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Meeting the Reader’s French Expectations (Or Not)!

By Flickr's Moyan Brenn
By Flickr’s Moyan Brenn

Please welcome Adria J. Cimino [1] as our guest today. Adria is the author of four novels including Amazon best-seller Paris, Rue des Martyrs [2] and her latest release, A Perfumer’s Secret [3]. She also co-founded boutique publishing house Velvet Morning Press and is a member of Tall Poppy Writers. Prior to jumping into the publishing world full time, she spent more than a decade as a journalist at news organizations including The AP and Bloomberg News. Adria lives in Paris with her husband, Didier, and daughter, Phèdre.

As writers, we want to please ourselves and please our readers—and sometimes that’s difficult. Managing reader expectations as well as our own is key to finding happiness and fulfillment as a writer, and that is why I’m passionate about this topic. In my piece, I use the example of writing a book set in France, but my tips and message can be applied to other situations involving reader expectations.

Connect with Adria on her blog [1], on Facebook [4], and on Twitter [5].

Meeting the Reader’s French Expectations (Or Not)!

Settings are among my favorite pieces of the writing puzzle. Through words, I love to transport readers to gritty city streets, charming villages or cozy neighborhoods.

My debut novel, Paris, Rue des Martyrs, and my latest release, A Perfumer’s Secret, are set in France, and what an ideal terrain that is for creating a setting! It seems like I’d have it easy. Writing a story set in such a beloved and well-known place is a snap, right? Just imagine the historic monuments, the flaky croissants, the accordion music, the wine… But wait, let’s hit the “pause” button here.

Those are some of the common images associated with France, but they don’t exactly suit the theme of my novels. And that, I soon realized, would be my challenge. Readers might not have expectations about some places, but they certainly do about France!

When it comes to settings in my own work, I usually like a heavy dose of reality. In Paris, Rue des Martyrs, I wanted to take my readers to the real Paris. They experience what it’s like to live in a Parisian neighborhood and meet strangers whose lives entwine. No Eiffel Tower, no berets to be found. In A Perfumer’s Secret, readers don’t spend much time strolling along the touristy Mediterranean but instead find themselves in fragrant flower fields and inside a perfumer’s laboratory.

I realized right away that some readers would love my take on the French setting—but plenty would not. In some cases, my setting would surely fall short of reader expectations. What’s a writer to do?

Here’s how I managed to find a balance—it is possible! And these tips apply to any setting that might inspire certain expectations (London, New York, etc.):

Be true to yourself. There are plenty of great books out there with a sparkling Eiffel Tower and crispy baguettes. But if that sort of thing doesn’t suit your story or writing style, don’t force yourself to fit into the mold. Sure, you’ll disappoint some readers, but you’ll delight many others who will appreciate your words. If you force your work to fit into a mold, you won’t please anyone.

a-perfumers-secret-front-cover-2Find a compromise. Writing what you want, however, doesn’t mean there isn’t room for a small compromise. In this example of novels set in France, without breaking from the mood of the story or falling into stereotypes, there are opportunities to include a bit of the familiarity some readers might crave. For instance, in A Perfumer’s Secret, my protagonists dine on a terrace overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. On other occasions the scents of butter and crepes perfume the air. Both of these examples were “real” enough to suit my writing style.

Be creative. Some readers might have well-defined expectations—but will be delighted by surprises rather than the descriptions they had in mind. In A Perfumer’s Secret, my main characters are perfumers. So throughout the novel, the reader discovers the South of France through the senses of scent and taste in addition to the more common visual descriptions.

Be honest. If your book is set in Paris, feel free to put “Paris” in the title and tell the world that this novel is set in the City of Light. But when you sit down to write the book description, keep the focus on the story rather than on trying to seduce the reader with the Parisian setting (unless, of course, you have written a book laden with common Paris images). If you build up certain expectations that aren’t met, you’ll disappoint your reader and yourself.

Develop a thick skin. Whether your book is peppered with berets and baguettes, or whether you eschew every common French symbol, you will face criticism. In the first case, some will say your book was filled with stereotypes. In the second case, certain readers will say your setting just didn’t seem like France. So that brings us back to my first point: You have to be true to yourself and create the setting that suits your characters. It’s impossible to please all readers, so there is no use in being discouraged by criticism. If you’re comfortable with your story, then it will find the readers who will appreciate it.

Overall, there isn’t one “right” way to create a setting. (Who knows? In the future, I might write a book with plenty of beret and croissant references.) But for the particular book you’re working on, for this particular story you are telling, there is one right way—and only you know it. Any other way would result in a different story.

Have you written settings that readers might have expectations about? What helps you maintain the balance between what readers expect…and staying true to yourself?