Like an ostrich when danger threatens, I’d buried myself in work while Peter was away, and by the time he came home in February 1987 – appropriately, on St Valentine’s Day – my Victorian novel, Louisa Elliott, was rapidly reaching its conclusion. I’d also had some encouraging news.
Like all the best stories, it began on Christmas Eve. On my way home from last-minute shopping in Otley market, the lights of the library reminded me I needed something to read over the festive season.
They were getting read to close. With no time to browse, I turned to the ‘Recently Returned’ shelf. My eye was caught at once by a chunky purple spine. It promised enough pages to keep me distracted for several days, so I picked it out. Although the author’s name, Rosie Thomas, was not familiar to me then, the blurb on the inside flap of The White Dove sounded good: Spanish Civil War, ill-starred lovers, a touch of tragedy. Wasting no further effort, I checked it out in what must rank as record time, and found myself looking forward to unwinding at the end of the day.
With presents wrapped and vegetables prepared, I took the book up to bed with a cup of soothing cocoa, started reading and was gripped at once. Before I had reached the end of the third page, I knew with powerful certainty that I had to write to the author.
That kind of unswerving instinct had happened to me before, generally to do with research, where a sudden prompt would lead me to look in a certain direction, always with a result. On this occasion I gave myself a mental slap on the wrist and told instinct not to be ridiculous. ‘You haven’t even read the book yet,’ my sensible self said. ‘At least get to the end before you start writing letters to the author!’
So I relaxed and took my time with a thoroughly enjoyable story. While appreciating the research that had gone into it, I felt – for the first time ever with a book – that the style was similar to my own. I’d never written to an author before, but I penned a letter to Rosie Thomas in the New Year, expressing my admiration and explaining that I had almost finished a novel of my own, and was looking for tips on who to approach.
What the reply would be I had no way of knowing. All I could do was hope. From previous experience (with my first, unpublished novel) I knew that sending to publishers direct was a chancy process. After a couple of months they were likely to reject a manuscript simply because the slush pile was getting too high. I was sure an agent would be best, but in the Writers’ & Artists’ Year Book of the time there were few clues linking agents with material. (Things have changed, I’m glad to say, and nowadays more information is given.)
To my astonishment, within the week I had a reply. A most generous reply, containing excellent advice. It was better to approach an agent with a first novel, she said, since a professional recommendation would at least guarantee a reading. Otherwise it might languish unread for months. That was as I’d suspected. But having worked in publishing herself, Rosie Thomas had insider knowledge. She was able to give me the names of three literary agents, including her own, who handled, as she said, ‘a number of well-known names in our field.’
‘Our field!’ I repeated incredulously. That little phrase made me glow with pride. The kids cheered, but when I related the news to my researcher friend Lena, she was awestruck. After all the coincidences we’d experienced together, this one seemed to top the lot. Shaking her head, she said: ‘Why are we surprised? They’re all batting for you upstairs!’
Following Rosie Thomas’s excellent advice, I worked even harder over the next two months. I refined and polished the tale; I checked for errors and retyped pages stiff with correcting fluid. I introduced the right lines of verse – my tribute to Hardy – and completed the pen-and-ink drawings of York which mark the beginning of each stage of the book. I worked on the manuscript until I felt I could do no more.
Reaching the final page, I found it made a satisfying circle for me, ending, some seven years later, in the place of its beginning. In that journey, Louisa, Edward and Robert had lived and suffered and learned and grown. If I’d taken liberties with their true-life stories, my characters had taken on lives of their own, making decisions that perhaps not everyone would agree with. Nevertheless, the characters who were saying goodbye at the end were considerably more mature than the ones who greeted each other in the beginning.
Looking back on the journey I’d made while writing, I felt rather like that myself.
Rosie Thomas has written many excellent novels since The White Dove, amongst them Strangers, Iris & Ruby, and The Kashmir Shawl. Her most recent book, The Illusionists, is now on my Kindle. You can contact her through her website: http://rosiethomasauthor.com/