I’d written seventeen novels when I started Country Lovers, mostly big fat juicy romps with lots going on. You’d think I should know my trade by now: protagonists, check, antagonists, check, love interest, check, horses and dogs (check). Familiar Cotswold village setting; plot all mapped out; must try not to get too carried away with descriptions and wordplay this time. Cracks knuckles over keyboard and we’re off…
I veered off course. At speed.
The storyline was originally going to centre on an established character torn between a long-distance love affair and a blossoming village friendship, but it was her daughter’s exploding marriage that fascinated me more. What if, I wondered, you met your perfect match on the worst night of your life? Stand up Pax Forsyth. Her personality jumped off the page from the start, the family peace-maker cracking under pressure, revealing a vulnerability she’s let nobody see in years. The story starts on New Year’s Eve, and as I counted the characters down to midnight, I made my own resolution. I wanted to write Pax’s story.
There’s a certain dyspraxia to the way I work. I’ve never learned to touch-type; the more excited I get while writing, the more inaccurately my two typing fingers hit the keyboard until gobbledygook appears on the screen. Those early chapters of Country Lovers looked like they’d been written in code, but when I’d tidied them up enough to share them with my editor, she agreed: ‘That’s our heroine!’
This has happened before, although rarely with such a positive endorsement. I do try to stick to each plot I’ve pitched to the team, but my rebellious storyteller’s soul is not good at following directions, even my own. If the synopsis were a sat nav, it would start telling me to do a U turn early on, and later complain it’s lost the GPS signal altogether.
My characters rarely burst onto the page fully formed in Chapter One, no matter how well researched their backstory or well plotted their personality traits. They develop organically through the writing process as I get to know them, then it’s my job to go back and add that familiarity to their first entrances and exits. And as characters grow, they no longer fit easily into a pre-prescribed story arc.
Having plotted so many eyes meeting across crowded rooms over the years, I’m always eager for a new angle, and it’s not always obvious at the planning stage where the stand-out dynamic will come from. When I wrote my debut twenty- (clears throat) -seven years ago, the thrill of the chase was my romantic trope. It was the footloose fancy-free nineties and the golden egg of Chick Lit was about to be laid. My characters had less baggage, my heroines were predominantly young. I’ve always written multiple generations – I love big families in particular – but it was the twenty-something daughters I initially focussed on rather than their mothers. As I’ve matured alongside my readers, so have my central characters until most recently those mothers and daughters have been given equal weight in many of my storylines. To achieve that, I’ve occasionally overruled the first sat nav synopsis, but I haven’t gone off-road for years. Not until Pax came along.
When I started out, publishers were far more laid back about letting authors loose on a plot based on a couple of vague paragraphs: ‘I’m going to write a love story about a curvy stand-up comedienne who sleeps with her new flatmate then they end up hating each other’ was how I pitched my fifth novel, and no more was said until I delivered 150,000 words. Sometime in the late noughties, the game changed. By then, it was increasingly common for a title, shout line and even jacket image to be agreed before Chapter One had been written, so the book outline needed to be detailed from the get-go. This makes total business sense in an expanding digital market where images and blurbs appear online many months before publication date. Yet I found planning ahead with such precision could seriously hamper the narrative. By its nature, character-led fiction often leads the writer somewhere unexpected, certainly this writer.
In the past decade, I’ve often felt so locked into that first outline that wanting to change the focus or plot direction is a hair-tearingly guilty admission to make, the pressure to match the pre-agreed package overwhelming.
This time, however, it was blissfully easy to swerve left and keep my foot down, no small thanks to having such a positive working relationship with an editor who trusts me to deliver a good read. Her short affirmation ‘that’s our heroine!’ was the shot in the arm that gave me the confidence to write a character from instinct, not prescription.
It helped that Pax is one of those rare heroines I knew from the word go. I’d written her into a couple of scenes in my previous book The Country Set, but only as a cameo. When she came alive so instantly in the sequel, her dilemma gave the book an identity of its own. That’s the moment you know you’re on the right path. The trick is trusting your gut until you have arrived at your destination.
In a tough commercial fiction market with evermore books hitting the shelves and the pressure for placement constant, I think it’s more important than ever to remember that we are still primarily responsible for what’s on the inside not the outside. Look past the concept, jacket, title, blurb, spin, social media and what’s trending to find the heart of the story. For me, that always starts with character. Your route guidance is at an end.
(c) Fiona Walker
About Country Lovers:
Glamorous Ronnie Percy has been back home in the Cotswolds for a year. But not everyone has forgiven her for abandoning her family twenty-five years ago.
Ronnie’s daughter Pax is fighting for custody of her small son as her own marriage disintegrates. Now she is furious to have to spend New Year’s Eve waiting to meet some stranger, invited by her mother to help run the family stud farm. The staunchly loyal head groom, Lester, is even more annoyed. Does Ronnie think he’s lost his touch?
Luca O’Brien, Irish charmer and reputed heart-breaker, is known throughout the countryside as the Horsemaker. But what happened to Luca’s beautiful stallion, Beck, now broken and unrideable in the Compton Magna stables? And what is Luca running away from?
Passionate, sexy, gripping, and laced with wicked humour, this is bestselling Fiona Walker at her dazzling best.
‘An all-encompassing whirlwind of activity, wit, fun and frolic. I loved it!’ JILL MANSELL.
‘If it’s brilliant country fun you’re after, but you can’t afford your own horse (or even if you can), read Fiona Walker immediately!’ JENNY COLGAN.
Country Lovers is published on Thursday 14th November. Pre-order your copy online here.