The Smallest Farmhouse in Warwickshire has incredibly steamy windows. Whilst I’d love to claim this as a side effect of all my passionate romp-writing, I think it has more to do with cranking up the central heating in an old, damp house. Dora and Winnie are the ones doing most of the steamy writing as they pull on school coats and hats in the unheated glass porch each morning and leave loving messages and smiley faces behind. Meanwhile, I’m largely ‘plotting’. Having now edited, cross-checked and signed off the final page proofs of next year’s book, I’m hard on the case of the one that follows, with the working title Make or Break. I’ve got the central characters, a gorgeous setting and a story outline; my editor and agent both love it; I’ve filled one huge notepad with ideas and research, and I’m dying to just sit down and crack on, but plotting is an addictive displacement. I remember hearing an author once describe a book idea as a cathedral that immediately becomes a garden shed once you start to write it. I’m currently on the steps of the cathedral, looking up, trying to memorise every intricate detail before I step into the shed and start hammering.
There’s going to be an awful lot of hammering in store in coming weeks, both at the keyboard and at our Forever House which lies a few fields away from the SFW and is awaiting its renovation work. The previous owners – who infused the house with so much cheer and had such legendary parties that they must feature in a book – have given me a terrific excuse to pay a daily visit in the form of Ted, a talkative hand-reared guinea fowl, who roosts in a tree by the stream that runs around the garden. With his comedy walk and insatiable appetite, Ted is an unlikely muse, but he’s become something of an inspiration as I wander around the empty house and its overgrown boundaries every day, plotting non-stop. Animals have always been central to my books, and one of the things that’s made me hesitate at the start of this new one has been the lack of fur and feather in my carefully crafted outline. Now I’m excitedly plotting a few in, and the cathedral is resounding with the squawks, barks and gobbles of an open audition. I can only take one or two into the shed with me, so I have to choose carefully. When I wrote Snap Happy many years ago, I challenged myself to depart from my usual dogs and horses and the book featured a pet turtle and a parrot. Fiction’s first romantic guinea fowl could be another benchmark.
There was no such dilemma with The Woman Who Falls in Love for a Week, which comes out next year. One of the central characters, a German pointer named Gunter, was my constant fictional companion from the very start, an inadvertent Cupid and incredibly disobedient best friend who is left in the care of house-sitter Jenny while his owners are away on holiday. The novel takes Jenny out of her everyday world as a hard-working single mother to the sumptuously cluttered village home of the Lewis family, hers to look after during a summer heat-wave, along with the skeletons in its bespoke cupboards, neighbours skinny-dipping in its turquoise pool, and a gardener intent on pulling more than just weeds. As the title suggests, it’s a week that changes Jenny’s attitude to life completely. Writing it was extraordinary; it was one of those rare books that just flew along and made total sense from the start.
Now, as I settle down to do it all again and move from cathedral to shed, I’m determined to keep the windows of the SWF steamed up for the foreseeable future. To cheer me on, I just have to look across at them and see ‘Good luk riting yor buk Mummy!’ disappearing into mist.