Christmas Stories for Children NEW EDITION

It’s been a busy month for me – finishing the rewrite of After the Rain, adding Mrs Christmas to the index of Advent Stories, launching this year’s campaign for the Advent Stories, three new blog posts, and now this – a new edition of the collection of Christmas Stories for Children, so that it now includes all ten stories on the index. So if you fancy some heart-warming stories for Christmas but would prefer them in one easy-to-read whole rather than split into 24 small episodes, they are available here for the bargain price of £1.00 – that’s just 10p per story! All you have to do is click … https://www.amazon.co.uk/Christmas-Stories-Children-M-Schofield-ebook/dp/B071VSTXTX/ref=sr_1_1?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1495180230&sr=1-1

In preparing the extra stories for the new edition, I have been rereading all my stories. It has reminded me just how much I enjoyed writing them, and how pleased I have been with the finished results. I couldn’t pick a favourite because I love them all. I am always pleased for each one when I get the notification that it has been downloaded. Some seem to be more popular than others, but they have all been clicked on at some point, which makes me happy.

Having been so busy this month, I haven’t actually written a new story for my children this year – the first time in 12 years. But I have discussed it with them, and considering that they were very young when they heard the earliest stories, we have decided that it would be ok to repeat one this year. My eldest daughter was just seven when I wrote The Very Special Christmas Star, and all she can remember is that there was a dog in it. So it seemed a good time to revisit it. This made me think that ten stories is a good amount to get an average family through many Advents, but I don’t plan on stopping there. I am certain there will be a new story next year, and for many years to come.

One last thing to mention. You might have noticed that I referred to After the Rain and remember that earlier this month I was debating whether or not to change the name. Well, I did finally come to a decision, and was determined to make the change. However, I discovered that KDP doesn’t like alterations to titles and threatened to block the book unless I changed it back. To make such a big change, I would have to delete the original publication and republish with the new name. After all the work I put into the rewrite, I just wanted to get the new edition published with minimum fuss, so it is staying as After the Rain. That can be a decision for the future – maybe even one day with a publisher! But even though it might not have the title I wanted, it is now a piece of writing that I am pleased with, so I’ll give it a shameless plug. https://www.amazon.co.uk/After-Rain-M-J-Schofield-ebook/dp/B01M4QEXY8/ref=pd_sbs_351_1?_encoding=UTF8&psc=1&refRID=X9QQW09EA94BQDSMJCDX

Well, I think I have given you enough to read this month. I’ll leave you in peace for a little while, but I’ll be back before Christmas to let you know which story was the most popular this year. Have you picked your favourite yet?

Advent 2020 – Mrs Christmas

It’s November again, and we all know what that means; the shops are filling up with chocolate and booze, the big brands are launching their Christmas adverts, and I add a new story to the index of Advent Stories and start my campaign to get you all to download a story for your Advent calendars.

So here it is, Mrs Christmas, a story that explores what it might be like to have a Christmassy name for a person who is not that fond of Christmas. My story starts off with a lonely old lady, and I was worried that it might be a bit too miserable. However, my kids said they enjoyed the story, and it does have the traditional happy ending, so it proudly takes its place on the list. I hope everyone else enjoys it too.

There are now ten stories available on the index. When I started writing these stories twelve years ago, I hoped they would become part of our family Christmas but I never imagined that they might become part of other families’ Christmas. The number of downloads has gone up each year, and in 2020, there has even been a small but steady amount of downloads throughout the year. Christmas is certainly going to be different this year, but the simple pleasure of a good story remains the same. Start the story on the 1st December and by Christmas Eve, you’ll have shared an experience that will stay with you long after the decorations come down in January. How many other Advent Calendars can offer that? It is still free to download, and it doesn’t break any lockdown regulations. All you have to do is choose a story and the magic is all yours.

Index of Stories  

What’s in a name?

The naming of novels is a difficult matter … no, wait, that’s cats; there’ll be none of that Jellicle shenanigans here. But, the name of a novel is a very important thing. The name goes on the front cover in big letters. It is what the customer will ask for in the bookshops. If it becomes very successful, it will be how a writer is known, as “the author of …” And fingers crossed, it will be seen on the bestseller charts in the press.

Of course, not all titles are well known. Some authors are so prolific and successful that customers will simply ask for their latest book. Oh, to have that much fame. Other times, it might be a surprise bestseller from an author no-one had heard of previously; in these cases, booksellers can be asked for all kinds of strange things before it is established what book the customer actually wants. As a bookseller, I often had to work out what the customer wanted using some very obscure clues, including the colour of the jacket or where it had been displayed the week before. I even used that as title of a novel when I wrote Have You Go That Book…? It was such a perfect title for a novel that it inspired the story.

I have used this technique several times now. No Such Cold Thing, and my latest novel, The Hawthorn Bride, started with the title; that is, I thought “Hmm, that would be a good title for a novel,” and then came up with a story to go with it. I love collecting great names for novels. It’s like a game. I used to wonder if there was any way of monetising my ability to come up with novels from a title, because I had so many ideas that I knew I would never use myself.

However, coming up with a name once the novel was underway is something I have always found much harder. I waited a long time before naming The Most Beloved Boy because I went through so many unsatisfactory alternatives. For a long time it was just Dan and David. At one point, I thought I might use a line from the song Scarborough Fair. Using a quote from a poem or song is always popular. Proverbs or bible verses also work well. Think of Hardy’s Under the Greenwood Tree, or Forster’s Where Angels Fear to Tread­ ­­– brilliant examples, but it is a technique that is so widely used now that it has become a bit of a trope. What I wanted was a name that could become a quote in itself.

The Most Beloved Boy worked for me because it almost poses a question – who is the most beloved boy? It was relevant and interesting, as well as original. I hope it stands out, and that one day, it would work as the title for a film or TV adaptation (yes, I can dream!). Coming up with that title was a moment of triumph. But I could never say the same for After the Rain.

This novel got its name some time while I was writing it. I don’t really remember the process, except that I wanted something that sounded like ‘after the war’ because that is the time period of the novel. Also, because a lot of the action takes place outside in a garden, referring to the elements seemed relevant. There are several scenes where the weather plays an important part in the narrative, including a heavy rain storm. It sort of fits, and I was happy enough with it at the time. Working in the bookshop, I was able to do a search and establish that there wasn’t already a novel with that title (this was pre-google) and I remember being pleased that there wasn’t.

But I’m not pleased with it now. Maybe this is just my perception, but it seems too much like an old fashioned romance novel. It is a love story, but I wanted it to be so much more than that, and I wouldn’t want to put male readers off by making it seem too slushy. I also don’t think it is relevant enough. It has nothing to do with the themes of the novel, which are mental health in the face of adversity, female emancipation, and the right to freedom of choice. My two protagonists go through much more than getting caught in the rain, so I wanted to give them a title worthy of that their struggle.

For a while, I have been trawling through websites of quotes and proverbs, trying all kinds of searches to come up with something that fit. I have been searching for quotes on gardens, growth, flowers, plants, trees, seasons, but couldn’t find anything. Of course, there are a multitude of quotes from war poetry, but that seemed too obvious, and a little like cheating. And I still hankered after an original name, one that could itself become a quote one day. And, then, a few days ago, something came to me. It seemed so obvious that I thought there must already be a novel with that title, but a cheeky Google confirmed that it hasn’t been done already (not as a novel, at least – there was an obscure autobiography that appears to be out of print, so that doesn’t count).

So, I present to you, Lost in Eden, a novel by M J Schofield, the novel I have just done a major rewrite of in preparation for submitting to agents and publishers. It is relevant, as this is a story about two people who have lost direction in their life. Most of the action takes place in a garden that is both beautiful and spiritual in quality. The two people meet by chance in the garden but also because of the garden, brought together when they are both looking for respite from their problems. And yet there is also a question in title – how can anyone be lost in Eden? That is the mystery in the story. I hope you can see why it works for me. But is it too clichéd? My personal focus group (ie my husband) didn’t like it. He thinks the novel should stay as After the Rain, but he has never even read it. Renaming a novel seems like a might big step to take, but it’s not as if an unpublished novel is set in stone. And now I just can’t decide. I’ve gone blind to it.

Maybe it doesn’t matter. Maybe, if a publisher ever sees some potential in it, they can be the ones to decide. They would know for sure if it should be Lost in Eden or After the Rain, or maybe even something else! Until then, I have both covers ready to go, and soon I will have to make a decision, before the new edition goes live on KDP. Watch this space.

The First Three Chapters

The first three chapters of a novel are very important. Apparently, they are all an agent or publisher need to decide if the novel is any good. It is certainly all they want to see in a submission.

Unfortunately, they are also the hardest chapters to write. Any new story needs exposition, introductions of characters and situations, descriptions of time and place. A writer creates a world and they want the reader to understand it. And yet pages and pages of exposition and explanations isn’t always the most interesting thing to read. It is a hard balance to provide just enough information so that the reader isn’t confused, at the same time as keeping the pace and narrative engaging. If you can’t do that in the first three chapters then it doesn’t matter if the rest of the novel is brilliant, it has already failed.

This was on mind as I preparing for my first submission. First of all, I had to decide which novel to submit. While I hope that an agent would be pleased to see that I have a portfolio of novels, they would be looking for which one would be the most successful as a first novel. Of all my work, After the Rain and The Most Beloved Boy are the most likely. Now, I love The Most Beloved Boy, but it is very long (yes, probably too long) and I know that would put potential publishers off. Besides that, it is quite difficult to classify. In comparison, After the Rain is much simpler and shorter. It has a more commercial appeal in its post-WWI setting, and it is easily identified as a love story. So it is the more obvious choice for a submission.

But the problem was that I knew the first three chapters weren’t good enough. I know this because I kept trying to find ways of including some later chapters that I felt would be more intriguing. But if there isn’t enough intrigue in the first three chapters, who could blame anybody for not wanting to read on. I truly believe that the rest of the novel is worth reading, which led me to the conclusion that there was only one thing to do – fix the first three chapters.

Actually, it was not that hard to do. I knew straight away what I had to do. I always try to avoid too much exposition, but I realised that by taking out even more of it, I could add intrigue. Why has this woman left her husband? What happened to the perfect marriage that was introduced in chapter 1? Setting up questions like this seemed to make a big improvement to the first three chapters. And there was something else I needed to do. One of the reasons for wanting to add a later chapter to a submission was to introduce another important character who doesn’t make an appearance until the end of chapter 4. But clearly, if he is that important, he needs to come in sooner. With a bit of rejigging, I found a way to bring him in at the end of chapter 3, with the added bonus of leaving it on a cliff-hanger. Sometimes the editor in me knows exactly what to do.

However, my inner-editor also insisted that the deleted exposition needed to be put back in later in the story so that the mysteries set up in the opening could be explained. I liked what this did to the plot, but it did mean some significant changes through-out the novel. Which meant, yes, you guessed it, a complete rewrite of the whole novel. Again. Since I first wrote this novel in 2001, this must be the fifth or sixth time I have done this. But the inner-editor is usually right, and I certainly felt that these changes were essential. So that is what I have been working on for the last two months. Some chapters barely changed at all, while others needed brand new material. None of the changes alter the story, but they do add a new element to the relationship between my two central characters which I am really pleased with. Here’s hoping that this fifth (or sixth) version of this novel is finally good enough. At least, I think the first three chapters are.

Oh, and I might change the name of it. But more about that next time!

Author For Sale

Now that lockdown is easing, my period of sojourn is coming to an end. Schools start back soon and so I’ll be back at work full-time. Back to getting up at 6am, making packed lunches before breakfast and tea as soon as I get home. There’ll be homework to supervise and chores to do, followed by trying to stay awake long enough to watch my favourite TV programmes. Weekends are not much better, ferrying children to various things while rushing through the housework, with a strict regime of dark load followed by light load to get the school uniforms washed and ironed before Monday morning. It’s not just the hours at work that get eaten away. No wonder there is precious little time for writing left after everything else.

   I was lucky to have had so many years of not having to work, and in that time, I got three novels published on KDP. But since then, it’s not been so easy. It’s hard to think abut writing at the same time as working and looking after a family. Lockdown was an unexpected gift, and I grabbed it with both hands. Writing all day and still being paid, it was my dream. It always has been. I write because I love doing it, but to be published, that’s always been my ambition, even when I was very young. I always imagined I would be – you don’t write hundreds of thousands of words without the hope that they will be published someday. I assumed it would only be a matter of time. Yes, there would be rejections, but one day, there would an actual offer and a deal. But rejections are painful. The first time it happened, I wept and wept. And it was horrible every time after that. I very quickly lost all enthusiasm for submitting, and then, eventually, I just gave up completely. The pain of being rejected was ruining the pleasure of the writing itself. I know that’s pathetic, and that it takes resilience and commitment to get published, but it didn’t seem fair that it should be harder than writing the novels in the first place. So I settled for KDP and thought I was satisfied with that. But lockdown has taught that me that I was wrong. I love writing so much that I want to do it all the time, and for that to happen, I need to make money from it. But if I never submit, that’s never going to happen. There is no fairy godmother or magic genie looking for obscure writers on KDP or reading hopeful blogs by aspiring authors. If I want to get noticed, I have to start putting myself out there again. It’s time to start submitting again.

   I’m a bit out of practice. Last time I did this, I had a copy of The Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook and a few printed copies of the manuscripts. Packages went back and forth through the post. Now it’s all on-line and you can even make submissions by Tweet! I have to get my head around it but I’m hoping that some things will be easier. Besides the wonders of modern technology, I have five novels under my belt, and this website and this blog as evidence of how serious I am. But it’s not just the logistics that make it difficult. I’m just not very good at selling myself. I pride myself on being a private person, but in truth, I’m just too embarrassed to talk about myself unless someone else brings the subject up. I can write this blog, but I find almost impossible to talk to people about my writing. Obviously, my family and close friends know, but not many others. I remember the conscious decision I made to reveal my secret when I worked in the bookshop, but in that environment, it sort of seemed natural. I don’t feel it’s something I can do in my current workplace, even though it would make sense to introduce my work to a new and wider audience. Instead, I fantasize about having to reveal it when a publishing deal is sealed and my novel is about to hit the shops; “Oh, by the way, I have a book coming out next week!” I can even imagine the article in the local newspaper – SCHOOL TA IS NEW BESTSELLER. There are no heights that my imagination can’t reach.

However, all this is just fantasy if I don’t take some action. Time to grit my teeth and face the pain of submitting once more. I just have to keep reminding myself how good I am being a full-time writer.

My Lockdown Novel

Remember that new novel I was writing – when I last posted, I had 4 chapters written. Well, 86 days later, 20 chapters on, it is FINISHED! Today, 30th June 2020, I finished the first draft of The Hawthorn Bride. Literally this morning, at about 10.30.

Thank you Lockdown. I know it has been a hellish time for some people, but our house has had a very easy time of it. My husband has been able to keep working on-line and I’ve been being paid for staying at home. My kids are old enough to get on with their own school work with just a bit of time-management assistance required. No-one in our family has been ill. I had a touch of something flu-like around the beginning of June but a test showed it wasn’t Corona Virus. We have watched a lot of theatre from the comfort of our own home, finally got to watch the whole of Stranger Things, and I have read a good stack of books. And I have written a novel!

When I think of how long it took me to write my previous novels, it is pretty amazing. Mostly, they have taken years to complete. Even when I completed No Such Cold Thing in 30 days for Nano Wrimo, I never thought that I could write that quickly again.

But somewhere back in March, I had a realisation that, for all the years I have been writing, I have been doing it all wrong. There is no point spending months and years writing a first draft, because, no matter how long is spent on it, it is still going to need vast amounts of improvements before it is ready to be read. No-one ever wrote a perfect first draft. In fact, a first draft is probably always utter rubbish. It is the months and years of editing that make the novel good. So, I thought, why waste time polishing and perfecting as I go along, agonising over the tastiest words or subtlest symbolism. Better to just bash it out, no reviewing or editing, just keeping it moving, chapter after chapter, until it’s done. So I did just that. Obviously, I had to change things if they weren’t working, but generally, I followed the loose plan I had mind, and pretty much everything fell into place as I had expected. And now, this story that I first came up with in 1996, is an actual novel. My fifth novel. EEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!!!!!

Well, it isn’t a finished novel, of course. The first draft is basically just the plot, holding things together. It is scaffolding. Now it’s done, I can go back and make it beautiful. That really is the fun bit. I have always loved editing. It is so satisfying to turn ordinary words into something more special. I love doing it so much that I find it hard to stop. Anyway, with this pleasure ahead of me, I can spend as long as I choose on the editing. I won’t put a time limit on it, or dare to put a date on when it might be ready for KDP, because this is the bit I don’t want to rush. And besides, I have another plan – I’m going to write something else!

Yes, now that I have discovered this highly productive and efficient way of working, I’m going to try it out on a new story. It’s going to be completely different, a break from my usual style and genre. Given the rate I’m going, it could be done by Christmas!

But that can wait a little while. First I’m going to read my fifth novel from start to finish for the very first time. That’s something to celebrate.

Statistics

1st Chapter started – 26/2/20

Lockdown started– 20/3/20

Last blog posted (4 chapters completed) – 5/4/20

1st draft completed – 30/6/20

125 days (including 102 of lockdown)

24 chapters/87,000 words

Self-isolation – a good time to write a novel

Back in 1996, I had an idea for a pandemic love story. It was set in a house shared by four young twenty-somethings, struggling to survive through an epidemic that was bringing the country to a stand-still. One of the women would be ill, while two of her friends try to keep her alive at the same time as scavenging for food and medical supplies. The fourth member of the house was a ghost, only seen in the imagination of the sick woman, her ex-boyfriend who has already died from the virus. It might sound quirky, but it was meant to be dystopian, with the sick woman using her feverish dreams to escape the horrors of a future world with little hope.

Obviously, this has been on my mind quite a bit recently. Suddenly, it doesn’t seem quite so far-fetched, and not at all futuristic. The covid-19 pandemic would work really well as the background for my story, providing the perfect conditions for the plot. Does that make it spookily prophetic? Not really – devastating plagues and end-of-the world outbreaks have always made good material for novels. I imagine that in 12-18 months time, there will be another epidemic, of novels about pandemics and quarantines and isolations. All over the world, budding writers will be using their lock-down to write the novels they always planned to write, and I suspect a good amount of them will reflect the current situation. If it really is just the lack of time that stops people getting their novels written, we can expect there to be a boom in the book trade in the next year or so. Even if we discount all the half-hearted attempts that go no further than the first chapter, I think we can still expect the publishers’ and agents’ slush piles to be heaped staggeringly high this time next year.

Of course, I include myself in this. Two weeks ago, the school I work at was closed to all but the children of key-workers, and the teaching assistants were told to stand down until further notice. If I wasn’t so worried about the effect the virus was having on the world, I would have been pleased to have all this paid time off work. Actually, I can’t lie, I am pleased, because just a few weeks before all this began to get serious, work on my new novel actually started to take off. After a year of planning and sketching and developing, I started writing proper chapters and the beginnings of a first draft. I don’t know why it started now – it just did. Somehow, the sparks got hotter, the kindling began to burn instead of fizzling out and the flames finally took hold. I am writing a new novel and with all this free time, it is making much better progress than I anticipated.

It isn’t, I hasten to add, my pandemic love story. I can’t write that now, even if I wanted to – it would be far too clichéd. That story never did go any further than the idea jotted in a notebook. But it came with a plan to match it with two other stories with a linking theme of love. One was set in the past, one was set in the present and this would be the one with a futuristic setting. I imagined them each as short novella, maybe exploring the idea that love doesn’t change, no matter where or when the setting. And then, like so many ideas, it went no further. Well, not as a whole. As I said, the futuristic story stayed in the notebook. But the other two took on a life of their own.

The story set in the present day was about an indie band, whose members were exploited by a greedy and manipulative manager. I had some great characters there, including a really sexy guitar player called Wayne (yes, really) who gives up his playboy ways when he falls in love with the female lead singer, even though the evil manager doesn’t approve of them being together and blackmails the whole band to make them split up. I enjoyed it so much that I actually wrote quite a lot of it, and would really like to see it completed one day. The trouble is, I don’t know enough about the hedonistic life-style of modern rock stars; I wanted it to be gritty and realistic but I was always worried that my idea of hedonism would be too tame. Also, I have gravitated towards writing historical fiction rather than contemporary, and rural rather than urban, so this just doesn’t fit with my style.

However, the third story in that collection, the one set in the past, did fit my style perfectly: 19th Century, small country village, the rituals of courting and finding a spouse – it ticks all the boxes of my genre. And I can now announce that this is the story that I have been developing for the last year. (I wrote about it in https://mjschofieldauthor.com/2019/02/25/a-writing-experiment/ and https://mjschofieldauthor.com/2019/03/31/a-writing-experiment-the-results/) It is still the same story, but has grown from a novella to a novel in its own right. I won’t say anything else about it, except to say that it is called The Hawthorn Bride. I have now written four chapters. It is not my pandemic story, but it is my Lock-down Novel.  

Powerful Gods

One of my favourite DVD box-sets is the HBO series Rome. Originally broadcast between 2005 and 2007, it was a retelling of the story of Julius Caesar, Mark Antony and the end of the Roman democracy. Many of the characters were the big names well known from history, but alongside it, the scriptwriters had created some fictional characters of a more ordinary nature. Lucius Vorenus and Titus Pullo are soldiers in Caesar’s army who, through a mixture of fortune and misadventure, happen to find themselves shaping history. When the two soldiers once again find themselves before the great leaders, not only saved from certain death but responsible for an act of mercy with political ramifications, Caesar comments that the men must have powerful gods. Powerful gods indeed, for two ordinary men who are unexpectedly responsible for the Caesar’s rise to dictatorship, and then his subsequent murder.

Powerful gods, or skilled scriptwriters, who want to weave the lives of fictional characters into the bigger story and therefore need to place their heroes at key points in history, and keep them alive against the odds until the end of the series. But this is what all writers do; they become the gods, picking and choosing the fortunes and misfortunes of the characters they create. Charlotte Bronte always intended Jane Eyre to marry Rochester, but not at the first attempt. Victor Frankenstein is never going to escape from his monstrous creation. Lizzie Bennett has to fall in love with a man she despises. Writers, powerful gods with their characters’ lives in their hands; there is only ever one plot device between happiness and despair.

I wonder what kind of god I am. So far my endings have been mostly happy, with redemptions, satisfying conclusions and just rewards. But I have made my characters work hard for their happy endings. Take Marianne in After the Rain. My power over her was to trap her in a marriage that made her miserable, then steer her course to a deserted wilderness where her path could cross with that of another lost soul; it is a chance meeting that saves them both, but not before it has caused more anguish. And then there is Arris, the main character of my unwritten fantasy novel; all he wants in life is independence and an opportunity to prove himself, but I set him on a course that means he can only achieve his goals by rescuing the girl he loves after a hideous and life-changing assault and by killing his hero and mentor in order to save his own life. A more benevolent god would have found an easier ending for him, but I sacrificed his happiness for the more interesting plot line. It is a dark power.  

Like I said, it is what writers do. The pragmatism of it is inevitable. I’m not really a god, just a writer, trying to come up with the most exciting story. And yet at times, it feels like I have no control over it. Take my worst victim of this dark power – David Waltham, in The Most Beloved Boy. His death is not just a plot device to achieve an end, it IS the plot. It hadn’t ever been my original intention. I had planned for David to return to his home town ill and weakened but surviving, even if it was a life with less potential than previously expected. But in the new format, without the fantasy element and the previous episodes, that wasn’t strong enough to work on its own. The anger and hatred directed at Dan for bringing his friend home in such a state wasn’t justified. And there was no reason for Dan to stay and face his demons. It was only enough to be part of a story. But if David died, it became the whole story. A promise to his dying friend gave Dan a bittersweet reason to stay at the same time as making the hostility against him even worse. With this change, the story had a plot, a bloody good one. It was the only thing to do. And so the hand of god reached in and cut short the life of a character I loved. I played the cruel and powerful god, but it wasn’t easy reconciling myself to that decision. I had created him to be loving and kind and courageous and honourable, so l could hardly bear the thought of killing him off. His death is a great source of pain and grief to the other characters in the novel, a senseless and devastating outcome for a life that deserves a happy ending. But that was the point. His whole life was sacrificed for the sake of a novel. It still makes me sad, but as god of this world, I would not change it.

And now I am attempting the play god again, with a new set of characters. The novel that I have been trying to get going for the last two years has gained a bit more momentum recently, thanks to a tragic deus ex machina – tragic for the characters but much more exciting for me to write. My main character will suffer before he finds his resolution, but it is the only way his story will ever get written. In order to give life, I must destroy it. I am powerful god indeed.

New Year, New Look

Thanks to Elise Jenkins for the graphic – my very talented daughter

Happy New Year! Ok, I know it’s already February, but this is my first blog of the year so I still get to say this. I hope your Christmas was a good one. Looking at the figures from my website, I can see that twenty-five of my Advent Stories were downloaded; more than half of them were actually downloaded in December, which surprised me, but I’m happy for my stories to be used in different ways. I would love to hear from anyone who used the stories – any feedback would be respectfully received. Obviously I would be thrilled to read some glowing testimonials, but working on my own as I do, I would still be grateful for constructive criticism, or even suggestions for future stories.

But now that Christmas is done and dusted, it is time to move on to new things. I decided that my website needed refreshing. I launched it in 2017 and haven’t really altered anything since then, so the time for change had definitely come. Last weekend, I thought I would experiment with a new look, thinking I could try out some different presentations in draft, at the same time as brushing up my very rusty IT skills. Back in 2017, I was at home during the day while my children were at school and I had plenty of time to work slowly through the online tutorials that come with WordPress. Come forward in time to 2020, with just a couple of hours spare between the housework and laundry and cooking the tea, as I was last Saturday, I didn’t anticipate getting much done but at least it would be a start. Then, to my horror, I realised that I had published my initial tinkerings and replaced my personal website with one full of filler text and stock photographs. With much swearing and shouting (apologies to my husband), I had to face the fact that I had lost the original and so needed to complete the new as quickly as possible, relearning forgotten skills as I went along. It was, in short, a complete nightmare.

However, it turns out that I am not such a Luddite after all, and so, lo and behold, my new look website. There are some parts that I’m really pleased with, like the slide show of my novels on the Home Page. There are also some niggly mistakes that I just can’t quite fix, and I know that makes it look less than professional, but hey, I’m not a professional. I’ve done my best for now, and it does the job I was aiming for.

Now all I need is a new novel to go with it…

A Shepherd’s Tale

The Oxen, by Thomas Hardy

Christmas Eve, and twelve of the clock.

“Now they are all on their knees,”

An elder said as we sat in a flock

By the embers in hearthside ease.

 

We pictured the meek mild creatures where

They dwelt in their strawy pen,

Nor did it occur to one of us there

To doubt they were kneeling then.

 

So fair a fancy few would weave

In these years! Yet, I feel,

If someone said on Christmas Eve,

“Come; see the oxen kneel,

 

“In the lonely barton by yonder coomb

Our childhood used to know,”

I should go with him in the gloom,

Hoping it might be so.”

 

This poem, written in 1915, is full of nostalgia for an older version of Christmas, with mysteries and legends that were already being dismissed and forgotten. 1915 was a time of war for British people, and it seems to me that Hardy’s poem carries a sense of longing for a simple, more innocent time. Add another hundred years that, and it seems even more removed from the Christmas we have now, where legends are based around must-see television adverts and the top-selling items in the shops. Walking past a well-known High street chemists today, I saw they were selling an Advent calendar that costs £40! Since when was this what Advent was about? Gifts are for Christmas Day, not the 24 days before it. When I was young, Advent calendars didn’t even have chocolates. Now they have become the norm, and it isn’t easy to find a traditional one with just pictures. Does this make me like the nostalgic narrator in Hardy’s poem, longing for some overlooked tradition, misremembering something that wasn’t quite as magical as it seemed. Where will we be in another hundred years? Will my children tell stories of Advent calendars that only had chocolates in them?

I could make some claim that my Advent stories are a way of fulfilling Hardy’s longing; a way of reliving a Christmas that used to be about sharing stories and didn’t come with an exorbitant price-tag. My stories are still free to download, and are a simple way to fill a reusable Advent calendar that I hope is more exciting and rewarding than any confectionary. I certainly think that when my children are adults, they will remember the stories and appreciate them more than long-forgotten chocolates. They may even carry on the tradition with their own families. If they did, my heart would burst with pride. A fair fancy indeed.

My Advent story this year was inspired by the poem. It too draws on the traditions of story telling, passed from generation to generation. The main character is a shepherd boy, hearing the legend for the first time, and ends with him vowing to tell the story to his own children, adding in his own experience of that magical night. It is my tribute to Thomas Hardy, but with a happy ending. If you can manage a west country accent whilst reading it out loud, all the better.

A Shepherd’s Tale

Henry_Ossawa_Tanner_-_Angels_Appearing_before_the_Shepherds.jpg
Henry Ossawa Tanner – Angels Appearing before the Shepherds, 1910