In each book I always discover details that are fun to write. I don’t plan them – but they become pockets of pleasure that I look forward to working on and that I can go to if it’s a tough day’s writing. I think these details also play a part in my own bonding to the story and help grow my affection for the characters. A trick of my mind, you might say, to push me to continue with what sometimes seems an overwhelming challenge.
It was a real delight to share Hannah’s passion for clothes – I loved putting together her outfits and have Hannah bring to life the clothes that Ella, her mother, used to wear but fresh with her own style and personality. I liked how, when Hannah wore something from her mother’s wardrobe, she felt a real connection to the woman of her mother’s past while finding confidence through them to step into her own future.
‘You know that pale-blue sundress you have?’ Hannah was as familiar with the contents of Ella’s packed wardrobe as her own. These days Ella didn’t seem very interested in clothes and Hannah had already acquired several pieces from her mother.
‘What, this one?’ Ella extracted a hanger from the wardrobe and held up the dress.
Hannah felt she could hardly breathe. It was even nicer than she’d remembered. It was a square-neck mini-dress in pale-blue with a big yellow flower on the right-hand side above the hem.
‘Try it on. I don’t want it.’
Hannah slipped it over her head. She looked in the mirror. It was perfect.
Abbie repairs and makes theatre costumes for a living and I started a word-doodle list to access sewing terms and vocabulary. Words were slow to come at first but then I thought about sewing classes at school, about outfits my mother made me and my sister when we were younger; I remembered my grandma who crocheted. Memories of sensations and emotions returned alongside words and phrases like threading the bobbin, hook and eye fastening, tacking stitch.
I visited backstage at a local theatre and snooped in the wardrobe departments of other theatres on the internet. I drew on the experience of plays I’d seen and the few I’d had first-hand involvement in. Accumulated alongside my list of sewing terms, was the understanding of equipment and fabrics and the damage the costumes could suffer that Abbie might have to repair.
In the creative process, lists allow me to explore, to reach deeper and find new directions. Lists encourage those serendipitous moments: I discovered pearl on my sewing list and pearl(y) on another vocabulary list I was building for this novel. This word shines at its core and plays an important role in Abbie’s story.
In the study, Abbie picked up the shawl that she’d been in the middle of repairing. She regarded the stitches she’d already done – the march of neat thread across the material, hardly visible in the brown and orange brocade. She eased her needle into the material next to her thumbnail and gently pulled the thread through. Soon her breathing fell to the pace of her steady sewing and she let the memory rise.
Our first kiss.
Bone-melting, heart-thumping, sweet, sweet kiss. His hands on me. Finally on me. Burning my skin where they touch.
I was living in France but thinking of the UK which is the place I call home. I was missing it – the weather, the humour, the familiarity of place and language. And so, this affection, this homesickness came out in the setting of the book – a very English coastal town – a fictionalized Brighton. Laura is a runner and when I wrote the running scenes, it was as if I was running there too, remembering the buildings, the smells of a town in the UK, the traffic and the people, and vagaries of the weather. I loved it. But it made me more homesick!
From Rose’s window I picture myself, running through the streets, criss-crossing the town; my hair, a blonde flag of freedom streaming in the wind behind me. I can almost smell the air: salty at the seafront, pub and grub odours further inland, the chemical perfume of washing powder as I run past the laundry block of the student accommodation. I hear the thud of my trainers, the swoosh of slowing cars, the manic chirping of birds diving into their chosen roost before they settle for the night.
French films were a revelation to me – character-driven films which made no apology for being about relationships, about family, about the human experience. And the settings were always amazing – apartments in atmospheric cities, beautiful country houses and quirky seaside places. When I was a young student, studying in Bordeaux there were moments when I felt like I was living in a scene from one of those films. In the process of creating Cecillie’s apartment and the characters that shared the building, it was a treat to draw on those memories and to picture it as a film location.
Through her open French windows, Cecillie can hear the house is waking up too. The water pipes are clattering, old Monsieur Pasquet from over the landing is having his morning cough and her neighbour, Max is singing along to some schmaltzy French music.
Briefly, Cecillie joins in – la-la-ing along; her voice high and rather tuneless, until she hears the heavy front door bang. She looks down on the brown, bald head streaked with meagre strands of black hair which belongs to the waddling body of her landlord, Monsieur Bayard, on his morning outing to buy bread.
When he crosses the road, he glances up at her balcony and waves. She waves back and laughs. She always laughs when she sees him, she can’t help it.
A minute later, the waiter from the café a few doors down passes by. She waves to him, too. He’s sweet, always picking out the biggest pain au chocolat for her whenever she goes in.
Every day Cecillie waves to lots of people from up on her lookout, but what gives her the biggest kick is when the buzzer goes in her apartment, and she runs out to shout hello, come on up. It’s only been Bryony so far, and once Blythe from downstairs when he forgot his key. But she imagines new friends, a lover, loads of people, calling for her and she’ll look down on them like Juliet and say: Hi, come on in.