You'd be hard-pressed to find an Anglophone expatriate in Paris that hasn't heard of Heather Stimmler-Hall. For those newly arrived to Paris -- and even for many of us old-timers -- her Secrets of Paris website (and blog and newsletter) is a fantastic resource that covers all aspects of life in Paris, from where to find organic pet food to which grocery stores are open late. She is also author of the award-winning book Naughty Paris: A Lady's Guide to the Sexy City, and you'll inevitably find articles written by her in most English-language magazines about France.
I've been a subscriber to Heather's newsletter for many years, and I have admired her evident success as a freelancer abroad. So, I was delighted when she agreed to share details of her journey as writer with The Expat Freelancer.
EPF: What prompted you to move to (and stay in) Paris?
HSH: I came to Paris as a student in 1995, and eventually met and married my (now ex) husband, who was British and also living in Paris, in 1999. He's the reason I stayed initially, and after 10 years of living here I didn't want to leave, so I'm still here!
How established was your writing career when you moved here? How did you get your start?
I had taken four years of journalism classes in high school, where we produced a weekly newspaper. My senior year I worked at the daily Phoenix Gazette (now part of the AZ Republic) and did summer classes at ASU's Walter Cronkite School of Journalism. In college I worked for the school's news bureau for four years, so I already had a lot of clips and formal journalism training when I arrived in Paris. I was an editor at ELLE.com in 1999, then went freelance in 2000. It was the dot com boom, so I started off with a lot of web clients, but the crash hit right after I went freelance, so it was a tough start to the millennium.
The majority of your writing work is travel-related. Did you become a travel writer because you were in Paris, or was travel writing the niche you always wanted to work within?
I never planned on doing travel writing. I was going to be a White House correspondent (I majored in political science in college). At ELLE.com I was in charge of the travel section, and when I went freelance it was the easiest topic to sell (I had moved to the French Riviera at that point, so there were only a few low-paying freelance news jobs for English-speaking journalists). Unfortunately it's a topic that many non-professional writers are willing to do for free, so it's hard to find well-paid freelance travel writing jobs. Guidebook writing is a thankless slog of a job for little pay, but if you make your deadlines and do a good job, you can find consistent work.
When you first started writing, were you worried about your ability to earn a sufficient income as a writer abroad? In your opinion, what’s the best way, writing-wise, to earn your keep?
Ha! I took journalism in school because I wanted to make a living and being a novelist didn't seem practical. But I've always known what the average income was for my line of work, so I had no illusions going freelance. It helped that I was married to a supportive husband when I started out. The first five years as a freelancer I didn't make enough to live off. I think I make enough now because I have a few editors who hire me over and over because they know I'm professional, make my deadlines, and turn in consistently good content. (I have friends who do technical writing or business writing. They make more, but they usually tell me they hate what they do. So there is a trade off, for sure.)
What was your biggest breakthrough as an expat writer? How did it shape your career?
I think getting the job at ELLE.com (when it was still based in Hachette's Paris HQ) opened a lot of doors for me, even though I only got the job because I knew HTML (back in 1999 Paris this was incredible); I knew nothing about fashion, which is why they had me editing the travel and decor sections. When I went freelance I could easily contact the editors of major magazines because I had the name recognition behind me. It probably moved me into feature/lifestyle/travel writing and away from news/political writing, which has obviously shaped my career. I probably only write one or two non-travel articles per year now. It also helps that I've been doing my Secrets of Paris newsletter (now a website and a blog) since 1999. Putting in your time shows you are a reliable, hard working writer. Most freelancers don't last that long! ;)
What has been the biggest disadvantage of being an expat writer and how have you worked around it?
My French isn't good enough to write in French, so I can't find many jobs that pay in Euros (99% of my writing jobs are in US dollars, ugh). But I also have a private tour company, so I make Euros from that work.
Your book Naughty Paris hit the bookshelves in 2008 and you’re always hard at work on uncovering the "Secrets of Paris" for your website. What else are you working on these days?
Naughty Paris second edition and Naughty New York. I'm also always trying to improve my websites and make them more useful for the people reading them.
Do you have any advice for other expat freelancers?
Although it's possible to pretend you aren't legally living in France if all of your clients are abroad, the benefits of being in the French system (I'm covered by AGESSA) outweigh the costs, and make your life soooooo much easier in the long run. If you're living in France and writing about France (basically, "making a living off France"), pay your taxes and contribute to society and the upkeep of this beautiful city like the rest of us. ;)
Heather Stimmler-Hall is an American freelance writer living in Paris. To learn more about Heather's writings and Paris tours, visit her website: www.secretsofparis.com.
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