It all began one morning in Woodstock, Oxfordshire, about six years ago.
I was doing battle with the historical novel I was working on, and absolutely bubbling with anxiety. Sweat shone on my forehead and dribbled down my chin. Flushed with exercise – I had just hopped, skipped and jumped around Blenheim’s marvellous lake – my fat little cheeks shone like rosy beacons on a foggy winter’s night.
As I always do in such dire emergencies, I dropped in on one of my most distinguished friends and professional colleagues: Rachel Phipps, the owner of The Woodstock Bookshop.
Rachel was talking on the telephone, unwrapping a parcel of books and dealing with three customers. It’s called multi-tasking. She does this all the time, all day long – and what’s more, she smiles all the way through this incredibly complicated process.
Mendes (the Elder that is: Mendes Junior was somewhere else at the time, probably playing cricket or directing some Oscar-winning movie in Jollywood-on-Sea) started jumping up and down on the spot. Rachel saw me out of the corner of one of her many eyes. We have a private sign language. She says to me silently: “Sorry, Valerie, I won’t be a moment.” Mendes the Elder pretends to be interested in Somebody Else’s Book.
After about ten minutes, The Woodstock Bookshop is suddenly empty of other people and blissfully private. Rachel stands up. She pushes her hands deep into the pockets of her gathered skirt.
“Good morning!” Rachel says. “And what can I do for you today?”
“The thing is…” Mendes the Elder grins sheepishly. She mops her face with a large, clean but crumpled handkerchief (I mean who the hell has time to iron anything? You just can’t get the servants these days). “I’m trying to find out what American slang would have been like in 1911. I’ve got these two brothers, see, and they come from Kansas. You know, the phrases and stuff. I know what the drawl would have sounded like, but would they have said, ‘Gee whiz!’ or ‘Stone the crows!’ way back in 1911?”
Rachel looks at me with one of her blessedly down-to-earth stares. Her eyes are black as an owl’s and twice as wise. She opens her mouth as wide as it will go and rocks on her stalwart heels.
“For goodness sake, Valerie,” she says. “Why do you always make life so difficult for yourself?… Why don’t you write about the people in Woodstock? After all, they are not in blooming Kansas. They are under your nose!”
For a long moment there is silence.
The message needs time to sink in to the genius mind of Mendes the Elder.
Then I skidded out of The Woodstock Bookshop as fast as I could go, crashing into a pram, a child and a furious teddy bear.
At that time my favourite coffee bar in the whole world was Harriet’s in Woodstock. Within the space of five minutes I had clumped myself down at a wooden table in the corner which is meant for four people but I have to hog the lot. I got out my little blue notebook from my little blue bag. After a frantic search I found my green felt pen.
Twenty minutes and one delicious cup of coffee later, I had a detailed outline for The Choice. When inspired by Rachel Phipps and the coffee bean, I can write very fast indeed and often do.
And twenty-five drafts later, here it is. Five hundred and seven pages of manuscript. My longest novel yet, and utterly butterly brilliant. So cleverly plotted! So exciting! So historical and yet so modern! So sexy! So many twists and turns! What superbly drawn characters! Such revealing dialogue…
Shall I write the reviews myself?
I say! What a terribly good idea!
I shall have to ask Rachel.