book in English that is set in France, you’ll face certain challenges, including language, setting and characterisation.

Since launching my previous article about writing and editing books set in France, I’ve been in touch with more authors who have plenty of experience in this field. Some are authors whose books I’ve edited (having a specialist arm to my editing business for books set in France), others are those to whom I reached out on social media.

This blog post is a companion to my original article. It includes stacks of tips in the authors’ own words about how they deal with challenges specific to writing a book set in France.

Let’s get to it!

Avoid clichés

It may be tempting to pepper your book set in France with stereotypes of onion sellers wearing berets, croissants and pains au chocolat spilling out of every café, and people shrugging left, right and centre, but this isn’t the path to an authentic novel.

Philip Cahill, author of Miranda, Noystria, and other sci-fi novels set in France, says “France is not a gastronomic theme park peopled by eccentrics enjoying fantastical love lives. I know Emily in Paris gets away with this, but that’s because the writing is so good. How to avoid clichés? Read French writers writing about the kinds of characters and settings you want to include in your story. Watch francophone films and research the places where French people work, play and live.”

Philip particularly recommends Serotonin by Michel Houellebecq and The Young Man by Annie Ernaux. These books are very different from each other in flavour, but both provide accurate depictions of people and places in France.

Beware of holiday goggles.

Mathieu Leclerc

Mathieu Leclerc, emerging author of historical fiction set in France, adds, “Beware of holiday goggles. There are still human idiosyncrasies, failures and successes beneath every surface.”

However, don’t be afraid of using occasional national idiosyncracies to flesh out your characters. Mathieu Leclerc adds, “The Gallic shrug, the familiar terms of endearment, the jokes, sayings and references are all examples of enriching the characters.”

Research, research, research

Following on from the advice to avoid clichés, thoroughly research the area of France (and time period) where your book is set. If at all possible, write about a region you know well, or visit the town or village where your book is set. More on that last point in the next section.

Jane Dunning, author of Sunshine and Shadows at the Vineyard and other books set in France, explains about her research: “As one of my characters is a wedding planner, I’ve had to research hotels in Provence that I’ve never visited. I also had to research a rescue by the French fire service which involved speaking to someone whose son is in the service near Cannes and a friend who is a fire officer in the south of England, and work from there. In the third novel, a body is found in the countryside near St Tropez, so I linked it to a real-life murder in Nantes. Also, there is an attempted murder in one of the novels, so I had to imagine how the questioning would be French-style – watching TV dramas helped here.”

St Tropez

Michael Gryboski adds, “I have a novel titled Carla: A Death in Paris, which is part of a suspense/mystery series. A large part of the book is set in and around Paris. To help with research, I used an article published by The Guardian for detailed information about the local Muslim community.”

Roselle Angwin, author of two novels set partly in France, carried out research to top up her memory of a location and to find out how it may have changed. “One is a timeslip novel featuring the Cathars (written long before Kate Mosse’s book), and that one depended on my memories of place from 20 years before. Also, I had to try and imagine/research roads (and airports) that might have changed in 20 years. That aspect was a seat-of-the-pants job, but as a creative-writing tutor, I also know how getting a place wrong can completely undermine the writing, so I was a bit vague.”

Visit the French region where you’ve set your book

I touched on this in the section about research. If you are to write authentically about a particular region, town or hamlet, do your best to visit the place. This will help you to not only describe the visuals but also to convey the character, smells, sounds and other aspects that you can only truly capture by being there. You want your readers to feel as if they are there!

Angela Wren, author of the Jacques Forêt mystery series and other books set in France, says, “I’m fortunate to have been travelling in France since I was a teenager.  Crossing France by train on a school trip got me hooked! I didn’t realise back then that I would write about the country, the customs, the places I’ve visited – and there have been many – let alone use the Cévennes as the primary setting for the action in my books.

“I think if you are going to set a novel anywhere that is not local to you, then you need to undertake a serious amount of research to get it right. Google Earth and Maps are useful, but they can’t show you the prevailing weather conditions, nor can they tell you how far down the street the lovely warm, sweet smell from the pâtisserie reaches, just as they can’t remind you about the rich aroma from the restaurants as you pass by at lunchtime.

“I use places I know, and I have visited every location that appears in my books and on my blog. Even my fictitious village is modelled on a real place that actually exists and that I have stayed in many times. I hope that knowledge lends authenticity to the setting as the backdrop for the action in my stories.”

Colourful macaroons

Harriet Springbett, author of the Tree Magic trilogy, says, “I was lucky enough to be offered a writer residency in one of the settings of my Tree Magic trilogy, which takes place mostly in France. This meant I could meet locals, visit the places and have the same experiences as my protagonist. Readers can spot when something’s authentic, so it’s worth putting in the time to do onsite research.”

Roselle Angwin tells us, “My most recent book (A Spell in the Forest) is a non-fiction book about trees sacred to the Celts, and includes a memoir in relation to the Forêt de Huelgoat. I’d already done loads of research, but more importantly, I was actually there for most of the writing.”

Maggie Cobbett says, “When I was in the early stages of writing Shadows of the Past, which was inspired by some very strange events that took place during my first-ever visit to France, I went back to the area in which the story is set and even managed to reconnect with the young Frenchman I fell for as a teenager. We revisited some of our old haunts and had a great deal of fun doing so. His memories added greatly to my own and I even used an old photo of us together on the front cover.

“Visit the area you’re writing about, rather than relying on internet research, especially if you already have contacts there. Much of my novel harked back to the ongoing consequences for a village community of the German occupation of World War Two, and it was easier to get older people’s recollections of that dreadful time when introduced by someone they already knew and trusted.”

Visit the area you’re writing about, rather than relying on internet research.

Maggie Cobbett

Create fictional places based on France

Some authors prefer to invent a place name or area, but base it on France. This could be for any number of reasons.

Michael Gryboski says, “I have another novel titled The Enigma of Father Vera Daniel which, while heavily based on 18th-century France, ultimately takes place in a fictional nation (Parvion) so that I could take whatever liberties I wanted to.”

Catherine Cooper explains that the places in her books are “all fictional mixes of real places where I’ve been.”

Roselle Angwin says, “My second novel was part-set in Brittany. That one didn’t really pose problems as I was back and forwards a few times in the time I wrote it. I made up places and place names, but they seem and sound Breton.”

Depict authentic weather

Don’t simply transpose your knowledge of the weather in your country to a French setting. Research what the weather is like in the French region you’re writing about, during the season your characters are there. If you’re specific about dates in your book, check historical weather records (available online) to make sure the weather matches reality.

Angela Wren, author of the Jacques Forêt mystery series set in the Cévennes region in France, says, “The Cévennes is a mountainous region, and the weather can be extreme. It can snow at any time from October until the end of April. I remember waking up one morning at the end of September and seeing a snow-covered landscape.  That sudden change in the weather set me thinking, and the opening of my first story was set in that place on that day in late September in the snow. Similarly with the time my vehicle was trashed by hailstones 20–25 millimetres in diameter in June. I included that incident in the story I was working on, only to find in edits that it was questioned.  Apart from a few missing commas, the passage remained intact once I’d explained I’d lived through the storm.”

Mountain in the Cévennes, covered in snow

Don’t overdo descriptions of the beautiful French scenery

We all know how stunning French scenery can be. Whether your book is set in the rugged, snow-capped French Alps, by the sparkling, aquamarine Mediterranean Sea, or in the lush green vineyards of the Loire Valley, you may be tempted to wax lyrical about the sights, sounds and smells of the locations where your characters find themselves.

However, readers will quickly disengage if you overdo this. Let’s see what our authors have to say.

Jane Dunning says, “I’ve written three novels set almost exclusively in France, some set in places I’ve stayed or visited, and some I have not. In my first novel, Thirty-five Minutes from St Tropez, a few reviews indicated I had spent too much time writing about the place, the views etc, so I tried to curtail that in the other two novels, concentrating more on the plot and realising that the reader knew perfectly well the setting was Provence.”

Angela Wren advises, “Giving the reader a sense of place takes work. You can include stunning descriptive pieces, but if they are too long, the reader will likely get bored and wonder how such a description furthers the plot. Well, it doesn’t! But a short paragraph or a couple of sentences about the locale added in, along with critical pieces of information about where your character is travelling and why, can solve that.”

However, Mathieu Leclerc found that feedback from his beta readers was mixed with regard to how much description is too much: “During beta reads, I had feedback about overuse of real geographical locations, routes travelled, towns passed, hidden valleys approached. Too much detail, they said. Then another beta reader mentioned in their notes: ‘I had a map of France beside me and traced the story with my finger making mental notes of places to visit next-time. Brilliant.’ “

Hire an editor who is familiar with France and the French language

OK, so I’m a bit biased about this one, being an editor who specialises in editing books set in France. But I didn’t prompt Angela Wren at all (promise!) to give the following advice (I’m not her editor, by the way!).

“For a new writer, having an editor who also understands the language and customs of the country where the story is set is a bonus. My editor does, and I’m sure it adds significant value to my work. But I also need to make clear that it is not the editor’s job to correct a writer’s use or misuse of a foreign language if there is any in the text. That responsibility rests solely with the author.”

Having an editor who also understands the language and customs of the country where the story is set is a bonus.

Angela Wren

Consider getting your book translated into French

As an author writing a book in English set in France, consider arranging for your book to be translated into French.

J. William Whitaker, author of historical fiction set in France, raises this interesting point: “For any writer using English to delve into works set in France, there is one compelling reality – you are one derivative from the natural audience of readers: Francophones in general and the French in particular. My perspective is that some discussion ought to be dedicated to the process of evaluating and partnering with translators who would be most suitable for the work, so that it can be presented to its natural audience.”

Drop hints when characters are speaking French or English

For authors of books set in France that contain French and English characters, this is a constant challenge: how to depict which language is being spoken by whom and when.

Our authors explain how they approach this issue:

Michael Gryboski says, “I did not make specific accents or real-life places within Paris a priority, as the main characters were not French. For the French characters’ dialogue, I wrote in English, mentioning in the book that they were speaking in French. I believe that would be suspension of disbelief.”

Jane Dunning explains, “I wanted the stories to have a real French feel to them, so I occasionally use French speech, far less than in the first novel, and the rare occasion of words used with a French accent such as ‘allo, ‘ave, that kind of thing. It’s really to try to remind the reader who is French-speaking and who isn’t.”

Man and woman sitting talking, looking at sea, bicycle nearby

Angela Wren says, “I’ve read numerous books where one of the characters speaks English with a French accent. Portraying an accent in the written word is difficult enough, but a foreign accent is even more testing. Because I spend so much time in France and have plenty of French friends who speak English, I’m very much aware that some portrayals of French characters speaking English are little better than those seen and heard in the old Whitehall Farces.

“I think it’s best to leave it to the reader’s imagination. Perhaps add the odd foreign word every so often as a gentle hint. But leave it at that. All of my characters are French, and I write their dialogue in English and let the reader do the rest.”

Catherine Cooper has some good advice for writing the dialogue of French characters speaking English: “With French characters, I tend to reference that they speak good English and then just use slightly odd speech patterns like my franglais children might use or that I’ve heard French people speaking English say eg I have a ski instructor say ‘I will go at the last’.”

With French characters [speaking English], I tend to reference that they speak good English and then just use slightly odd speech patterns.

Catherine Cooper

Alison Morton advises to “reflect the area your character comes from. My ex-French Army intelligence agent in Double Identity and Double Pursuit works all over Europe but never forgets she was born in 79 (Deux-Sèvres). She is proud of being a Poitevine. But I’ve given her a British mother. For any military scenes, I draw on my own experience in the UK land forces, although I discovered through research that the French army is organised very differently!”

Use authentic spelling

Check you’re correctly spelling French names for places, people and other elements. If you’re including smatterings of the French language in dialogue, check its accuracy.

Jane Dunning says, “I am extremely particular about using accents where required and always use the French spelling of Marseille and Lyon, for example.”

Angela Wren emphasises the importance of a good French dictionary and friends with French knowledge: “I do speak French. My school was very old-fashioned, and French and Latin were compulsory subjects. So, I’ve always had a decent dictionary. It’s not just a place to check words, spellings and accents. It also has loads of information about how the French language is used and how it differs from English. There are some significant differences – for example, we add an ‘s’ to the end of surnames when talking about more than one person from the same family. In French, that never happens – the surname remains the same, but the article changes to plural. We attribute capital letters to the days of the week, not so in French. I could go on – there are so many differences. But, I suppose the most important thing for any writer using a foreign locale is that everything is checked and rechecked before submission.

“There have been times when I’ve struggled to find a correct word or phrase in French. That’s when it’s good to have someone on side who is a born national from the country you are writing about. Again, I’m lucky to have several friends I can call on if necessary.”

If you hire an editor with knowledge of France and the French language (okay, so that was a not-so-subtle plug for my services!) they will be able to help you check the accuracy of your spelling of place names, streets, surnames and other elements.

Over to you

Have you written a book set in France? How do you overcome the challenges that the setting raises? Let us know in the comments!

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4 Responses

    • Debbie Emmitt

      Thanks, Angela, glad you found it useful. And thanks so much for your contribution!

  1. Gayle Smith Padgett

    Hi Debbie, Many thanks for the summary and to all who contributed. Super informative. My two narrative non-fiction books, Passion for Provence: 22 Keys to La Belle Vie and The Birdwatcher’s Wife: A Quest across France for Birds and La Belle Vie both take place in Provence/France. We live in St. Remy de Provence, so if I didn’t have enough details on a place, most of the time I could pop out and recheck it. But, for all the other areas–especially for the year-long trek around France for the bird book–I had to rely on notes. What I tried to do was take ultra copious notes, jotting down every sensory aspect I could, as often as I could right as it was being experienced–because I didn’t know at the time what angle I would need once I started putting the story together.
    One other thing…I’ve noticed recently that articles in prominent US/UK newspapers don’t seem to be italicizing French words much–aside from those that are commonly used in English. In my books, I tried to be consistent and italicize all French, but now–as I write the third book–I’m wondering if this is now considered too jolting, and basically unnecessary? Or maybe it’s just different for the press? Many thanks in advance for any input.

    • Debbie Emmitt

      Hi Gayle, your books sound wonderful! Sensory aspects are so important for readers to engage with a book, whether fiction or non-fiction.

      Regarding whether or not to italicise French words, this is a style choice. In other words, there is no right or wrong answer; it depends on the style guide you’re following (if applicable) or your personal preference. In my experience, there is definitely a shift towards not italicising all non-English words. The reason for this is exactly as you say: it can be jolting for the reader.

      However, established styles such as CMOS stipulate that foreign words are to be italicised if they don’t appear in a standard English dictionary. This is fine for words like ‘café’ but, to my eye, it can look a bit inconsistent if more obscure French words are in the dictionary but may not be known by most readers without knowledge of French.

      The approach I took for my novel was to not italicise French words unless they were being purposefully mispronounced by someone whose French was questionable, or if they were the same as an English word, e.g. ‘Pardon’. As Hart’s Rules puts it, “any sensible system is acceptable so long as it is consistently applied and is clear to the reader.”

      I hope this helps!

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