Being a glass-half-full type, I always welcome the winter solstice as the overture to spring, my favourite season.
But January and February always disappoint, with February’s only redeeming feature its brevity.
Despite the longer daylight hours, the skies are often so overcast that it never seems to get properly light all day. What light there is feels wintry, and the spring equinox, when day and night reach equal length, seems a long way off.
I take comfort in discovering that in Celtic tradition, spring officially starts at the beginning of February, with the festival of Imbolchalfway between the winter solstice and the spring equinox.
Imbolc translates as “in the belly”, alluding to the stomachs of pregnant ewes and the promise of the imminent renewal of life.
1st February is also the Feast of St Brigid, Irish patron saint of fire, poetry and healing. Brigid was originally a Celtic goddess with such a strong following that the first Christians in Ireland canonised her to keep the locals on side. Brigid’s traditional symbol, a cross woven from green rushes, was often nailed over the doors of homes to ward off evil spirits. It had nothing to do with the cross of Jesus, but its existence may have made it easier for the Christians to adopt Brigid as their own.
The ancient Romans celebrated a different feast in the middle of the month. Februa, a day of atonement and purification, was so important that they named the whole month after it. In the Roman calendar, February was the twelfth month, so Februa will have prompted a spiritual and physical declutter to help Romans start the new year in good shape.
Wondering why we adopted February for our own calendar, when it’s named after a Roman festival I’d never heard of, I discover other contenders. The Old English called it Sol-monath, meaning “mud month”, appropriate for the season’s weather. In medieval times, it was known as Kale-monath, or “cabbage month”. Perhaps as winter stores ran low, cabbage formed the bulk of peasants’ diet.
I prefer the Venerable Bede’s idea. In his treatise De temporum ratione (The Reckoning of Time), the Anglo-Saxon theologian suggests that “Sol” is another word for a particular type of cake. Does this mean that this month we’re meant to cheer ourselves up by eating cake? Finally, a reason to love February! There, I told you I was an optimist.
This post was first published in the February 2022 issue of the Hawkesbury Parish News.
A GOOD READ IN THE RUN-UP TO VALENTINE’S DAY
If you fancy a light-hearted comedy mystery to lift your spirts during the dark days of February, try Murder by the Book, my Sophie Sayers Village Mystery set in the run-up to Valentine’s Day.
Despite opening with someone falling to their death down the well behind the village pub, there is romance in the air for eccentric village shopkeeper Carol and her secret admirer, and also for Sophie and Hector, despite the playful intervention of Hector’s twin brother, just back from Australia. Available to order online in paperback and ebook here, or ask your local bookshop to order it in for you, quoting ISBN 978 1 911 223 269.
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.
A post about T E Shepherd, the gifted artist who is drawing the imagined settings of my novels
I first met T E Shepherd, or Thomas as I know him, through his novels. We were both members of the Alliance of Independent Authors, and for a little while we belonged to the same writers’ group, meeting regularly in Oxford. Only after reading and enjoying his Mr Tumnal novels did I realise he was also a talented illustrator, with a style so distinctive that readers have asked me whether he is related to A A Milne‘s illustrator, E H Shepard. (As you will have guessed from the different spelling, no, he’s not!)
When Thomas started sharing some of his drawings online, in particular a picture of Hawkesbury Upton’s village school, one of the venues for the Haweksbury Upton Literature Festival that I organise each year, I asked him to create a village map to help visitors find their way around the festival, and the result was stunning.
When he started sharing portraits of some of his favourite bookshops, it seemed only natural to ask him whether he might also draw a fictitious bookshop for me – Hector’s House, which is at the heart of my Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries. Sophie works in the shop and the proprietor, Hector Munro, is her romantic interest.
Usually Thomas draws from life rather than from his imagination, but for me he was prepared to make an exception, provided I was able to give him a good brief and some photos of the kind of thing I was looking for.
For Hector’s House, I’d already specified certain details in the books, and needed to find a Cotswold cottage that matched that specification – harder than I’d expected! Eventually I sent Thomas a snapshot of Nailsworth Computers (highly recommended for their computer services, by the way – I’ve been a regular customer for years) plus a list of changes that would be needed to complete the transformation. I was astonished when a local friend told me later that this building used to be a bookshop. It was clearly meant to be!
I was so delighted with Thomas’s attention to detail and the thought that went into the drawing that as soon as my second series of novels was established, the Staffroom at St Bride’s School Stories for Grown-ups, that I asked him to draw the school building. This time his starting point was the cover design of the first book in the series, Secrets at St Bride’s, with his own personal flourishes added.
When I started my spin-off series of quick-read novelettes set in the same parish as these two series, Tales from Wendlebury Barrow, I couldn’t resist completing the set by commissioning Thomas to draw the Wendlebury Barrow village green, which features in all three series. Again I found myself driving round the Cotswolds looking for appropriate visuals for him, and ended up sending a selection of different greens from which he took various elements to create a completely new one just right for me stories. He even added Sophie and Hector!
I now have framed prints of all three on my study walls to help me immerse myself in these worlds as I write my stories. I’ve also turned the first two into attractive cards and bookmarks to give away to readers at events, and will be doing the same with the third once we’re allowed to hold in-person events again. I’m also planning to add the appropriate drawing to the interior title page of each book so that all my readers may enjoy them,
As is usual with such things, the copyright remains with the artist, and anyone wishing to order prints from him or to book commissions of their own should contact him via his website: www.teshepherdart.com. He has a different website about his books: http://www.shepline.com/books.
He also sells prints of his other landscape drawings of bookshops and historic buildings, and this year produced for the first time a calendar of his art. There are still a few copies available to buy in his January sale on his website here
I’ll be holding a prize draw for a copy of the calendar for my Readers’ Club in my next newsletter which I’m planning to despatch tomorrow. If you’d like a chance to win one and you’re not already a member, you can join my Readers’ Club here. There’s a different prize draw every month for something fun associated with my books.
But that’s enough about me! Now here’s a chance to get to know more about Thomas and his work via this exclusive interview that he kindly gave me a few days ago.
Exclusive Interview with T E Shepherd, Illustrator & Novelist
Thomas, welcome to my blog – I’m so pleased to be able to introduce my readers to the man behind the drawings! When did you take up drawing and how has your career progressed?
I’ve always drawn, for as long as I remember. Give me a pad of paper and a pack of those cheap felt tip pens from the post office or Happy Shopper on the corner and I am lucky. At college I was never that great at taking notes in lectures because I’d be doodling patterns on my notepad instead. I did art at college, specialising mainly in photography and printmaking which I loved, however since leaving college I of course lost access to the dark room (this was almost a decade before digital cameras) and it’s hard to set yourself doing printmaking. I also left college thinking that my kind of art wasn’t really that good because it wasn’t the weird stuff you find art galleries winning awards! It wasn’t until I was fortunate to be working the day job with the fantastic Rachel Henderson Art that she encouraged me into doing things with my art.
Please describe the media you work in and the processes involved in creating a new drawing.
I work mainly in Indian Ink although I also use coloured pencils. I have been known though to work in photography, printmaking, airbrush, gouache – basically it depends what the picture is that I’m doing!
Why do you particularly enjoy drawing buildings?
The honest answer is that I have historically been terrible at drawing people! The slightly more interesting is that they interest me. It has to be said, I have a bit of thing for cobbles, walls, and doorways. My A-Level art exam piece was a piece created from the subject “Through doorways” in 10 hours, or two back to back days.
For this year you produced a calendar of your favourite drawings of Oxfordshire and the Cotswolds. What makes this region particularly rewarding for you as an artist?
Simple answer really that I live in Oxfordshire on the doorstep to the Cotswolds and that is the geographical area that I have mainly been selling my work, at markets, when markets are allowed to happen. I grew up in East Anglia though and still have strong links there so I could have done the East Anglian. Collection (following on in the footsteps of John Piper I already have three Suffolk churches to my name!). When you include all the bookshops of I’ve drawn it puts my geographic spread is even wider.
What else do you like to draw?
Anything and everything that interests me. I’m a very visual person – even when I’m writing my books it’s the frame by frame cinematic scenes that I’m picturing as I write. And so if I see a view or frame a picture in my gaze I want to capture it, often with a photo (or two, or three…) ahead of drawing them.
Tell us about your passion for bookshops and why you love drawing them.
As mentioned above, I write books. My degree, as well visual arts also involved creative writing, and I’ve written three novels to date: my debut standalone book, and the first two parts of a trilogy about imaginary friends. I love books, and stories – I have a ‘library’ of over 2000 books in the house. If I visit a town and there’s a bookshop, I can’t not go in, and chances are I will buy at least one book, so yes you could say that bookshops are bad and evil places for me to visit… *grins*
I have an on-going project to illustrate myself around the country drawing (mostly) independent bookshops for my celebration of bookshops in my my illustrated The Booklover’s Guide to Bookshops.
What is the most challenging picture you’ve ever drawn and why?
My most challenging picture that I had to draw was my illustration for Tales of the Wendlebury Barrow. Not only was this to be an imaginative piece but it needed to include a traditional village scene of people and to be honest people have never been my strong point. My two big inspirations are the work of Rex Whistler and Edward Ardizzone and I’ve found my style to be somewhere in between. One of the things I love about Ardizzone’s illustration is the way they are very loose simple designs but have all the character and expression. It was a challenge, but one that I believe I pulled off, particularly when the author saw her two lead characters come walking out of the picture towards her.
Previous to that, one my biggest challenges was a pen and ink and colour illustration I did of Bolton Abbey in Yorkshire. I was established in the medium of black and white, so adding colour was a bit of a departure, but one that was really effective and led directly to a commission late last year of a full colour picture of Notley Abbey as a wedding anniversary present.
Which is your favourite of all the pictures you’ve done and why?
If I had to choose just one, it would be my picture of St Andrew’s Church, Covehithe in Suffolk. Covehithe is one of my most favourite of places in the world with some very fond memories for me. There is a poignancy to the place as it probably has no more than 60 more years before the fragile Suffolk coast tips it into the sea. Sadly I don’t have the original any more as it was snaffled up within days of me finishing it but I know that it went to a new home.
I know you take other commissions too – what does this entail and how do people go about commissioning a picture from you?
In short, just get in touch! I work from photographs so geography is no obstruction to having a commission done. What I do need is high resolution photos that I have permission to use. These can be photos either that you have taken or from a professional photographer so long as you have obtained copyright permission for me to work from them. I can’t use photos that you’ve grabbed from Google! My pricing is based on size of the finished work not by number of scenes, so you could have multiple views of your subject in one picture, and you pay for it upon completion of the piece when you are happy with it.
You’re not only an artist but an author too – please tell us a little about your books.
My books are what I would call real-world fantasy or magical realism. My debut novel is set in Iceland and is a story where Norse Mythology meets modern day climate science as our protagonists face The End Of All Worlds. My other two books are the first and second books in my Imaginary Friends trilogy. The first in the series, Mr Tumnal, concerns a man, Louis Tumnal who marries his imaginary friend and has an imaginary child. When he meets his real-life girlfriend things get complicated beyond imagining.
What are you working on at the moment – both in terms of drawing and writing?
I’m currently writing the third book in the trilogy, Forgotten Friends, set 40 years after the events of the first book in a post-technological world (imagine consulting Wikipedia in print in a vast room underground Oxford’s Bodleian Library!) With my drawing, I had a crazy end to last year, finishing my last commission a day before delivering it to my client on Christmas Eve and so I’m taking January off – partly this is because I incurred a drawing-induced injury of trigger finger! But I have been creating art, having acquired a press to get back to etching too, which is something I’m very excited about.
Where can people go to find out more about your illustration and your books?
Derbyshire born, Suffolk bred. Thomas Shepherd now lives in Oxfordshire with his wife Emma and five cats, five chickens, three bunnies, two African land snails and some fish. He’s a landscape artist and novelist. His two main inspirations are the work of Edward Ardizzone and Rex Whistler, and his style is somewhere between the two. As a published author, books are his passion, and he is currently working on a project to create an illustrated guide of bookshops. He works principally in Indian Ink and Polychromos artists’ pencils. He takes commissions, including maps and book illustration.
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)
In the December issue of the Hawkesbury Parish News, I reminisced about one of my favourite memories from my childhood Christmases.
One of my favourite childhood Christmas memories is walking home in the dark after dinner at my maternal grandmother’s house. Even on the coldest night, counting the Christmas trees in people’s front windows gave us an inner glow as we passed by.
In those days, the Christmas tree was the only thing we’d decorate with fairy lights. Many homes in our London suburb had pay-as-you-go electricity meters, which had to be fed with shillings to maintain the supply, so adding to the electrical load was not a great idea.
It was a more frugal age in other ways too. These days I think nothing of buying new fairy lights each Christmas. Back then, if your string of lights stopped working, you just went to Woolworths to buy a new bulb. That is, after you’d worked out which bulb was the dud causing the string to short.
This laborious task required taking out each bulb in turn and turning the mains power switch off and again every time, until you’d solved the mystery. (We may not have been great at recycling in those days, but we knew how to make do and mend – if your electric kettle packed up, you just replaced the element.)
There were also stricter rules about when to put up your decorations: 1st December at the earliest. In any case, you’d be unlikely to find them in the shops until after Guy Fawkes’ Night on 5th November. Now I switch on the fairy lights in my front garden immediately after Armistice Day (11th November).
As the nights get longer and winter chills set in, lighting up the darkness lifts my spirits.
This year, we can’t gather in Hawkesbury High Street for our annual community switching-on ceremony – a tradition I love so much that I’ve borrowed it in my festive novel, Murder in the Manger. (You can read that extract at the end of this post.) So I hope that instead there’ll be more fairy lights than ever popping up around the village.
To me fairy lights feel like symbols of hope, with the same promise that rainbows offer the rest of the year. I like to think that if Noah had had fairy lights, he’d have lit up the ark as the flood waters began to subside.
Whatever you choose to do about fairy lights this December, I wish you a bright and cosy Christmas – and a New Year that can only be better than this one!
Extract from Murder in the Manger, the third Sophie Sayers Village Mystery
Chapter 34 Lights!
As I stood outside The Bluebird in the dark, trying to spot Hector amongst the crowd, a stocky figure in a duffle coat sidled up to me. It wore a bobble hat covered with mistletoe, topped with an old bicycle lamp tied on with string. In its hand was a pint glass spilling over with mulled wine. Its growly voice startled me.
“Good evening, girlie.”
It was Billy. He pointed to his hat.
“Got a Christmas kiss for your old friend tonight?”
To my relief, at that precise moment Hector came jostling through the crowd, wearing an ancient deerstalker and a thick stripy scarf over a long overcoat. I was beginning to wonder whether I’d missed the notice for fancy dress to be worn.
“Do I detect unrest?” was his greeting to me.
“Nice hat, Sherlock.”
He touched it appreciatively.
“I’ve had it since I was a teenager. It came from my parents’ antique shop. It’s so battered that I only bring it out in the dark when you can’t see the moth holes. But I’m very attached to it.”
“Can I be your Dr Watson?”
“Wouldn’t you rather be Mrs Hudson? You do make a fine cup of tea.”
I batted his arm for teasing me, but before I could protest further, a slight figure dressed entirely in black bowled up to join us, a sinister balaclava covering all of its face but the eyes. Alarmed, I took a step back, but Hector was not worried.
Tommy pulled off the balaclava and stuffed it crossly into his pocket.
“How did you know it was me?”
Hector tapped his deerstalker. “Sherlock Holmes says you can never disguise a back.”
“But this is my front.”
Tommy stomped off, pulling his video camera out of his other pocket as he went. I surveyed the crowd as it absorbed him.
“Gosh, I’d forgotten quite how many people live here.”
I reached into my coat pocket to pull out the pile of invitations to the Wendlebury Writers’ book launch. The lighting-up ceremony provided the perfect opportunity to distribute them to villagers without having to go door-to-door. I wondered where to start.
“I suppose these are all villagers.”
“Most of them, as far as I can tell, although I suspect a few usually come up from Slate Green to get their hands on some free mulled wine. Word gets around about such things.” He pulled his scarf a little closer around his neck, and I looped my arm through his to snuggle closer.
“I’m surprised how many villagers I know now. And it’s nice to no longer be the newest person in town. I can see at least one person who wasn’t even born when I moved into my cottage.”
I pointed to a tiny baby in the arms of a slight lone female standing on the edge of the crowd. The mother, hood up, head bowed, was completely engrossed in her baby’s company, holding its hands and talking to it, as if there was no-one else around. I wondered whether she was as much a newcomer to the village as the baby. Perhaps she was painfully shy. There was no father in evidence, and of all the crowd, she seemed to be the only one not mingling with others.
“She looks a bit lonely and awkward,” I said. “I don’t know who she is, but there’s something familiar about her. Why does she remind me of Billy? No, hang on, she’s more like Carol, only a young, pretty version.”
Hector laughed. “Everyone looks the same on a dark night like this, all bundled up against the cold. It’s easier to recognise people in their Halloween outfits.”
He turned around to check her out, and gazed at the woman for so long that I felt uncomfortable. I didn’t think she was that good-looking.
“Actually I don’t know who she is either,” he said at last. “I wonder whether she’s a traveller? They congregate down on Slate Common now and again, until the council gets the police to move them on. I hadn’t heard they were back.”
I wanted him to return his attention to me.
“So what happens now?” I asked.
“I’ll show you.”
He took my hand and led me through the crowd to a trestle table outside the pub, where Donald and his wife were busy ladling mulled wine into polystyrene cups.
“First, we all have some of this, on the house.” He picked up two full cups and handed one to me. “Then we all assemble round the Christmas tree on the green, where the youngest child in the school and the oldest person in the village do the ceremonial switching on of the tree lights. It’s a big honour.”
I thought about this for a moment.
“Has anyone ever hung around long enough to have done both?” I asked.
“Good question, Sophie. If you ask Bella, as the parish clerk, she’ll be able to look it up in the council archives and tell you.”
As they collected their mulled wine, people began to surge away from the pub towards the green. Nobody took the most direct route, but wove in and out as they talked to each other. The sight put me in mind of a murmuration of starlings at dusk.
“Has anyone ever been the oldest person in the village for more than a year?” I asked. “I don’t think I’d fancy being the chosen one. It would feel like stepping to the front of the queue for the village graveyard.”
Hector steered us expertly into a place at the inner edge of the throng, now arranging itself in a circle around the green. “I think the record was five times for one old lady when I was a child. I was starting to think she was immortal, some kind of witch. She even survived the lights fusing the fifth time she switched them on.”
“Maybe the power surge recharged her batteries.”
Wondering who would be the oldest and youngest this year, I was surprised when Billy stepped forward, along with a very small boy in a snowsuit and Thomas the Tank Engine wellies.
“I thought Joshua was older than Billy?” I said in a low voice to Hector as a hush fell over the crowd.
“Yes, but he’s not up to this kind of outing at night. Didn’t you read his message in the parish magazine delegating his duty to Billy?”
I chided myself for still not reading it from cover to cover, as it was the highest authority on village news.
The Reverend Murray stepped into the centre of the circle, with Mrs Murray, neat and smiling, at his side. Several people in the front row turned torches on him, during his brief speech of welcome, thanking The Bluebird for its hospitality and the team of dads who had put up the tree and the lights.
His words fell away in the cold night air, punctuated by puffs of vapour emanating from his mouth. When he stopped speaking, everyone clapped, and those who’d come early to the mulled wine whooped and cheered.
When the shouting died down to a respectful silence, the vicar pronounced a formal blessing on the ceremony and made a sign of the cross in the direction of the Christmas tree.
Finally, he beckoned to Billy and the little boy to step up to a large metal box at the foot of the tree. He lifted the lid to reveal a big red handle. I moved closer to Hector.
Billy reached first to the little boy, holding out his hand.
“Come along, Davy, you hold on to old Billy’s hand, and we’ll do this together.”
The little boy shook his head and backed away a step or two. Perhaps the sight of the red handle reminded him of the bomb detonator so often featured in cartoons.
Billy shrugged. “Suit yourself, then.” I heard his knees crack as he bent down to reach the handle. He grabbed it, then stood stock still, waiting, familiar with the drill after witnessing the process for scores of years.
“Torches off now, folks, please!” said Mr Murray. “Now let’s have the countdown. Five, four, three…”
At zero, there was a split second of expectant hush. Then BANG! But the Christmas tree lights remained dark.
Like to read the rest of the novel?
Click the link below to order it in your preferred format
Although this is the third in the Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries series, it can be read as a standalone novel and it doesn’t matter if you haven’t read the first two – but I hope you’ll want to, as well as the three books after this one! Now back to writing the seventh in the series,Murder Lost and Found…