How to write about your life abroad – by Jo Parfitt

Six of the best

In this series of six articles, published every month, Jo Parfitt will reveal six of the best ways to write about your life overseas for books, articles or to boost your business.

Part I – does your idea have legs?

You live abroad. You want to write about your experience, but you are not sure if your idea is any good, if you can write, or if anyone will actually want to read it. Here, I share a few ways to check if your idea really is worth pursuing.

When I was at university, I had never had anything published and could not cook, but I went to live in France for a year as part of my French degree and there had the idea of writing a book called French Tarts. I collected real, family, recipes from the locals I met there in Normandy, where the very ingredients for the famous tart originate – remember all those postcard images of black and white cows under blossoming apple trees? That’s where I lived.

I sent an outline of my idea to a publisher called Octopus, having first checked in my local bookshop to see if they were already producing books like mine. They were, so I could see a fit for French Tarts. To cut a long story short, Octopus said yes and I became an author! I was 24 years old.

My idea had legs. Since then I have written 25 more books, become a journalist and helped countless other people to do the same. As I have also lived abroad for 23 years, in several countries, I have naturally come to specialize in helping expats to write and get published.  This experience has led to me to understand when an idea really is good enough for others to want to read it. Here, below is my top ten of the things you need to know or do if you want to test the potential of your idea.

Ten ways to test your book’s potential

1 Are there are least three magazines or websites in existence that cover this topic? If so, then your idea is popular.

2 Have other people written and published successful books or articles on this topic. If so, then you can too.

3 If you are concerned that someone else has written the same thing already and that you have ‘missed the boat’ think again. There are many ways to handle a subject and there is always room for more. You are different from the other author, your experiences, beliefs and values are different and the stories you will tell to illustrate your points will be different too. Look at all the cookbooks that are out there. Just because I was the first to write French Tarts does not preclude anyone else from using this idea. Indeed, there are many other books on just this topic out there.

4 If you have ‘been there, done that and got the teeshirt’ so to speak, then you have the experience, the authority to write about your subject. Living it is all you need. You do not need to be qualified in the subject necessarily. I wrote French Tarts when I could neither cook nor write. But the people who provided my recipes were real French people, so that was good enough.

5 Do you have a good idea? Publishers buy ideas. If your writing is good but not fabulous, that may be enough for them. They can always tidy up your English, but they can’t tidy up your idea.

6 Are you an expert in your field? If you are qualified and experienced in your topic, like, say an educational psychologist, who wants to write about schooling expat children, then you will really impress your readers or potential publishers.

7 Do you have a niche? If you have ever read Chris Anderson’s The Long Tail, you will already be convinced that niche books sell. They sell steadily and slowly over time, and that is a good thing.  French Tarts had focus. It was for the cookery niche. The French cookery niche. When I was in Oman I wrote another cookbook called Dates. This was perfect for the Middle East market and was both focused and niche. My market was the place in which I was living too. This sold very well indeed.

8 Get feedback. A great way to find out if your idea is any good is to ask someone you trust to read it. Ideally, ask your ideal reader to take a look, the person who you would hope to buy it eventually. Then, ask someone who knows the subject well and someone who doesn’t. Do not ask a close relative. They tend to either say: ‘that’s nice dear,’ or tear it to shreds. If you really want to know if your idea is any good – ask me! I offer a Read and Review service.

9 Join a writers’ circle. I am a firm believer in belonging to a group of others who share your passion for writing. This is often a safe environment to share ideas and to brainstorm. If there is not one in your neighbourhood, start your own. That’s what I did.

10 Start small. If you want to test the water for a book idea, start off by blogging on the same topic to see if it generates any interest, or write articles. If an editor is keen to take your articles, chances are a publisher will want a book.

So there you have it. Ten tips to find out if your idea has legs. I hope you found it useful. You are based in Switzerland and I know that Jeanne Heinzer and Lisa Cirieco have had big success with their books. Living Your Best Life Abroad and the Know-It All series. They are expats who had a good idea, got feedback and went for it. Now it’s your turn.


About Jo Parfitt:

Jo Parfitt has published 26 non-fiction books, is a journalist, teacher, editor and publisher and mentors others to write and publishjosofa08_small.jpg their books. She has lived in Dubai, Oman, Norway and is now based in The Hague, the Netherlands and specializes in inspiring and empowering people to write about what they know as memoir, articles or books. Jo travels extensively, running workshops and speaking at conferences. She is perhaps best known for her book: Career in Your Suitcase, now in its third edition. Jo runs Summertime Publishing and her motto is 'sharing what I know to help others to grow’.

In May 2010 she launched a home study program, comprising video, audio and workbook, based on her popular ‘Write Your Life Stories’ workshops.

Visit for a free report on The Seven Steps to Writing Life Story or 50 Steps to a Book in Your Hand and to read her writers’ blog.