I’m pleased to announce the publication of my latest book, The Natter of Knitters, a light-hearted story about a village knitting campaign that goes somewhat awry, with entertaining results.
Here’s how some early reviewers have described it so far:
“Top writing!” “Warm and witty”. “Heartwarming.” “Totally enjoyable and unputdownable.” “Can’t wait for more.”
The Natter of Knitters is the first in a new spin-off series from my Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries called Tales from Wendlebury Barrow. It features Sophie Sayers and many of the key players from my village mystery series, plus the usual intrigue, village gossip and humour, but without the murders! Each story will also introduce a new character from the village. This time, it’s Ariel Fey, an enigmatic loner new to the village who hopes to turn self-sufficient.
Each of the Tales will be a quick read, about a quarter as long as one of my novels. Technically speaking, that makes it a novelette or a short novella.
Why the Short Format?
The idea for this new series came to me last summer when I was writing The Pride of Peacocks, the short novella available exclusively to those who join my Readers’ Club mailing list. (Join here if you haven’t already done so and would like to claim your free ebook!) I really enjoyed writing it, and readers have also been enthusiastic.
More Fun Topics to Follow
The shorter format will allow me to cover many more topics in a shorter time-frame than if I saved every idea for a novel of its own. And I have plenty of ideas, inspired by things I see in real life all around me every day, here in the beautiful Cotswolds countryside, where I’ve lived in a close-knit village for nearly thirty years.
Other topics that I’m storing up in my ideas book include:
wild birds and birds’ nests
a crash-landing of a hot-air balloon
a mysterious field full of poppies
a jigsaw puzzle race
One unifying factor will be that the title of each will be a collective noun, whether one that’s long-established, such as The Pride of Peacocks, or a whimsical one invented by me, as in The Natter of Knitters! (I am having fun!)
I will of course be continuing to write full-length novels as well. The sixth Sophie Sayers Village Mystery, Murder Your Darlings, is due out at the end of February, and I’m half-way through writing the second St Bride’s story, Secrets at St Bride’s, with a view to publishing in the early summer.
Ebook and Paperback
The Natter of Knittersis now available in ebook and paperback. Yes, paperback too! Although it’s much shorter than a novel, I know that a lot of my readers prefer paperbacks to ebooks, and I didn’t want to let them down.
So, inspired by the little books you often see by the till in high street bookshops, such as the Penguin 80 series, I decided to issue the Tales of Wendlebury Barrow in a similar format. The size of a picture postcard (6″ x 4″), they are adorably cute, and perfect for slipping into your pocket or handbag to read on the move. They also make great gift ideas, fitting neatly inside a birthday card.
How to Order Your Copy
Paperback: click here to order online. From March, you should also be able to order it via your local bookshop – just quote ISBN 9781911223511 to help them find it on their database. (If you have trouble sourcing a paperback, just send me a message and I’ll despatch one to you myself and take your payment online.)
Ebook:click here to place your order in your preferred ebook format, wherever you are in the world.
Now to Whet Your Appetite with the First Couple of Pages…
1 Flash Bang
A bomb in Wendlebury Barrow?
Clive Wren, the local paper’s photographer, could hardly believe his good fortune. For once he was in the right place at the right time to scoop a news story worthy of the front page. It made a welcome change from his usual tedious assignments, snapping endless staged presentations of giant cheques or forced line-ups of local sports teams, new school classes or old biddies celebrating significant birthdays and anniversaries. This was the closest he’d ever get to his dream of reporting from a war zone, and he was going to make the most of it.
Along with the rest of the crowd assembled around the village green, Clive had jumped at the sound of the explosion. Without missing a beat, he pressed and held down the shutter button to capture a series of photos a split second apart. Thus he recorded the passage of time as charcoal-black smoke emerged from the device hidden in an innocuous clump of grass in front of the old oak tree. Dark tendrils curled up among the branches and reached out to wrap tentacles around onlookers. And on the precise spot where the device had exploded, to everyone’s surprise, there emerged like a genie from a lamp—
But there was no time to gawp. Clive had better call it a wrap and scoot back to the office before any locals shared the photos they’d snapped on their phones, which, via social media, might reach his picture editor before he did. If he was quick, he’d just have time before his next shoot at Slate Green. He could gather the facts later.
AND FINALLY… Enter my Readers’ Club Prize Draw to Win Sophie’s Luxury Scarf
On 14th February, I’ll be holding a prize draw in which one lucky member of my Readers’ Club will win the scarf knitted by Sophie in The Natter of Knitters, in four beautiful floral blues, in a luxury mix of merino, cashmere and silk. If you’re not yet a member of my Readers’ Club, click here to sign up now, and I’ll add your name to the draw.
In my first post of 2020, I’m pleased to invite you to enter an exclusive prize draw to win an item that features in my new novella!
Happy New Year to you! To brighten up what can be a gloomy time of year in the English countryside where I live, I’ve decided to hold a prize draw to mark the launch of my imminent novella. The Natter of Knitters will be the first in my new Tales from Wendlebury Barrow series, featuring Sophie Sayers and friends, plus plenty of new and interesting characters.
The Natter of Knitters is about a village yarnbombing event that goes wrong. The plan is to wrap a tree on the village green in handknitted scarves to raise awareness of the plight of the homeless, before the scarves are sent to an appropriate charity for distribution.
As always, Sophie finds herself volunteering to take part, despite not knowing how to knit. – but as as Carol blithely tells her, “Everyone can knit once they know how.”
From the basket in Carol’s shop, Sophie chooses wool in four floral shades of blue: forget-me-not, bluebell, cornflower and hyacinth.
Forget-me-nots are a recurring motif in the Sophie Sayers series. In her fourth adventure, Murder by the Book, her bookseller boyfriend Hector, secretly a romantic novelist, presents her on Valentine’s Day with a book called The Girl with Forget-me-Not Eyes – the colour of Sophie’s eyes, of course!
And the prize is…
The scarf Sophie knits in the story, handcrafted in a luxury mix of fine merino, silk and cashmere – see the “before” picture of the raw materials at the top of this post.
If you’d like a chance to win the finished scarf, all you have to do is join my mailing list. When you subscribe, you’ll also have the option to download a free ebook of another Sophie Sayers novella, The Pride of Peacocks. Current members of my list will also be included in the draw.
The draw will take place on 14th February 2020. Romantic? Moi?
The Natter of Knitters will be published on or before 14th February. (I’ll confirm the precise date shortly.)
A Valentine’s Day Mystery
In the meantime, if you fancy a topical read between now and then, the fourth Sophie Sayers Village Mystery, Murder by the Book,, runs from the beginning of January to Valentine’s Day, and is available as an ebook from Amazon and all other major ebook stores, and as a paperback either from Amazon or to order from your local neighbourhood bookshop (just quote ISBN 978-1911223269 and they’ll be able to order it in for you).
As my Christmas present to you, here is a new free short story, available to read right here on my website, set in the world of the Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries. It’s not a murder mystery, just a bit of feel-good fun that will transport you straight into Hector’s House, the Wendlebury Barrow village bookshop, as Sophie and friends get ready for the festive season.
“It doesn’t feel the least bit like Christmas,” I complained to Hector as I added another couple of books to our window display of festive gift ideas. The sky was a pure, clear forget-me-not blue, the air was still, and the sun beamed down fit to melt the fake snow on the inside of the glass.
“Just think of it as a green Christmas rather than a white one,” replied Hector, closing the door behind a departing customer. “After all, we’re giving a new lease of life to all that packaging material.”
Whenever either of us had a moment, we’d uncrumple the kraft paper that came wedged into our suppliers’ boxes to stop books getting damaged in transit and iron it on the stockroom table. Then we cut it into A2 sheets to make it more manageable and put them at the centre of the children’s play table in the bookshop’s tea room, alongside Christmas stencils and coloured felt tip pens. Hey presto – environmentally-friendly Christmas gift-wrap! Complimentary gift-wrapping of all books purchased in Advent encouraged locals to do their Christmas shopping at Hector’s House rather than in town or online.
“That’s child labour, that is,” declared Tommy, breezing in through the door as I stepped back from the shop window.
Although local teenager Tommy is a regular visitor to the bookshop, he comes not for the books but for the company. More often than not, he tries to blag a free milkshake. Occasionally, when flush from helping old Billy with odd jobs, he actually pays for one. We’d seen more of Tommy than usual this week, after their lucrative double-act hawking wheelbarrows of holly, ivy and mistletoe around the village.
Tommy sat down on one of the child-sized chairs at the play table opposite his little sister Sina. His gangly legs ranged either side of the table like a young giraffe’s.
“How much are they paying you to do that, Sina?”
He jabbed a grubby finger at her orderly rows of holly leaves. I thought he might put her off, but she was not so easily deterred, continuing to loop her green felt pen along the edge of the stencil.
“Nothing, and I don’t care, because it’s fun. Actually, I think we’re lucky Hector’s not charging us to do it.”
Hector cleared his throat.
“And it’s helping a good cause, Tommy. Two good causes, in fact: the environment, by finding a good use for paper that would otherwise go for recycling, and the church’s Christmas appeal.”
When Tommy looked dubious, I explained.
“Hector’s donating the amount he’d usually spend on gift wrap to the charity’s Christmas appeal.”
“And very grateful we are too,” said the vicar, emerging from the non-fiction section with a couple of hardbacks. He set them down on the trade counter and took out his wallet to pay Hector. “It’s astonishing how many people forget to bring money for the Christmas service collections, or who find themselves short of cash once they’ve all finished their Christmas shopping. Priorities, my dears, priorities…”
While Hector gift-wrapped each book, the vicar took a seat at one of the tearoom tables.
“Cappuccino, please, Sophie. I think I’ve earned it after hosting the village school’s visit to the church this afternoon.”
Sina laid down her green pen and beamed at the vicar.
“Yes, that was fun, especially getting a chocolate decoration each off the Christmas tree.”
Tommy pulled a sheet of paper towards him and picked up a black pen and a snowman stencil.
“You lucky duck! We never do anything like that at my school.”
Tommy had long since left the village primary school and now attended the nearest secondary school a few miles away.
“Chocolate wasn’t the prime purpose of the visit,” said the vicar. “I invited the children for a sneak preview of our crib.”
Each year, the vicar brings out an ancient set of china figurines to recreate the Bethlehem nativity scene. There’s also a charming model stable, lovingly crafted in elm by some parishioner long since departed to the churchyard.
He’s not daft, the vicar. Inviting the schoolchildren to view the crib is an effective way of enticing whole families to come to his Advent and Christmas services, persuaded by their children’s delight in the traditional tableau.
Sina folded her arms.
“Yes, but it was a con, because the baby Jesus wasn’t even there.”
Tommy drew a fierce expression on his first snowman, making it look like a chubby Halloween ghost. For a moment I thought he’d added two noses by mistake, then I realised they were fangs.
“Maybe today was the baby Jesus’s day for playgroup.”
He glanced up to check Sina’s reaction to his joke. Her expression was stern.
I hoped a young visitor hadn’t pocketed the baby Jesus during the school visit. I could understand the temptation. There may have been no room for him at the inn, but he’d fit perfectly in a Sylvanian Family playhouse.
The vicar sighed.
“The thing is, Sina, Jesus isn’t born until Christmas Day, so we don’t add him to the crib till then. Come to the morning service on the twenty-fifth and you’ll see him then.”
I was ashamed to have forgotten that detail, despite having been a Sunday School teacher since Easter.
As I set the vicar’s coffee on his table, Sina raised a forefinger to herald a bright idea.
“Why don’t you just put his scan picture in the crib in the meantime? That’s what people do who can’t wait to see their real baby. My auntie had a scan picture of her baby in a frame on the mantlepiece for months before it was born.”
“Who’s just been born?” asked Billy, entering the shop for the second time that day. “Christmas babies always follow a good spring.”
“The baby Jesus,” replied Sina. “Only he hasn’t been born yet. That’s the trouble.”
“You’re two thousand years behind the times, girlie,” said Billy, touching his cap to the vicar. “Don’t that pesky internet teach you anything useful?”
“Coffee, Billy?” asked the vicar.
“That’s very kind of you, vicar, but I’m here on a mission.”
“That should be your line, shouldn’t it, vicar?” said Hector, as he opened the till and tipped a bag of pound coins into the cash drawer. “What are you after, Billy?”
Billy untied his scarf. I was pleased to see he was wearing the one I’d made for him during the recent village craze for knitting.
“I’m after the right book for my old cousin Maurice.”
Hector had heard tales of Maurice before. “You mean the one you haven’t seen for twenty years?”
“Aye, that’s the one.” He wagged a finger at Hector. “You know I’ve been buying him a book here every Christmas, ever since you opened this shop of yours. So don’t you go implying I’m neglecting him. I wouldn’t do that, not with so few of my family left alive, God bless ‘em.”
Like Tommy, Billy rarely buys a book, treating Hector’s House like a social hub rather than a purveyor of fine reading materials. But that’s okay. The best bookshops are much more than the means of buying a book – they are at the heart of the community. That’s one of the reasons I love working here. Well, that and Hector. Soon after I started working here, Hector became my boyfriend as well as my boss.
Hector came out from behind the trade counter, rubbing his hands together.
“So, what’s it to be this year, Billy? If I remember rightly, last year it was a collection of nature notes for every day of the year. Lovely woodcut illustrations, I recall.”
“Yes, and what a fine idea of yours that was. If Maurice has been using it properly, he’ll have read a little bit each day and that’ll have made him think of me all year round.” Billy lifted his cap to scratch his head. “But I don’t know about this year, Hector. What can I give him?”
“Poor as I am,” returned the vicar, quick as a flash.
I smiled at the reference to my favourite Christmas carol, which I’ve loved since I first learned it at primary school.
Hector consulted the non-fiction shelves for a few moments, then pulled out an astronomy guide with a map of the night sky for every week of the new year and an anthology of 365 poems.
“It must be hard to live at a distance from your relatives,” I said gently.
My parents live in Inverness, hundreds of miles from our Cotswold village of Wendlebury Barrow, so I thought I knew how he must feel.
“Aye,” said Billy, taking the books from Hector to examine. “Especially without a car. That’s the only reason I regrets never learning to drive.”
The local bus company runs services as far as Slate Green, our nearest market town, but that’s all. To travel further afield, you have to change at Slate Green, and even then you can’t get beyond a radius of about ten miles.
“I don’t want a heavy book, mind.” Billy weighed the two books up against each other, one in each hand. “Postage ain’t cheap these days.”
I was curious as to how far flung Billy’s relations were. I knew he’d lived in Wendlebury all his life, although his brother had left as a young man.
“So where exactly does this Maurice live, Billy?” I asked. “Is he still in the UK?”
I wondered whether he’d emigrated, like Hector’s twin brother Horace.
Billy passed both books back to Hector with a shake of his head.
The vicar slammed his coffee cup down on his saucer.
“What?” he and I cried together.
I fetched a cloth to wipe up the vicar’s spillage.
“But you get the bus to Slate Green to go shopping at least once a week,” I pointed out. “How come you’ve never found the time to call on him?”
Billy shuffled his feet.
“He ain’t been to see me neither. It ain’t my fault. Besides, we always used to meet at our mums’ houses. His mum was my mum’s sister. His mum or mine took turns to cook Sunday dinner and we’d all sit down together, both families. But them days are long gone, and so are our mothers. We was both so upset after they died, just a few weeks apart, that we never really got round to making new arrangements. We missed them too much, see. It just wouldn’t have been the same without them.”
The vicar took the cloth from me to dry his saucer.
“That’s a great pity, Billy. I’ve seen this happen far too often after a bereavement, just when you need your family most.”
Tommy looked up from his sheet of gift wrap. His latest row of snowmen had the threatening air of Mafia hitmen.
“Don’t you like each other, then?”
Billy sat down opposite the vicar, his shoulders slumping.
“Bless you, no, boy. We was thick as thieves when we were your age. Always up to mischief in the village.”
“I wish I had a thief to be thick with.”
Poor Tommy. No other boys from his class lived in the village, one of the disadvantages of being raised in a small rural community.
“We had no end of make-believe games, neither – pirates, cowboys, Robin Hood.”
The vicar set down the cloth and reached across to rest his hand on the frayed cuff of Billy’s ancient tweed jacket.
“Then I think this Christmas you should start making up for lost time. I’ll run you down to see him any time you like. You have only to ask.”
Billy’s face softened. “Well, if Hector would just buck his ideas up about the right present…”
Suddenly Hector’s face lit up.
“I know just the thing!”
And with that he dashed out of the shop.
The others looked puzzled at his unexpected departure, but when I heard Hector opening the front door to his flat at the side of the shop and running up two flights of stairs to his top floor, I knew what he was about.
Moments later, he reappeared in the shop doorway, breathless and triumphant, holding up a vintage hardback copy of Treasure Island. A colour plate on the cover showed a fierce-looking Long John Silver, complete with wooden leg, crutch and parrot.
Billy’s mouth fell open.
“Ah, now that’s what I call a book.”
When Hector put it into his hands, he gazed at it with the rapture of a starving man reading a gourmet menu.
I came out from behind the tearoom counter to appeal to the children.
“Now, who wants to give Billy their paper to wrap his cousin’s present in?”
To my surprise, Sina had laid aside her holly leaves unfinished, and was now scribbling in black pencil on a small square of plain white paper.
“I’m afraid it’ll have to be Tommy’s snowmen, Billy.”
Billy peered at Tommy’s handiwork.
“They’ll do very nicely, thank you, Tom.”
He took the paper to the trade counter for Hector to do the honours. When the vicar drained his coffee cup and got to his feet, I realised he was planning to drive Billy to see Maurice straight away, before he could change his mind.
“Just a minute, vicar,” cried Sina, laying down her pencil and pushing back her chair. “Here, I’ve made this for you. I know how much you’re looking forward to Christmas and the baby Jesus and stuff, so here’s something to keep you going.“
The vicar took the square of paper from her hand and turned it this way and that, narrowing his eyes.
“Ah, I see. It makes sense now I’ve spotted the halo.”
When he showed it to me, I too was at first puzzled by the array of fuzzy, broken lines, with just a dark kidney-shaped blob at the centre. Then it clicked.
“Oh yes, of course! Baby Jesus’s scan photo! Well done, Sina. Very imaginative.”
Sina beamed and went back to colouring in her holly leaves, humming contentedly.
As the vicar escorted Billy, wrapped gift under his arm, out of the bookshop and into his car, I went to stand behind Hector at the trade counter, reading over his shoulder. He was logging Billy’s purchase in the sales ledger he keeps for the second-hand book collection stored in his flat.
“You know what, Hector?” I said, draping my arms over his shoulders and clasping my hands on his chest. “Suddenly it’s starting to feel like Christmas after all.”
Hector closed the ledger and laid his hands gently over mine.
“So it is. Merry Christmas, sweetheart.”
Like to read more about Christmas in Wendlebury Barrow? Try the third Sophie Sayers Village Mystery, Murder in the Manger, a gentle festive mystery with a touch of seasonal romance.
The ebook is now available to order from all major ebook stores, and the paperback can be ordered from Amazon or from your local bookshop.
Well, what’s not to love about novels set in boarding schools? Most of us grew up enjoying the likes of Malory Towers and The Chalet School, even if we never set foot in a boarding school ourselves.
What’s in it for Readers?
For readers, there’s something compelling about the world of the boarding school, with its unique rules and vocabulary that wouldn’t make sense beyond its boundaries. Readers enjoy joining that fantasy world and feeling a part of it – hence the huge merchandise sales for the Harry Potter franchise.
The setting naturally throws together disparate characters with interesting and varied backgrounds, all great ingredients for a story.
The tropes of boarding school life will be familiar to adults who grew up reading Chalet School et al, which means there is plenty of scope for gentle humour built on their fondess for these vintage classics.
What’s in it for Writers?
For the novelist, the boarding school offers a contained community in which characters are thrown together with no escape. They must face challenges and overcome them together, and their characters grow in the process.
Toa writer of mystery stories, the boarding school, usually segregated from the outside world by a clear physical boundary, presents a neat device to isolate victim, suspects and onlookers while the crime is solved.
In the Footsteps of Agatha Christie (but with more laughs…)
St Bride’s isn’t quite as isolated as Agatha Christie‘s famous stranded train in Murder on the Orient Express (it’s just a bike ride away from Wendlebury Barrow, the village in my Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries, and there is some cross-over between the two series) – but you get the idea.
(Incidentally, my current work-in-progress,Murder Your Darlings, the sixth Sophie Sayers mystery, is set on an island beset by a storm, from which none can escape, and which the police can’t access – as in Christie’s And Then There Were None, although my body count will be much lighter.)
There’s another reason I chose to write about a boarding school. It’s a world I know well, having worked in one for thirteen years, as a member of the office team rather than as a teacher. I loved the sense of community, just as I love the community spirit of the Cotswold village in which I’ve lived for nearly thirty years, so this is in part a celebration of community. The world of St Bride’s is completely fictitious, with all the characters and situations completely invented, but the school I worked at was the springboard for my imagination, just as living in Hawkesbury Upton inspired me to invent the world of Wendlebury Barrow in the Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries.
What’s Different about St Bride’s?
While I have fun with school routines and customs such as the prefect system and school dinners, the focus of the St Bride’s series will be the behaviour of the staff. I remember as a schoolgirl being fascinated by the secret world of the staffroom, and the formal relationship fostered between staff and pupils.
For example, at the girls’ grammar school I attended between the ages of 11 and 14, pupils were not allowed to know the first names of staff. In Secrets at St Bride’s, the girls are running a book on the teachers’ names. One of the younger pupils speculates that Miss Bliss’s initial O in stands for “Obergine” – because she’s heard the Geography teacher, Miss Brook, complain over her moussaka at lunch that she hates aubergine.
However, at St Bride’s, the secrecy goes one step further: the staff keep secrets not only from the girls, but from each other, with potentially deadly results. With the story told by new arrival Miss Lamb (but you can call her Gemma!), you, the reader, will become slowly acclimatised to school life as she does. Together you unravel the surprising secrets that are putting the community at risk.
What I Don’t Write About in this Series
What I’ve steadfastly avoidedin this series is the kind of boarding school scandal that pops up now and again in the media or in memoirs. You won’t find any corporal punishment or abuse at St Bride’s – it’s a gentle, caring environment, but not without perils of a different kind. What are those perils? You’ll have to read the books to find out!
How to Order Your Copy of Secrets at St Bride’s
The first St Bride’s novel, Secrets at St Bride’s, is now available to order online and will soon be available to order from high street bookshops too.
About my imminent new series of novels set in a girls’ boarding school
For some time I’ve been planning to write a series of novels set in a traditional girls’ boarding school, and today’s cover reveal is a hint that I’m going to be launching the first of these, Flat Chance, very soon.
As a child, like many of my generation, I loved books set in schools. Mavourite was Anthony Buckeridge’s Jennings – what was yours?
But my series will be for adults, and the focal point will be the staffroom rather than the classroom or dormitory.
Led by a charismatic maverick headmistress, each of the eccentric staff is hiding a different secret, including new recruit Gemma Lamb. Gemma’s other potential career choices included lighthouse keeper and nun – any job, in fact, that provided a roof over her head.
About the Staffroom at St Bride’s
The Staffroom at St Bride’s series will be lighthearted and gentle, with a touch of romance and a lot of comedy. But I’m not planning any murders, not only on the grounds of good taste but also for credibility.
Would you send your child to a school in which the school roll keeps reducing due to assassinations? I certainly wouldn’t.
Besides which, I don’t really like killing people – which will reassure my family and friends!
But there will be crimes and misdemeanours in which the culprit will live to tell the tale…
Another Rachel Lawston Design
I’ve commissioned the wonderful Rachel Lawston of www.lawstondesign.com for the series’ cover designs, because I am so pleased with her treatment for my Sophie Sayers Village Mystery series.
She has cleverly come up with something that echoes the branding of the Sophie books, making it clear that these come from the same stable, while establishing a new and different setting – just a bike ride away from Wendlebury Barrow, home to Sophie. And yes, Gemma and Sophie will have the chance to meet!
On the Flat Chance cover, you’ll spot the details of the black cat and the bicycle. These are pivotal features in the plot. We’ll be playing with different details against a similar backdrop in each of the future books in the series, which currently have the working titles of Past Masterand Near Miss. (I almost always know the title before I start writing a book, which helps me believe in it as a project and set myself deadlines!)
And speaking of deadlines, I’d better get back to inputting my edits to the final manuscript!