Tuesday, 23 December 2014

How Grandma Invented Christmas (with holly, ivy and an awful lot of glitter ... ) by Louise Marley

In our family we owe most of our Christmas traditions to my grandmother, who absolutely loved Christmas, even though she had every reason to hate it. She grew up in extreme poverty and her husband was killed two weeks before Christmas, leaving her with a three-year-old daughter (my mother). Instead, she absolutely embraced Christmas and we still carry on many of the traditions she started.

I grew up in a rambling old house with my two younger brothers, my parents, my grandmother and several assorted dogs, cats, rabbits, guinea pigs and goldfish. My grandmother would make our Christmas decorations by disappearing off into the nearby woods and coming back with bags of all kinds of evergreen foliage, including the ubiquitous holly and ivy. (I think there’s a law against this now; there probably was then). She would outline the leaves in glue, and dunk them in glitter, and then use them to cover the mantelpieces and the tops of the pictures hanging on the wall. And, while infuriating my mother by leaving trails of glitter throughout the house, she would tell us stories about the old Norse gods and explain why we decorate our houses with evergreens at this time of year.

We always had a real Christmas tree, which had to be so big it wouldn’t fit in the sitting room; so we’d have to bend over the top, meaning the fairy spent most of Christmas hanging upside down. Every year my mother would try to find new ways to keep the tree alive, including spraying it with various ‘miracle’ concoctions. In the end, she settled for shoving the tree in a large bucket of water, but every time the dogs pushed past it, wagging their tails, a shower of pine needles would hit the floor and it would be bald by Boxing Day. All the Christmas baubles had been bought individually, some dated right back to the 1940s, and each had its own little story to tell.

My mother began the tradition of Christmas stockings mainly (she admitted to me later) so she’d get a little bit longer in bed on Christmas morning. She and my grandmother would make three Christmas puddings – one for Christmas Day, one for Boxing Day and one for New Year – but my mother refused to hide money inside them, because she thought it was unhygienic. My grandmother got around this by boiling the coins, wrapping them in paper and sneaking them onto our plates when my mother wasn’t looking. We were allowed to unwrap one present in the morning, before heading off to church, and the rest of the presents would be opened after listening to the Queen’s Speech.

I never questioned any of these traditions until I left home and had a family of my own. Obviously I couldn’t raid the local woods for holly so I bought it from the local garden centre. Sadly the berries were plastic and tied on. The mistletoe had been imported from France and was a strange yellow colour and, as soon as I got it home, all the berries dropped off. So that tradition didn’t last long! Because my mother had never let me near fairy lights in case I electrocuted myself (some of them were pre-war, so she probably had a point), I had no idea how to decorate a tree (I still don’t) but I did carry on the tradition of buying each Christmas bauble individually so it has a story to tell.

My husband just laughed when I suggested we make our children wait until after the Queen’s speech to open their presents, and we ended up with an artificial Christmas tree after realising my six-month-old daughter, who had just begun to crawl, would end up stabbing herself on the shrivelled-up pine needles. And no one likes Christmas pudding, so now we make mince pies instead.

So I guess that is what Christmas traditions are all about. You keep some, you adapt others and finally you create new ones to suit your own family.

Now, where’s that glitter …

Louise Marley is the author of Something Wicked - out now!

Monday, 22 December 2014

Christmas Traditions by Cheryl Lang

I don’t think we have any Christmas traditions in our family, probably because I was brought up in East Africa and Christmas was a vague event.

We often lived in remote places with no shops for hundreds of miles.  My parents, in hindsight, had to purchase any gifts either back in the UK on leave or during the long voyage out by sea. How they managed to gather a few toys together when we didn’t have UK leave, I’ll never know.  

We didn’t have any Christmas decorations, nor did we make any. I never knew what a Christmas tree was. We certainly didn’t have Christmas cards to give. My brother and I were told stories of Santa and of snow and ice and reindeer and sleighs, and I could imagine it. We did hang stockings up on Christmas Eve as we knew Father Christmas would visit us.  We never thought to question how.

Christmas Day was a little unusual. We’d wake up and find a stocking miraculously filled with toys. We never questioned where they came from. Toys were rare. We usually used our environment as our playground and were happy with that. There was no special Christmas Dinner with Turkey and the trimmings. We weren’t aware of the turkey tradition. We probably had a homemade curry. We also kept scrawny chickens that I looked after and were pets with names. Unknown to me, we ate one of them one year. When I found out I was devastated.  

Sometimes when we lived in a more populated area the children, home from boarding schools, were gathered together at the Country Club and we rehearsed a play that we performed to an appreciative audience. I don’t recall any Christmassy ones. One year we did ‘The Pied Piper of Hamelin.’ Afterwards, I recall the shock of Father Christmas visiting with a sackful of toys and a named present for every child. 

Friday, 19 December 2014

Juggling Writing and Family Life by Anne Bennett

When Valerie-Anne wrote about the way she viewed her writing life, she likened it to a constant spin cycle and I know exactly how she feels, for it’s how I feel too. If I was to give a tip to aspiring writers, it would be quite presumptuous of me, for one of the first things I would advise them to do would be to concentrate on managing their time efficiently to give themselves space to write. Yet after nearly eighteen years in the business, and at present writing my 19th novel, that is the thing that I struggle with most. And like the majority of women this failing makes me feel guilty so much of the time.

My family is very important to me and I have four children. Three of them have married, bringing two son-in-laws and one daughter-in-law to join our family, and then produced children of their own so we also have five grandchildren. It often seems that one of them is having a crisis of one kind or another, or that they just need a hand for a while. If I can’t help them, I immediately feel guilty that I can’t, yet if I do and then my writing suffers, I feel guilty about that. 

We also go in for get-togethers as we live a fair distance from one another, so meeting up is usually amazing. I am of Irish descent and we party very well indeed and when the family are all together we always have fun.

It’s like keeping all the balls in the air trying to please everyone and strike some sort of balance and this year the balls were very top heavy on the family side as my youngest daughter got married in early August. So of course the spring was taken up with choosing the venue, the outfits and having fittings for my daughter’s dress, during which I was asked to look after Catrin, their little girl who was three at the time. The guest list had to be drawn up and invitations issued, the flowers organised (who would be having button holes etc), and hiring matching suits for the men. 

It was all very exciting and something I very much wanted to be part of, as any mother would, just as I wanted to be part of the hen weekend when we took over a youth hostel in a small Yorkshire town and had a ball.

After the wonderful wedding we looked after Catrin for a few days while her parents went away. 

However, Catrin hadn't been back long when my husband, Denis, developed a severe infection in his lungs. For months they were unable to clear it and I was extremely concerned as he had battled with lung cancer four years ago. As he could do so little for himself without becoming frighteningly breathless, writing took a back seat while I cared for him.

He is slightly recovered now and able to do more for himself and so now I am ready for Christmas, I would like to be back to the work-in-progress until the festive season is upon us. But again it will have to be shelved as my daughter-in-law’s mother died almost a fortnight ago, which is sad for me too for I knew her very well, and we will soon be travelling to Birmingham for the funeral.

My publisher knows all about the difficulties I have had this year and they have been very understanding and are publishing another of my backlist ahead of the new book to give me more time. This book, out in May, is called ‘Love Me Tender’ - Elvis eat your heart out!

Let’s hope 2015 is not quite so turbulent and I will be able to settle down to some serious writing.

Tuesday, 16 December 2014

Tips for Being a Domestic Writer-Goddess at Christmas

Feeling stressed? Tearing your hair out, wondering how on earth you’re going to get everything ready for Christmas without completely neglecting the novel? Well read on, because a few of the Novelistas have some tips for staying calm over the holiday period...

Annie Burrows: “My first tip is get online if you can and order your big Christmas shop from your favourite supermarket, and get them to deliver it to your home. I know some of them charge up to a fiver for this – but think of all the time you save queuing, and trying to find a parking space, and getting soaked (because it always seems to pour with rain when the only parking space is at the furthest corner of the supermarket car park). And yes, there may be one or two items that don't arrive, but then they wouldn't have been on the shelves if you'd gone to get them yourself, so you would still have had to go to the corner shop for the cranberry sauce/hovis/holly-sprigged loo rolls.

And it's Christmas - you deserve to treat yourself!”

And your second tip, Annie? “Don’t take on extra blogging!”

June Francis: “In the run-up to Christmas, I find it's best to give one day over to writing. I can concentrate on the characters and plot that way, and the next day think about and do Christmassy things.”

Valerie-Anne Baglietto: “I start all my shopping weeks in advance so there's not masses of last minute stuff. Then, once the kids are off school for the holidays, I accept that I won’t get any writing done so I make the most of enjoying family time instead. Of course, as I said in a previous post, the writing muscle is always at work, so even while I'm busy baking Christmas cookies with the kids (because I always seem to turn into Mary Berry at this time of year) I can't hold back the plot twists and ideas that insist on swirling through my head. So my final tip: ALWAYS keep a notebook and pen handy... on the kitchen counter, by the stash of nuts on the sideboard that never seem to get shelled, or even under the Christmas tree."

Louise Marley: "My advice would be to not even try! Make sure all your deadlines have been met and then give yourself over to organising Christmas. If you try to do everything you'll be the one going crackers. Enjoy spending time with your family and keep a notebook handy to write down any ideas. Somewhere round about 3.00 pm on Christmas Day you'll find the kids have disappeared to play with their new toys and everyone else has nodded off. You now have the choice between the washing up or turning those ideas into a story. Don't disappoint me!"

Johanna Grassick: “Like Valerie-Anne, I can’t get much done once everyone’s home, so I suggest you regard it as time for filling the well of creativity. Watch lots of films, read lots of books, spend time catching up with friends and family – it’s all ‘research’ for plots and characters! If you're really brave, you could try getting up early and getting an hour's work in while everyone else is in bed. It's better than nothing and it keeps the book ticking over in your mind.”

Happy Christmas from the Novelistas!

Friday, 12 December 2014

My Favourite Christmas Tradition by Sophie Claire

I remember attending a marriage preparation course once where the facilitator said: “You’re weeks away from getting married, knee-deep in organising photos and cake and table decorations. Well, today we’re going to put all that to one side and focus on what marriage is really about.”

There was an audible sigh of relief around the room, and that feeling is what I get when, on Christmas Eve, we meet our good friends and head for the hills. 

Our two families go for a long walk usually in the Pennines, occasionally in the snow, and then back home for soup and bread. Afterwards, we sit around chatting over cups of tea while the children hang out.

It’s deliberately simple, and that’s what I love about it. Time out from preparing gifts and food, from fretting over decorations and frippery. Just family and friendship.

And isn’t that what this time of year should be about?

Monday, 8 December 2014

A Satsuma and a Sugar Mouse by Trisha Ashley


When I was a little girl I always knew that at the bottom of my stocking would be a delicious-smelling, loose-skinned Satsuma, a handful of nuts (why?  I was hardly likely to be able to crack them with my teeth!) and a sugar mouse.

I’m sure the sugar mice for the Rhymer’s annual Mouse Hunt in Every Woman for Herself were made by Em the traditional way, using uncooked egg white for the fondant, but I’ve devised this simple recipe using only icing sugar and tinned evaporated milk.  You can add a little liquid glycerine for a slightly softer fondant. I just form my mice by hand, but you can get plastic and silicone moulds for them, too.

Trisha Ashley's Sugar Mice

6oz/175g icing sugar
A tin of evaporated milk
Sugar balls for the eyes
Thin string for the tails
Food colouring, if desired
Half a teaspoon of glycerine (optional)

Put the icing sugar into a bowl and slowly add the evaporated milk a teaspoonful at a time until you can form a fondant dough.  If you overdo the milk, just add more sugar till you get the right consistency.
At this stage, you can divide up the dough and add a tiny drop of food colour to each batch, kneading in well. I like to leave half my mice white and colour the rest pink, but one year I made green peppermint mice.
On a board sprinkled with icing sugar, form the fondant into small pear shapes, pinching one end into a pointy nose and two rounded ears. Press in little silver sugar balls for eyes. 
For a traditional tail, pierce the back of the mouse with a skewer and then push in the end of a short piece of thin string. (Caution: do not eat the string unless you are seriously short of roughage.)

Allow to dry and harden, then store in a box or tin lined with greaseproof paper till needed. 

Every Woman for Herself is available from: Amazon UK and Amazon US

Thursday, 4 December 2014

I is for...Internet by Annie Burrows

On the first Friday of the month, Novelista Annie Burrows shares snippets from her writing life.  In alphabetical order.  This month she's reached the letter I

When I first started writing, I used a small word processor which I got second hand.  I used floppy disks (which regularly got corrupted) to save my work.  And when I wanted to do any research I went to my local library.

I used to spend hours browsing around the stacks, desperately searching for that one nugget of information I needed, and getting pretty frustrated in the process.  I never did find a book that could tell me where troops used to embark during the Peninsular War, or how often injured officers got sent home - though there were half a dozen biographies of Lord Wellington.

Eventually I realized I was going to have to cut back on the time I spent doing this sort of research, and concentrate on writing the story, or I was never going to get anywhere.  So - I couldn't find out where the troops disembarked from - did I really need to put it in my story?  Couldn't my heroine just receive a letter saying that her brother/uncle/sweetheart had sailed?

I still spent a lot of time going through second-hand bookshops, hoping to find that one book which would have the specific bit of information I wanted, and in the process learning all sorts of things that might come in useful one day (and subsequently have).

The next computer I bought (again, second hand so it was practically on its last legs) had a button I could press which would connect me to the internet.  Which opened up a whole new world of research possibilities.  Whatever I wanted to know about, you could bet someone had written an article (or blog, as online articles are known - mad, eh?) about it.

And now came a whole new form of time-wasting.  Instead of getting on a bus and going into town, where I would spend hours finding out virtually nothing useful, I could now waste an entire morning finding out a whole lot more than I ever actually needed to know.   Because every article (sorry, blog) seemed to have a link to another blog about something connected to the topic, which looked absolutely fascinating.   So I may have started out wanting to find what kind of rifle a soldier would have carried in 1815, and instead found a page which told me all about the parlour games people would have played during Christmas of 1814, and then stumbled upon all the information I'd wanted to find out about troop movements in the Peninsula three books ago!

I now regularly use one site to find colourful phrases for my characters to use, another to make sure that the language I put into my character's mouths was actually in use at the time they were alive, and another when I want to describe a Regency dance.
So - internet - good for research?  Yes, in that it's easier to find out exactly what I want to know.
However, I now have to be careful that I don't just end up wandering through the stacks of knowledge available to me from my own armchair, instead of getting on with the story.

And don't get me started on facebook.  Yes, it's a great way to keep in touch with readers and friends.  But do I really need to watch that video of a dog going berserk in obedience school?  Again?

Or post a picture of myself in the style of a French impressionist?

To find out more about how Annie wastes her time, you can find her on facebook.

Her latest book, a Regency romance, is "Lord Havelock's List" and can be purchased from Amazon UK