Writing and editing books set in France (but written in English)

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Writing a book set in a different country to your home turf requires research and thought. Discover some key elements to consider when writing books set in France, but written in English.

When writing a book set in a country other than your own, or dialogue spoken in a language other than the one you’re writing in, you need to be sensitive to the culture you’re conveying and make your writing as clear as possible to the reader. This article gives you some top tips on how to do just that:

My experience of editing and writing books set in France

My work in progress, Return to the Auberge, is a mystery set in the south of France. I chose this setting as I’ve spent a lot of time in France, studied French at the University of Oxford, and love the French culture, sights, sounds and smells!

I also edit and proofread novels, memoirs and other books set in France. My experience allows me to offer authors a unique skill set that makes their books more authentic.

While writing my book and editing those of other authors, obstacles I’ve overcome include:

  • How to convey a character is speaking in French, when you’re writing in English
  • Whether to use italics, quote marks, or neither for French words
  • How to immerse the reader in the French atmosphere
  • How to avoid French stereotypes

In future blog posts, I’ll go into more depth about some of the aspects in this article. If you’d like me to cover anything not mentioned here, let me know!

For now, here is an overview of tips when writing or editing a book set in France. (Most of the advice can be applied to books set in any country other than the author’s own.)

Language and writing craft

Accented letters

French uses accents on certain letters. If you’re writing a book set in France, you need to remember to include these. Sounds obvious, I know, but it’s easy to overlook a circumflex in a character’s name or a grave over the ‘e’ in that French word you’re including for authenticity. An editor with a solid knowledge of French (shameless plug for my book copyediting services…) will ensure these aren’t missed.

However, it’s not as simple as that. If you’re using the Oxford style guide (New Hart’s Rules), you don’t need to include an accent in French words that are well embedded into the English language (e.g. cafe, hotel). The Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS) is keen to retain the accent on ‘café’:

  • Hart’s Rules – cafe, hotel, but café au lait, hôtel de ville (note the italics)
  • CMOS – café (less commonly, cafe), hotel, café au lait, hôtel de ville

Italics, quote marks or neither for French words

Whether you use italics, quote marks or the ‘au naturel’ option is mainly down to the author’s style choice, although official style guides usually offer some guidance.

The most common style guide for novels written in US English is CMOS, which says to only use italics for non-English words that aren’t in Merriam-Webster’s dictionary. This makes sense to a point, as it’s suggesting French words likely to be familiar to most English-speaking readers are written in normal font, so you avoid distracting the reader. However, I’d argue that readers who don’t know much French wouldn’t understand a lot of French words in Merriam-Webster. This approach, therefore, can look inconsistent.

If you aren’t governed by a particular style guide, consider that too many italics can interrupt the flow for the reader, and italics are more tiring to read than roman (normal) text. However, sometimes you may need to show the reader that you’re using a French word rather than its English counterpart, e.g. Pardon? (Remember to not italicise the punctuation; your copyeditor should check for details like this.)

Khairani Barokka offers a compelling argument against italicising ‘foreign’ words, proposing it is a type of “linguistic gatekeeping”. If you have time, her article is worth a read.

Using single or double quotes every time a French word is used can be equally tiring and distracting for the reader.

"Too many italics can interrupt the flow for the reader" — Writing and editing books set in France (but written in English) Click To Tweet

Here’s how I have approached this issue in my book (all examples in this article are copyrighted and not to be reproduced):

I don’t italicise French words unless there is ambiguity as to whether French or English is being spoken, as in my previous “Pardon?” example. I have, however, used italics if a British character is speaking non-fluent French which I’ve purposely misspelt:

The waitress slapped a white saucer holding a strip of paper in front of Alastair, who flashed her a smile. “Mercy, madame-oyzelle.”

Likewise, if a French character is mispronouncing English, I’ve also used italics:

Gilbert walked me the length of the service area. “And at the end is Didier’s area: desserts. What is it in English? Poodeengs, non?”

If they aren’t speaking exactly correct English, but it isn’t grossly mispronounced, then I don’t use italics:

Mathilde raised her head, tucked a strand of hair behind her ear and spoke in hesitant English. “We shall sit down?”

Showing which language a character is speaking

If all your characters are speaking French, the setting and context should be enough for the reader to know which language is being spoken, even though you’re writing in English. The difficulty arises when characters switch between languages, especially in the same scene.

To avoid clumsily ramming down your reader’s throat which language the characters are speaking at any one point, you can employ some subtle techniques (examples are from my work in progress):

  • Pepper the dialogue with the odd French word (that an English speaker who doesn’t know French would understand):
  • Try to find different ways of writing a phrase like “he replied in French”. As a one-off, this is fine, but it will quickly get tedious if you have to repeat it. For example, try instead: “…he replied in his native tongue” or “it sounded so much better in French”.
  • If a French character’s English isn’t fluent, show this when they are speaking English, but have them speaking fluently when they are meant to be speaking French: e.g. This is one of my French characters when speaking hesitant English: “They must have been aided by someone. No one saw them going and coming.” And when she is speaking her native French: “God, you’re pathetic. Can’t do a thing for yourself.”

Lise McClendon, author of the Bennett Sisters series set in France, says, “One of the thornier issues is using French properly but not overdoing it.” She advises to casually translate any French words, as your reader may not know French. She adds, “I try to do it without slamming them over the head—[which is] sometimes necessary.”

If the characters are French, speaking French to other French characters, I don’t bother saying so. I write the dialogue in English and trust readers will get it.

Lise McClendon, author of the Bennett Sisters Mysteries

Here’s how not to show your character is speaking French when you’re writing in English:

  • Don’t convey the French accent via misspellings and stereotypical phrases, e.g. “Ooo la la! Zat is ze best prawn cocktail I ‘av ever tasted!” This is, at best, cheesy and at worst, offensive.
  • Don’t use French words that an English-speaking reader who doesn’t know French wouldn’t understand. This will alienate your readers and interrupt their flow. e.g. “Juste ciel! I didn’t know you were coming. Have you come straight from the épicerie?”

Scott Wilson offers some useful tips in his article, How to write characters speaking foreign languages. His advice is ordered from ‘not impactful’ (minimal language description required) to ‘dangerously impactful’ (language and story completely intertwined).

French culture and authenticity

Visit France if you haven’t already

Ideally, if you’re writing a book set in France, you will have already spent some time in the country. If you haven’t yet, consider planning a trip not only to anywhere in France, but specifically to the region where your book is set.

As in most countries, in France there are cultural, climate and dialect differences between regions. A book set in Paris, for example, will (or should, at least!) have a very different feel to one set in a small village in the south of France, and the characters will also need to be written differently if you want them to come across as authentic.

"A book set in Paris will have a very different feel to one set in a small village in the south of France" — Writing and editing books set in France (but written in English) Click To Tweet

Jane Dunning, author of three novels set in France, says: “I love including places I know well but also places I don’t, whereas before I very much kept to places I’ve visited or stayed.”

Culture, climate and architecture

This is a broad topic and is specific to the French region you’re writing about. Try some of these ideas:

  • Include food and drink specific to France – “…an enormous croque-en-bouche, a typical French wedding dessert.” Bonus points if it’s a speciality of the exact region!
  • Drop in details about buildings and architecture – This could include typical building materials in the French region where your book is set, or a design style: “A motorbike engine echoed a few streets away, bouncing off the limestone walls.”
  • Mention the weather – Set the scene throughout your book with descriptions of the weather, specific to the place and time: “Despite the dazzling heat of the day, the space was damp and mildewy.”
  • Include details of local flora and fauna – “Their footsteps on the dry road were accompanied by the loud chirp of cicadas in the trees ahead, the bird-like trills echoing across the cloudless sky.”

However, don’t hit the reader over the head with references to France and its culture in every other line. It’s enough to pepper your novel with these elements in a natural, flowing way.

I like my stories to feel French, but it has to be subtle.

Jane Dunning, author of ‘Thirty-Five Minutes from St Tropez’

Engage the reader’s senses

Using sensory information will immerse the reader in your narrative world and add a stamp of authenticity to your book.

There are so many sights, smells and tastes that are quintessentially French, this is an easy element to incorporate into your scenes. If you’re line editing a book set in France and you feel this is lacking, offer some suggestions to your client.

Some examples from my work in progress:

The scent of fresh coffee drifted from the open door.

The first trickle of beer on my tongue was cooling nectar.

Internet research – articles, images, videos

It’s hard to beat primary knowledge of France by visiting or living in the country. However, there is a vast array of information online for researching a particular region or aspect of your book.

I can’t list every way you could use the internet for your book set in France, or we’ll be here all year! Here are just a few online sources I use to enrich my fiction:

  • Google Images (for researching places and getting visual inspiration for settings, people and more)
  • YouTube (for historical and cultural events, pronunciation guides and more)
  • Online dictionaries (to check spelling, pronunciation, synonyms etc)
  • Websites about French laws, regulations and procedures
  • Historical weather sites to check what the weather was like in a particular French region on a given date
  • Any useful webpage or blog that comes up for whatever search term I happen to plug in!

One of Jane Dunning’s characters is a wedding planner, so Jane did a lot of online research of hotels and locations that could feature in her writing. She has also studied winemaker’s websites as her main location is a vineyard.

Learning from others

Connect with other authors of books set in France

Connecting with other authors is useful not only for language and dialogue elements but also for all aspects of writing a book set in France. The Novels set in France Facebook group is a great place to start.

Read other books set in France

Just as you would read widely in your chosen genre, read other books set in France, especially in your genre. Why? Here are a few reasons:

  • You’ll get a feel for how other authors tackle the obstacles we’ve looked at in this blog post
  • You’ll discover the clichés used across books set in France and learn to avoid them
  • You’ll find out what readers look for in a novel with a French backdrop

To get you started, Andrew Bowie has come up with a list of novels set in France.

Final note

If you’ve enjoyed the examples from my work in progress, don’t forget to sign up to my mailing list for updates on my path to publication! You’ll also get a free copy of The 3 Most Common Writing Errors, advance notice of new blog posts and discounts on my full-length guides.

If you’re writing a book set in France and would like to find out more about my editing and proofreading services, get in touch to find out how I can help you. I can’t wait to find out about your work in progress!

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2 Responses

  1. Kat Fankhauser

    Thank you. I am eager to learn the best way to write using France as one of my settings in my novel. My manuscript is written in English, though my main character visits the European continent. She has the opportunity to live and work in France. I want to use English but also want her to learn to speak French. I will read your blog and find other sources that will be helpful.

    • Debbie Emmitt

      Thanks for your comment, Kat, I hope you find my article useful! When you’re at the stage of hiring an editor, feel free to get in touch. I specialise in editing books set in France. 🇫🇷 Good luck with your writing!

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