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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Wednesday, 7 October 2020

Guest Post: Heidi Swain: Feeling Festive in Nightingale Square

This week I'm thrilled to welcome Sunday Times bestselling author Heidi Swain to my blog. Heidi is famous for her heart-warming, feel-good stories set in Norfolk and today she's going to tell us about her latest novel, The Winter Garden...

Hello everyone! Thank you so much for finding your way to this post and thank you to Louise for kindly offering me a spot on her blog. It’s now a week since
The Winter Garden was published and I thought it might be the ideal opportunity to share with you a little of the inspiration behind this first festive trip to Nightingale Square. 

As some of you probably already know, I write two books a year and have done practically since I was first published in 2015. Broadly speaking, one is a summer book and one is a winter, or Christmas book. When I settled down to plan the winter 2020 release, I glanced at my pile of books and realised that the four festive titles I had written so far were all set in the same place – the much-loved fictitious Fenland town of Wynbridge. 

Two things occurred to me as I admired the foil enhanced covers. Firstly, I realised that I would rather like to visit Wynbridge in the summer for a change (A Taste of Home set in the Fenland countryside will be released next April. Yay!) and secondly, I was pretty certain that the neighbours in Nightingale Square would very much like to show us how they prepare for and celebrate Christmas in the fine city of Norwich.

Much like moving to a brand-new setting when your readers are so invested in the familiar one, it was a scary prospect, changing the festive location, but one I was willing to embrace. The vibrant city of Norwich, the pretty Square with its central green, the community garden across the road at Prosperous Place, along with the gardens attached to the house, all proved to be ideal for showcasing festive events and communal gatherings as the plotting and planning developed, but ultimately, I wanted the book to be about so much more than that. 

The short, dark days take their toll on many of us and I wanted to use the garden to show that even in the depths of winter there is still some light to be enjoyed along with many horticultural highlights, irrespective of whether your heart belongs in the country or the city. Hence, the arrival of a new face in the Square, gardener Freya, and her nervy but lovable rescue dog, Nell. 

Freya’s timely advent (no pun intended) led to the birth of the Winter Garden which quickly formed a surprising seasonal treat for the senses and became packed full of highly scented shrubs, vibrant flowers and some surprisingly tactile textures. Throw artist, Norse god lookalike, Finn into the mix for a romantic twist and I’d created some pretty spectacular fireworks too! 

Two of the characters in The Winter Garden suffer with Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) and one creates something rather wonderful alongside the garden to put a stop to it getting the upper hand. I’m not going to reveal what it is, in the hope that you might decide to pick up or download the book yourself, and if you do, I hope you will give some of the things the Nightingale Square neighbours delight in, a go yourself. 

I have a feeling that during the next few months we are all going to need more distractions than ever and continuing to build our connections to nature and getting outside at every opportunity will be a sure-fire way to ensure that we keep those happy chemicals fizzing away and fired up in our brains. And so, all that remains for me to do now is to wish you a wonderful winter season packed full of outdoor adventures. I very much hope to meet you in The Winter Garden

With love 

Heidi x

About Heidi...

Although passionate about writing from an early age, Heidi Swain gained a degree in Literature, flirted briefly with a newspaper career, married and had two children before she plucked up the courage to join a creative writing class and take her literary ambitions seriously.

A lover of vintage paraphernalia and the odd bottle of fizz, she now writes feel good fiction with heart for Simon and Schuster.

Her debut novel, The Chery Tree Café was published in July 2015 and since then she has had a further ten books published, becoming a Sunday Times Bestseller in 2017. She is currently celebrating the release of her 2020 festive title, The Winter Garden.

Heidi is represented by Amanda Preston and lives in Norfolk with her family and a mischievous cat called Storm.





Publisher: Simon & Schuster UK     Books and the City 

The Winter GardenAmazon UK     Amazon USA