by Lucy Dillon
One of the best things about being a writer is that you always know what happens to your characters after the last page. I mean, so many times I get to the end of a novel with characters who’ve turned into friends over the 300 or so pages, and even if the writer has skilfully tied up all the loose ends – yes, they get married; no, her sister doesn’t manage to ruin the wedding; yes, his best mate’s ‘problem’ cleared up with some antibiotics – I still find myself wondering what happened next. Like, after happy ever after. Were they happy in their new house? Did they have children? Did she carry on loving all those quirky things he did, or did they start to drive her a bit mad after a few years? It’s a sign of a really well-written character that even after the arc of their story has finished, they’re so real to you that you naturally wonder about them the same way you wonder about friends you make on holiday, or at work – they’re more than just chess pieces on a writer’s chessboard, moving around with the plot and then stopping when the action does.
I didn’t intentionally set all my novels in Longhampton but I’m so glad I did, as it means I can go back and check in on the characters who still wander round my own imagination. After I’d finished The Ballroom Class, it felt as if the town had come to life in my head, and I wanted to go back to the Memorial Hall with the sprung dance floor and old-fashioned glitterball, the bandstand in the park, and the concrete 60s precinct. I could see the town, but I could also see the people, who were quiet but decent, always willing to help out a stranger – who wouldn’t want to spend their working day in that imaginary place? And after I’d finished writing Lost Dogs and Lonely Hearts, I found Rachel, in particular, had taken root in my heart, and I really wanted to know how she and George were getting on in their rather unconventional relationship. Characters change just as we change, as their lives shape them and teach them new things about themselves; would George have softened? Would Rachel be enjoying motherhood, or would she secretly find it a bit stressful, and hard on her black skirts? I try not to make the endings of my characters’ stories too ‘easy’ or glib, so there’s always room for some exploration of where they decided to take their lives after The End – they’ve got all the tools to make their own happy ever after, but it’s kind of up to them whether they do or not. That always leaves me a little ‘wonder’ room…
And so, as the writer, I’ve got the luxury of knocking on their door and seeing how they’re getting on. I know not everyone reads books in order (or even reads all of a writer’s backlist!) so when an old character pops up in a newer book, it has to be for a very good reason, and not just so they can walk on like The Fonz and get a round of applause. But it felt very natural to me that Rachel would take lonely, divorced Gina under her wing in A Hundred Pieces of Me – they’re two strong, independent, slightly sarky women who I just knew would be good mates once they’d found each other in a small town. I can see them sharing a bottle of wine in Ferraris, and dispensing brutal fashion advice. And readers who wondered what happened to Gina after the final pages of A Hundred Pieces of Me will be pleased to know that she passes that same friendship along in One Small Act of Kindness, with really life-changing results for Libby, the heroine of that story.
I’m deep into my next Longhampton book at the moment, and again, there’s a cameo from one of the main characters in a previous book, whose life has taken another turn. I’m really enjoying ‘meeting’ her again, and going back to her world to see what’s changed and what’s the same – like catching up with an old friend. I think, ultimately, that’s how I’d love readers to feel about Rachel, Gina, Juliet, and Anna – that they’re friends you meet on your sofa, in your head, and that you care about how they’re getting on. Any time you want to know, just ask – whatever you’re wondering about, I guarantee I’ve spent at least an hour procrastinating about it too…!
Lucy Dillon is the author of numerous best-sellers, her book Lost Dogs and Lonely Hearts won the Romantic Novel of the Year Award (RoNA) in 2010 and for 2014, A Hundred Pieces of Me won the RoNA for Contemporary Romantic Novel of the Year. Her latest book, One Small Act of Kindness is out now!