Each Christmas for the last three years, I have enjoyed taking part in Helen Hollick’s “Story Song” blog series, which is a bit like an advent calendar of stories.
Every day between 1st and 24th December, she posts a new story by a different author. Each story is inspired by a song, and readers are invited to guess the song by reading the story. You can read all of the stories on her blog completely free of charge.
This year, my contribution is a new Sophie Sayers short story set at Christmas, called The Secret Ministry of Frost.
It also features some characters from my St Bride’s School novel series.
Click the linkbelow to read this heartwarming new story for free:
Will you be able to guess the song by the end of the story?
Award yourself a bonus point if you have already recognised the poem that the title comes from!
***Please feel free to share the link to the story with anyone who might enjoy it.***
Although my Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries series includes a novel set at Christmas (Murder in the Manger), the cosy world of Sophie’s Cotswold village, Wendlebury Barrow, is a rich source of festive stories, and I plan to write enough to fill a little book with them in time for Christmas 2022. More news on that nearer the time!
In the meantime, I wish you a merry Christmas, with lots of good books under your Christmas tree, and a new year filled with peace, joy and love.
As a longstanding fan of the Pirates of the Caribbean ride in Disneyland, which I first visited in the original theme park in California at the age of eight, I was delighted to discover when I first met Helen Hollick that one of the series of historical novels she writes has as its hero a charming pirate Captain Jesemiah Acorne whose adventures often take him to the Caribbean.
The smash-hit Jack Sparrow films came much later than the theme-park ride, and I believe it’s the only case of the ride inspiring the film rather than the other way around.
Just like the ride and the films, Helen’s pirate novels plunge you into the Caribbean, amongst other places, including, closer to her home and mine, the rolling hills of Exmoor in Devon. I’m delighted to welcome Helen to my blog today to tell us all about her travels with her books!
Hello, Helen, and welcome! To set the scene, could you please your books’ setting on the globe
Now, this is going to be one of those ‘which one shall I use?’ moments. You see, my Sea Witch Voyagesare set in various locations because they are, well, voyages aboard a ship – the Sea Witch – with a pirate and his crew. Captain Jesamiah Acorne finds himself getting into trouble from Jamaica to Devon, from Virginia to the Bahamas via Cape Town, South Africa! However, as it is rather cold here in the UK at the moment, let’s head for somewhere warm …Port Royal, Jamaica!
Please briefly describe the books you have set in the Caribbean.
When The Mermaid Sings is a prequel novella to my Sea Witch Voyages series telling the story of how Jesamiah fled his home in Virginia because of his bullying elder half-brother. He is seeking a sailor friend of his father – but ends up finding more than he bargained for: the ghost of his father, Captain Morgan, a mermaid – and the start of a life of piracy!
What makes Port Royal, Jamaica, such a great setting for fiction?
Back in the late 1600s Port Royal was known as ‘The Wickedest Town In The World’ because of all the pirates and privateers who dropped anchor in the harbour. So much looted Spanish treasure was taken there, even servants were well off financially.
Unfortunately, in 1692 a massive earthquake destroyed most of the town and killed thousands of people.
The harbour remained, but the town was never rebuilt – Kingston was established on the other side of the bay instead. I wanted to make When The Mermaid Sings a partial ghost story, so Port Royal was an ideal location for Jesamiah to go to.
What is your relationship with Jamaica and how much of your life have you spent there?
None at all! I’ve never been to the Caribbean – however, later in the series (Ripples In The Sand, Voyage Four and On The Account, Voyage Five,) I bring Jesamiah and his wife (he’s grown up since When The Mermaid Sings) to Devon, England, so I have many scenes set in and around Barnstaple on the North Devon coast, and on Exmoor, both of which I know very well as I live nearby!
What is special about the people native to Devon?
May I mention one real person in particular? My previous editor, Jo Field, now retired, used to live at Instow not far from Barnstaple. I used to live in East London, so visited her twice a year for a writer’s chinwag and a holiday. It was because of where she lived that I decided to bring Jesamiah (and his ship, Sea Witch) to Devon, and consequently I also fell in love with the place. In 2012 we won the lottery (on the opening night of the London Olympics) and decided to move to Devon.
I hadn’t realised, all those times that I came on the train to visit Jo, travelling from Exeter to Barnstaple, that I would be passing right by the house I now live in!
I can see a section of the Tarka Line railway as it winds through the Taw Valley from my bedroom window – it’s like looking down on my very own real model railway!
If your protagonist or other characters come from elsewhere, what challenges do they face dealing with the local people?
Jesamiah was born in Virginia, the son of an English privateer and a Spanish mother. I rather assume he would have a typical Colonial Virginian accent – which is quite far removed from the Devon dialect. When he first sets foot ashore at Appledore he has a bit of a job understanding some of the Devonshire words, as the following excerpt from Ripples In The Sand shows:
The rain had started to lash down as Jesamiah kicked open the door to the Full Moon and negotiated his way through, taking care not to scrape or bump Tiola enfolded in his arms and wrapped in a swathe of blankets.
The landlady, a homely woman in her early thirties, bustled from behind the counter concern bubbling from her as energetically as the wisps of hair escaping beneath her lace cap. “Oh my, the poor maid looks nigh on exhausted.” She shooed away an elderly man sitting before the fire, ushering him to another seat. “Set ‘er down ‘ere Cap’n. The girl’s lighted the vire upstairs an’ put a pan in t’warm the sheets. It be a nice corner room overlookin’ the harbour, it’ll do you cheerily.” She pursed her lips and tutted. “I suggest you keep them shutters closed ‘cross the smaller side winder though, sir. The view o’ the drang oft’n be not respec’able.”
Grumbling beneath his breath the old man, as bald as a coot but with a great bush of a white beard, took his half empty tankard of cider along with his pipe and baccy pouch, and shambled to a settle near the window. He sat, sniffed disdainfully and wiped his nose on the cuff of his coat, which he ostentatiously drew closer around his chest, then turned the collar up against the draught. “It be goin’ t’snow on them moors,” he predicted. “Prob’ly ‘ere an’ all. Vruzzen in us’ll be.”
“Drang?” Jesamiah queried, not recognising the word and struggling to understand the conversation. Tiola had a slight Cornish burr, but his ear was not attuned to this unfamiliar Devon dialect. He shrugged, guessed he would pick it up soon enough.
The old man chuckled. “Nowt wrong with Cock Lane tha’ an ‘ealthy man can’t be makin’ good use ov.”
Getting the gist of the statement Jesamiah raised an eyebrow, was about to repeat his ‘drang’ question, but let it pass.
The typical ‘pirate speak’ that we think of (‘arr’ and such) actually originates from Robert Newton who played Long John Silver in Treasure Island. He was a Cornishman so improvised his West Country accent. Many sailors – and pirates – came from Cornwall, Devon and Bristol, so all had a similar accent, including Sir Francis Drake and Sir Walter Raleigh.
What are the distinguishing features of one of the destinations you write about in terms of geography, geology, flora, fauna or any other detail you care to mention?
I will take us to Exmoor, as I know it better than Jamaica. (Although as I write this, in mid-January, I believe it is snowing up on the moors, so Jamaica would be warmer!)
Exmoor is a wild place – it is even home to the wild Exmoor ponies (we have three moorland bred ponies of our own on our farm). The moor was made famous by RD Blackmore’s Lorna Doone, and indeed I have borrowed the Doones and used their fictional descendants in Ripples and Account.
The north coast of Exmoor rises steeply from the sea, giving glorious views, although usually also windswept ones. There is a particular geological features of rocky outcrop that looks a little like the ruins of a castle. Many Victorian poets visited this incredible geological feature, Robert Southey in August 1799, was impressed, describing it as ‘… the very bones and skeletons of the earth’.
In On The Account, Jesamiah’s wife, Tiola Oldstagh (who is actually a white witch) spends the night on Exmoor, described in the following extract:
An hour after dusk had settled into the star-frosted night, Tiola fed another stick into her meagre fire. The wood was damp and it gave off more smoke than heat, but it was better than nothing up here on the windswept openness of Exmoor’s exposed coast. She was sheltered in the hollow behind the magnificent tor of rocks that separated the valley from the sea, three hundred feet below. A place steeped in myth, legend and mystery. It was said that the Devil had resided in a castle of rock with his many wives, but angered at their infidelity he had blasted the eyrie to pieces. All that remained were the bare, jagged bones; the skeleton rocks piled stone upon stone. Nothing but a story, an old tale to explain the strangeness of a natural glacial formation – the Devil did not exist, but Tiola was aware that something was lurking out there in the darkness, watching her.
The stick flared into flame and the light caught the glint of an eye a few yards off. Tucking a loose strand of her black hair behind her ear, Tiola calmly added more wood to the fire and smiled to herself. This was the Valley of the Rocks, known also for the herds of feral goats that thrived on the coarse sea-salt grass. A huffed snort and a stream of misted breath evaporated into the cold air. A wild pony then, not a goat; one of the distinctive two-thousand-year-old Exmoor breed with their thick, weather-resistant, shaggy coats and light-coloured muzzles. Had she borrowed such a pony from the stables at Tawford Barton she would be at her destination by now, but her mission was secret and she wanted to know who had been watching her these past seven days, and had followed her, this night, up on to the moor.
What are your top tips for any readers planning to travel to the setting of your book?
To Jamaica – watch out for pirates, and parrots who have learnt to sample the beer from kegs in the taverns … of course, that only applies if you can also time travel back to the 1690s!
To Exmoor – take stout walking boots and something warm and dry to wear. Even on sunny days it is windy up there… but breathtakingly beautiful.
‘Only in Port Royal…’ name three things that could only happen there!
In November 1720 you would have seen the trial of Anne Bonney and Mary Reed, the female pirates who sailed with Calico Jack Rackham. Mary died in gaol, Rackham was hanged, but no one knows what happened to Anne.
Time travel back a little further, and you could meet Captain Morgan, who was a privateer against the Spanish, but then became Governor of Jamaica … and yes, he is the Captain Morgan who gave his name to the rum!
‘Jamaica Gold’ – pineapples – used to be highly valuable because Jamaica was one of the few places where they grew, were easy to harvest and transport back to the Colonies – and even England.
Because of its rarity, and the difficulty in keeping it fresh during a long sea voyage, the pineapple was regarded as the food of the wealthy. For the well-to-do, ‘visiting’ either for afternoon tea, or to dine, was one of the prime sources of entertainment. Social intercourse was a way to show off what you had, and an essential way to keep up with the local gossip and news. Status, and the ability to show it, was an essential element. Keeping up with the Joneses is nothing new!
The Colonial hostess would seek subtle ways to brag about what she had, and would take great pains to outdo her neighbours. Elegant furniture, sumptuous and elaborate gowns, exquisite china and silver tableware, fine linens, expensive tea… Food was displayed on platters and arranged in elaborate pyramid styles, often dripping with sugar. Dinner was a culinary delight and always extravagant.
The laid table would be kept as a surprise, behind closed doors until the moment to reveal all came. Fresh fruit was a grand thing to be displayed, but topping it all would be the pineapple. It was rare, expensive, and wonderful to look at, touch – and eat. It was the crowning celebrity-status glory of the feast.
Have you ever noticed stone pineapples outside houses? To have one on display at a dinner party meant you’d made it to the top of the tree – but fruit doesn’t stay fresh for long, so it soon became popular to place stone ones on gateposts and such to indicate a wealthy household, and also as a sign of welcome. So keep an eye out for the not-so-humble pineapple!
Are there any other authors’ books with the same setting that you’d like to recommend?
Dozens, but I am going to cheat and select Jamaica Inn by Daphne du Maurier. It was – still is – a real pub, on Bodmin Moor, Cornwall, named by the Trelawney family who founded it in 1750, from the money they made in Jamaica – and for the smuggled rum which passed through on its way from Cornwall to London. Du Maurier wrote her story after being stranded there in thick fog one night.
Where is your latest book set?
Somewhere completely different! A north-east London suburb, Chingford, where I was born in 1953, brought up and worked until the early 1980s. A Mirror Murderis a cosy mystery set in 1971 with the lead character, Jan Christopher, working (as I did!) as a library assistant.
I decided to give writing a murder mystery a go after being inspired by Debbie’s wonderful Sophie Sayers Series! (I confess, I am a little in love with Hector – although this might be because he owns a bookshop!)
Here’s an introduction to A Mirror Mystery:
Eighteen-year-old library assistant Jan Christopher’s life is to change on a rainy Friday evening in July 1971, when her legal guardian and uncle, DCI Toby Christopher, gives her a lift home after work. Driving the car, is her uncle’s new Detective Constable, Laurie Walker – and it is love at first sight for the young couple.
But romance is soon to take a back seat when a baby boy is taken from his pram, a naked man is scaring young ladies in nearby Epping Forest, and an elderly lady is found, brutally murdered…
Are the events related? How will they affect the staff and public of the local library where Jan works – and will a blossoming romance survive a police investigation into murder?
Where will your next book be set?
Which one? *laughs* I really must write the sixth Sea Witch Voyage – which starts in Gibraltar, and will feature Exmoor and Devon again – but also Spain, possibly Portugal and France as well, I’m not sure because I’m never quite certain where trouble will lead my Jesamiah…
I am also writing the second in my planned Jan Christopher Mystery series: this one will be set in Devon at Christmas. Great fun with lots of snow and murdered victims.
I’ll look forward to reading them all, Helen! Thank you so much for taking us on this virtual journey around your books today.
(All images in this post are the copyright of Helen Hollick unless otherwise stated)
ALL ABOUT HELEN HOLLICK
Helen Hollick and her family moved from London in January 2013 after finding an eighteenth-century North Devon farm house through being a ‘victim’ on BBC TV’s popular Escape To The Country show. The thirteen-acre property was the first one she was shown. She loves her new rural life, and has a variety of animals on the farm, including hens, ducks, geese, dogs, cats, Exmoor ponies and her daughter’s string of show jumpers.
First accepted for publication by William Heinemann in 1993 – a week after her fortieth birthday – Helen became a USA Today Bestseller with her historical novel, The Forever Queen (titled A Hollow Crown in the UK) with the sequel, Harold the King (US: I Am The Chosen King) being novels that explore the events that led to the Battle of Hastings in 1066. Her Pendragon’s Banner Trilogy is a fifth-century version of the Arthurian legend, and she also writes a pirate-based nautical adventure/fantasy series, The Sea Witch Voyages.
Despite being impaired by the visual disorder of glaucoma, Helen is now branching out into the cosy mystery genre with a new series of quick-read novellas. The first in her Jan Christopher Mysteries series, set in the 1970s, is out now. A Mirror Murder incorporates often hilarious memories of working for over a decade as a library assistant.
Her non-fiction books are Pirates: Truth and Tales and Life of A Smuggler. She occasionally gets time to write…
Next month: join Alison Morton for a trip to the fictitious land of Roma Nova, evolved from the ancient Roman empire in her series of alternative history novels – and for a trip to France in her new contemporary thriller, Double Identity.
(To receive each new post in your email inbox, just type your email address in the box beneath the “Follow Blog” button in the sidebar to the right of this post.)
The first story I wrote for Helen’s blog was Lighting Up Time, set at the winter solstice, and since published as an ebook, audio short, and a tiny paperback the perfect size for a stocking filler.
Last year my contribution was a short story called It Doesn’t Feel Like Christmas, set in the Hector’s House bookshop, featuring Sophie, Hector, Billy and other favourite characters from my Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries. You can read that one here – and see whether you can guess before the end which song inspired the story! (This one hasn’t made it into a book yet, but will be included in my planned Wendlebury Barrow Christmas Compendium in 2021.)
Christmas Story Present
For this year’s series, I decided to write a story I’d had in my head for a while: the return of Sophie’s late great-aunt, May Sayers, to live in the cottage that she’ll eventually leave to Sophie.
In this story we find May unexpectedly alone for Christmas, in a scenario that sadly so many people will face this festive season. Then an unexpected visit from her old friend Billy inspires the ever-resourceful May to use an old-fashioned trick to transform her lonely vigil into her most special Christmas ever.
By Christmas 2021, I’m planning to publish TheWendlebury Barrow Christmas Compendium. One of my projects over this holiday season is to write another new story inspired by the poinsettia – which I’ve just discovered rather pleasingly is named after one Joel Poinsett. More of that to follow in my story next Christmas!
Also in the new year I’m planning to write a trilogy of short stories, May Sayers Comes Home, as well as a new novel in each of the Sophie Sayers and St Bride’s Schoolseries. I’m going to be busy!
For now, have a peaceful and restorative Christmas, and I’ll look forward to catching up with you here on my blog at the end of the year.
My Other Books with a Christmas Theme
(all available in paperback and ebook – click images for ebook store links)
The third in my occasional series of interviews with author friends who love school stories
When I launched Secrets at St Bride’s, the first in my new series of school stories for grown-ups, (the story revolves around the staff rather than the pupils), I began to realise just how many of my author friends also loved school stories. I’m therefore inviting them to share on my blog their enthusiasm for their favourite.
I’ve also pledged to read any that they nominate that are new to me. You might like to read along with us.
Although I’ve known of the book for a long time, it’s one of those that I was meaning for years to get round to, and only managed it a couple of years ago. I’d also put off seeing the film until I’d read the book – so the film is now on my to-watch list!
Over to Clare Flynn to tell you about why she chose Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie as her favourite school book.
Clare Flynn, welcome to my blog! Before we begin, can you please just tell us a little about yourself for readers not already familiar with your historical novels?
I’m the author of ten historical novels and a collection of short stories. My tenth novel, The Pearl of Penang, set in Malaya around the Second World War, was published on December 5th and is the winner of The Selfies UK Awards for the UK’s best self-published novel for adults. I live on the Sussex coast and an a former Marketing Director and management consultant.
When did you first read The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie?
I can’t remember whether I read the book first or saw the film – probably around the same time and I would have been about fourteen or fifteen. I think my mum was reading it and I probably pinched her copy. I’ve recently read it again – fifty years later. Shriek!
How has your perception of the book changed with later readings?
I really enjoyed re-reading it although I can’t help hearing the unmistakable voice of Maggie Smith as Miss Brodie – impossible not to. Spark’s writing is beautiful. It defies the test of time.
I wonder whether I’d have found it harder to relate to now if I hadn’t got this nostalgic link to my past reading. Miss Brodie’s girls lived a world far removed from the experiences of schoolgirls today with their phones and social media. Yet there is so much about human nature that is still very relevant today.
What did you particularly like about this book/series and about the author? Anything you disliked?
I loved the waspish humour, in particular the way it so deftly nails Miss Brodie’s overbearing certainties and incapacity to admit alternatives. In virtually all of her absolute certainties she is to be proved wrong. It is a real lesson in hubris. In some ways, Jean Brodie is a monster – her espousal of Mussolini, Franco and Hitler (later modified to a post-war admission that ‘Hitler was rather naughty’), her determination to shape and mould her girls in her own image. Yet at the same time her desire to ‘put old heads on young shoulders’, to inspire and to stretch her pupils way beyond the confines of a narrow curriculum are praiseworthy. I’d have enjoyed being in her class.
I love the constant repetition by both Miss Brodie and her girls that she is ‘in her prime’ and they are the ‘creme de la crème‘. Miss Brodie has a complete absence of any sense of irony – Muriel Spark however has it in spades.
Here’s a typical example of an exchange between her and her pupils:
‘Who is the greatest Italian painter?’
‘Leonardo da Vinci, Miss Brodie.’
‘That is incorrect. The answer is Giotto, he is my favourite.’
Or this, regarding a poster the headmistress has stuck on the wall:
‘This is Stanley Baldwin, who got in as Prime Minister and got out again ‘ere long,‘ said Miss Brodie. ‘Miss Mackay retains him on the wall because she believes in the slogan “Safety first”. But Safety does not come first. Goodness, Truth and Beauty come first.’
Structurally the book is clever the way it jumps back and forward in its timeline – so that from the beginning the reader is aware of the future fates of the Brodie set and their teacher and her ‘betrayal’. This is a hard act to pull off by a writer and Spark succeeds brilliantly. In fact, the whole time we are a party to Miss Brodie’s self-delusion, her misplaced assumptions – particularly about Sandy. Within the first few pages we are told what each girl is ‘famous for’ – Rose ‘for sex-appeal’, Eunice ‘for spritely gymnastics and glamorous swimming’, Sandy ‘for her small, almost non-existent eyes’ and Mary MacGregor ‘for being a silent lump’. Just a few pages later in Chapter 2 we are to discover that at only twenty-four, Mary MacGregor is to die in a hotel fire, Sandy of the little ‘pig-eyes’ is to sleep with the art teacher, ‘betray’ Miss Brodie and then become a nun.
Spark is wonderful at creating a vivid sense of time and place. I was immediately pulled into the world of pre-war Edinburgh. Very prim, Presbyterian and proper.
Which character did you identify with?
I suppose I identified with the girls, particularly Sandy and Jenny – at least my memory of myself at that age. I loved the scenes where those two write romances in which their teacher engages in passion-fuelled entanglements with fictional heroes. I used to write daft stories all the time (when I was around eleven or twelve) and turn them into plays to perform with friends.
The two girls write imaginary letters between Miss Brodie and the music teacher. The last of which – when they fictionalise her declining his marriage proposal – ends
‘Allow me, in conclusion to congratulate you warmly on your sexual intercourse, as well as your singing. With fondest joy, Jean Brodie.’
I remember two or three teachers who made a big impression on me – but none in the kind of suffocating and exclusive manner Miss Brodie employed.
How did the book affect you as a child and influence you as an adult?
As a child, I was probably grateful I didn’t live the restricted life those Edinburgh girls did. I had access to television and radio – to pop music, to parties, to weekend/ holiday jobs to earn some cash – and so probably grew up faster.
In other ways, my own schooldays were similar. My school was full of teachers that were comparable with those at Marcia Blane Academy – numerous post-war, aging spinsters for whom we would create interesting backstories about how their motorbike despatch driver fiancé was killed in occupied France, or their true love blown up in the Blitz. None of them struck us as being in their prime! Mostly well over-the-hill so, instead of being unduly influenced by them, we felt rather sorry for them.
How did it affect your writing?
Muriel Spark was one of many good writers I read and absorbed from a tender age and I believe all of them must in a subliminal way have influenced my own writing. I just wish I had a fraction of her talent!
What type of school(s) did you go to yourself?
I went to a direct-grant Catholic convent then, after we moved, to a state girls’ grammar school before the comprehensive revolution began.
Were your friends also fans or did you feel that this was your own private world to escape into?
Books were a private world for me – mostly to escape from being part of a large noisy family! I shared my passion with one friend in particular and we would recommend books to each other.
Would the book still resonate with young readers today?
I hope so, but somehow, I doubt it. It is such a world apart and these days there is an expectation of ‘relatability’ – which is rather a shame.
Thanks for giving me the excuse to go back and read this again, Debbie!
Connect with Clare Flynn
Find out more about Clare Flynn’s excellent historical novels via her website www.clareflynn.co.uk, where if you sign up for her readers’ newsletter you may claim a free download of her collection of short stories, A Fine Pair of Shoes. You can also find her on Facebook as authorclareflynn, on Twitter as @ClareFly and also on Instagram as @ClareFly.
Next time in this series I’ll be talking to another historical novelist, Helen Hollick, who will be sharing her passion for stories about quite a different kind of school to Miss Brodie’s – Ruby Ferguson’s Riding School!
POSTSCRIPT: 3 Strange Coincidences
I mentioned at the start of this interview that Clare’s novel The Pearl of Penang was awarded The Selfies UK Award 2020 last month. By a strange coincidence, my school story, Secrets at St Bride’s was in the final shortlist of six novels for that award!
Clare has since published the sequel to Pearl of Penang, called Prisoner from Penang – and I’m about to publish the sequel to Secrets at St Bride’s, called Stranger at St Bride’s (due out on 1st July, the ebook is already available to order.
I’ve only just noticed that in both pairs of books, we’ve chosen alliterative titles! Kindred spirits indeed!
For more information about my School Stories for Grown-ups, and to read the first chapter of the first in series for free, click here.