I've spent almost six months this year freelancing at a very lovely communicaions agency in Covent Garden. I started there in February, when winter still had London in its grip and my new novel, You Can't Fall in Love With Your Ex (Can You?) was just beginning to take shape in my mind. I can't remember when I'd decided that my heroine, Laura, had been a professional ballet dancer as a young woman, but as I made my way to work each morning, or browsed the shops at lunchtime, or took a shortcut through the Royal Opera House on my way to lust over shiny things in the Apple Store, her story became clearer and clearer to me.
When I finished my first stint of work there in Spring, Laura's past and present lives were ready to be written. I won't pretend that the novel was an easy one to write, but I got it done even though there were times – familiar to any writer, I'm sure – when I felt as if it would never be finished. By the end of it, I felt as if I knew Laura, Felix, Jonathan and the other characters in the story as well as my own friends. I knew the route Laura had taken to work every day. I knew where she and Jonathan live (I lived nearby myself, many years ago) and the supermarket where she did her shopping. I knew the park where she unexpectedly encounters Felix for the first time, and the restaurant where she sees him again.
And, when I returned to gainful employment in Summer, "The End" finally written and the arduous process of editing, rewriting, proofreading, cover designs and Kindle conversion upon me, Laura was still with me all the time. Now that I knew how her story ended (although if she were a real person, it would be a new beginning as much as an ending), I felt a kind of nostalgia for the past I'd created for her. Here was the flat where she, Mel and Roddy lived. These were the chewinggum-splattered pavements she saw through her tears when it all went wrong. This was the route she and Mel walked through Soho to window-shop on Oxford Street. Here, just up the road from Itsu, was the dance boutique where she bought her leotards and tights.
I felt nostalgic for Felix, too – like Laura, I wondered whether things could have turned out differently between them. But you can't change the past, and I couldn't change the ending I'd written. Publication date was upon me and You Can't Fall in Love… wasn't mine any more – it was ready to be launched into the world and belong to the people who read it.
Then, of course, my focus shifted to promoting the novel, to the first reviews appearing on Amazon (overwhelmingly positive, to my delight), to watching the book rise and fall in the sales rankings. My day job was busy, too – mostly I dashed out on Mondays to Holbon to stock up on salad for the week, and ate lunch at my desk; there was no time for mooning about in Covent Garden.
And, suddenly, Laura wasn't there any more. Like the heroines of my previous novels, Ellie, Pippa and Stella, who'd occupied my thoughts and whose voices I heard in my head every day while i was writing, she'd fallen silent. After months of knowing her intimately, I no longer knew her at all, because her life – if a fictional character can be said to have one – was being lived outside the pages of my book.
It's a strange feeling. I'm sure all writers are familiar with it – perhaps that's why so many people feel compelled to return in sequels to the characters they've created and nurtured. I won't be writing about Laura again, though. Her story is told; she has her ending, and I hope it's a happy one.
I'm back living the life of a novelist for the time being. The cat is sleeping on my lap as I type; I can go running at lunchtime, potter in the kitchen making chutney, and engage in a host of other displacement activities instead of actually writing. But, as I peel apples, stroke Purrs or jog along the river, I think I can hear another voice starting to speak to me. There's going to be another book, fairly soon – another cast of characters for me to listen to, labour over, love and eventually leave behind.