My column for the January issue of the Hawkesbury Parish News
Just before Christmas, a couple of evenings after our internet and landline were felled for a week by the wrong sort of snow, I was unexpectedly detained in Bristol by the need to take my mum to the emergency room at Southmead Hospital.*
As the thick walls of our Victorian cottage don’t admit mobile signals, I was for a moment stumped as to how to let my husband know that I’d be very late home.
Then I realised the solution was simple: I’d text a neighbour to pass the message on. Unbeknown to me, she was away from home too, but she kindly forwarded the message to another neighbour a few doors down. That neighbour happened to be on the motorway at the time, but she phoned yet another neighbour, who then nipped over the road to deliver the message in person. Problem solved.
Returning home towards midnight, I was more grateful than ever to live in a community in which everyone looks out for their neighbours, and not only in the season of goodwill.
It was a bonus that this three-step system had not distorted the original message, Chinese whispers style. Not so when I first started seeing Gordon, who later became my husband, when “He is Scottish and lives in Swindon” quickly morphed into “His name’s Scottie and he comes from Sweden”.
But then, as now, intentions were of the best – and that matters far more than accuracy.
With grateful thanks to Emma Barker, Jane Shepley, and Joan Yuill, and all good Hawkesbury neighbours.
*I should add that my mum made a speedy recovery, so happy endings all round!
Thanks to the unexpected consequences of a snowfall before Christmas, I’ve fallen way behind on my blog.
Who knew that snow and internet don’t mix? Our snow felled an overhead cable, cutting off our broadband and phone line for nearly a week. This crisis was resolved only when a team of engineers dug up the road to fix it. I’m still not sure how snow affected subterranean cables, but so pathetically grateful was I to have the service restored that I was not about to query their methods.
Snow and ice also took out our Sky TV. The satellite dish was covered in snow and ice, and Sky’s technical advice when this happens is simply to wait for the thaw.
After that, I allowed real life to take over from the internet (well, it was Christmas), so I’m now starting my new blogging year already way behind. I haven’t even got round yet to sharing here the monthly columns I write for two local magazines, the Hawkesbury Parish News and the Tetbury Advertiser, and the guest posts I write on the 30th of every month for the Authors Electric collective.
I’m torn: I like to share all those things on here not only so that I have a central record of all my writing, but also because many of you tell me they enjoy reading the columns, because they give insight into life in the rural community that has inspired my Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries, and the Authors Electric post because it’s always about my writing.
But I don’t want to bombard my readers with a string of belated posts.
So what I’m going to do instead is tack those belated columns to the bottom of this post, and then carry on with my new blog plan for 2018, which is to post every Wednesday about aspects of my writing life, such as book news and extracts, event plans and reports and reading recommendations
If you have a particular question to ask about my writing life, don’t hesitate to ask, and I’ll add it to my list of blog post ideas for 2018.
Wishing you a very happy New Year full of peace, joy, love, health, fulfillment and great books!
And if you don’t want to catch up with those missing posts, click away now…
AUTHORS ELECTRIC NOVEMBER 2017
It ain’t what you tell, it’s the way that you tell it: in which Debbie Young tries not to lose the plot
Most authors at some point in their writing lives will come across the advice that there are ONLY SEVEN BASIC PLOTS – or maybe nine, or thirty-six, or various other numbers, depending on whom you consult.
If you’re the glass-half-empty type, it’s easy to think:
“Oh no, how can I ever hope to be original? Someone will have got there before me!”
Whereas glass-half-full types like me may think: “Well, Shakespeare just took existing stories and upcycled them into his plays – if it’s good enough for Shakespeare, who am I to complain?”
Those who can’t even see the glass are probably best advised to throw down their pen and take up golf instead.
The BEST thing to do is, of course, to take your choice of basic plot and wrap around it your choice your characters, themes, setting, etc etc to produce a final story that only you could write.
How Shall I Write It? Let Me Count the Ways
(Photo by MJS on Unsplash)
I took as my starting point for my latest cosy mystery novel, Murder in the Manger, one of the oldest stories in modern culture, the nativity. Sophie Sayers, the central character in this series, writes her own version of the classic Bible nativity story for the village primary school and local amateur dramatic association in the Cotswold village of Wendlebury Barrow, to which she’s recently moved.
The performance of her script is a story-within-a-story, or rather a play-within-a-play (yes, Shakespeare got there before me on that too, with the “rude mechanicals” in A Midsummer Night’s Dream). It’s a plot device which complements the themes of transformation and restoration that are wrapped around it in the novel’s main plot and various subplots.
Sophie’s Choice of Story
Sophie’s telling of the nativity includes a lot of humour, including in-jokes for the villagers, (the Innkeeper is the school admissions officer, for example), without ever being disrespectful of the Bible story or offensive to believers. At the end, the vicar even compliments her on making the story more accessible to the audience than a more erudite approach such as the medieval mystery plays, which also get a mention in the story.
I don’t know how many other novels have retold the nativity, as I have in this book – but I think even such a well-known and simple plot can be endlessly reworked and still be compelling. As Sophie’s friend Ella reassures her, when she’s worrying about whether her play will work:
You’re on to a winner, no matter what. No-one can complain that the plot is flawed, or that they can’t work out which character is which, or what their motivation is. Your audience will be determined to enjoy it, come what may. They’ll mostly be related to someone in the cast, so they’ll be willing the production to succeed. You don’t have to worry about technical hitches, because you’re not using any technology – no lights, no microphones, no recordings. What could possibly go wrong?
Of course, this being Wendlebury Barrow, things do go wrong – and by the end of the first chapter, the whole congregation gathered to watch the play is accused of murder by a mysterious stranger.
But my point remains:
a basic plot can be retold in numerous different ways without losing its power
Rather than run through a list of other written interpretations of the Christmas story, I thought I’d go visual to reinforce my point…
And into three dimensions… Not far from where I live, St John’s Church in Chipping Sodbury has just started its annual Crib Festival, which each Advent displays over a hundred different models of the stable scene, contributed by all kinds of people from toddlers to professional craftsmen, with materials as diverse as Lego and coconut shells. I’m looking forward to my annual visit there to remind myself of the many different ways to tell a story.
Sunday supplements’ suggestions for home improvements usually evoke hollow laughter in our house: the gift-wrapping room (who gives enough presents to justify dedicating a whole room to the activity?); the return of wallpaper (at £1,000+ a roll); the subterranean swimming pool (like something from a James Bond villain’s lair).
So the latest trend, the Book Nook, took me by surprise. As soon as I read about it, I wanted one.
What’s a Book Nook?
A cosy corner reserved for curling up with a good book, furnished with copious cushions and throws to keep you cosy while you escape into the pages of your current read.
A Book Nook doesn’t require much investment, provided you can find a little space somewhere in your house. That may be easier than you think. We’ve just created one from a disused inglenook fireplace, previously used primarily as a repository for the cat’s bowls where we wouldn’t fall over them.
Which leads me to suggest that the best way to identify a potential Book Nook in your house is simply to follow your cat.
Cats like to hang out in cosy corners: wide, sunny windowsills, empty alcoves, the cupboard under the stairs, even the airing cupboard. What could be cosier?
So our new Book Nook is where I’ll be heading in future when I want to lose myself in a good book, though I may have to fight the rest of the family, and probably the cat too, for the space.
Once you’ve identified your nook, if you find you’re lacking a book, just head up to the Hawkesbury Stores for the solution to your problem. I’ll be filling the book corner, at the back right of the shop, with carefully selected second-hand books for all tastes and occasions, with all proceeds going to the Stores, alongside a collection of new books by local authors.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to get back to my Book Nook…
TETBURY ADVERTISER – NOVEMBER 2017
When Every Night is Fireworks Night
The Lord Mayor of London’s proposal to abolish woodburners in the city’s Emission Zone should not have affected us out here in rural Gloucestershire, with our abundant supply of fresh air and local logs. I don’t know whether there’s a fuel equivalent to food miles, denoting how far a product travels from source to point of use, but the journey of some of the wood burned in our house can be measured in metres rather than miles.
Even so, his announcement made me realise that it was time to replace my ancient woodburning stove with a more efficient, less polluting contemporary model.
The stove itself had been hinting to us for some time that it was ready for retirement. Bits kept falling off it, and running repairs had become more frequent. By the end of last winter, we’d reached the point at which closing its multi-paned double doors had turned into a Chinese puzzle. Unfortunately, I’ve always been very bad at doing Chinese puzzles.
The stove’s efficiency was also decreasing. This went against the (wood)grain in a household fitted with solar panels, supplied by electricity from sustainable sources (Ecotricity), and populated by habitual wearers of jumpers, thermals and boots throughout the winter.
Considering that we’d bought it twenty-five years ago, second-hand, for £150, we didn’t feel it owed us anything. So we made for the nearest stove showroom, prepared to splash out. We plumped for the most environmentally-friendly woodburner on display, designed to burn wood at the optimum temperature for fuel efficiency, while minimising emissions and particulates. In short: more heat for less logs – and a conscience as clear as the new stove’s window.
Now in pride of place in our inglenook stands a neat iron box with one large rectangular window in its single door. The stove’s size and shape remind me of the television we had when I was a child, and it’s just as compelling to watch. Its clever design keeps the glass forever clear, providing a constant display of flames and sparks from an ever-changing array of kindling and logs. It’s like having a Guy Fawkes’ Night display in the comfort of my own front room.
But best of all, the fire works.
I wish you a cosy November, however you choose to keep warm.
HAWKESBURY PARISH NEWS – DECEMBER 2017
Lighting Up Time
We’re fast approaching the shortest days of the year, when in cloudy weather it feels as if it never really gets light at all.
Successive days and nights meld into one long chunk of darkness, like a forgotten bag of boiled sweets that have congealed into a single, indigestible lump.
I was therefore pleased to read in last month’s Parish News a call from Councillor Sue Hope to light up our windows on the evening of 9th December to coincide with the switching-on of Lee’s lights and the illumination of the Christmas tree on the Plain.
Actually, I’ve been channelling my inner druid since about Halloween, turning on the string of coloured lights at the front of my house to brighten up dark evenings and drive away the SAD. By that I don’t mean repelling gloomy door-to-door salesmen, but Seasonal Affective Disorder, the form of depression induced by winter months.
A few years ago, before peak Scandimania, there was a trend to display little wooden arches of electric lights, candle-style, in our front windows. The last couple of festive seasons, these seem to have all but disappeared, perhaps naturally extinguished as their bulbs failed and couldn’t be replaced.
Such are lightbulbs, and such is life. Lighting up your windows on 9th December will be more than just an act of community. It’s an assertion that despite the darkness of these dreary winter days, we stand on the cusp of a whole new year of village life. All we need to do is keep the faith, and the sunny summer days that bring the Hawkesbury Show will roll round again, no matter how far off they might seem now.
I wish you all a bright and merry Christmas, and a peaceful New Year full of life and light.
When you reach a certain stage in life, it becomes nigh impossible to know what you’d like for Christmas. Once you’ve paid off your mortgage and got the kids into net profit, if you want something, you buy it for yourself, regardless of the time of year.
Or at least you do if, like me, you are a spendthrift but with modest tastes. I’m in that happy stage between the habitual end-of-month overdraft of the heavily mortgaged and the mid-life crisis for which the prescribed cure is a sports car.
Consequently, until yesterday, my Christmas wish list was blank. Then, walking instead of driving up the road to buy a few groceries, (my usual car habit done for the sake of speed – if only Father Christmas could bring me more hours in the day, I’d put them on my list every year), I realised I longed for an old-fashioned shopping trolley.
Not the horrid trolley only ever seen in supermarkets and upside down in ponds; nor the aluminium, nylon-bagged kind; nor even the medically-oriented type with so many functions that it almost qualifies as a caravan: shopping bag, seat, balance aid. No, what I crave is the old-fashioned wicker basket on two wheels, pulled by a long wooden handle that looks like a walking stick sent out to work for its living. My grandmother, born in 1900, used hers on every expedition to her local shopping parade in the London suburb in which I grew up.
Grandma’s trolley held just enough shopping for a few meals, plus a ball of knitting wool from her named box at Rema’s, the drapers. (We bought our jumpers in installments in those days.) She could always squeeze in a quarter of sweets from the sweetshop too. Her every-other-day shopping habit had been formed when food was bought in small quantities, fresh, dried or in cans, before the fridge, never mind the freezer, had become commonplace.
When I shared a photo of such a trolley on Facebook yesterday, several friends confessed they wanted one too. We thought if we all acquired one, we might make them fashionable. After all, they do chime with the trend to shop local and on foot, rather than in a stressful supermarket sweep by car.
But my Christmas present won’t just be a low-emission form of shopping transport. It will also be a time machine, taking me back to the days before globalisation, when a trip to the shops with Grandma meant me begging for a turn to pull her wicker shopping basket on wheels. Eagerly I’d clasp the wooden handle, burnished smooth by constant use, as were Grandma’s silken hands, stilled so long ago. Perhaps the imperative to shop local on foot isn’t the real reason that I want a wicker trolley after all.
Whatever is on your Christmas list, I hope you’ve been good enough all year for Santa to oblige. And if not, there’s always 2018.
Well, that’s my blog all up to date now! Stay tuned for the first “proper” post of 2018 on Wednesday…
(This post first appeared as my December/January column in the Tetbury Advertiser, out now.)
Although we put so much effort into planning our festive celebrations, I often find the highlights of my Christmas are the moments that take me by surprise.
One such occasion occurred when I was a child, growing up in an outer suburb of London. When I was about 11, the age my daughter is now, I was for the first time considered old enough to go to the midnight church service on Christmas Eve. We weren’t a particularly religious family, but the small, plain church in our garden suburb had special significance for us. My parents had married there, we children had been christened, my grandfather was its choirmaster, and the small, rotund, gentle-manner vicar Mr Daniels, was a family friend.
The night was grey and drizzly as we entered the church, which seemed bright, warm and welcoming after our chilly walk from home. Though battling to stay awake, I enjoyed his service. I was especially impressed by the colourful model crib, but the most memorable moment was yet to come. When Mr Daniels threw open the heavy porch door for the congregation to leave, the churchyard before us lay covered in a perfect blanket of snow. Illuminated by the orange glow of street lamps, big flakes fell steadily as we gazed in wonder, never having guessed that the weather could change so much during the church service.
Yes, I know it didn’t really snow in Bethlehem, but that snowfall felt like a special Christmas blessing: deep and crisp and even, snow on snow. You have to admire God’s timing.
After serendipitous delights like this, I’m happy to leave much of my Christmas preparation to chance. An incurable last-minute merchant in any case, I know that nothing I could plan would ever surpass the wonder of the snowy walk home from church all those years ago.
For Your Christmas Stocking
My love of festive surprises influenced my latest book Stocking Fillers, a collection of twelve humorous short stories about the festive season.. Each tale follows a different character as they prepare for Christmas, from a small boy who tries to give Santa time management lessons, to an old lady celebrating what’s likely to be her last Christmas. Though not all the characters are loveable, I hope you’ll find them entertaining and memorable.
But you don’t have to take my word for it. Just before writing this column, I received a lovely surprise – the first official review of the book, which describes it as follows: “A delightful celebration of all things Christmas, Stocking Fillers features 12 funny, thoughtful, surprising and heartwarming tales that will get you in the festive spirit. Debbie Young’s writing is thoroughly engaging. If you’re looking to put some of the magic back into Christmas, and rediscover the reason for the season, start by treating yourself to this lovely read.” Well, that surprise has made my Christmas already.
I wish you a very Merry Christmas, and may it be filled with wonder and surprises of your own.
Stocking Fillers is now available to order as an ebook online and in paperback from good bookshops everywhere.
(New post about how a stray cat turned up in the first winter snow storm)
On the first day that the snow fell during this latest cold snap, snowbound at home and idly dabbling on my netbook, I spot a notice on a friend’s Facebook page:
Is anyone in Hawkesbury missing a cat? quite a small cat -white with patches of colour? He/she is very hungry (just devoured 2 tins of tuna), and sheltering in my next door neighbour’s open garage. Please ask around, the cat needs to go home xxx
Feeling skittish, as it’s my birthday, I post my reply without a moment’s hesitation:
If no-one claims her, I could have a cat for my birthday! Just need to persuade Gordon….
I’ve been thinking for a long time that I’d like to have a cat again. It’s several years since my last one died, but I’ve made a deal with myself that I’ll only do so if one decides to acquire me – i.e. a stray turns up on my doorstep. Turning up on a neighbour’s doorstep (where there live two big dogs) is the next best thing.
The reason for my wavering is that one of my very best friends is allergic to cats. It was a consoling factor when my last cat died that this friend would be able to visit me at home without risking hospitalisation.
A snowy day is a quiet day, even with my daughter home from school, which is closed due to the weather. I figure that temporarily hosting this cat while we track down its owner will produce a welcome source of entertainment for us both for the afternoon. With the SOS already doing the rounds on Facebook, it surely won’t be long before we’re able to witness a happy reunion for the cat and its owner.
Another neighbour, also on Facebook, calls to check whether I’m serious.
“It’s a lovely little white cat, Deb,” he says. “I’d have it, but my cat wouldn’t like it.”
I nod and my daughter beams. Moments later, he returns, bearing cat.
It is indeed a beautiful cat, and not just white. Its thick fur is a multitude of black and ginger blotches, against a white background. It looks as if it’s been made from leftover bits of other cats. Its black-rimmed amber eyes remind me of Cleopatra’s. Google advises me that it’s a calico cat, which I’m pleased about. I’ve always wanted one of those, without actually knowing what that name meant.
Speaking of names – what to call it? There’s no collar , although the creature’s immaculate, dense fur and easy manner in our presence suggests that it’s domesticated.
“I think I’ll call it Dora, because it keeps Exploring,” decides Laura, as the cat flattens itself to creep beneath our kitchen counters.
Dora later elongates to Dorothy, without us making a conscious decision. Perhaps the name has been subliminally suggested by the postcard, propped up on the dresser, of Judy Garland’s famous ruby slippers from the film of the Wizard of Oz. Or maybe, like the Cowardly Lion, it’s just got lots on its way along the Yellow Brick Road (a nickname given, incidentally, to the part of the Cotswold Way that runs behind our village).
I confine Dorothy to the back of the house (kitchen, utility room, bathroom), while we gauge its grasp of housetraining. Our neighbour returns with cat food, bound to be needed later, even though he’s just fed it two tins of tuna before he brought it down. Dorothy had apparently eaten them voraciously. No wonder she’s looking plump.
I put down on a dish on the floor the bacon rind left over from breakfast. Whoosh! With the speed of the dirt in a Cillit Bang advert, it’s gone. Dorothy looks up hopefully from the empty dish. Moments later, a sachet of cat food is inside her.
“Mummy, why does Dorothy’s tummy keep twitching?” Laura asks.
Gingerly, if you’ll forgive the pun, I encircle the cat’s tummy with my hands. It’s solid. And moving.
A new scenario pops into my mind.
“I hope she’s not been dumped because she’s pregnant.”
It’s happened round here before: city-dwellers abandoning unwanted pregnant cats in the village, assuming the poor creature will find a new berth catching mice on a farm. Call me cynical, but I don’t believe the cats make it out here on their own, Dick Whittington style, setting off from home to in search of streets paved with Whiskas. And certainly not in snow.
We make the cat a bed in a cardboard box and turn an old washing-up bowl into a litter tray filled with dirt from a discarded plant pot in the conservatory (there’s no digging up the garden under snow). Laura, ever the bountiful hostess, makes it toys to play with and reads it stories as they lie on their tummies together on the floor. She wonders how long it would take her to teach it to read.
Meanwhile, cleaning out the litter tray, I’m beginning to remember the disadvantages of cat ownership. I take a picture and put it on Facebook with the message:
If you recognise this cat, please notify its owners and put them in touch with me to reclaim it
One week on, and Dorothy must surely be thinking “There’s no place like home.”
Well, that’s it, I’m finally ready Christmas. It’s just a pity that Christmas couldn’t wait a little longer for me.
On December 1st, the inescapable countdown begins, and my heart sinks a little lower with every passing day. No, not the countdown to Christmas Day – opening presents and eating too much I can cope with. What I dread is the arrival of the last posting date for Christmas cards.
Always, I buy my cards in plenty of time for that deadline, picking up tany that strike my fancy as and when I see them. I’m very particular, avoiding anything fluffily sentimental or inappropriately commercial. Favourite designs are those depicting snowy postboxes (ironic, considering my aversion) because I live in an old post office, wintry Cotswold scenes reminiscent of my own village, and anything at all in support of my favourite charity, the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation (JDRF).
I spend a great deal of time thinking about the friends and relations I’ll be sending them to, fondly recalling their last year’s Christmas message, wondering how this year has treated them, and selecting snippets of my news to tell them. But my inspiration always falls at inappropriate times when I don’t have a Christmas card to hand – driving in the car, pushing a trolley round the supermarket, submerged in the bath.
Meanwhile the blur that is Advent begins, with a rush of Christmas shopping, nativity plays, carol concerts, and parties at home, school and work. In such a social whirlwind, it’s all I can do to keep the household running smoothly, with quick pit-stops between events. And I like to get the house extra clean and tidy so that it’s a more pleasant place in which to spend the extended holiday. The house doesn’t dust itself, you know (contrary to my husband’s apparent belief).
Around 5th December, I make a start on the cards, transferring my stockpile from my Christmas cupboard (well, it gives me the illusion of being prepared) to my desk. Then I amass my various address books, paper and electronic, and the writing process begins.
The people who are only due a simple greeting message get priority treatment. Those meriting a letter are set aside to be picked off one at a time later, in reverse order of the likely length of the letter. Thus the friends to whom I plan to send the longest letters receive theirs last of all. They may appear to suffer from the greatest neglect, but my intentions for them are of the very best.
This year, they’ve had to wait a very long time indeed. I know myself better these days than to stock up on Christmas second-class stamps. I accept that the second class posting deadline will have come and gone long before my cards are ready to send. First class it will have to be. But what I really need this year is some sort of uber-first-class, a time-travelling stamp that can make a card posted after Christmas Day arrive a few days beforehand. Only today have I finally finished and posted the final card, slinking furtively up to the pillarbox, slipping them through the slot as guiltily as if despatching a signed confession.
This year, I’m thankful that any friends who don’t read my blog may just blame the snow for the delay in receiving a card from me. When my missive finally arrives, they may be glad to have belated proof that I’m not dead. But my honest nature compels me to confess my inadequacy.
By chance, one of the cards I chose this year had a 12 Days of Christmas theme. I’m hoping that recipients will pick up the subliminal message that the festive season doesn’t officially end till January 6th. That would left me off the hook.
However, sufficient is my chagrin to make me resolve to do better next year. Some people I know start their Christmas shopping in the January sales. Maybe I should resolve to start writing my 2011 Christmas cards the moment the new year dawns.
Happy New Year, everyone. No, actually, make that Merry Christmas!