Jilly: The Appeal of Foreign Stories

Do you read contemporary stories set in countries other than the USA? What kind of stories are they? What do you especially like about them?

I have a reason for asking.

I’m just back from a most excellent vacation in the States, including an action-packed weekend at the Writers’ Police Academy in Green Bay, Wisconsin with fellow 8 Lady Kay, followed by a few days in picturesque Door County (click here to read Kay’s description of our excursions to the Northern Sky Theater Company).

Before I met up with Kay, I spent an afternoon in Chicago talking all things writing with a developmental editor. Mostly we focused on Alexis, but we also talked about my English/Scottish contemporary romance, which I decided to dust off in time for the next (and final) RWA Golden Heart contest.

The editor gave me the same feedback I heard from a very respected agent a couple of years ago when I tried to shop this book: the writing is strong, but a contemporary British setting, with all British characters, is hard to sell outside the UK. She said that the story offered a kind of insider perspective on life in London and Scotland, which is not what the mainstream American romance reader is conditioned to expect.

In her view, when US readers pick up a foreign-set story, they expect the setting to be either

  1. exotic;
  2. glamorously urban; or
  3. small, close-knit communities where the culture is a large part of the appeal.

My story is international but not exotic, has a quirky, shabby chic urban heroine and a superficially glitzy hero whose appeal is the honorable ordinary man behind the glamorous façade (which in any case isn’t anywhere near shiny enough).


I have to confess, my first instinct was to stuff the pages back in the trunk and forget about the whole thing. Then I decided that I would challenge myself to tweak my pages to accommodate the editor’s comments, partly to see if I could do it, but mostly to see how the story would turn out.

I have to say, so far I’m finding it difficult, and not really enjoying the experience, but that could be because I’m outside my comfort zone. Wide-ranging, quirky, community-driven stories that look beyond the shiny come naturally to me and I expect that’s what I’ll revert to, but hopefully I may learn some new tricks that will make my instinctive choices stronger.

In the meantime, I’m re-imagining Ian and Rose’s story and am very curious to know what you think about contemporary foreign-set books. Do you read them? Enjoy them? Have particular favorites? If you do (or even if you don’t), I’d love to know more.

7 thoughts on “Jilly: The Appeal of Foreign Stories

  1. I have jumbled thoughts about this, so let me try to sort them out.

    First off, yes, I do read contemporary foreign-set books (predominately UK). Most of those I’ve recently read were cozy/mystery type. The one that instantly comes to mind is a series that was set in London around a hat-shop. The appeal – beside the story of a woman transplanted from the US to the UK and trying to fit in while encountering dead bodies on a periodic basis – was the setting and the incorporation of all the little details that differed between the US/UK. It felt familiar enough to be comprehensible, yet different enough to feel like I was visiting someplace new.

    I think the appeal of foreign-set stories for me, regardless of whether they are contemporary or historical, is the feeling of experiencing a place or culture outside of my everyday life.

    As for the view – expressed by the agent / editor – I rolled my eyes at that list. It sounds more like that is what she/they know how to sell, rather than what readers want. Though maybe that’s just me.

    I’m thinking back to all of the writers I talked to and books I saw / picked-up at the last RWA and there were a majority that were UK set (stories set in Ireland seem to be on the rise, popularity-wise). The stories that caught my eye (and came home with me) were by and large those that “offered a kind of insider perspective on life in London and Scotland”

    I’d say write the story that speaks to you. If trying to revise it to fit someone else’s parameters is difficult and not enjoyable, maybe it’s not that you’re out of your confort zone, but rather you’re trying to fit your story into a mold it doesn’t belong in.

    Just my two cents. Your mileage may vary 🙂

    P.s. I’ve read portions of your contemporary series and, if you published them tomorrow, I’d be clicking that ‘buy” button immediately.

    • Thanks for your insights, Elizabeth. Interesting that the first book you talked about had a heroine who was transplanted from the US to the UK and was therefore able to offer insights about the UK from an American perspective. This was also something the editor talked about as a way to help an American reader connect with my story. In fact she suggested I should consider making my heroine either an American in London, or a Brit in the US.

      I don’t want to be critical of the editor, because I asked her to consider the pages as a Golden Heart contest entry, so her feedback was geared towards helping me understand what she thought might trip up a mainstream US romance reader. And having asked the question, I thought I should try taking her advice rather than discarding it because I didn’t like what she said. It will be interesting to see what I come up with.

      I do appreciate your comments about the “buy” button though, because I intend to publish this series some day, and when I do, it will be the quirky insider version because I’ve already discovered that’s the one that speaks to me.

      • Now that I’ve had time to do think more, I’d have to say that my favorite foreign stories were actually a set of romance/mysteries that I read decades ago by M. M. Kaye. They were contemporary when written (in the 50s, maybe?) and were set in places like Zanzibar and Kashmir. I loved them all (except Death in Berlin, which still gives me nightmares). I felt like an armchair traveler when reading them.

  2. I think US audiences are conditioned to expect a certain type of romance novel because that’s what publishing houses have been supplying for so long. I’d be hard-pressed to think of a romance I’ve read recently that was set in any international arena other than the UK, but I like international settings in general. They don’t have to be exotic—I’d prefer that they weren’t, but offered instead a more-or-less realistic slice of life. I’ve binged on books by Latin American authors, and those often, but not always, are set south of the US border. I read the Scandinavian and Dutch mystery authors—I loved the Stieg Larsson books, but sometimes I struggle with the grimness that seems typical of the north European authors. I also really enjoyed the Robert van Gulik historical mysteries featuring Judge Dee that are set in 18th century (I think) China. (Gulik was a Dutch diplomat who served in China and Japan, among other places.) There was another Chinese historical/imperial court crime series written by a Chinese American woman that for the life of me I can’t recall either a name or a title, but… it was good. 🙂 The Far Pavilions, set in India, was excellent. Shogun and Tai-Pan! So many. Not all written by Asian or Asian-heritage authors, however.

    So the upshot of all that is, I’m sure the editors and agents have their ideas of what will sell. I often think their ideas are too conservative. I find it weird that you’ve gotten pushback on Ian and Rose, but…from their point of view, there must be something to it.

    • Ooh, I don’t know Robert van Gulik, and I really like the sound of those. Thank you, Kay! I wonder whether you might enjoy Lindsey Davis’s Falco mysteries, set in ancient Rome, and of course Alexander McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, set in Botswana. If you don’t know them already.

      I’m sure you’re right about editors and agents having an idea of what will sell. And having had the same feedback from a couple of respected sources, it seems to make sense for me to at least try it their way.

      I do understand that my default choices are non-standard. My characters typically prefer a private, low-key, independent and satisfying HEA to unimaginable wealth, fame, and the keys to the kingdom, because that’s what I’d want if I were in their shoes.(Who wants to clean fifty bedrooms, or have a servants bustling around when you fancy a cup of coffee and a piece of toast in your sleep shirt and bare feet?) I’m thinking the only way to discover whether those kind of stories will sell will be to publish them myself and see whether I can gather a few like-minded readers 😉

    • I’m another yes for Gulik. I thought the Judge Dee stories were quite good, but it’s been long enough that I don’t exactly remember what was in them. Ever since I whole-heartedly recommended “The Hippopotamos” by Stephen Fry, while forgetting about the bestiality and teen braces gore, I’ve been a little more cautious. (Really liked that Fry book. And THAT was set in a UK country house in fairly modern times.)

  3. I love all sorts of exotic books, but I feel like such an outlier. I adore UK series written by UK authors for UK people (The Rivers of London, Terry Pratchett, JANE AUSTEN, the Harry Potter books). I like books set in India (often colonial, like Rikki Tikki Tavi).

    I also like “vacation” stories or “quest” stories. *Eat, Pray, Love* was non-fiction, but that was amazing. *How Stella Got Her Groove Back* has stuck with me through the years, even though I only read it once. My first novel, written during my early teen years with friends, was based half on *A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court*.

    But you know, I’m an SF fan and I love fantasy. So almost everything I read is set in an exotic place. I’m especially fond of fairy tales, which have tenuous connection to the real world.

    That said, I also love Willa Cather, and the Little House books, which are set on the Plains I grew up on.

    And of course, I’ve enjoyed everything you’ve written that I’ve looked at: all set in exotic (to me) settings.

    I think the problem is that you are looking at a niche audience (and it’s a HUGE niche, what with all the Anglophiles running around, and ex-pats in general who enjoy a good foreign story), while the rather parochial traditional publishers are looking at . . . I don’t know what they are looking at. The ladies who enjoy a good American story with cowboys and vampires and werewolves? And sadists? Don’t forget the sadists, like Christian Grey.

    If you self-publish and IF you reach that niche, you’d be set up. You’d get a good fan base, and probably enough money to pay for nice covers and pretty (yet readable) fonts. But maybe that niche isn’t big enough for a trad publisher, who has a lot more overhead costs to worry about. (And, I suspect, the trad publisher can’t pinpoint the niche much better than you can. They’d have to go with the scatter-shot approach that works for the other books that are a bit more parochial in outlook.)

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