Wednesday, 2 December 2020

O Christmas Tree...

This is how I spent my weekend...

I think this is the earliest I've ever put up my Christmas decorations but, judging by my Facebook feed, I'm not the only one. There is something about a Christmas tree that is immediately cheering (never underestimate the power of glitter!) particularly after the year we've all had.

Our tree is an artificial one but when I was growing up my family had always had a real tree. Our house had a huge bay window at the front and my parents were determined to fill it with tree, so they would always buy the biggest one they could find - sometimes the top would end up being bent over to fit. My mother tried every method she could think of to keep the tree alive and the needles intact until Christmas. The best solution turned out to be just sticking the tree in a bucket of water like a bunch of flowers. Christmas trees don't much like the heat, but that was never much of a problem living in a Victorian house!

When I was a teenager I decided I wanted my own Christmas tree in my room. I think I must have been heavily influenced by old Hollywood movies because I bought a white one from Woolworths and, copying the Harrods shop window from the previous year, decorated it in baubles of just one colour. Some people loved it, some hated it! I still have the tree but my daughter has claimed it for herself - it's 'vintage'!

When I left home I tried to recreate my family's Christmas traditions (you can read more about that here) but I eventually learnt that the best thing is to continue the traditions that work for you but not be afraid to create 'new' ones. My mother gave me a few packs of baubles to start me off but over the years I began to collect individual ornaments, a couple each Christmas, mostly from garden centres and high street stores. I can pretty much tell you where each one came from and the story behind it.

For many years the most famous ornament on my tree was the 'Harrods' bauble, which (as you can probably tell!) I bought in about 1989. It was hugely expensive at the time and it was a complete pain to get it back to Hampshire without breaking it, but it's still on my tree all these years later!

Several of my ornaments were bought for me by my friend Trisha Ashley. We both share a love of traditional glass ornaments. One memorable year we both bought each other typewriter baubles (Trisha bought the red one, I bought the black one) - great minds think alike!

I love fairy toadstools and mice and nutcrackers, so there are several of those sprinkled over the tree. I also love the way light shines through glass, so there are lots of glass ornaments too. About five years ago I realised my tree was stuck in the 1980s, so I no longer use tinsel. The poor tree seemed a bit bare until I got used to it but I've realised you can now see the decorations properly!

Sadly, my mother died earlier this year. When my brother and sister-in-law were sorting through her things they found a mysterious cardboard box with a note attached to the top which said, "For Louise".

What was inside? 

The family box of Christmas decorations...

If you'd like to know more about my Christmas decorations, my daughter has challenged me to post a festive picture on my Instagram in the days leading up until Christmas.

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Saturday, 21 November 2020

Guest Post: Hazel Prior: Why Penguins?

If you follow me on Twitter you might have noticed that I've been raving about a book called Away with the Penguins by Hazel Prior. It's a fabulous, feel-good book, about an elderly lady who decides to leave all her money to a penguin research facility in Antarctica - on condition they allow her to visit first! Today I am thrilled to welcome Hazel to my blog to explain exactly what it is about penguins that made her want to write about them!

Why penguins? This is a question I’ve been asked a lot recently. You don’t get many novels that feature a colony of penguins, and when I first thought of bringing them together with a curmudgeonly eighty-five-year old heroine, I did wonder if I could pull it off. However, I’m a strong believer in writing about what you love—how can you possibly sustain the intense, long-term commitment that you put into a novel otherwise? And the idea just tickled my fancy.

I’d already written my first book ELLIE AND THE HARP MAKER, around my favourite things: Celtic harps, kind and eccentric characters and Exmoor countryside. I was lucky to get a two-book deal with the publishers Penguin Random House, and was so excited and proud that I was namedropping ‘Penguin’ at every opportunity. So when it came to the decision about what book 2 would be about, that little quirky bird hopped into my head.

The more I thought about it, the more I liked it. I could set the novel in Antarctica—what an opportunity to take my readers to such a wild and magical place! I couldn’t afford to go there myself but I knew I’d enjoy researching it and conjuring up the details in my imagination. What’s more I knew someone who could help…

I happen to have a close friend who is crazy about penguins and she has an inspirational story of her own. Several years ago her husband died very suddenly but she found an unusual strategy for dealing with her grief: She decided to travel around the world and take photos of every species of penguin in its natural habitat. She has now amassed fabulous photos of seventeen species of penguin. Only one more to go! She’s gained enormous joy and solace from her penguin trips, and this made me think about nature as a healer.

One of my own strategies for dealing with grief, illness or hardship is to turn to books and I know that many people do the same. For this reason I always want my writing to be uplifting in some way, so I show characters who face challenges but manage to overcome them.

As I started to research penguins, I realised that I had chosen exactly the right creature for this purpose. Penguins set us a wonderful example. They live in the harshest conditions on the planet and yet face their daily challenges with incredible cheerfulness, determination and gusto. They’re sociable birds, too. As my plot developed I realised they could teach my heroine, Veronica McCreedy, a lesson. Veronica is disillusioned with the human race because of the way she’s been treated in the past, but the penguins show her the importance of community and mutual support.

My job as a writer is to tell a good story and entertain people, not to preach. But I do like to deal with serious issues, wrap them up in a bit of fun and maybe provoke a thought or two. Scientists study the fluctuations in penguin colonies because they indicate key environmental changes, so in writing this book I’ve touched on some of the devastating effects of climate change. The environmental crisis has loomed large in the public psyche recently but this isn’t just me jumping onto a bandwagon; I wrote my novel’s first draft before anyone had even heard of Greta Thunberg. The publication of AWAY WITH THE PENGUINS is timely, though, and I’m glad that my quirky Antarctic story adds another small voice to the clamour for change.

How did I research penguins? As well as quizzing my penguin-obsessed friend and poring over her photographs, I spent many happy hours watching penguin footage on YouTube. I read books about penguins from cover to cover. There are blogs on the British Antarctic Survey website written by scientists who study penguins in the Antarctic South Shetlands, so that was incredibly useful. I went to visit some real penguins, too, at Living Coasts, a sea-life centre in Torquay. The staff there generously shared all sorts of penguin facts and figures.

I was thrilled to meet Yoyo, a very friendly penguin who was hand-reared. When the book came out in hardback I went back to show him.

He liked it so much he wanted to eat it!

Sadly, this year Living Coasts had to be closed due to the pandemic, but Yoyo and his friends have apparently settled well in their new home in Wales.

Like most people, I find penguins charming and funny. It’s almost impossible to look at a penguin without smiling. For this reason, and to celebrate the book’s recent Richard & Judy Book Club success, I ran a penguin drawing competition on Twitter. Do check it out here if you’d like some light relief from this very difficult year.

Finally, a BIG THANK YOU for having me, Louise! And I think it’s appropriate to end with this quote from John Ruskin, which I’ve used at the beginning of my book: "I find penguins at present the only comfort in life… One can’t be angry when one looks at a penguin..."

Away With The Penguins

Veronica McCreedy is about to have the journey of a lifetime...

Veronica McCreedy lives in a mansion by the sea. She loves a nice cup of Darjeeling tea whilst watching a good wildlife documentary. And she’s never seen without her ruby-red lipstick.

Although these days Veronica is rarely seen by anyone because, at 85, her days are spent mostly at home, alone.

She can be found either collecting litter from the beach (‘people who litter the countryside should be shot’), trying to locate her glasses (‘someone must have moved them’) or shouting instructions to her assistant, Eileen (‘Eileen, door!’).

Veronica doesn’t have family or friends nearby. Not that she knows about, anyway... And she has no idea where she’s going to leave her considerable wealth when she dies.

But today... today Veronica is going to make a decision that will change all of this.

Amazon UK

(published as How the Penguins Saved Veronica)

About Hazel

Hazel Prior was born in Oxford but has lived in many places including the Welsh borders, Scotland, south-west England and Italy. Her jobs have included harp-playing, teaching English as a foreign language and acting. She has won nine prizes in national writing competitions and has had a number of short stories published in literary magazines. Currently working as a freelance harpist, Hazel lives on Exmoor with her husband and a huge ginger cat.

Twitter  @HazelPriorBooks

Monday, 12 October 2020

Inspiration: You Make It Feel Like Christmas

I first had the idea for You Make It Feel Like Christmas way back in 2014 while I was at the cinema watching Guardians of the Galaxy. You can't see the connection between a superhero movie and a Christmas romantic comedy? Well, the soundtrack featured an old 70s song called Hooked on a Feeling and the lyrics got me thinking about people who have (for one reason or another) become stuck on a certain way of thinking.

I often have ideas for stories that I scribble down in a notebook and then promptly forget about but this one stayed in my mind. A few years later, when the mystery novel I was working on wasn't coming together in the way I wanted (I'll be blogging about that later), I decided to start something completely different. I remembered those characters who'd become 'hooked on a feeling' and You Make It Feel Like Christmas began to take shape.

Beth is obsessed with the idea of having a perfect family Christmas and still has feelings for the man that broke her heart seven years ago. Aidan associates Christmas spent at his family home with a tragic period in his life and would happily see the house flattened, whereas his brother Nick remembers his idyllic childhood and will do anything to save it.

I didn't realise until I'd finished writing the book that my feelings about the house I'd grown up in had also found their way into the story. This might have been because part of the book was written there while I was visiting my mother. We talked a lot about the 'old days' and the amount of work it had taken to restore the house.

My childhood home

My parents bought their house back in the 1970s. It was their dream house and restoring it became their hobby - except they didn't restore it in a traditional way! Instead, they trawled reclamation sites buying quirky fittings from old houses that had been demolished. Although the house was Victorian they added oak beams to the sitting room ceiling (original 300-year-old ship's timbers!) along with a huge Tudor fireplace.

I asked my mother why they'd chosen to do this and she explained that they had loved visiting old houses, with all their history, and wanted to recreate a little bit of that in their own home.

The appearance of the Abbey in my story was influenced by much bigger real-life houses, including Lyndhurst Mansion in Tarrytown, New York (also the location for the 1970s horror film House of Dark Shadows) and Newstead Abbey in Nottinghamshire (once home to Lord Byron - who also gets a mention!).

Newstead Abbey

When I wrote the book, I'd recently moved into one of the first houses on a new estate and for the next year I effectively lived on a building site. This probably influenced my decision to make Aidan a builder!

Like Agatha in You Make It Feel Like Christmas, my grandmother was heavily into crafting. I remember her making me jewellery out of rose hips, and jack-'o-lanterns out of turnips - they were super-scary! - and Christmas decorations out of real holly, ivy and fir cones, which she'd sprinkle with glitter or spray gold (this was the 80s!). My grandmother also told me the stories behind the traditions of decorating our houses with greenery, and the legend of Balder and Loki.

In You Make It Feel Like Christmas the Holly family have an heirloom box of decorations going back to the 1960s - so did my mother. Earlier in the story, when Nick decorates his tree with some very unusual baubles, he explains to Beth how much they mean to him. This is something that is also important to me. I've collected the decorations for my own tree over many years and every one has a story behind it.

Lucy's experience of driving through a snowstorm happened to me! Hearing the sound of compacted ice scrape the underside of my car is not one I'd care to repeat! 

Ophelia's fabulous high fruit, low sugar mince pies are based on my own recipe.

And the Holly family's usual Christmas - dinner at lunchtime, an afternoon spent watching the Christmas movie on TV, eating leftovers and Quality Street, and playing Death-by-Scrabble?

I wonder where I got that idea from?

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