Sometimes people ask me why I’ve based my Chilton Crosse series in England. And my simple answer is, “I just love England.” But the longer answer is that when I was seventeen years old, I took a three-week tour of the British Isles with my grandmother. We rode a double-decker bus in London, walked through Shakespeare’s home, threw crusts of bread to the ducks in the Lake District, watched girls dressed in tartan skirts dance to Scottish music in a pub, drove through Ireland’s Ring of Kerry, then kissed the Blarney stone. We toured cathedrals and walked the magnificent grounds of castles and their breathtaking manicured gardens.
Before that trip, I already had an affection for England. I adored Shakespeare, British accents, and British movies. But during that trip with my grandmother, I became smitten. Now don’t get me wrong—I’m patriot through-and-through and I love America. But for whatever reason, England fascinates me—the culture, the music, the history. So, one day I thought, “Why not set my story there? A place I love, a place I know fairly well, a place I’ll never get tired of exploring through my characters and plots.” And so, I did. I actually didn’t plan to turn this into a series until I reached the end of Book 1 and realized I didn’t want to leave the village. There was more to be done there—more characters to meet, more stories to tell.
So, that’s why England was the right choice for me.
Art is magic. Take an empty canvas, blank and shapeless, and inject it with depth, colour, and purpose. Artists are creators. We create energy where there’s dullness and produce life where there is nothing. ~Joy Valentine
The moment she saw the letter, she knew. The London postmark gave it away.
Noelle set down her keys and coffee, deciding to abandon the rest of her Saturday errands. She needed to take this letter to the ocean. She couldn’t read it here, standing over junk mail and bills.
She kicked off her sandals and walked down the steps of her beach house, grateful for San Diego’s mild weather even in mid-October. And grateful she wouldn’t have to walk far, with the ocean practically at her doorstep.
When she picked her usual spot at the water’s edge and sat down, the foamy water crept toward her toes like long, greedy fingers then slinked back again. Noelle always sought the ocean during troubling moments—craved the sea air on her face, the tinge of salt on her tongue, the comforting swoosh of powerful waves. But sometimes, even the sea couldn’t keep her from feeling hollow. Stranded and alone.
She’d already torn the envelope’s seal on her way down the steps. Opening the letter, she noticed the date, wondering why the news had taken two whole weeks to reach her.
Dear Ms. Cooke,
We regret to inform you of the unfortunate passing of Ms. Joy Valentine.
Great Aunt Joy had died alone in that cottage.
Noelle stared deep into the ocean as tears stung her eyes. Everything had gone quiet: the crash of waves, even the faint tapping of a neighbor’s roof being re-shingled two doors down. All silent.
In the dull gray sky above the ocean, Noelle could see almost slideshow-like, vivid images of her great aunt. Her thin-lipped, lopsided smile; wiry, gray hair secured by a pencil into a makeshift bun; deep wrinkles around her mouth and eyes from decades of smoking. And next, flashes of summers spent in England with her and Gram—white-haired and soft-spoken, the opposite of her sister. Those women had taught Noelle to paint, to enjoy literature, to savor life. Her surrogate mothers, she always called them. Now both gone, the end of an era.
Noelle shivered and wished she’d brought a sweater. It always seemed colder at the water’s edge. Brushing away a tear, she returned to the letter, skimming for more detail. She stopped at this:
As Ms. Valentine’s only living relative, you have hereby been named executor and sole heir of the estate. Please contact our office for further details.
Sole heir. Noelle considered what that might entail. Her aunt’s modest cottage nestled in a village in the Cotswolds, Chilton Crosse. And the art gallery! Noelle hadn’t stepped inside in fourteen years, since she was seventeen. If she concentrated, she could still smell the pungent turpentine and old, musty wood that greeted her when she opened the door. The back room had served as a working gallery, where artists set up and painted while visitors wandered quietly, gazing at masterpieces-in-progress. Occasionally, Aunt Joy even participated. But that was before her sudden retreat into obscurity. Noelle recalled the scandal of that winter, a decade ago, with perfect clarity. Online articles screamed out the embarrassing headlines: Famous Cotswold Artist Has Monster Meltdown; Storms out of Art Show.
No one ever knew what happened, never discovered the trigger that had caused Aunt Joy’s breakdown and subsequent retreat into reclusiveness. Noelle had tried to call her, write her, but the dozens of letters went unanswered. She didn’t know whether her aunt had even received them, or whether Joy had tired of all the probing questions: “Are you okay? I’m worried… why won’t you return my calls?” Joy finally sent one brief letter to Noelle, assuring her she was fine, but that she wanted—needed—to be left alone. She asked that Noelle respect her wishes and her privacy. And so she had.
Restless, Noelle rose and brushed the sand off her jeans. She needed to go inside, make a cup of tea, and banish the chill.
She headed back to the house with the letter, thinking about Joy’s funeral, wondering if it had been a media circus, with paparazzi descending on the unimposing village to fill the inches in their columns the next day. Or perhaps the church was almost empty, her aunt a forgotten figure even in her own community. In either case, Noelle wished she’d been there. And more than that, she wished she’d made contact with her aunt before she died. Just one more time.
She maneuvered her way toward the kitchen through the maze of stacked-up boxes—surely, her roommate, Casey, would retrieve them next week after the honeymoon. But something caught Noelle’s eye. The painting above the mantel, one that had been there for years, one she’d strolled past a thousand times.
Now, though, she couldn’t look at anything else. She drew closer and clicked on a nearby light to study the painting’s detail. One of Aunt Joy’s creations, given to Noelle on her fourteenth birthday—a seaside painting of England’s Cornwall coast. She touched the edge of the frame and peered at the canvas. A white-blond little girl stood at the cliffs, staring into the ocean and holding a broad-brimmed hat, its ribbon floating in the wind. Noelle could almost hear the bluish-gray water crash against the rocks as she looked beyond the little girl, into the endless sea.
Joy explained it that day, as a teenaged Noelle tore the gold wrapping paper. “The little girl in the painting, that’s you on your very first visit to us. I think you were five. I knew how frightened you were, being in England with virtual strangers. But the moment we took you to the sea, to Cornwall, you responded. You seemed calm, at home. And I wanted to paint you that way. To freeze you in time.”
Noelle took a few steps back to sit on the couch, to wish herself into the painting. To those summers spent in England, where everything remained safe, intact. Happy.
What inspires you? Don't forget to pick up your copy of PAINTING THE MOON available now!