Month: December 2023

A story at Christmas

A story at Christmas

Hi there and if you celebrate Christmas, have a good one. Since it is holiday season and there maybe more time to do what you like, you might take time to read a story or two. A Christmas story. I personally have never written a story set at Christmas, but many authors have. I am aware of a few like The Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, Polar Express and Little Women but notice there are so many online. So, you should be able to find a story at Christmas that suits you.

I mean, the actual story of Christmas is an amazing story in itself. What better combination than a couple in love, a journey and then the miraculous birth of a baby who is born to save the world. They don’t come much better than that whether you believe it to be true or not. It also aces other stories as it is a story that has kept delivering its magic and message for centuries. Very few stories can tick that box.

The Christmas Carol

But returning to actual book type Christmas stories, I will start with A Christmas Carol as it seems to be one of the first well known fictitious stories set at Christmas and it has a meaningful message as well. The novella was published in 1843 in London and is the story of Ebenezer Scrooge an elderly miser who is too mean to give his employee a day off at Christmas or put a donation in a charity pot for children.

That Christmas Eve, Scrooge is visited by his old business partner, Marley. The ghost is weighed down by chains and money boxes because of his lifetime of greed.  Marley warns Scrooge he will suffer the same after life unless he rethinks his ways. Later to enforce this ghostly message, the spirits of Past, Present and Yet to Come visit Scrooge. These visits reveal Scrooge’s past and his worship of self and money. He sees how he lost the love of his long ago love and present a future vision of his poorly attended funeral and unkempt grave. These visions affect Scrooge the old man and he is upset enough to transform into a kinder man.

The spirit of giving

Some believe the story is an allegory of Christmas itself. But whatever, its message is one of kindness and giving which never goes astray, especially at Christmas. There are many film adaptations of this story and even Disney used the character Scrooge to create a Scrooge McDuck. Christmas time and stories like this remind us to give and forgive not just with gifts but with a spirit of kindness to all.

Yes, it’s an old-fashioned story but one still relevant today with our spirit of rampant materialism. Money does not make you happy in itself. It can help by buying us comforts and provisions but if we are a miserable sod like Scrooge was, our mean spiritedness weighs us down rather than buoying us up.  Giving and making others happy does that.

Little Women

In the early 19th century, Christmas was evolving into a time of family gatherings, seasonal food and combined worship. But it also was a time to be aware of others who had little and make their Christmas a bit brighter. We see this spirit of giving in the story of Little Women by Louisa May Alcot which has a scene set at Christmas. The March girls blessed with lovely food at Christmas decide to share with neighbours less fortunate. They carry the food across the snow to a family in need. If you have never read this classic, give it a try. It is a lovely story of four sisters, and I am sure you will find one of them to relate to despite the passage of time since the book was written. I always related to Jo. My real name is Joanne so this was easy to do. There are sequels to this book as well that are also great reading.

Polar Express

Maybe you have seen the film version of the 1985 children’s book by Chris Van Allsberg. It stars Tom Hanks and is a great film even for adults. The Polar Express is a story about a little boy who boards a train for the North Pole on Christmas Eve. Written and illustrated by American author Chris Van Allsburg, Polar Express is a classic Christmas story for young children. It won the annual Caldecott Medal for illustration of an American children’s picture book in 1986. Van Allsberg has a great imagination. He also wrote Jumanji which is one of my favourite films to rewatch. 

Polar Express starts with a young boy looking through a window to see a train right outside his house. The conductor looks up at his window. Encouraged, the boy tiptoes downstairs and goes outside where the conductor tells him the train is called the Polar Express and is heading to the North Pole. The boy hops onboard. There are many other children in their pajamas. They all sing carols and enjoy candies and hot chocolate as the train races north past towns, through forests, and over mountains. On arrival, Santa tells them one of them will receive the first gift of Christmas, a bell. The bell rings for true believers of Christmas. I hope this does not spoil the story but just illustrate its point. The book ends with the following line:

At one time, most of my friends could hear the bell, but as years passed, it fell silent for all of them. Even Sarah found one Christmas that she could no longer hear its sweet sound. Though I’ve grown old, the bell still rings for me, as it does for all who truly believe.

So whether you are still a child at heart and whatever you believe, I wish you a happy Christmas!

Photo by Roberto Nickson on Unsplash

Joni Scott is an Australian author with four published novels: Whispers through Time, The Last Hotel,  Colour Comes to Tangles and her latest historical WWI drama, Time Heal my Heart. Joni has her own website; https://joniscottauthor.com.

 

How to start writing your book

How to start writing your book

Want to start writing your book? Are you itching to write that memoir, that sweeping romance but are stumped for a place to start? How do you start your book? Starting something is often the hardest part of any project. Concede this and that is a start in itself. Get organised. Write down some ideas. Do phrases or images come to mind when you envision your book? Well, jot them down to.  They could be memories, scenes, snatches of dialogue or you may even have some plot sorted. This is your inspiration that will kick start you into writing mode. You need to use some, but maybe not all of this for the start to your book.

In school they teach that there are three main parts of a story. First, (surprise!) there is a beginning that leads into the conflict which is the longest part. In this part the plot develops so characters interact in a way that should captivate the reader and want them to read on.  Then follows the resolution or ending that usually tidies things up.

Making a start

The beginning of any book must act as an introduction. If it is a non-fiction or fact-based book, then the beginning introduces the topic and aspects of it that will be covered in the book. Sometimes there are chapter headings at the start or an index at the end to make this clear. For fiction, we don’t have these. Sometimes authors include a prologue to introduce a historical period or give some background. Publishers have told me that this is not so popular now. Everyone is in a rush to get into the book as everyone is always in a rush these days. That is why we need to chill out with the slower pace of a book! Reading books is good for you.

The start of a fiction book establishes the setting, time and characters.  It sets the story in motion and if done well should carry the reader along with it into the following chapters. Think of it as the start of a movie. If the first ten minutes of the film don’t grab you, then you are inclined to switch channels. For me, I love a film set in exotic places. The scenery can suck me in. But if the characters are not exciting as well, if they just talk and don’t engage me, I will flick channels.

Start with some action

For men, the beginning of a film and probably a book often needs to be action packed or they get bored. But action takes different forms. There is physical action and there is action dialogue wherein two characters are interacting. They may be arguing which could include some physical action too. Or they just be talking about someone or something that is interesting. They could be plotting a murder or robbery or talking about how they can get away from one they already have committed. Either way, the viewer wants to know more. So, we keep watching.

A film can start with the actual murder and proceed into a ‘who dunnit’. Click the link to read the interesting history of this genre. That is pretty addictive too and this works in books as well. Agatha Christie is the queen of mysteries or ‘whodunnits.’ Whatever the beginning it has to hook you. That is why the beginning is often referred to as ‘the hook.’ They use this term in advertising too. You will watch an ad if it hooks you early on. Cute animals always do this for me. But others like sexy women or hot men or cars.

The start is the appetiser.

A good start of a book as in film makes you anticipate more. Like an appetiser for the main course. It must tantalise with a little but not overwhelm the reader with names and details. It’s tough but worth taking the time to get it as right as you can. Now, one mistake many writers make, me included, is starting too early and trying to explain everything. This is the undoing of a good beginning. For the start of a novel, you do not have to start at the beginning of the character’s story. It is better to just hop in at some interesting point in his/her journey than ramble along for pages telling us about him/her. Just like a film. Start with some action not just a long shot of the scenery.  Overly descriptive starts to novels are not so in anymore.

Descriptions can set the scene. They tell us where we are in place and time. However, overly long descriptions of the setting can bog us down. Novelists of previous eras did use description a lot more. If you read any Jane Austen, Conrad or Dickens you sure notice the slow pace of the action compared to today’s novels. They lived in a slower paced world, so their writing reflected this. Now we live in an instantaneously gratifying world that is fast paced so we aren’t into that anymore. So, with that point, I should move along myself.

Introduce the characters

Start with the character’s dilemma. It could be a letter or parcel they receive, an unexpected visitor or event that plunges them into a dilemma or situation. In my novel The Last Hotel, my beginning includes the unexpected events in the lives of a few of my characters that leads to their eventual meeting at the last hotel open on the French Riviera. So the book starts there in the beautiful French Riviera village of Beaulieu-sur-Mer and presents Lotte and her father who will later host these characters at their hotel. It is a short chapter about the dreams of Lotte and her father. The second chapter skips across the world to Australia. Sasha has just won a ballet scholarship for The Nice Opera. Chapter after chapter introduces the rest of the characters. Readers have reported this worked for them. They wanted to keep reading as they had become interested in the characters and their situations.

Tangling the characters

You may have watched films presented this way. Snapshots of people’s lives that will soon cross and tangle. I used this tangling method in another book. Colour comes to Tangles. In this one, ‘Tangles’ refers to the tangling of the characters but also it is the actual name of the hairdressing salon, Tangles, where the characters meet. A dilemma soon arrives wherein Tanya, the hairdresser’s friend goes missing. Also, to confound matters more, a new interesting tenant arrives to set up practice upstairs from the salon. Tanya at first only catches glimpses of this colourful new tenant but she knows from the business plaque and brochures that she is a colour therapist. How interesting, she muses. She anticipates meeting her as does the reader. The arrival of Vidisha this exotic Indian woman and the disappearance of Josie are more than enough to keep Tanya and the reader occupied and continue reading.

Note that I didn’t have to tell the whole story of Tanya’s divorce or how or why Vidisha came to Australia. That will emerge later. It is better to emerge later as by then we want to know these things. Telling us all this too soon will be more like reading a newspaper article or biography. Novels must enthrall and entertain not just inform. If you are asking questions as you read then that means the book is working its magic. And books should be magic. They should transport you to another exciting world of places and people where anything can happen.

starting your book

Photo by Marcos Paulo Prado on Unsplash

Agatha, Queen of mysteries.

Agatha, Queen of mysteries.

She is the queen of mysteries, the best-selling novelist of all times and one of the most prolific writers with 66 detective novels and 14 short story anthologies to her name. She wrote the longest running play, The Mousetrap which has played in London since 1952 and my mystery guest also wrote under the pen name Mary Westmacott. Did you pick up on the clues? Who is she?

The Queen of Mysteries

Yes, She’s Agatha Christie, the world famous, most celebrated detective-story writer. Agatha, the queen of mysteries and I have been one of her fans since a teenager. My daughter as a young teen also became a fan. Together, we collected 75 of her novels from markets and bookstores. We subscribed to the Poirot DVD collection and magazines and watched all the film versions of her books. They are still popular, so new versions keep being made, competing with each other to include famous stars. I am a self-confessed Agatha tragic (as well as a Titanic tragic.)

What I love about Agatha, apart from her delicious mysteries, is the woman herself. Having read everything about her and her autobiography countless times, I can tell you that she was a very humble, natural, unpretentious person, unaffected by her world-wide fame.

Agatha, a Natural Writer

When asked about her writing space and tools of the trade, Agatha laughed. ‘Why, I just need a little table somewhere, some paper, my old, battered typewriter and off I go.’ Apparently, her stories with their twists and turns, sprinkle of clues and trail of red herrings are already there in her head, bursting to come out and be put on paper. She’s a natural. No writer’s block, no hesitancy, two or three books a year, no worries.

When one of her books was first made into film and she went to the premiere, she asked why there was such a crowd. ‘It’s for you, Ma’am.’

Agatha, a Famous yet Humble woman

‘No, it couldn’t be,’ she protested. Agatha snuck away into the crowd and queued up with the patrons. When asked about her absent ticket, she told the usher she was the writer, could she go in free? Disbelieving her, he barred her entry and called the manager. They were amazed to discover that this plain little lady was the great queen of mystery herself.

Indeed, as Agatha aged, she resembled anyone’s granny. By then she was married to Sir Max Mallowan, the archaeologist, and travelled the world to his digs in Mesopotamia, now part of modern Iraq. She was an adventurous, no-frills woman, not one for glamour or the bright lights, nor interested in her fame. She wrote because she loved writing and puzzles. How good is that.

Agatha and the Modern Reader

Some modern readers admittedly may find her stories xenophobic but that is how the world was in the 1920’s up until 1976, the year of her death. She was a woman of her time, reflecting its attitudes and values, like we all are. In post-war England, people were wary of the influx of refugees flocking into their country.

Yet despite her now cringe-worthy comments about foreigners, she made one of them her most loved character, Hercule Poirot, the little dapper Belgian refugee detective. In fact, Agatha was a champion for the marginalized. Both Poirot and Miss Marple existed at the margins of society. A rotund foreigner and an elderly spinster were not on the A lists of society.

But Poirot and Marple infiltrate society and meet some well to do folk. Unsuspectedly, quietly working their little grey cells, they outsmart the police constables, even Scotland Yard. It’s a victory for the small man, the foreigner and the little old lady. In Agatha’s world there would have been many spinsters and maiden aunts. The Great War and later World War II took the flower of British manhood leaving many girls unable to marry. Jane Marple hints at a long-lost love lost in the war as does Poirot. He too, has a past. He too has a heart.

Agatha and Beatrix Potter

Agatha Miller was born in Torquay in 1890 to older, well-off parents. Like Beatrix Potter, she was home schooled in her nursery and had lots of pets running about in a rambling house and garden. Agatha had imaginary friends called the kittens that she talked to and wrote stories about. It was her sister Madge that challenged her to write a novel, as she was dabbling in writing herself. But this older sister lost interest in books and found men and left home to marry. Agatha as an only child for years, occupied herself. She had a vivid imagination, again like Beatrix Potter.

Eventually Agatha who was a very pretty, blonde child grew into an attractive, slim young woman. She went to local dances and caught the eye of Archie Christie a dashing young fellow. They became engaged in the gathering clouds of World War One, hesitated a few times, but eventually married on Christmas Eve 1914. He served his country in The Great War and luckily survived.

Dark Days for Agatha

During the dark years of the war, Agatha volunteered as a nurse and worked in the hospital dispensary. It was here that she learnt about poisons and had the idea for her first detective novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles where the victim succumbs to poison. It was the beginning of a seemingly never-ending flow of writing for young Agatha. I could not resist inserting Agatha in my latest WWI novel, Time, Heal my Heart. She becomes the friend of my character Dorothy who works in the dispensary with her. They have a marvellous time making suppositories and mixing potions. Dorothy is enthralled by Agatha’s writing.

Agatha, rejected by publishers

Agatha’s first attempt at writing pre-dated the success of The Mysterious Affair at Styles. Agatha wrote a novel called Snow Upon the Desert. It was rejected by six publishers. Today, the novel is still unpublished though it exists as a manuscript in the archives of her estate.

Agatha kept writing despite this rejection (as we all should.) She kept trying even after becoming a mother to a daughter, Rosalind, her only child. Agatha and husband, Archie were happy enough until her mother died. Agatha went into deep mourning and took herself off to her childhood home for weeks, while she sorted through the old house and grieved for her mother, probably her lost childhood as well.

It was during this time, 1926, that Archie had an affair with his secretary and decided he didn’t love his wife anymore. He told a startled Agatha that their marriage was over. She was still mourning her mother and now had to mourn her marriage as well.

It was a dark time for the writer. She disappeared for ten days, and no one could find her. Her car was found abandoned in a quarry. Unwittingly, she created a real-life mystery with herself in the star role. Strangely, she was located at a small hotel in Harrogate registered under the name of Archie’s mistress. This is one episode of her life that Agatha passes over in her autobiography. She must have wanted to mentally erase the traumatic incident.

Agatha Sets Off for Adventure

Afterwards, divorce papers filed, she left her daughter in care and took off further afield. She went to Paris and boarded the train to Istanbul, then onto Mesopotamia. The train was The Orient Express. At the end of her second journey to these parts she met, by chance through friends, her next husband, the archaeologist, Sir Max Mallowan. Though he was 13 years younger, they hit it off. Agatha was most interested in his work (and men love that.) He was unaware of her writing, and knowing her, she probably dismissed it as a little hobby of hers, despite the fact that she was earning well from her books by then.

In fact, even her first novel sold well. Not many debut authors can claim that success! During the 1920s and her stress over a failed marriage, she turned to thrillers, James Bond style stories with dark villains and political intriguing plots. These novels, The Big Four and The Secret Adversary, 1922 are not as well received as her classic detective stories. The 1920s was the time of the Flappers but Agatha continued to do her own thing. It was good she had an income to fall back on after her marriage failed. Many women of that time had no chance if their man left them. She forged on and became the queen of mysteries. I wonder what Archie felt about his name becoming so famous because of his ex-wife’s talent not his own.

Agatha had not quite realized her literary strengths and was no doubt experimenting with other genres. Her few later attempts at thrillers in the 1950’s again were not hailed as brilliant, The Pale Horse, 1961 and N or M, 1941. Her six novels under the pen name Mary Westmacott offer a different style. They are partly autobiographical and sweet love stories. She wrote a number of plays as well and ten short story collections.

Agatha and the Cosy Mystery

Finally, thankfully, she settled into the cosy mystery genre set in the ubiquitous English village with the inevitable vicar and cast of landed gentry and their servants. She later interspersed these with murder stories set in Mesopotamia, Murder in Mesopotamia,1936, in Egypt, Death on the Nile,1937, in Europe, Murder on the Orient Express, 1934 and The Mystery of the Blue Train,1928, and South Africa, The Man in the Brown Suit, 1924.

Agatha’s one regret was creating Hercule Poirot as past middle-aged. She didn’t anticipate that he would have to last many decades, along with the already aged Miss Marple. It constrained her to a time. She couldn’t use these characters in novels set too much later in the century. Eventually Poirot dies off in Curtain,1975, shortly before her own death.

Agatha borrowed from Arthur Conan Doyle to create a sidekick for Poirot in the form of Captain Hastings, just as Sherlock had in Watson. These sidekicks are not as smart and ask questions as the reader would mentally. It is a successful way of revealing how the detective is thinking as he chats with his curious sidekick. Captain Hastings and Poirot present a comic duo and add fun to the novels.

Agatha is everywhere as the queen of mysteries

At any airport or train station anywhere in the world, you used to be able to spot someone reading an Agatha Christie novel, no matter their nationality. Maybe not so much now, as everyone has their nose in a phone, in what is called ‘Phubbing’. A combination of the word phone and snubbing!

Using my detective skills, I can spot an Agatha Christe novel at twenty paces, as I know all the titles! Even translated, they are mostly recognizable. Her most popular novel, at over a million sales, is And There Were None, 1939, also called Ten Little Niggers in USA, (possibly not anymore though.)

Agatha in Film

Many of her novels have made excellent films, Death on the Nile, Evil Under the Sun and Murder on the Orient Express being probably most popular and revisited with modern re-makes. Agatha Christie novels have been translated into every language under the sun. Over thirty films are based on her works.

Recently, some writers have attempted to copy her work and write in her style, re-establishing the cosy mystery genre. This is encouraging! But they will never trump Agatha, the queen of mysteries.

Recognition for the Queen of Mysteries

Agatha was awarded many accolades for her services to literature and entertainment. She became a fellow of The Royal Society of Literature in 1950 and appointed a CBE in 1956. She was later promoted to Dame Commander of the British Empire in 1971, making her Dame Agatha Christie, three years after Max Mallowan was knighted. Therefore, she could also call herself Lady Mallowan, though I doubt she did.

In later years of their mostly happy marriage Max took a mistress who was also an archaeologist and friend. They married soon after Agatha’s death just as Archie married his secretary a week after he and Agatha divorced. Men behaving badly again.

Agatha hated crowds and was a shy, modest woman, despite her talents. She loved animals and gardens. Her last home, Greenaway in Dartmouth now resides with The National Trust. She is remembered as an amazing woman who leaves a legacy of literature and film.

 

Photo Source: Unsplash

Joni Scott is an Australian author with four published novels: Whispers through Time, The Last Hotel, Colour comes to Tangles and her latest, Time Heal my Heart.  Joni has her own website; https://joniscottauthor.com.