Today, Charlotte Nash makes a very welcome return to ‘Love is the Best Medicine’. Charlotte will be joining us again next Wednesday, with an excerpt from her new release ‘The Paris Wedding’.
Recently, I drove 3600 km across America in the name of research for my next novel. Before I left, everyone was asking if I was excited, with that hopeful (perhaps vicarious) gleam in their smile that I hated disappointing. Because sure, I was excited, but I held more than a little trepidation, and I didn’t mind saying so. The trip was going to be tight. I had to learn to drive on the other side of the road. In Los Angeles. And I was leaving my little boy at home with no knowing how he would handle the time without me.
I thought it would be a kind of character research, because my protagonist is making the trip against her will, being forced to exhibit a courage under fire she’s never had to find before. And that’s the kind of character we write about, right? Romantic stories are as much about how people negotiate their lives, and survive their circumstances, as they are about relationships. Maybe the surviving circumstances is really the core of it, the protagonists the embodiment of a bigger idea.
This book won’t be out until next year, but I think every character I’ve written is like that. In my current book, The Paris Wedding (out this month), Rachael is having to face the love of her life marrying someone else in Paris. She goes only because she sees she had no choice: it’s that, or be hung up on him and their imagined life forever. She thinks the decision to go is the easy part, the courageous part. Muhahahaha … of course it isn’t.
Same thing with my trip. I wrote a blog in the early days of the trip about the mild culture shock of America. “Mild” belies the effect of it, because it creates a huge background anxiety. Just thinking about driving on the right, of flicking light switches up not down, of paying before pumping gas, of saying pumping “gas” not “fuel”, was enough to make me want to curl up in my cheap hotel room, watch endless TV and not venture out anywhere.
But, then, I was there for a purpose I couldn’t escape. I had one shot at the research. A lot of people thought what I was doing was crazy, but it was really, really important to me. So I had to drag my unwilling self up and to the local diner. And strike up conversations. And ask questions. Man, it was uncomfortable. For at least the first half of the trip, I was constantly self-conscious, sure everyone could tell that I was a stranger in a strange land. And it dawned on me that my characters go through the exact same thing. They, too, have one shot at this situation they’re in. Big consequences if they fail to act. Uncomfortable as hell, in their own version of a culture shock: out of the comfort of what came before. And in the acting, in the persistent pursuit of this once in a lifetime chance, no matter how wrong it seems to be going, they earn the courage they need to get through it. Ergo, persistent courage under unrelenting fire.
On my trip, I began to find I didn’t care about being the American n00b. That people were in general hospitable, generous, proud of where they came from and glad to share it with me. I could tell the moment my attitude changed because I started to meet interesting people in all kinds of places: a group of exuberant schoolteachers in a park in Fort Smith AR, a veteran pilot in a Starbucks in Nashville TN, a TV personality in Katz’s Deli in New York. Things that just seem to happen once I got over feeling I couldn’t do it.
I’m fortunate that my trip did not have the “all is lost”, darkest-hour moment that stories require. It’s not that I couldn’t imagine what that would look like: lost down some Dixie Alley back road with a broken-down car and a tornado roaring through. But there came a point where I was all in: I’d made it this far, and I was sure I could make it through something like that. And I guess that’s where I want my characters to be at the end of the story: with the courage that comes from having survived something big. I was very glad to come home, but I’m not the same as when I left, not quite. Stories should be about things like that. I want to go again.
Charlotte Nash grew up obsessed with horses and good stories, and is now a bestselling author of contemporary romantic novels. She came to writing after an eclectic past in engineering and medicine, and loves writing about brave women in testing circumstances, finding love and themselves. She lives in a cosy Brisbane cottage with her family. The Paris Wedding is her fifth novel, released 27 June 2017.