Before The Caretaker comes out, I want to tell you a bit about Charlotte Laurent. But to talk about her, I have to talk about Windmills; which, as anyone who knows anything about my writing background will be aware, is the story I’ve been trying and failing to tell for the last thirteen years.
After I finished the first draft of Windmills in my last year of high school, I immediately wanted to write a sequel. I didn’t have much good creative reason to, just a vague sense that I’d written something that marked a real step forward for me and I should try to continue the momentum. So I came up with a kind of parallel plot; one of the key characters in Windmills was Dominic Ford, a charismatic yet coldly murderous drug lord, and I decided my ‘in’ was to explore Dominic from a different character’s perspective.
Enter Charlotte Laurent, a naïve young student who meets and falls for him. Windmills was always at its core about the terrible choices we’re all capable of in the right – or wrong – circumstances, and Charlotte’s story was to be no different. I pictured this epic, Godfather-esque saga which would result in her superseding Dominic to become a ruthless criminal mastermind.
It didn’t work. I wrote a few chapters and ran out of steam. But I found Charlotte oddly fascinating, so when I rewrote Windmills a few years later, I worked her into the plot. I got to know her more. Learned about her deep insecurities, her anger and desperation to be more than what she thinks she is. I also came to understand that the whole Walter White arc I’d envisioned for her was never going to land. Charlotte was many things, but a cold-blooded killer was not one of them.
So I was faced with a quandary. Charlotte had become, to me, as interesting and essential as any of the original Windmills characters, but she had also somewhat been grafted on to the already established plot in ways that left her a little underserved. She supported the story, certainly, but I never felt any version of that book really gave her the room to fully realise her potential.
Over the years Charlotte’s role fluctuated. In some drafts I tried to artificially inflate her subplot. In others, I removed her entirely. Neither approach felt right. I wanted to tell Charlotte’s story, but I was starting to think that maybe Windmills was not the place to do it.
Fast forward to 2021. I was developing a pitch for a standalone thriller set in an off-season ski resort and while I knew I loved the setting, the plots I was coming up with didn’t quite coalesce the way I wanted them to. I’d write full outlines and immediately forget about them. Nothing was sticking.
And then, on a walk one morning, an image struck me. Charlotte Laurent, scared and alone after the events of Windmills, hiding out as the caretaker of several empty ski lodges in a tiny, abandoned resort.
I turned the idea over in my head. It was a risk. A huge one. Given Windmills remained in a kind of stasis (it’s come close to publication several times and still hasn’t quite got there), was I really going to jump the gun and write a quasi-sequel/spin-off that would come out before any version of Windmills? And more to the point, could I? Could I tell this story in a way that would be its own entirely satisfying narrative that doesn’t rely on a book that might never be released?
In the end, questions of could or should didn’t much factor into it. I wanted to write The Caretaker. A lot. And while I guess I could have changed protagonists, Charlotte was just too perfect for this story. This, I knew as surely as I’ve ever known anything, was her story.
I took the risk and pitched it to HarperCollins. They accepted. And then came the challenge of writing the thing. Early drafts played too coy. I tried to split the difference between giving enough backstory to inform Charlotte’s character, but not enough to completely ruin Windmills for if that ever gets published. It didn’t work. To write this book, I had to almost forget about Windmills. Use what I needed from it, scrap what I didn’t. If future me was ever lucky enough to publish that book, then ensuring the canon lined up would have to be his problem. What mattered was that Charlotte’s story was told in its entirety, not compromised for the sake of a book that to date is only a pipe dream.
Slowly, The Caretaker became its own thing. An unsettling thriller about a broken woman putting herself back together. It doesn’t fit snugly with the more crime drama infused Windmills. But it doesn’t need to, because it’s not subservient to that story. In the end, if Windmills ever sees the light of day, it will owe far more to The Caretaker than vice versa. So while The Caretaker will be the official, published debut of several major Windmills characters, this time they’re in place to support Charlotte’s story, not the other way around.
In 2009, Charlotte Laurent was an underdeveloped addendum, a character I couldn’t get rid of but couldn’t make fit in the greater whole. But the one thing that has always defined her is that she is a survivor. In Windmills, she was the one character to escape the chaos of her own volition and try to make a better life for herself. And with that in mind, I can think of nothing more appropriate than Charlotte being the one character to break out of the never-ending mess of all those different attempts to tell that story, to finally get her much deserved spotlight after so many years.
Writing words about writing words.