Paris Calling

Whether or not you’ve visited the City of Light, she casts her romantic glow over you with her myriad of enchanting sights and scintillating experiences. Perhaps you long to visit the city after reading Barbara Taylor Bradford’s Three Weeks in Paris and wish to send your heroine in your place but feel unprepared to describe such a complex and historic city in a way that immerses the reader. You need resources to provide you with the confidence to visit Paris in your mind, allowing you to practically taste cherry jam on croissants and hear the greetings of friends as they kiss cheeks on the Champs-Elysées. The Eiffel Tower, Arc de Triomphe, and Notre Dame de Paris are landmarks and testaments to the history of Paris few would fail to recognize. But other images are equally evocative of the city, ones waiting for us to explore.

            I have enjoyed the good fortune of studying as a student in Paris and visiting with my husband years later with only a bag on my shoulder. A stay in Paris always generates ideas for short stories set in the city, like the one about the Frenchman who proposed in an attempt to become an American to find his birth father, a U.S. soldier. Or the suave Parisian who rescued you from a shady antique dealer at the Marchés aux Puces, flea markets on the outskirts of Paris. The city and her people are rife with stories. If you visit in person, keep a journal to record memories while they are still fresh and colorful. Use every sense and ask others about their experiences in the city.



Get Your Bearings


Start with a map of Paris, preferably one with the historic sights and clearly marked districts (arrondissements, considered little villages that make up the city of Paris). My Parisian professor recommended Plan de Paris par Arrondissement (Leconte) to become oriented to the city. This nifty red book full of streets, gardens, museums, and public transportation routes is probably hard to find in the U.S. (although I did see a listing on e-Bay) but a useful tool for your heroine in Paris. Armed with a good map, you can set off sorting through the vast information available on the ancient city.

            A wealth of guidebooks extols the wonders of Paris. The absolute place to start is Romantic Paris. Thirza Vallois dedicated herself not to explaining the reasons for the romantic appeal of Paris, but to showing you with sophisticated enthusiasm. You cannot help but envision your heroine wrapped in the arms of a charming Frenchman in the exquisite photos of genuine Paris, from hide-away hotels, restaurants floating on the Seine, and flaky pastries glittering with apricot glaze. This is the guidebook your heroine resolutely clutches to her chest as she explores Paris alone when her fiancé backs out of their wedding and honeymoon.

            Insider’s Paris (Demachy & Baudot) uncovers many of the well-kept secrets of Paris. Explore lush, hidden gardens and find the nuances of life behind the tourism. Find out little known information about apartments of celebrities, and view Paris from a very intimate perspective.

            I found several standard guidebooks useful in organizing my thoughts on a short story set in Paris. Initially my anxiety mounted as I wondered, Can my heroine go to Paris for a week and not see any sights? I didn’t want to sound like a guidebook myself. Baedeker’s Paris is the best source for an alphabetized listing of the sights, each with a detailed description and tidbits to slip into your scenes or use to gloss over an afternoon of solitary sightseeing. It serves as a great reference for understanding the layout of the Louvre and how the hero and heroine might completely miss seeing each other inside it.

            For a compact listing of the best of Paris, investigate A Great Weekend in Paris (Hachette). Crammed inside are detailed photos, where to shop for the “quintessential Paris”—Shalimar, pistachio macaroons, breads and chocolates that ooze luxury and elegance. Insight Guides: Paris provides the district details and context the former guides may lack and helps organize attractions by area to facilitate your plotting and help you fit ideas together.



Visual Aids


I discovered three videos worth watching and re-watching. Super Cities: Paris gives a well-rounded tour of the city and details on modern life in an ancient city. Re-watching it with a map gives orientation to the sights and an opportunity to catch the details—the relaxed atmosphere of the cafés, the view from a tower of Notre Dame, and the sounds of the street traffic on the chestnut tree–lined grand avenues leading to the monuments.

            Paris in the Lonely Planet Cities series provides a flip adventure in Paris, city life you might not discover in any guide book. The host, Justine Shapiro, cooks at the École Cordon Bleu, learns how Disneyland Paris caters to European tastes, and roller blades the streets of Paris at midnight. Ideas abound for a wild adventure in Paris to prevent your story from getting too stuffy.

            Check your local library for videos on any specific monument you would like to detail in writing. Watch Notre Dame: Witness to History, to feel the cool stone interior and awe at the sunlight streaming through the stained glass rose windows illuminating the darkness, like centuries before. Appreciate the footstep grooves in the tower stairs leading to the gargoyle-defended heights of Notre Dame. Pick up on the sensory details you can use in your story to place the reader in Quasimodo’s footsteps or, more likely, your handsome hero’s.

            Three movies containing a wealth of French scenery are Sabrina (1995), Amélie (2002) and Le Divorce (2003). All give flashes of insight into Paris life and architecture. Le Divorce, set entirely in the foreign city, reveals many cultural details and depicts how traditional societal restrictions are still in place today. While watching Amélie, you will find it difficult to concentrate on the exquisite backdrop of Montmartre with such an engaging tale spinning.





In the grand age of the Internet, almost 53 million results pop up in a Google search of Paris. I scanned through the vast quantities to sift out a few gems. The most famous sights in Paris have their own websites.  At the official site of the Eiffel Tower you can   take a virtual tour, find out if your hero can climb the stairs all the way to the top (no, but I can tell you the little elevators to the point make quite a clanking noise that echoes in nearby neighborhoods), and see if the tower has been in the news lately. While a student in Paris, my roommate’s French boyfriend threatened to jump from the top if she broke up with him. I wonder how many times that line has been used.

            At the Louvre site you can view the controversial glass pyramid at the main entrance, read the chateau’s history, take a tour, or view pieces in the galleries. At Paris On-line you can click on "City Map” for practical information on negotiating Paris. Find out how your Type A heroine can buy a 5-day pass to seventy museums and monuments for her week-long stay in Paris, fight with a taxi driver over being charged more for a Sunday, or get lost in the underground railroad, the Métro. Consider Paris Voice, “the magazine for English-speaking Parisians,” for lists of current events and exhibits, night life, and trendy restaurants.



Books, Books, and More Books


I swam in the sea of books on Paris, flashing geraniums in flowerboxes and balconies with elaborate iron railings on the uniform écru buildings, and wood panel shop fronts displaying baguettes in baskets shaded by striped awnings. Thirza Vallois wrote a marvelous set of books that capture these sights, Around and About Paris. Not true guide books, they describe “how to see the real Paris on foot,” spilling details that give depth and meaning to the monuments and mix of ancient and modern history in Paris. A must for understanding the unique flavor of each arrondissement. She even reveals where to find the red brick office of the Objets Trouvés (lost property) where a grateful heroine might impulsively kiss the man who returns her stolen purse with her passport.

            Two historical books on Paris caught my interest and answered many questions for me, like Why are all the buildings of similar height with blue gabled roofs? and How did Montmartre become the Red Light District? A Traveller’s History of Paris succinctly outlines the evolution of Paris from its Celtic beginnings in 53 b.c. to the present-day city, shaped by kings, revolution, and war—an interesting summary that creates perspective.

            The tome that answers the mystery of the uniform buildings with sandstone facades, blue gables, and prolific city ironworks (Métro signs, elaborate waste bins, railings, kiosks), can be found in Haussmann: His Life and Times, and the Making of Modern Paris. Together with Napoleon III, Baron Haussmann created modern Paris. They designed grand avenues to replace narrow alleys, established running water in apartments, eliminated sewage flowing in the gutters, and erected many monuments and bridges that characterize Paris today.



Special Interests


Here are a few more suggestions to investigate to embellish your story. For a sumptuous setting, turn the pages of Mansions of Paris (Blanc & Bonnemaison). The book showcases unbelievable treasures tucked in the crowded streets of Paris, possibly the unexpected inheritance your heroine rushes to investigate. For ideas on how the French decorate, flip through Decorating Ideas: Elle Decor Portfolios and A Well-Kept Home (Fronty & Duronsoy). Both volumes give glimpses of French interiors and home life. Perhaps the heroine accidentally lights fire to the hero’s woven paper screen or asks his mother to show her how to make cheese.

            The Paris Café Cookbook is for the writer with a special interest in Parisian cafés. A brief history describes many well-known cafés that generously share recipes with the reader. You can almost smell the crushed garlic of the Omelette “César.” For an American perspective on French cuisine and related customs (food is very important to the French), reach for Rochefort’s set, French Toast and French Fried.

            For specific details on how one should behave in Paris, investigate Robinson’s Simple Guide to France: Customs & Etiquette or European Customs and Manners (Braganti & Devine). Learn why the French hostess will gasp when your hero hacks off the point on a wedge of Brie. A faux pas lurks around every corner for Americans in Paris.

            If your heroine impulsively plans to cut her American ties and relocate to Paris, C’est La Vie: An American Conquers the City of Light, Begins a New Life, and Becomes—Zut Alors!—Almost French, by Suzy Gershman, is an invaluable resource. This instructive account of her move to Paris following the death of her spouse tells the reader when to shop the flea markets, the Monoprix (French version of a department store), and splurge on Galleries Lafayette. Humorous anecdotal experiences spark the writer’s imagination.

            Another engaging book on settling into life in Paris and confronting expectations is Almost French, by Sarah Turnbull. She relates her time living in Paris as an “adventure,” writing, “Every moment has been vivid, intensely felt,” which is clearly conveyed in her book.



Aw, Is the Visit Over Already. . .?


One usually leaves Paris with a wistful sigh and a pledge to return someday. Condensing the essence of Paris into an article ended up a monumental task, much like touring the city itself. (My husband had to soak his aching feet every night at the hotel.) When you don’t think you can bear to climb one more step, have seen every café and eaten every type of delight at the Pâtisserie, you will find a sparkling diamond tucked away in a side street, as can your heroine.

            “There is never enough time to see Paris. The city is like some favorite long, beautifully written novel, which the reader hops will never end.”1 Include the sights, sounds, and scents of Paris in your pages, and inspire the same motivation in your reader.






1Tung, Anthony M. (2001). Preserving the World’s Great Cities: The Destruction and Renewal of the Historic Metropolis. New York: Clarkson Potter Publishers.




——. (2002). Amélie. Video. Los Angeles: Miramax Home Entertainment.

——. (2003). Le Divorce. Video. Los Angeles: Fox Home Entertainment.

——. (1999). Lonely Planet Paris. Video. Oakland, CA: Pilot Productions.

——. (1997). Notre Dame: Witness to History. Video. Washington, DC: New River Media.

——. (1995). Sabrina. Video. Hollywood, CA: Paramount Home Video.

——. (1994). Super Cities: Paris. Video. San Ramon, CA: International Video Network.

Blanc, Olivier, & Joachim Bonnemaison. (1998). Mansions of Paris. New York: Rizzoli Publications.

Bradford, Barbara Taylor. (2002). Three Weeks in Paris. New York:  Dell Publishing.

Braganti, Nancy L., & Devine, Elizabeth. (1992). European Customs and Manners: How to Make Friends and Do Business in Europe. Minnetonka, MN: Meadowbrook Press.

Carmona, Michel, & Camiller, Patrick. (2002). Haussmann: His Life and Times, and the Making of Modern Paris. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee Publisher.

Cole, Robert. (1997). A Traveller’s History of Paris, 2nd ed. New York: Interlink Publishing Group.

Demachy, Jean, & François Baudot. (2004). Insider’s Paris: An Intimate Tour. Paris: Filipacchi Publishing.

Eames, Andrew, ed. (1994). Insight Guides: Paris, 4th ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Elle Decor. (2004). Decorating Ideas: Elle Decor Portfolios. Paris: Filipacchi Publishing.

Fodor’s, Baedekers Publishing Staff. (1999). Baedeker’s Paris. New York: Random House.

Fronty, Laura, & Yves Duronsoy. (2001). A Well-Kept Home: Household Traditions and Simple Secrets from a French Grandmother. New York: Rizzoli Publications.

Gershman, Suzy. (2004). C’est la Vie: An American Conquers the City of Light, Begins a New Life, and Becomes—Zut Alors!—Almost French. New York: Viking Books.

Hachette. (2000). A Great Weekend in Paris. New York: Sterling Publishing.

Leconte, A., ed. (1995). Plan de Paris par Arrondissement. Paris: French & European Publications.

Robinson, Danielle. (2001). Simple Guide to France: Customs & Etiquette, 3rd ed. London: Global Books, Ltd.

Rochefort, Harriet Welty. (1997). French Toast: An American in Paris Celebrates the Maddening Mysteries of the French. New York: St. Martin’s Press.

Rochefort, Harriet Welty. (2001). French Fried: The Culinary Capers of an American in Paris. New York: St. Martin’s Press.

Turnbull, Sarah. (2003). Almost French: Love and a New Life in Paris. New York: Gotham Books.

Vallois, Thirza. (1995). Around and About Paris, Vol. 1: From the Dawn of Time to the Eiffel Tower (Arrondissements 1-7). London: Iliad Press.

Vallois, Thirza. (1996). Around and About Paris, Vol. 2: From the Guillotine to the Bastille Opera (Arrondissements 8-12). London: Iliad Press.

Vallois, Thirza. (1997). Around and About Paris, Vol. 3: New Horizons: Haussmann’s Annexation (Arrondissements 13-20). London: Iliad Press.

Vallois, Thirza, & Juliana Spear. (2002). Romantic Paris. New York: Interlink Publishing Group.

Young, Daniel. (1998). The Paris Café Cookbook: Rendezvous and Recipes from 50 Best Cafés. New York: William Morrow & Co.



Copyright 2005.  Originally appeared in Rumpled Sheets, August 2004, Publication of the Missouri Romance Writers of America.  Please This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. for right to reprint.